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What’s so bad about being Idle? It worked for Eric.

Earth hour recently, has got me thinking about the good that can come from doing the career equivalent of switching off the lights for a while. One of the most talked-about issues for employers is the war for talent. You dear reader are in historically short supply, which means that now has never been a better time to take your pick of jobs, or to negotiate a great package. Alternatively, what better time to take your foot off the pedal and give yourself a much-needed break from the incessant pressure to achieve?

At least since the “greed is good” 1980s we seem to have been on an upward trajectory of do more, play less. A close friend of mine working in the finance industry recalled in the early nineties, her boss would get in around 9:30am, make a few a trades until 1pm, and then either disappear, or reappear tired and emotional at around 5pm to collect his car. He was a huge success on all objective financial performance measures. Another good friend also worked in the financial sector throughout this period. She would get in at 8am, and stay routinely until 7pm and often much later. She thought nothing of going into the office on a Sunday morning to work for at least five hours, every week, almost without exception. Sure it got her promotions, until her boss and mainstay was made redundant, and then she lost her job pretty soon after. All those hours seemingly counted for nothing.

However those were the good old days when employers had the upper hand and there was a limitless supply of well-qualified and eager young professionals clamouring to be part of the success story that was the “designer brand” of the top corporates. Sacrifice was expected if you wanted to succeed with some of these employers. In one case I know of, a twentysomething aspiring consultant working for an international firm of management consultants was seen out with her boyfriend. The following day she was instructed directly by her managing partner to drop her boyfriend because he was not employed by the company and so he would not understand the pressures and expectations placed upon her.

You have to ask yourself why do people sacrifice so much in the pursuit of being busy? Is it the financial rewards they believe will follow, or is it the prestige and recognition that they are striving for? Either goal is generally wrong-headed and merely puts you on an hedonistic treadmill, where no matter how fast you run, you never seem to get anywhere. Dr Johnson was an early fan of idleness writing “Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired.”

Some people are born idle, some achieve idleness and others have idleness thrust upon them. For the born idle, it must feel like the golden years have finally arrived. If they have partied (in an idle fashion) through youth/ university, to their delight they have probably ended up employed almost as readily as their swotty colleagues for whom youth/ university flew by in a fog of industry, rather than merely a fog. Others are more recent converts to idleness. The moment of conversion takes many forms, but often will be sparked by a critical moment at work usually on a Monday. Having worked for fifteen days straight for 15 hours a day to meet a deadline they had no personal attachment to, they are subjected to a memo from the their boss noting that they arrived at work today fifteen minutes late. At this moment they make a solemn declaration to withdraw from the workplace psychologically without giving the mandatory 14 days notice, and discover a life outside but still in the office such as internet chequers, chat rooms, pot plants, Puzzler magazine, joke of the day/week/month/minute and the romantic possibilities to be had in the stationary cupboard.

Finally some have idleness thrust upon them by a reversal of health or job or both. During recuperation there is plenty of time to consider their purpose and to realign it to matters beyond occupation, such as their family, their hobbies or their health.

It is no coincidence that almost without exception all religions and all self-help books on stress and relaxation emphasise the importance of silent meditation and quietness as a way of being better people. We should all give ourselves a guilt free earth-hour every day as a start to using our energies more efficiently.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

I’ll start with an apology, I’m not here I am there. I will be just arriving in Canada for my keynote at the BCCDA conference in Vancouver and other workshops. Probably tweet from there… any some views on apologies in your career from someone whose has an apology of a career!!!

Sorry it seems is not always the hardest word, especially when it is strategic for your career. The apology is the latest weapon in the hands of the upwardly mobile who prefer the older definition of apology as a defence or self-justification rather than the more recent meaning of apology as a sincere expression of regret for hurt caused to another.

You do not have to go back further than the recent state election to see the effectiveness of the apologetic “more to do but we are heading in the right direction”. This is a classic example of the non-apology apology and is typical of the type of mealy-mouthed utterances delivered by those with an eye on the main chance and little regard for awkward truths or uncomfortable insights let alone the unpleasant consequences.

There are a range of strategic or cynical apologies open to the unapologetic. Firstly there is the defensive apology. This takes the form of: “ I am sorry but I didn’t realise that you were so sensitive about your looks”. The normal structure is to spit out the “sorry” on a rising tide of volume, followed quickly by a sniping criticism that serves as self-justification. In other words, it is your fault you are upset.

The distracting apology is an all together more devious and powerful device in the right hands. For instance the car dealer who gets in first with “I am really sorry that I lied through my teeth about the delivery date, it is out of our hands, however if you like we could get you one from inter-state, but you would be up for a delivery fee. We do have one you can have straight away but you will have to cop an extra grand because it has the optional rust-proofing on the vanity mirror”. So befuddled are you, you end up paying the extra. In other words, you can wait, but the wait will be your fault.

The aggressive apology is usually a list of apologies: I am sorry that the report you dumped on me last night is late and I am sorry that I couldn’t get the ancient printer to work that you wont replace and I am sorry that I was late getting here this morning because I had to go across town to collect the parcel you left behind and I am sorry that I exist. In other words it is your fault.

A perfect apology to antagonize another is the too late apology: I am sorry that I did not invite you to dinner with Robert De Niro, but you said you weren’t coming into the office on Wednesday and by the time De Niro suggested it, I reckoned you had probably already eaten. In other words it is your fault.

The neutraliser is a great way of controlling a situation: I am sorry. Look I’ve said I’m sorry, so lets move on. Implication: it is your fault that you continue to have a problem with my behaviour.

Then there is the let me tell you why you are wrong apology: I am sorry that we have given you food poisoning, but you should never have ordered the burger to be cooked that way.

Occasionally the apologiser pins the cause on someone other than yourself, but of course it is never pinned on them. For instance, I am sorry, you should never trust what they say in the sales department what they are suggesting is illegal. They are always doing that. You will need to go back to them and start all over again. Sorry it is not my department. Implication: a) you are an idiot, and b) you are surrounded by idiots.

What is often so lacking is the immediate, heartfelt mea culpa. For this to be genuine and genuinely effective, it requires the following elements: a no excuses and no hiding places expression of remorse; a genuine seeking of forgiveness for past transgressions; the promise that this will never happen again; the unprompted plan of action to ensure it wont happen again; the spontaneous offer of some form of thoughtful recompense; and finally a spontaneous self-imposed genuine punishment appropriate to the misdemeanour..

Funnily enough the last approach is likely to be the most effective in career development terms in the longer term because it builds trust and faith. There are plenty of examples of celebrities that taken this course of action without there being any long term damage to their careers (think Hugh Grant and Divine Brown for instance or Bill Clinton). The trouble is for political parties, the cynic in me wonders whether such a course of action would be political suicide.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.

what am I worth?

Last year Tom Cruise was told by Paramount that his salary expectations were too high. It seems that when it comes to salary expectations, there appears to be a large gap between our perceptions of what we are worth and the realities. Part of the problem is that most of us think everyone else is getting more than us. For instance what proportion of Australians as a whole earn over $104,000 a year and what proportion of Australian managers earn over $104,000 a year? More of that later, but first it is worth asking how do we form expectations about salaries? What is a normal or fair salary for a days work?

Scott Highhouse, Margaret Brooks-Laber, Lilly Lin and Christiance Sptizmueller from Bowling Green State University* argue that it is easy to manipulate perceptions of fairness. For instance suppose you are offered an entry-level job with a starting salary of $62,000 and you are very content. Now suppose you receive a salary survey from a researcher investigating starting salaries who asks you to nominate which category your salary falls into: a) $64,000 or below; b) $65,000 – $74,000; c) $75,000-$84,000; d) $85,000-$94,000; e) $95,000 or above. You are no longer such a happy bunny because there are four response categories above your salary. However had the list of options been changed to provide lots options below your salary such as a) $46,000-$50,000; b) $51,000-$55,000; c) $56,000-$60,000; d) $61,000-$65,000 and e) $66,000 or over, you are likely to feel a lot happier about your salary. The reseachers found if you provide lots of options falling above the target figure, starting salary expectations rose by $3600.

Notice this has nothing to do with individual competence, the job itself, market forces or any other external feature of the work environment. It is simply a matter of perception. If you think many people are earning in a higher bracket than you, you will be less satisfied with what you get and will expect to be paid a higher salary.

It is gets even more complicated because our age, gender and ethnicity have all repeatedly been shown to influence our expectations of our worth. Generally the findings suggest that females and ethnic minorities have lower salary expectations. The point is, rightly or wrongly, salary expectations often heavily influence career choices, and yet it turns out that our expectations are highly subjective and easily open to manipulation.

We are bombarded with television and movie characters who have extravagant lifestyles that manipulate our sense of a normal pay packet. The net result of exposure to these characters is the same as being exposed to a salary survey where your pay appears on the bottom rung – everyone in the movies seems to earn more than us! We see so much focus on the salaries in the big end of town that the effect seems to be a shifting upwards in what we think we are worth.

I am in no way defending fat cats, or suggesting we settle for second best, however there is a large gap between perceptions of what others earn and the realities. The report entitled Employee Earnings and Hours was released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week and it provides a fascinating insight into what employees in Australia are really paid, and the figures may surprise you. In case you are wondering, based on the most recently released ABS statistics, only 3.3% of all employed Australians, and only 15.8% of managers earn over $104,000 a year. These figures drop to 0.9% for female workers and 7.5% for female managers. The average weekly total cash earnings in Australia (including overtime) was $1,102.00 for full-time adult employees in 2006. If you are looking for a reality check on salary levels, Rodney Stinson’s What jobs pay (York Cross) is a good starting point.

If our perceptions of what is a reasonable salary are so easily manipulated, and we continue to choose careers largely based on pay considerations, we are setting ourselves up for dysfunctional career choices and chronic dissatisfaction. A little reality checking may help you make better career choices.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.

Highouse, S; Brooks-Laber, M., Lin, L; and Sptizmuller, C. (2003). What makes a salary seem reasonable. British Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 76, 69-81.

Why work-life balance might be bad for you!

Finding a “balance” between work and life is one of the most popular mantras in the modern workplace. Busy professionals can be found in every corner of the office who rue their failure to implement their well-intended plans to get out of the office before 7pm and spend more time with their loved ones. Enlightened employers implement policies that provide flexible working hours, or condensed periods of work that provide for more “leisure time”. Yet for many of us, we still seem to be at the office 24/7, or we harbour the guilty secret that our work actually gives us more or “kick” than our so-called leisure-time.

It may sound preposterous but for many people work provides more pleasure than leisure. This is the conclusion that US psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has drawn from spending most of his life studying a phenomenon called flow. If you have ever experienced a feeling of being totally absorbed in a task, such that you are completely unaware external things like the passing of time then you have experienced a flow moment. Csikszentmihalyi says these moments “provide flashes of intense living against the dull background of everyday life”. They can occur anywhere, for instance during a stimulating conversation, while reading a great book, in the middle of a tennis rally, or solving a challenging problem. Sports types often call it being “in the zone”. And you get more flow moments at work than you do in your leisure time.

Csikszentmihalyi studied 78 workers in a variety of jobs including product assemblers, clerks, and managers and asked them throughout the day to report on what they were thinking about and what they were doing. He found that on average, flow moments occurred 54% of the time at work but only 17% of the time during leisure. Work provides three times as many flow moments as leisure! The breakdown while at work was Managers 64% of time in flow, clerical workers 51% of the time and blue collar workers 47% of the time.

So are efforts to improve the quality of our life by increasing our leisure time misguided? Well the answer may lie in understanding the conditions that are required to have a flow moment. Csikszentmihalyi claims that flow occurs when
“ a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.” So what did most of these workers do in their leisure time? They watched television and it turns out that television had the worst ratio of flow to non-flow moments. The participants in the study were twice as likely not to experience flow while watching television. This, Csikszentmihalyi argues, is because television is not so good at engaging a person’s skills or challenging them (perhaps this is why quiz shows and murder mysteries are so popular). Activities that fully engaged the person’s physical capacities or intellect such as stimulating conversation, sports or hobbies provided the most leisure flow.

The conclusions are pretty clear, simply increasing a person’s leisure time is not necessarily going to improve their quality of life and conceivably it could even reduce it. It depends on how the individual spends their leisure time. Consequently the focus perhaps should move from work versus leisure to an emphasis on encouraging and supporting employees in pursuing challenging and stimulating past-times. “Quality time” it seems, comes in two forms, the passive type that often forms the “dull background” of life and the active flow-filled that provide the intense living. Flow moments are also the well-springs of creativity, so the more flow, the happier we are and the more productive and creative we may be in work and life.

Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Josey-Bass. 2000.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.

Seven questionable beliefs about Stress

One of the problems with the term “work stress” is that it can mean just about anything you want it to mean. For instance, nail biting, irritability, loss of libido, anxiety, depression, skin complaints, insomnia, migraine, cancer and heart disease have all been associated with work stress. Myself and a colleague, Dr Fiona Jones unearthed beliefs about work work stress that are widely held however an inspection of the evidence supporting them could lead us to being cautious about some of them and downright skeptical of others.

Work stress causes serious illness.
A close look at the available evidence reveals that this relationship is neither that strong nor that direct. Some studies find a link and some do not. Furthermore, establishing that work stress causes serious illness as opposed to being a response to an illness is difficult to do.

Executive work stress causes coronary heart disease.
The National Heart Foundation of Australia in 2003 rated this belief as having “poor evidence of support”. A UK study measured new cases of angina, severe pain across the chest and diagnosed heart disease in 10, 308 British Civil Servants and found the opposite relationship – the lower ranks were far more likely to be experiencing work stress than their more senior colleagues. Males in the junior ranks of the civil service had three times the risk of coronary mortality over 10 years compared to their senior counterparts.

A comparison of the ultimate executives – the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the UK, USA and Australia who were born and died in the 20th century shows that if they can avoid assassinations in the US or swimming outside the flags in Australia, they tend to live a lot longer than their male counterparts. One of the reasons could be that they have greater support in terms of people to delegate work to and regular medical monitoring.

People respond differently to work stress as a result of differences in personality.
We all know people who complain more readily than others, or who see the glass as half empty more than others. However, when you put such people under pressure, their increase in work stress levels are about the same as more positive-minded people. The pressure effects both types the same way, it is just some people seem to start from a higher base.

Work stress can be “cured” or managed through relaxation and exercise.
Exercise and work stress management courses can lead to improvements in mood and physiological indicators. They may work because you are taking time out of your schedule to relax or are thinking of other things. If so, it may be that a regular walk with the family dog or a hot bath away from the children may be all you need. Alternatively it could be that just having a person taking an interest in your problems helps. Evidence suggests you have to keep doing exercise or relaxing to combat stress, neither activity offers a lasting “cure”.

Work stress can be cured by changing the way we work.
The degree of control over the demands placed upon you is about the best predictor of feeling work stressed. However, increasing an employees’ control at work is not always simple and might involve decreasing another employees’ control. Changing work conditions in this simple way sounds appealing but in practice can be hard to do.

Work stress is increasing.
How can we compare the impact of the telephone ringing all day with the risk of infectious disease or infant mortality (both of which are lower today)? It is a bit like trying to determine whether Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles Cricket Team was better or worse than Ricky Ponting’s current team! It is not to suggest that we experience less work stress today than earlier generations, rather, it seems that comparisons between then and now are highly likely to be unreliable.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.

which personalities perform best at work?

What sorts of personalities perform best at work? Is there one “best” personality? It is a question that seemingly all of us have an opinion about, but this deceptively simple question has no straight answer.  Organisational psychologists often use five personality labels to describe the differences in people’s temperament. They are Extroversion, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. Collectively they are called the Big Five.  The Extrovert is outgoing and has high levels of energy to make things happen, the Conscientious type works diligently towards a goal, the Open type is a flexible and creative thinker, the Agreeable type is warm and easily makes friends, and the Emotionally stable type is even-tempered and resilient in the face of stress.

The nature of the job also plays a big part in determining what personalities might succeed.  For instance people who are in the early stages of a new job, or those dealing with a job that has changed or is continually changing may face quite different challenges to those who are trying to maintain a level of performance having established themselves in an unchanging role. To make matters worse it is very likely that differences in personality will influence how people perform in these different stages of their work.

When advising clients about changing jobs, I encourage them to consider whether they are Builders or Maintainers. The Builders are people who like to take new challenges and create something from where nothing existed before. Maintainers are people who are not driven by the need to build something brand new. Maintainers are much more likely to find their challenge in keeping something going well, avoiding trouble, elongating the life of something.  Put a Builder type in a Maintenance role and they might deliberately undermine the process just to give them the challenge to build it up again. Put a Maintainer in a Building role, and marvel at the total lack of progress!

Carl Thoresen from Tulane University and his colleagues Jill Bradley, Paul Bliese and Joseph Thoresen reported recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a very clever study that demonstrated the truth in the Builders and Maintainers argument. They used the terms “Maintenance pattern” for people in unchanging roles and “Transitional pattern” for those in new and changing roles.  They studied 99 pharmaceutical sales staff who were in a maintenance pattern of work (they promoted a range of primary care products and had done so for some time) and 78 who were in a transitional stage (they were launching a brand new hormone replacement medicine and their pay was related to their success with this new product).  They found that high levels of Conscientiousness and Extroversion predicted high performance of those in the unchanging (Maintenance) roles but high levels of Openness to experience and Agreeableness did not. For the changing role (Transitional) employees it was exactly the opposite: high levels of Extroversion and Conscientiousness did not predict performance, but high levels of Openness to experience and Agreeableness did.

So different personalities may be successful at work at different times and under different work conditions.  When the work is unchanging and the employee may be susceptible to complacency, the energy of an extrovert who is also very dependable and reliable (conscientious) is required to keep up the performance levels, whereas, if the job is undergoing change, then an employee who is creative and a flexible thinker (openness to experience) who is also able to create new and warm relationships and get their foot in the door (agreeableness) perform better.

To understand why you are performing or feeling the way you are in your current role, it is a good idea to consider your personality and also the nature of the role you are in or the one you are considering moving to. The good news is that there is no one ideal personality for work success, it is a case of finding a role that suits yours.

Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and a Partner in Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy.

Career Coaching, Career Creativity Courses Specialist PD

The Australian Psychological Society has endorsed the 3-day Career Coaching, Counselling and Assessment Course. APS members of the Colleges of Counselling, Education/ Developmental and Organisational can claim 36 specialist PD points for attending. Other APS members can of course claim 36 generalist PD points as well.

The Career Creativity workshop with Norm Amundson and Robert Pryor (and me!) is also endorsed and attracts 11 specialist PD points from the same 3 APS colleges or 11 generalist PD points otherwise.
The 3-day course is on in Brisbane Mar 17-19, and Sydney Mar 23-25
The Career Creativity workshop is April 14th Sydney, and April 15th Brisbane.

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