Essays on Management: Self-management

“Dreams come true if you want them to, and if you want them to it is up to you.”

The lightning tree

Self-management can underpin a high degree of self-realisation and self-determination in a job. It requires the ability to manage oneself in relation to others and the wider organisational context, and when this is mastered one has high autonomy. The combination of autonomy, competence and relatedness delivers a high degree of self-determination. This in turn enables you to move from survival to higher forms of self-realisation. Income and its net worth concomitant is therefore a priority threshold which, once achieved, allows you to focus on working for daily meaning not just daily bread.
Self-management in a job involves skills and behaviours contributing to both individual and organisational objectives. Self-management is not asocial autonomy and a license to do what you like. Rather it involves autonomy grounded in competence, in contribution to others, and in professionalism.

Professionalism involves relatedness to others. It is behaviour that cannot be captured in formal rules but which contributes to organisational purposes. It is unprofessional for example to make someone look foolish in front of an external audience, even though there may be no formal rules against it. Professionalism depends on the tacit mandates people give each other.
The most important self-management ability is good manners, and more broadly the ability to work with others. Work is an inherently social phenomenon. Almost no-one works alone effectively. If you can’t collaborate and work with people and get the best from them then you will fail – and no amount of mathematical qualifications, rote learning or computer skills will help you.

You will meet lots of rude and obnoxious people in your life – always treat them better than they treat you. Always recognise you are part of a team and this should be reflected in “we” language not “I” Ianguage. It is possible to play a team game in ways psychologically equivalent to working for yourself.
Important elements in self-management are self-analysis, and deciding what you want to do in your life. Self-analysis is hard to do but repays the effort. It involves systematic questions that answered create value through behavioural change. What are my strengths? What are my values? What am I interested in? What am I good at? Am I an orchid who thrives best in a specialised hothouse environment, or a dandelion that survives in many different environments? What is my contribution, and what part of it is unique or at least unusual?

Self-awareness means knowing when you are stressed or exposed to health risks, knowing when to bend rather than break. It can also mean turning stress to your advantage. Moments of depression can force you to reflect on things, and to change. Sometimes it helps to write down all the good things you have done and all the things you do well.
You might also ask yourself what your weaknesses are. There are some minimum threshold competencies needed in the workplace, such as literacy, numeracy and foundational computer skills. If you lack these, you must develop them.

However you should not try to be good at everything or spend too much time addressing your minor weaknesses. Instead you should primarily focus on your strengths and abilities and therefore nullify your weaknesses.

Ability is a duty as well as a property right. It is developed rather than gifted. If you are making your talents and abilities productive you are doing your duty to society and yourself, and a side effect of this is you will be successful in your chosen field, including creating property rights in it.
You should decide what kind of life you want and then choose a job that will support this. What life you want to lead is more important than what job you want to do, for the latter is a subset of the former.

You should cast around for a job as if all you’d done previously was prepare for that job. Go for what you want to do rather than keep lots of options open. It is best to be a master of one trade than a jack of all, however you need to have the cross-cutting skills to adapt to change. You need to decide what kind of work environment will best develop you. The mysteries of the trade you have chosen are in the air so you need to breathe the right air.

Having decided on the work environment in which you are likely to flourish, for any specific job it is important to ask, is it socially useful, will I be interested, and can I succeed in this job?

It is important to check out who your manager will be before accepting a job. That person needs to be on the interviewing panel, and it is risky to take a job without having pinned down who you will report to. Organisations should provide to candidates detailed resumes of managers when recruiting new staff so people can know who they are reporting to. This would avoid unpleasant surprises when people end up badly matched. You should report to only one manager as multiple reporting lines often lead to ambiguity, conflict, and your work being misinterpreted or undervalued.

Once you are in a new job, how should you approach it? You must firstly direct your efforts to the organisational purpose. Ask what the job requires, don’t just keep doing what got you the job in the first place. You must then focus on this and not be distracted. Any worthwhile job requires your utmost attention. A mental discipline is to focus entirely on your current job as if it is the only one you will ever do. Treating a job as a stepping stone elsewhere means concentration will waver and much learning will be ephemeral rather than deeply embedded.

Self-regulation is central to work performance and it requires sustained focus. Focus means concentrating on some things and dropping others. It can mean delegation. John D. Rockerfeller’s delegation philosophy was “…nobody does anything if he can get anybody else to do it.”

You must be self-aware in your new job and continuously learning. It is important to search for the enduring learning from an event or a job. In a new job you must share your learning selflessly, rather than treat it as a competitive advantage.

If you know you can succeed in a job you will be filled with well-grounded self-confidence. A combination of fear, self-awareness and seeing things from a fresh perspective can underpin self-belief and confidence. You should welcome moments of fear or inadequacy because this can be motivating and helps you focus. When you then start to perform well in the job you can forget about fear because it has done its job in focusing your mind and making you productive.

In the early stages of a job it is important to define the desired external results and the outputs to deliver, and also to recognise that management focus may depart from that. It can mean keeping two narratives in your head at the same time. One is the ideal of what you think you are working for and should try to achieve. The other is the one you may need to follow to survive. In the short term the two should influence each other, in the medium term they should be brought into harmony, and over the longer haul the first should prevail.

Working in any job requires conformance to what others expect. If you own your own business you must still conform to what your customers want. This does not mean you cannot be yourself, however it does means you have to fit within the rules and build up credibility to earn the right to suggest how rules might change. Over time, and as you carve out a unique contribution within an organisation, it is possible to play the team game in ways as satisfying as working for yourself.

Once established in a job you can start to observe whether it is a good place to work in the longer term. This can involve a series of questions you can ask yourself. Are you respected as a person? Are you given the tools to do the job? Do people notice what you are achieving? Is the organisation interested in the wider skills and knowledge you may have? Have you been asked what you have done in the past, what hobbies you have, what languages you speak, and has the organisation attempted to harness these in the job where it can?

An important part of self-management is management upwards. This is challenging when managers, politicians, board members and top academics lack self-awareness or any sense of humility. “Great man syndrome” occurs when someone achieves pre-eminently in one field and then decides he is an expert in other (and sometimes in all) fields. Knut Hamsun won a Nobel prize in literature before deciding he was a great philosopher and political scientist, leading to him writing an obituary for Adolf Hitler described him as a “warrior for mankind”.

People of true excellence in any field seldom find a need to talk about it. When faced with self-puffery in others an important skill is to feign subservience or awe (while still enjoying a private laugh to yourself).

Managing your manager is critical to his or her own as well as your performance. The key priority must be to make the boss effective. This means ensuring managers look good in the eyes of their own manager. It is important to establish how managers learn and what troubles them.

Never underrate your manager and never tell her what she may want to hear. It is important to tell the truth, even though it may be uncomfortable. Be prepared to ask lots of questions, be a sounding board, challenge any complacent thinking, and once a decision is made it needs to be supported.

You will very likely have differences with your manager, however never bad mouth your manager, team or organisation. Your manager will feel as vulnerable as you and will sometimes get things wrong. Always support your organisation and the purposes it is working for. If you feel your organisation is dysfunctional or working for the wrong purposes, try and reform it within. If that’s not possible, leave rather than get bitter and cynical. This calls for a balancing act where you should both give yourself to your job and also be prepared to leave, in the sense of having the capabilities to move elsewhere if need be.

It is important to remain visible. Sometimes the least effective people have high busyness and visibility yet their contribution to external results may be negligible. Some key workers perceived as plodders may be most effective, however their invisibility is risky for them. No matter how important your work is, what is invisible will not be valued. You are only as good as your last game, and this must have be seen.

Once you have made some progress in a new job it is important to seek feedback on performance. In the old Mafioso expression, “keep your friends close to you and your enemies even closer.” If you need to nominate people for 360 degree feed-back choose those you consider actual or potential enemies. This means you discover where your vulnerabilities might be, as perceived by others. You will commonly find your “enemies” may not be so hostile after all, and may teach you some positive things about yourself. You might even describe them as “friendenemies” – friends and enemies.

Once you are well established in a job you must think carefully about how it relates to your identity. Never conflate your work and your personal identity. People have multiple identities and shift between them, adopting the identity that is most relevant to a specific context. People’s multiple identities mean they have overlapping interests with others, who in turn have different identities in other dimensions. Specific salient identities may be irrelevant in markets. Hindus and Muslims have a different world view, yet they still buy the same smartphones. It is important to choose which identity should dominate your self-management and others’ perception of you in different contexts.

In the workplace it is your work identity that must be salient and other identities need to be in the background. Don’t treat your job as an extension of your family or your social life. You should not try and be the life of the party when at work, nor should you be work-obsessed when partying or on holiday.

A private organisation may often be a product of the conflation of an individual or family’s identity with the organisation. Angus Tait created Tait Communications as an act of existential purpose and it outlives him. If you are an entrepreneur or run your own business you may choose to conflate your identity or self-esteem with a job. Your performance commitment might be enhanced by this. However your ability to deliver on those commitments may be reduced since you will not be able to see from outside your business, nor will you have much ability to radically change how you perceive and therefore manage your business.

Some who conflate their job or business with their identity can stifle new people and they often dread retirement or redundancy because their world would be empty. People need meaningful outside interests and outside self-identity. Your worth should depend on who you are in the wider sense, rather than what you do. Many Maori understand this full well. It is possible to be an iwi leader and also work in a humble job that is routinised and does not permit much discretion, let alone leadership.

It is damaging to society when individuals win positional authority confuse their jobs with their self-identity. In modern times, most people from the Prime Minister down have to accept that at some stage they will be sacked or removed from a job by voters, employers or customers. Even if they survive these events, father time will catch up because ageing is the one thing no one can escape. When a chief executive acts as if he is bigger than his organisation it is time for him to leave. If a chief executive is “not replaceable” it means he has done critical damage to “his” organisation’s future sustainability. When anyone conflates identity fully with the job his life can be gone when that job disappears for reasons beyond his control.

For any employee, especially more vulnerable ones, a parallel or alternative career, or multiple identities in which they have standing is critical for psychic buffering. If things go wrong you still have standing outside work, and perhaps even an alternative career. It is possible to create the option of turning a hobby into a career.

Self-management requires time management. Time devoted to one task cannot be devoted to another and so focus is needed to get the best out of time. While it is possible to ramp up energy levels to meet a challenge, time cannot be created out of nothing. It cannot be stored up like gold coins or reciprocated favours. It cannot be replaced with other resources. The arrow of time moves only in one direction and once lost it can never be regained. Time therefore must be managed and time management is a discipline that can be imposed externally but is best self-generated.

Killers of productive time include frivolous email, internet or social media use, unnecessary or lengthy meetings, and discursive, unfocused discussions. Multi-tasking works for foxes but not for hedgehogs. If you prefer to do one thing at a time, when you finish writing something at the end of the day leave a sentence half-finished so you can get back into it next day without wasting time in “cognitive switching”.

By far the worse destroyer of time and of value is poor project inception, weak task assignment and unsystematic project execution, leading to poorly directed work, waste and rework.

For some people, working from home is effective, and thinking at home or outside work is often valuable. However working from home is a poor substitute for effective time management during the working day. Managing time means setting bounds around it in ways recognising its scarcity and its inelasticity.

Time management requires integration of otherwise fragmented time, and effective structure around it. It requires external disciplines whether factory whistles, deadlines, and challenging oneself to get as much done as possible within constraints. If you are sitting an exam, don’t think you started with 100% and will lose marks with every mistake. Think of yourself starting with nothing and earning marks with everything you do.

Once disciplines are in place, time management can involve an easy pace, structure, system and method, and work can be steady not feverish. Being frugal with time can mean micro-improvements allowing tiny time-saving to accumulate into valuable chunks of time. An example is through better writing that communicates crisply and succinctly, saving people small amounts of time that cumulatively matter.

Work will involve conflict. Whenever it occurs de-escalate as quickly as possible. You should also reflect on whether your position is the right one. If you are pointing the finger at someone else you may be pointing at yourself. People’s behaviour should be separated from their individual identity. You must always protect the inviolable dignity of the other person, and if you have to defeat them you must give them “a golden bridge home”. This does not mean actively helping those behaving badly, or saving the bacon of those whose bacon ought not be saved. Withdrawal of your support from those undeserving is a meaningful sanction without maliciousness. It is like Ajax in the underworld turning his back on Odysseus who cheated him out of his armour.

It is important to be realistic about your job without being cynical. People who give too much to a job are often hiding problems in their lives and are not especially productive. The most difficult people at work often have unhappy home lives. You have nothing to prove at work if you are happy at home.

Work is social but not a shallow form of socialising. Homo sapiens are a highly invasive, weedy species, however they are also a social species. When brilliant people fail to fulfil their potential it is typically because of poor manners or low emotional or social intelligence, and sometimes all these. However, social intelligence can be used for malicious purposes. Hitler, Stalin and any number of paedophiles and conmen had extraordinary social intelligence, while many “nerds” are quite gentle creatures who would be kind to others, were they to notice their existence.

Metaphorically, work is flatting together and cooperating for five days a week – it is not a marriage. It is also a relationship that will end in dissolution at some stage, and is not till death us do part.

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About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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