It’s 7:30am and I’m driving to work. I reach the entrance ramp to the freeway. The ramp is two lanes that eventually merge into one, and there is a car just ahead of me in the neighboring lane. The lane is ending soon; we can’t both reach the freeway at the same time, so I stomp on the gas and determinately accelerate past the car in front of me. After all, I don’t want to reach the freeway and be stuck behind this guy. Better that I get there first so I can continue my journey uninhibited by a lesser pilot. Whew, I made it. Way to go, me. This is going to be a good day.
Is this situation familiar? Is this the thought process we go through as we do what needs to be done to ensure we are first? I admit that I occasionally find myself behind the wheel that is aggressively cruising past the neighboring vehicle. Why do I do this? What’s the benefit? I arrive at my destination 2 seconds earlier than I would have otherwise? And at what cost?
Truth be told, in most cases I find myself behind the wheel of the neighboring car that is being unceremoniously overtaken. It bugs me. Even when I’m, by no intentional effort of my own, ahead in the adjacent lane, why is it that the apparently tardy motorist feels compelled to tear past me at 90mph? I try to let it roll off my shoulders, but it often gets to me as I throw eye daggers towards the dust left by the car now in front of me.
While the example above, though frustrating, is fairly benign, I wonder if similar situations occur in the workplace (and other areas in life) where the results are more harmful. Specifically, within our teams at work (or even in our families). A good friend of mine who is a talented graphic designer shared a story with me several years ago. A colleague of his was tasked with creating a design for a project and was apparently struggling. This friend of mine developed a few designs and shared them with his colleague to help. The colleague then presented those designs, to the great approval of his boss, as his own. Obviously, my friend was upset.
How do you think the relationship is now between my friend and his colleague? Are they tight buds now, looking out for one other, each helping the other succeed? Is their team better off now than before this incident? I think we can all guess the answers.
It’s human nature to want to be ahead. Survival of the fittest and all. I don’t think we can blame each other for having these instincts. Yet, we all have the choice of whether to act on them. What would happen if, instead of trying to be the one to “get there first”, we focused more on how to help someone else succeed? In the former, one person is marginally pleased and the other decidedly not. In the latter, I can tell you from personal experience that both individuals are uplifted and benefit, in many cases the helper even more than the one who is helped.
There are days when I don’t feel motivated. Maybe I even feel discouraged. It happens, and it’s normal. I find that these days follow periods of time when my focus is on myself and not others: I need this. I need that. How does abc affect me me me? One of the best ways I’ve found to pull myself out of these funks is to focus on helping someone else. It feels good to help others succeed. Like, really good. It’s almost magic. And the positive effects that come from such actions help everyone around the situation. It’s almost like 1 + 1 = 3.
If you’re looking for ways to boost productivity within your team, you’ve probably explored things like new software, improved processes, better tools, etc. But have you explored ways of encouraging your team to put their team members’ needs at or above their own? Core value #1 at our company, Pipeline Design & Engineering, is to treat our team members unusually well. We’re in a tough business (test fixture design) where there is little room for error. I credit the success we have had to our team’s ability to work together, to look out for each other, and have each other’s backs. How do we do this? There are a few tactical tools I can share that have worked well for us:
- Gratitude mentions: when a team member does something that is helpful, kind, impressive, appreciated, or otherwise deserving of praise (including, maybe even especially, little things) be eager to give them a “gratitude mention” (it’s literally saying “gratitude mention to so-and-so for doing such-and-such); this can be done in public or in private (in public is encouraged so the entire team is uplifted) and is often done during our morning huddles; anyone on the team can (and should) give gratitude mentions, it is NOT something that just “management” does
- Use your kindergarten skills: say please and thank you often, be quick to apologize, smile, say hello to each other, share, etc
- Giving “points”: a fun and playful way of recognizing someone’s accomplishments. We often do this unrehearsed during team meetings. What is the difference between giving points and gratitude mentions? Maybe nothing…it’s just another way to support and have fun with each other; sometimes we even take points away (but only in a fun and light-hearted way…never as a real punishment)
- Actively look for opportunities to help each other: for example, if someone is struggling with a design, take 30 minutes and offer to brainstorm a few solutions together; or, if you get the sense that a team member is in a cloudy headspace be brave enough to ask if they’re feeling all right and if there is anything you can do to help them
If you want to succeed, find ways to help others succeed. In the end, the relationships we have with people are what really define our success. Life is not a freeway entrance with two lanes that merge to only one. We don’t need to compete in a zero-sum game. So, the next time you’re getting on the freeway, instead of speeding up consider slowing down, just a little, and letting your neighboring motorist get there first.