What are your standards to do your best work?

.

You never hear someone say “I quit my job because I couldn’t set priorities in my work”. Usually people quit for something they often overlook in choosing a job

Before I started this job, I said I didn’t understand why anyone would quit mid-year. But being in it, you realize how long a year is when every single day feels like three.” “I would wake up in a panic and feeling like there was a pit in my stomach (…) It was a feeling of dread and despair.” [1, 2 ]

These aren’t innocent statements. They come from people who reached that point where they felt powerless towards a situation that simply wouldn’t get better. Not because they hadn’t tried to improve it. Because they couldn’t get the support they asked for.

You get hired to do a certain job, either as a consultant or an employee. You start with this “It might be a challenge at first, but I feel I’m capable of doing this” sort of mindset. Because, internally, you just want to do “your best work”. Not the most perfect one. Simply “the best you can”, given the circumstances you’ll have to work with at this new company. It’s ok. As no one comes into a job and proudly say “I want to do my shittiest or worst work possible!” Unless you’re on a vengeance streak, but that’s another story.

So, over time, that “best work” starts not being enough anymore. Your boss becomes more demanding. He shows less empathy than before towards the struggles you have in fulfilling some tasks or special projects. The pressure to perform increases but not the resources or tools the company provides you with to “take some pressure off your shoulders” or share the overload of work with your colleagues.

The beautiful picture you were painted at first starts to peel off. And what’s underneath isn’t that inspiring. The more you see about it, the more depressing it gets.

Some would say that finding ways at better handling the pressure is on you.

Because of the inherent realities of any type of work or industry, there are inherent outcomes we’re expected to deliver upon too. The “Get your pizza in 30 minutes or it’s free” kind of things. These realities mostly exist so the client will pay your employer for its product or service. So you can get paid in return.

Still wanting to do your best (possible) work, how do you make with a by-default or growing pressure then?

“YOU’VE GOT TO FOCUS ON YOU. BECAUSE YOU’RE THE PROBLEM”

In general, advices on “how to do your best work” circle around three areas.

The first being “Learn and apply new management strategies”. These are about how to better manage your time during a typical workday (ex. Set your top 3 priorities for any workday, Put only 5 things on your to-do list every day and stick to them, Use the Pomodoro technique, Run a software that will block certain websites on your computer while working, etc.).

Then, there is the “Focus on the quantity and quality of the work you put out there”. Meaning, “Deliver more value than what is expected from you”, “Only see yourself playing among the top performers at your company / apply the same strategies as those used by top performers in the World”, “Find a way to do things (always plural) better that how you did them yesterday”.

Finally, you have the “Let the pressure out of the pressure cooker” series of recommendations. These are mostly body-mind-general health related. Like practice mindfulness, start doing yoga on a regular basis, eat healthier lunches, etc..

Strangely enough, all these advices point in only one direction: you. On how to organize YOUR life.

None of these same advices address what is often overlooked when choosing a new job. Something that ends up playing a huge role in someone’s decision to quit the dire-job afterward; the work environment.

As if the whole responsibility “for not being able to do your best work” rests only on your shoulders.

CAN SOMETHING ELSE ALSO HAVE A PART IN THE PROBLEM?

If something that we have done fails, it’s tempting to put the blame on ourselves. Accusing others – without any “irrefutable proof of responsibility” on their part – is tempting as well. Yet, questioning the context in which things happened isn’t something we’re always prone to do.

You could have became very good at “setting up your top 3 priorities” every day, in your present position, but what happens if you have to throw them away every time? Because your supervisor likes to micro-manage everyone’s work in your department, including yours? You might have come into this new company as a consultant with a keen sense of financial patterns recognition and budget analysis. What if, for every suggestion you make for the dire-company to become more efficient in following revenues and expenses, you’re being told “Great, but that’s how things have been done for years and no one ever complained. So we don’t intend to change”.

This has not much to do with your skills, your personality or any “inner Buddha”.

Understanding in what type of environment you work best is key then.

By environment, there’s the physical side of it; working in an open and well lighted space or a closed (only door-closed offices) and flickering-neon lighted one? There’s the “resources to work with” side too; you have to bring your own office supplies and bootstrap everything or you can ask for a regular notepad – to keep track of the tasks you’ve completed during a day – without being blasted for it.

More importantly, there’s the social part of the environment you work in. From your colleagues, to your direct supervisor, to the company’s top management team. This includes both, the practices and policies used for the company to run as well. Simply put, it’s who you work with, how people interact with each other, and how these interactions are fostered and “regulated”.

Past and recent studies show that employees tend to “become disengage at work” when they feel disconnected from their colleagues and manager. Whether it’s because of a lack of shared values, being the constant target of disrespectful behaviors (ex. being discredited, overlooked during team meetings or decision processes that will impact your daily work, etc.) or the absence of any type of recognition for work well-done. Likewise, “poor management (from their direct supervisor)” comes as the number one reason why employees usually quit their job.

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Being able to set some “(work environment) standards” to work by becomes a handy solution.

For they not only act as limits (“This is up to where I can accept or tolerate such and such behavior”) but as bare minimums too (“If how this person manages her team includes at least such and such practice, I can do with. If not, I’ll pass on this job”)

These standards create some sort of sandbox. One you need to feel at ease to play and do what you feel capable of; your best work.

It doesn’t have to be the “perfect sandbox”. None are anyway. Having a clear idea of what one that suits you best looks like and makes you feel – while spending time in it with other people like your colleagues and boss – is more important.

Enough so you can avoid as much as possible the kind of situation mentioned earlier; feeling despair because “every single (work)day feels like three”.

In this particular case, it was a teacher in the Washington D.C. (in the U.S.), talking about her work situation. In the case of the “pit in the stomach”, it also was a teacher explaining why he had quit his job.

Teachers aren’t the only ones having though days at work. In many other profession or industries, not getting the support and recognition you need from your environment leads people to ask themselves “What’s the point of staying here? Of giving my best?

Practicing yoga, learning new time management techniques or taking “Advanced programming with Python” classes – if you’re working with big data – can help someone looking for different ways to improve her skill sets and attitudes for dealing with the inherent realities of her work. It isn’t the only thing to consider though.

Because these have their own limits.

Because we never really work in a vacuum. Cut off from the rest of the world.

There’s always some sort of interaction with other people. A colleague, a manager, a supplier, even with a client.

Therefore, after a certain point, it’s not on you anymore. The environment you’re in has its own say on how a workday goes. An influence on your capacity to do your best work.

Acknowledging that such external influence exists, and somehow sketching “what’s a good work environment for me” increases your chances of actually being able to do your best work. As you’ll have some sort of gauge to help you choose among the environments out there.

Like mentioned earlier, rarely do we hear people say “I’ve quit my job because I couldn’t set priorities in my work”. Usually, in similar cases, the complain sounds more like “I have quit my job because I couldn’t decide shit in my job. My boss would always come and want to have his say in everything I did.

Powerlessness is a powerful emotion (intended pun).

Even more so when it comes in opposition to a natural desire; like wanting to do our best, to contribute or bring something to the table. Let it be at work, or in our friendships, with our family or spouse.

Fulfilling such wants and social needs becomes tricky – not to say p-r-e-t-t-y hard – when we settle for an environment that makes us feel like we don’t matter, gives us stomach pains and gets us to both, emotionally and intellectually, disengage from what we’ve been hired for. Let it for passing knowledge to kids (as a teacher), providing health care to patients (as a nurse), asphalting streets (see the picture below) or else.

An employee got to this point where he didn’t care if a car needed to be towed before he could do his (asphalting) job properly

The interesting part is that settling isn’t an obligation. It can be a temporary thing, for sure. A permanent one? Doesn’t have to be.

Starting to answer “what work environment do I tend to work best in?” is a great first step to set your standards.

Doesn’t have to be complicated. Using a sandbox or playground imagery can help make the whole process easy and even more fun.

So, how a typical day would look like in your sandbox? What kind of people you’d like to work with?

– – – – –

Photo credits: iluvozo 

– – – – –