Thursday, November 30, 2006

Self-awareness - and most people's lack of it

Think you have a good sense of humour? Think you are a better than average driver? The answers are probably yes.

It may be true for you, dear reader. But studies generally show that most people actually have very little self-awareness of their actual strengths and weaknesses. To get technical, the research shows that the correlation between self-perceptions and performance typically hovers around 0.29 - which ain't very high at all.

This is true also of skills in the workplace.

This was brought home to me just last week when I was running an assessment centre for some senior managers. The managers were applying for a senior role that would have put them in charge of ten times as many people as they currently had responsibility for. And as part of the assessment centre, they had to give a 20-minute presentation and then answer questions for another 20 minutes. But I was gob-smacked by how bad some of them were. Some of these guys had put themselves forward for this job even though they were clearly, clearly wrong for the job. All of us interviewers could see it and we felt embarrassed for them. But the amazing bit was that they didn't realise that they were totally out of their depth at all.

The reality is that most people overestimate their ability. And the ones who underestimate their ability are often the ones who are actually better at it then average! In other words, hardly anyone ever thinks that they are 'average'. In fact, the average person believes themselves to be more socially skilled, disciplined, leader-like, and better judges of character than the average person. Clearly, even a basic understanding of maths shows that the average person can't be above average!

To go on, most people overestimate how long it will take to do tasks. Most people at work overestimate their popularity. Most people at work underestimate the extent to which their mistakes have been noticed by the people around them.

Unfortunately, these biases make us not very good at the stuff we want to do! It leads us to make more mistakes and to get into situations for which we are clearly not qualified.

Let's cut to the chase. What can you do about it?

Ask for feedback. The research clearly shows that other people are usually better able to predict our success in a variety of situations than we ourselves are able to do. They can often see that our romances are doomed. They can see that we should quit a job because it's wrong for us, or that we should go for a promotion because it's right for us (even if we think we aren't good enough). They can see that we haven't done enough preparation for a big presentation or that we don't have the skill to take on a certain project.

So ask.

But it's tough. I'm sure you can think of plenty of instances in which you've seen other people lacking self-awareness. The trick is learning to identify when it's you who is lacking that critical self-awareness.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Size matters: The ballad of Tom and Katie

As the world of celebrity gossip is buzzing with news of the marriage of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, I thought I'd take my own spin on the whole affair.

Tom Cruise is 5 feet 7 inches tall. Katie Holmes is reported as being somewhere between 5 feet 8 and 5 feet 9. Amazing then, isn't it, that Tom looks a good few inches taller than Katie in their wedding photo isn't it?

Now, I'm not the first person to have commented on it. But from a psychological perspective, there's good evidence that taller people generally do better in work and their private lives. So taller people tend to earn more than their shorter counterparts. Taller men also tend to get more dates than shorter men.

From the point of Darwinian psychology, women look for taller mates (it's a sign of stronger genes and therefore healthier babies). Other men tend to give way to taller men too (like the strong lion in a pride).

So what does that have to do with the world of work? There's not a lot anyone can do about their height, is there?

Well, yes actually. And I apologise if you are a woman reader, as the research points to the importance of height in men rather than women. If, as a man, you are very much shorter than normal, you could always consider putting lifts in your shoes. Anecdotally at least, men who put lifts in their shoes see their confidence spiral upwards.

Perhaps more practically though, it points to the importance of posture. If you look around your workplace, you'll probably notice that some of your colleagues have great posture while others have terrible posture. Bad posture can cost you more than 2 inches in height. Literally, stooping over could subconsciously affect your colleagues and boss and cost you to get overlooked for a promotion or pay rise!

So stand up tall. Think of a piece of string lifting your head up toward the ceiling at all times.

Or. You could always get lifts!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Presentations and public speaking

I read some survey a while back that said that the biggest fear that people have at work is about having to stand up in front of others and give a presentation.

It's something that I can really identify with. Nowadays I'm fairly happy to speak to large groups of people (for example, I was speaking to 1500 graduands and their guests a few weeks ago). But I remember that I used to be so terrified of having to speak even in front of my class mates at school that I'd make up excuses to get out of it. And even when I started my first job, I was so nervous about having to speak in front of a handful of colleagues or clients that I'd feel this rising feeling of sickness in my throat. Trust me, it wasn't pleasant.

But I wanted to get better at presenting and public speaking, so I've worked at it. Lots of preparation and rehearsing, and using some psychological techniques to cope with anxiety.

So now to the present day.

My latest book (I think it's my 13th - but can't remember and can't really be bothered to go count the number of books I've written) just came out last week. Presentations and Public Speaking for Dummies is actually my first collaborative work - I wrote it in conjunction with an American business speaker and writer called Malcolm Kushner. And it's not a bad book (even if I do say so myself!)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Being recognised

One of the side effects of being on television at the moment (albeit on a minor satellite channel) is that I'm getting recognised and approached a fair amount by people who have seen me on their televisions. I don't seek it out (after all, fame doesn't get you anything unless you're mega famous) but it comes to me nonetheless.

Quite a lot of the time, people recognise me but don't know my name. Or they recognise the face but don't even know where they know me from. So I've had random strangers ask me if I'm from Bristol and drink in the same bar as they do (the answer was no, of course)!

And people are much more likely to approach me in the evening. Perhaps it's the effect of having had a few drinks - alcohol releasing them from any inhibitions they might have had. But I get random strangers chatting to me a lot more on a Friday and Saturday evening than in the rest of the week put together!

Another observation is that London people are far too used to seeing proper celebrities and stars to get bothered about someone like me (as an aside, I've seen people including comedian Ricky Gervais and major actors such as Ralph Fiennes and Sir Ian McKellan in London). So a supermarket girl in London didn't even blink an eyelid after recognising me and asking if I was on the telly. Whereas a perfume spraying girl in a department store in Birmingham asked me if I was from the telly and got all excited and started leaping around when I said yes. But I guess they have fewer genuine celebrities in Birmingham so get more excited even when Z-listers such as myself crop up!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Smile, be happy, be glad

Psychologists and economists are increasingly moving into a new field of research: trying to figure out what can make us happy.

For decades, governments have been focusing on the topic of how to make us richer, on the assumption that wealth improves the quality of life. But what's interesting is that as people in the developed world have got richer over the last 40 years or so, the quality of life and happiness that people feel has actually diminished.

I don't want to get into a lengthy debate about the reasons why. But there is good evidence that optimism is not something that you are merely born with. Whether you are a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person can actually be dictated by emotional training.

So here's a practical tip. If you are feeling fed up with your work, try to focus on what it is that you have enjoyed about it in the past. Maybe it's a particular interaction with a collegue or a customer, or learning a new skill or overcoming a difficulty. Force yourself to recall a moment when you felt you were happy at work.

Even if you can only do it once a day, the preliminary research shows that such questions can significantly improve your relationship with your work.

Try it and let me know how you get on.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Is there anyone out there?

This whole world of blogging is still kind of new to me. I mean, I do a lot of work with journalists, so I'm no stranger to finding myself quoted all over the web. But this blog is my own creation.

So I do sometimes wonder: Is anyone reading this?

I understand that blogs are rated in the blogosphere on the number of other blogs that link back to them. So I thought I'd run a small competition to see if anyone would actually like to blog about my blog.

All you need to do is blog about my blog. And then let me know - either leave me a comment or drop me an email. Or encourage someone you know to blog about my blog. And whoever does the most blogging about me will get some free copies of my books. How does that sound?

And, if not many people are reading this blog, that could be reallllly easy for you - you might just need to get me onto one blog to get my books.

Happy blogging!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Office politics: An homage to Niccolo Machiavelli

I just got a physical copy of my new book, The Rules of Office Politics. It's always an incredibly proud moment for me to hold in my hands an actual copy of the book with its hard back binding and wrap-around cover.

But today I thought I would pay homage to the father of office politics, Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli had been in a senior position of power in Florence, Italy when Spain invaded his country and he was captured, tortured, and banished. It was during his exile that he wrote his tome on politics, The Prince.

Things have moved on in the world of management since Machiavelli wrote: "it is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both". Nowadays, in a world in which good quality employees are hard to recruit, most modern-day managers realise that it is better to manage with carrot than stick.

However, Machiavelli still has much to teach us. Particularly on the topic of change, he writes: "There is nothing more difficult to carry out... than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit from the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order."

While Machiavelli's morals may be questioned (hence the term 'Machiavellian' being applied to all manner of dubious manouevrings), what he did teach us was that it is wise to take a strategic approach to building relationships and trying to get things done at work. And that's certainly a message that I have taken forward in my own tome on the topic of office politics.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Guest of Honour at Croydon College

I've just been gathering my thoughts as I have to give a short speech as guest of honour at a college of higher education on Friday.

Anyway, thought I'd include a link to the biography they've written up on me. It's terribly flattering!

That's all for now!