Work must drain the life-force out of your body – mustn’t it?

11 10 2010

I sat in a room with a group of colleagues today, as we reviewed the results of a very simple online test. The test in question was out of a book and wasn’t even pretending to be psychometrically robust, but it did throw up some interesting results. The most significant of these was that 10 out of the 12 people in the room scored highest on preferring being outdoors to just about anything else.

Why this was so interesting was simply because any researcher studying how we actually all spent our working weeks would have required psychic powers to guess that so many of us had this powerful preference for being outdoors. Such a researcher would have been more likely to guess that sitting at a desk and putting in the hours was the highest good in our personal economies.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all people want to be outdoors – that just happened to be the strong preference for this group – nor that their job responsibilities could allow them to spend all their time away from their desks. But it is significant that very many of us, whatever our preferences, seem to take little or no account of them in designing our working week. As one of my colleagues said, “just getting outside and walking up this downtown street for 5 minutes is enough to clear my head”.

So why don’t we take more account of what keeps us clear-headed and motivated? Or do we believe the lie that work is meant to be demoralising and energy-sapping? Here are two questions to ask yourself – and then your colleagues:

1) to what extent do I design my work around what keeps me engaged and energised?

2) to what extent can I actually articulate my motivations and preferences clearly enough to make  1) a possibility?

Never too early to start…

29 09 2010

Having spent large amounts of time with professionals in their 30s, 40s and even 50s who feel they have somehow “missed their path in life” or ended up in the wrong job, the question arises, “how can a person know what the right path would look like – and how early could they know that?”

Working with personality, there are some things we know aren’t really settled (or set in stone) until a person reaches “full socialisation”, typically in their early to mid 20s or at the point when they leave home. (Don’t laugh; psychometricians are revising upwards the age of full socialisation as the age of leaving home rises, in the West at least.)

However, there are other factors which do seem to be pretty stable even from early teenage years and which, very helpfully, do have a huge bearing on future job fit and satisfaction. Two areas in particular are significant here: 1) what activities will motivate and engage the person; and 2) what support from or interaction with other people they are most in need of.

The problem, as ever with personality, is getting at these factors. Most career tools deployed in the (many – we have moved a lot) schools my own children have attended are at best lamentable. By that I mean they simply ask the respondent what they think they would like to do – and then repeat back to them what they said. The problem with this approach is that it is primarily measuring their well-socialised response to things (i.e. what do you think you should say in this situation), and the problem with that is a) we just said that socialisation doesn’t normal settle down until about a decade after these tools are typically deployed and b) even for adults, socialised responses are a very poor guide to actual motivations and needs – which are the key elements in job fit.

Which is why we developed hoozyu™  ( The toolset we use with corporate and professional clients has a unique way of accessing and measuring motivation and needs in even the very young (we restrict this to 14 and above); hoozyu™ is just a wrapper around a subset of those tools, appropriate to that age group. It doesn’t set out to tell anyone what they should be doing, but it does allow someone to recognise early that they are more motivated by working with systems and order than with how things look or why things work a certain way (or vice versa); and it helps them to understand whether up front people management and interaction is more their thing than scribbling creative ideas on a a napkin.

When you are trying to work out what path in life to take, and whether to be an accountant or a designer or a doctor or a retail manager or a consultant, that information is solid gold.

Social Coping Mechanisms and the Reluctant Manager

13 09 2010

Most of us have had the experience of presenting a brilliant opportunity to a highly-regarded performer (whether manager or technical specialist), only to have them – inexplicably – turn the opportunity down. Often they don’t even pretend to give it consideration. We are left feeling half-witted and possibly inclined to reevaluate their intelligence in the same direction. What is going on?

There are a number of possible drivers for this kind of behaviour, but just to mention one: social coping mechanisms.

Beneath all the professional skill and interpersonal confidence or warmth, other things are going on in all of us. Some people – typically the generally optimistic, glass-half-full kind of people – have plentiful inner resources for coping with difficult situations, novelty and so on. As a result, they tend to be positive about flux in their social networks (not talking specifically about Web2.0 and Facebook here – I mean the people with whom they interact personally on a day to day basis). New people come, old people go – that’s fine. By extension, you can offer them an exciting new opportunity on a different floor, or a different country, and that is fine for them; they will leave one set of relationships behind and form new ones. And all the while they will cope with the stressful aspects of life by means of their inner reserves.

There are other people – the glass is 125ml of unfiltered tap-water type realists who, while not quite as gong ho as the first group, get through life by recognising some of it is tough and they just need to deal with it. They may not embrace change in social setting quite so readily but if a move is the right thing to do, off they go.

Which brings us to the third group, which may include that person who turned you down on the plum assignment without even the courtesy of reflection. Somewhat more inclined to see the half-emptiness of the glass, these are people for whom their immediate social context, including friends, close colleagues and other regular relationships, is the key element in their ability (and unconscious strategy) to cope with stress and the vicissitudes of life. Does this make them less good people or poorer performers? No, not at all; and in the example I suggested at the start of this blog, the whole point is that they are often top performers, ripe for a promotion or other strategic move. So what then?

Simply this: don’t expect that everyone will see a “great opportunity” the way you do. If you recognise that this factor – “if I move I lose my social network and then what happens to me” – may be in play (and it can be measured very accurately if you prefer science to guesswork), then you will have to think creatively if you want to see this person move up or across the organisation. Is there some way they can take their current team (or key peers) with them? Can they do the new role based out of the same location as at present, or even the same office? Endless possibilities.

But don’t compound an error by writing that star performer off.