Small stuff matters

“Unconditional kindness is the glue that sticks your team together.” If you react with cynicism towards this statement, you might be in the middle of a toxic environment.

Do you know the good feeling when someone does something nice to you that you didn’t expect? The free coffee sponsored by a colleague or that heartwarming compliment given by the cashier!?

As human beings we are wired to feel loved and valued when we receive unconditional and unexpected help. We are more open to bond with someone that has seen a need or wish of us and responded unasked. And that human glue strengthens our teams at work and intensifies the joy of working together.

Knowing this principle we are capable of forming our own comforting environment by investing into our fellow human beings. Their emotional-well-being will increase. And with them feeling better the overall atmosphere will turn positive.

Let me give you some examples of what you can do:

Offer a hand or a ride

Recently, I met some clients in a remote area in the suburbs of my hometown. By the end of the meeting some participants needed to go to the headquarter that is 20 min away by bus. Since I had my car with me I offered them a ride – although I just had met them for the first time. We had a really good talk, I got to know whom they meet next and it was a valuable exchange for both sides.

Sponsor that coffee

I love coffee. And having a deep conversation with a tasty cup of coffee makes my day. I assume that others around me are quite similar. Therefore I never hesitate to invite people for coffee. Usually that behavior is mirrored back at me quite often – so I also get invited for a coffee a lot. Just last week one of my team members smiled at me and said: today’s coffee is on me. What happened with me? A huge smiling “free coffees are the best”. That relationship grew that day. It was a great investment into the team glue.

Thank everyone

Make it a habit to thank people – even for little things like holding the door for you or taking your cup to the cleaning counter. Even if that means a short interruption in the conversation. Your spoken “thank you” signals the other person that you noticed and that you care for what they just did. It is a very small thing – but each time you add some glue to your relationship. Same is true for emails – you are probably never too busy to respond with a short “thx”.

Appreciate people

Especially when you are a team lead make sure to appreciate your people on a regular basis. Despite the cleverness of your team mates, it never gets old to hear a “well done”, “I appreciate your time invest” or “thanks for giving your creativity to the company”. For sure you must ensure to be precise in your appreciation and specify what you mean. Just handing out “appreciated” as a standard answer won’t do the trick.

Personally, I like to write an email or handwritten note to my team members in order to appreciate their investment into the company and our team. It takes some time to think of specific situations and the strengths of each one displayed but the result that I am seeing in my team is worth the invest.

Is there a downside?

Yes. Sadly there is. Since these actions work more or less independent from the intention behind it, a lot of managers have used them as “leadership tools” to grow their own career instead of relationships around them. For a while that works well. Until people realize that they are being manipulated. And then they close down emotionally. Instead of feeling joy when getting a compliment, they react with disbelief and cynicism.

In turn, when these people become leaders themselves they are not capable to do “the small stuff” because they believe that everything in this area is manipulation. Consequently a culture evolves in which people don’t lend a hand, you won’t hear a “Thank you” or get true appreciation.

So, what do you believe: Does small stuff matter?

How do I decide what to do first?

If you already know the common principles of work prioritization, check this article for some new – fun – aspects to structure your work week.

When you have recently graduated you are familiar with the feeling of everything-is-new. There is the first job, the first client, the first tasks, the first feedbacks. Although you had internships in the past, this is another level. All of a sudden you are responsible for what you are doing and which quality you deliver. A feedback is not a nice-to-have-heard-thing anymore but bonus and career relevant.

Having this in mind I would like to comment on a question I got from a colleague several weeks ago: How do I decide what to do first?

My answer will reflect a certain mindset on how I approach work. It might severely differ from your superiors – which is why you should check on their thoughts as well so that you don’t get into trouble when following some of my ideas.

How do I decide what to do first?

The question implies a classical scenario: you have several to dos for the day/week/month and now it is your responsibility to get the job done.

When it comes to prioritization the first thing on every manager’s mind is the classical Eisenhower Principle. Categorize each task in a matrix with urgency versus importance and prioritize your to-do-list accordingly:

  1. Important and urgent.
  2. Important but not urgent.
  3. Not important but urgent.
  4. Not important and not urgent.

For this prioritization the importance and urgency needs to be known – and it usually is set by your superiors. So make sure you have asked them! It is your responsibility to ask for a deadline if you get a task.

In addition, I would like to propose some questions and categories that might be interesting to consider.

Which task adds energy to your reservoir?

We all have our favourite to dos. Find out which ones are yours. Do you love Excel-Spreadsheets? Is Powerpoint always on your quick-access-bar? Do you rather call people than writing emails?

Start assessing your own working behaviour and find out what you really like to do. And then do these tasks whenever you need some energy.

Here is an example: I need interactions with colleagues. If you want to kill me, put me in a room alone. Nevertheless, sometimes I need to work alone – at the client, in the office, while travelling. It’s just part of the job. Since I already know that I am not good at this, I am scheduling necessary calls during those days, so that the lonely working period doesn’t get too long.

Another person might feel only satisfied when the progress of getting things done is visible – then write yourself a checklist and check off everything that has been done. Or someone prefers to start with everything that is hard to do – so that the worst is done quickly.

Whatever it is: check yourself, define your own metric and go with your gut. It is your (working) life and you should own your timing and tasks.

This also implies that you can ask your team lead for work you enjoy. Maybe you like stuff that he/she hates.

Here is another example: I like discussions. I thrive in negotiations. For me an argument is a playfield. At the same time I had a lot of team leads who almost feared conflict or discussion. They tried to avoid them whenever possible. Today, I offer my strengths in this area openly – and usually people who are not fond of discussing are quite happy to have someone in the team do the talking. It’s a win/win.

When are you most effective?

When is your “high” of the day and when are you ‘brainless’? Examine your concentration during the day and put tasks that need high concentration in times when you can focus best.

In my team we call some tasks “brainless execution”. These tasks are scheduled for times of the day when all creativity is gone anyway. Each team member knows these tasks and lets the others know: hey, I am going to do some brainless execution. Good thing: that presentation gets the cosmetic review while the team hasn’t invested the most effective hours of the day.

What do you enjoy doing?

This is quite similar to the energy-question – but not in total. Whilst the energy-question is focused on to dos that are given to you by an external person, this question is focussing on additional tasks that you choose on top with purpose.

Yes, you are reading correctly: find yourself tasks that exceed your have-to-do-list. And choose them wisely.

Find out what you really like doing that is not yet covered by your day2day work: Organize events? Write articles? Research? Programming? Train people? Talk to people?

These topics have the potential to extend your network and train different skills so that you become a more diverse person. Ideally you find them in your workplace because they have the potential to fuel your career. But you can also find them within social engagement or a sports club.

Over time you will get more experienced in organizing your tasks. Make sure that you always own your stuff. Owning in terms of having as much freedom as possible so that you can plan your week. And owning in terms of taking responsibility for your successes and failures.

Toxic! I hate working for you!

Toxic working environment evolve slowly. Weak, self-centered leaders lay the foundation and from there it only takes a few years until people are running away and the P&L is impacted. Check on yourself if you are in the middle of it.

Do you know that boss who never wants to hear your ideas? Do you remember that colleague that doesn’t share all information but rather wants to get ahead alone? What about that team lead that mainly leads by cynicism?

How do you feel when you are around those people?

People do not quit on jobs, they quit on toxic work cultures.

When you don’t like to work for your leaders anymore chances are high that there is an aspect of a toxic work environment involved. Meaning: over time an atmosphere evolved in which people don’t feel valued, welcomed or important. In a more extreme way people would also feel bullied and mistreated. In consequence, they will lose engagement and eventually leave the company. Unluckily, the toxic air creates such a distrust that leavers will not tell you the truth for their exit.

Let’s examine this topic a bit further. How does “toxic” look like? How has it been created?

Your feedback is not welcome

Honestly, no one would really give that statement in a company’s brochure. Not even in the worst of all companies. Yet, people might fear to express what they really think. They might have expressed their ideas in the past but learned by the reaction of their superiors that their ideas are not welcome.

How would you know whether that might be true in your working environment? Check on your own vocabulary whether you have ever used the following sentences: “We already considered that aspect. It never worked in the past.” “Why are you even bothering!? ” “It’s none of your business.” “Don’t you have more important stuff to do?” “Get into my age … then you will see the matter differently.” “Why are you asking this question?”

Even if you think, you have every right to react that way, you must be aware that the underlying message is: your feedback/question is not welcome. And your staff will learn. Quickly.

In addition, if you never hear feedback or troubling questions from your staff, you might be in the middle of a toxic environment. Your staff already is silent. Ouch! Too honest? Too bold?

I am convinced, if your staff consists of young professionals with an academic degree, you should hear questions, opinions and feedback all the time. This is the environment where they are coming from. It’s their natural behavior within university. And if they turn silent in your team and projects, you are in trouble!

Be honest to yourself: Do you still discuss with your young teammates or are they already silent?

To backbite somebody is the primary conflict solution

How are conflicts addressed in your team/company? How often do you go to someone and give direct feedback? It is so much easier to talk about people instead of addressing them directly, right?

And yet, if we as team heads model such behaviour, the team will automatically copy it. In the beginning it might be unimportant topics like someone’s vacation destination or project situation. But quite quickly information regarding failure, bad behaviour or even sicknesses join the conversation. And soon it isn’t only about the share of information but also the expression of opinions. Judgement joins the talk – and soon everyone in the room knows that no one is safe of bad talk behind their backs.

And at that point the atmosphere is toxic. If your teammates don’t feel safe, they will start to protect themselves – by sharing less of themselves. And of what they know. Which leads to the next major aspect of a toxic working environment.

Don’t share your information

Information is like love and laughter – if you share it, everyone has more. Imagine, you share an idea and someone in the group adds a certain aspect and all of a sudden your team develops a new product or service. Only because you add all the puzzle pieces in your heads. Amazing!

At the same time sharing information makes you vulnerable. People might oppose your shared knowledge – or even judge you for sharing that piece of information. Others might use the information to get ahead of you – or even against you.

Depending on the environment you are in, you will feel free and happy to share your information or you will hide and hold onto your piece of knowledge as long as possible.

Unluckily, if you are already in a toxic environment, ‘information hiding’ will be totally natural for you. You will read books and articles of company’s success factors and the key role of sharing information – but you cannot even think of how this could be done in your working environment. You might even think that you are sharing information – considering the 5% given in the last team meeting. But you think everyone who is promoting total transparency must be a total fool.

Considering the environment you are in: you are right. You are doing everything to survive. And you do it well. Congrats. But look around you: your team isn’t growing. In your team meetings is no laughter.

So What!?

You might think “So what!?” – even if I am working in the a similar culture as described… I work in it every day. It pays my bills. I get along. Why even bother!?

The downside of a toxic working environment is that the poison never stops spreading. You probably start with a slightly bad atmosphere but without an antidote it will progress and influence your team and company. Over time you will see the effects in your attrition rate, then in your online reviews as an employer and at it worst it will be played back by your customers. And then it has true impact on your P&L.

If your teammates don’t trust each other, don’t even like each other, you will have weak customer interaction. The client will realize quickly whether your staff values one another. And why should the customer buy from you, if you wouldn’t even buy from yourself!?

What is the antidote?

Truth is: You cannot change people around you, you can only change yourselves.

So let me ask you this: Would you like to work for yourself?

Take your time. And think.

Reflect.

[these questions might support the reflection: Do you think that you promote an atmosphere of trust and respect? What behaviour of teammates let you believe that your answer is correct? What evidence do you have that you create a working environment in which your team thrives?]

I am convinced: You are the antidote. You can be the leader that creates that working environment people want to work in. But it needs your boldness to check on the status quo and the willingness to change if you see behaviour in yourself that is creating a toxic environment. As much as you are the solution – if your team/company is struggling, you also might be the problem.

UNFAIR!

Unfair, screams the heart! Move on, says the head! Leave resentment behind and use your energy in a more productive way.

Last day before bank holiday. Everything needs to be set until end of business. One call rushes the next, stress increases, words get louder. Not only is everyone looking forward to the offsite but also everyone is stressed out from not having had a few days off for months. In this heated environment it happens – my boss treats me unfair. Having invested night after night into a presentation, some questions are still unanswered – rightly so. Now, all of this seems to be my fault. Uff. Unfair.

Do you know these situations? You worked your a** off but all the work is not being recognized? You invested time, heart and brain to reach the 95% – and damn are they good! – but the feedback focuses the 5% that could be enhanced? What do you do?

Just recently I read a book on leadership and how a leader should position herself in order to forster each team member. In this context the author Simon Sinek is changing the perspective to an interesting angle. Leaders are human beings, too. They react under pressure pretty much the same like everyone else.

So when our boss comes down hard on us and we don’t know the reason, it is equally our responsibility to express concern for their well-being.

Simon Sinek, LEADERS EAT LAST

I highly favour the emphasize of responsibility in this perspective. Instead of complaining to be treated unfairly changing the perception by considering the situation in which my boss is stuck. This requires and trains real leadership skills in you! Complaining is easy. You don’t even need a degree to tell everyone how unfair you have been treated. But to decide to leave your hurt, puts your ego aside – and that requires strength.

So what did I do in the mentioned situation?

I would lie if I tell you, I wasn’t mad. As you can read, the situation made it into an article. Nevertheless, considering the overall situation with tons of calls, stress and tight timelines I asked myself if my boss is a great boss in general – and yes he is! And he is a human being who gets stressed out, too. And that is fine. In addition, he was right – there were open points to be clarified. So we got back to business, found solutions and turned in the result by end of business – without wasting any minute on discussing fairness-issues.

Which situation of unfairness is still in your mind?

Let me guess: these situations of unfairness cost you way more energy in rethinking them than it adds value to your life, right? And if you don’t see this aspect, ask your spouse or colleagues whether they want to hear that old unfairness story again. They might not.

It is about time for you to leave the resentment behind. Find an explanation why someone has been unfair to you if you need to. Forgive what happened.

And move on.

Happy Birthday, isn’t it?

If you take care that every year of your life is enjoyable you will have lived an enjoyable life in the end.

Birthday. Whether you like celebrating yours or not – most likely you will not forget the date when you turn a year older. Independent from all the rituals that you are following – or trying to ignore – the very date of your birth is present in your mind. And even if you are not much into celebrating your aging, every time you need to fill in your birth date in any form, you are reminded of the progress of time.

The days around the birthday are a good timeframe to pause your life and invest a few minutes into reflection.

Reflection of the past with all of your accomplishments, successes, losses and failures.

A sharp look at the here and now.

And an inspiring envisioning of the years ahead with so much potential for your dreams and hopes to come true.

Let’s have a look at these three perspectives and get some practical tips on how to actually invest in yourself during this time.

Reflection on the past

Let’s assume you are doing this on an annual basis, then you reflect only back on the last year. If you are at a major milestone of your life like 20th, 30th, 40th etc. birthday it might be worthwhile to take a longer timespan into account.

Take some paper and a pen, find yourself a cosy place and sit down. Calm down for a few moments and enjoy the very fact that you now invest in one of the most important people in your life – yourself.

You are the starting point

Start by drawing a person in the middle of the paper or by writing your name in the midst. You are the starting point – and from there the mind-map-style starts. Now start to write areas of your current life situation around you – you might want to circle them if you are a more creative person.

Here are some ideas: family, friends, job, sports, health, career, relationships, emotional well-being, social work, hobby

Take at least 4 areas of your life that you want to reflect on. And be bold. Take also those areas where you like to be more fulfilled or more successful.

How are you doing?

If you have defined your areas you want to focus on, write to each area what you liked during the last year. Where have you been successful? What did you achieve? What made this area of your life special in the last year?

If you are unfamiliar with writing stuff about your life on a piece of paper, you might want to start by taking a few notes and the further you get start writing sentences. Add to each event or bullet why it is on your list and how you currently feel about it.

When you are done with positive things, start to write down also the bad experiences. What didn’t work out? Whom did you lose in your life? Where did you fail? Be honest to yourself and admit how you are feeling.

Side note for business people: Emotions are valuable indicators where you are currently at - and if you need change. Admit when you are feeling sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed. Although it is uncommon in the business context to talk about feelings, it is a real asset when you check on your emotional well-being every once in a while. If you are happy on the inside, it is most likely that you will display the happiness on the outside and be even better in your business tasks at hand. Unluckily this is true vice versa. 

One year on a piece of paper

Now look at your mind map. How do you feel?

Since this is a practical guide and not an entertainment text, I just take the freedom to ask you again: How do you feel when you see your past year?

What would you like to take with you into the next year?

What served you until today but now needs to leave? Say goodbye to these habits / situations / emotions. It’s just the right time.

Here and Now

Take a moment to be proud of yourself! You just revisited the last year, showed gratitude for your successes, looked at some unpleasant moments, said goodbye to a few things. For your soul it’s like the clearance of the basement. It isn’t the most entertaining thing to do but it creates room in your mind for new things. Well done!

I can see you smile. That’s good.

Let’s dive into your future.

Envisioning the future

A new year lies before you. How do you want to use it?

Check on the categories of your mindmap again. Which category should stay and which one(s) leave? Is there any other area that you want to add?

When you are done with setting the scene, write to each area what you would like to achieve. Which area should be your focus on? Where do you need growth? What area do you enjoy most?

I like to encourage you to get a little crazy and visionary in this moment – reality will settle in soon enough. Write down all the things you like to be doing. What makes your heart leap?

Remember, you are the game changer of your everyday life. Take your annual pause to reflect the past year and adjust your priorities to make sure that the upcoming year will be enjoyable.

Trick your brain

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

The human brain is amazing. Even in the midst of adversity the brain is capable of recalling pleasant pictures. And while riding the emotional rollercoaster we can get to ease just by envisioning a calm and uplifting episode of our past.

I am convinced this knowledge makes a difference in your daily routines. And if you use it for your own good, you will become more successful in life. Join me in this thought experiment.

Just pick any stressful situation: an unpleasant feedback of your boss, that furious call of a customer, your child screaming down the neighbourhood for no reason. Immediately your brain switches to stress-mode – you can only focus on the bad, your creativity is limited, you want to run away. All those reactions are totally normal. The human brain is programmed like this. If we get into stress, we want to get out of it. Quickly.

Unluckily running off isn’t possible most of the times. So we suffer in the situation. And even if the stressor is gone, we ponder on the bad feeling; replaying the stress situation again and again.

Interestingly we can keep the bad feeling for quite a long time although the situation has passed. While hitting replay in our minds again and again, we also revive the bad mood attached.

If that is true for stressful memories, why not using it for good!?

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

Norman Vincent Peale – Pastor & Author

Pastor Peale nails it down quite precise: instead of rerunning the same hurtful thoughts, the human brain is capable of activating positive recollections. And while thinking of the good old day(s) the emotion slowly follow.

How does it look like to put this into practice?

Keep an assorted collection of your finest memories. Maybe that marvelous sunset at the beach while your feet sunk into soft sand? Perhaps that good laughter with your closest friends over dinner the other night?

Whatever it is, make sure it is easy to recall. Whenever you get into the stressful situation, set yourself an inner “stop!”, relaunch your memory and take a moment to regrow the positive feeling.

Remember: you are not a victim of your (bad) environment and the emotions attached to hard situations. You can keep your inner peace. And by staying calm, be able to think creatively, find new solutions and make good decisions.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4, 23

I wonder whether Pastor Peale is referencing to this bible verse when he is writing about positive thinking. Only a sound mind and a peaceful heart are able to make solid decisions. Decisions that influence our lives.

I encourage you to take care of your emotions. Be the guard of your heart and stop negative thoughts early. Instead turn to powerful memories and refill your emotional reservoir during the day.

Will your tombstone inspire others?

Make sure your name is associated with positive attributes that people love to remember.

Lately I had a chat with a colleague coming from another continent – consequently having an unfamiliar name to an European ear. Immediately he was offering a German name as substitute. Since the name was so special – lets say old-school – I asked him laughing why he had chosen it. “Easy”, he said, “I went jogging on the graveyard regularly and I saw that particular name so often on tombstones that I got inspired to pick it for myself.”¬†

“Wow. Inspired by a tombstone”, I thought – not sure whether to be impressed or awkwardly moved. 

And then my thoughts began to wander… what will be written on my tombstone when the day of tombstone-necessity comes? Will it be inspiring? With what characteristics do I want to be remembered? 

While I continued thinking, I realized that positive remembrance is not limited to death – actually I can recall several leaders in my life whose major attributes I easily can determine and whose attitude impressed me in a way that I wanted to be like them in that particular behavior. If I had to sum up what made them special, most certainly I put on the list: authentic behavior, a trustworthy charisma and interest in people. 

Authentic Behavior 

Despite the fact that I didn’t like all facets of my leaders, I could always rely on their authenticity. The mixture of strengths and flaws made them unique, approachable and – simply put – human. They used to communicate when they were having a bad day. So it was easy to know that a more quiet behavior didn’t mean that there is a problem around. 

In addition, all of them had a basic set of behaviour you could rely on. They were approachable for team members, always open-minded and friendly. One leader put it this simple: don’t scream at people and don’t throw stuff. 

Don’t scream at people and don’t throw stuff. 

A Leader

Trustworthy Charisma 

People I can recall as influential leaders in my life all had a certain charisma. I don’t think of an unspecific atmosphere or esoteric type of feeling, but rather a respect that rose in people who have worked with these people over a longer period of time. Foremost this respect was fueled by a predictability of the leaders behaviour. Everyone knew how this person would react to a specific situation (mainly calm, well-thought-through but clear), and this predictability would allow team members to take decisions. Team members could predict whether they will have the backing of their boss – and this led to freedom, respect and trust. 

Interest in people

Last but not least, leaders I recall as inspiring always had an interest in me. And in others. They “saw” their team and spoke to people on an individual level. It’s probably one of the hardest parts – having an intense job with extreme responsibilities and still take time to show interest in people. To stop at the coffee kitchen for 30 seconds just to ask how it is going or to pad someone shoulder for great work the day before. 

But if you think back – you remember the names of exactly those people. People who saw you. People who were interested in you and your well-being. 

And even when their names will be written on a tombstone, they will be remembered.