May 22, 2019 | 02:10 PM

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21.01.2014Star Power: 5 Rules for Boosting Your Value in the Workplace

We can be surprised and delighted by important life lessons that are right in front of us.

Roger Dean Duncan, Forbes.com

By Rodger Dean Duncan

If we keep our eyes open, we can be surprised and delighted by important life lessons that are right in front of us.

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Years ago our family was on a vacation in the Rocky Mountains. I was having difficulty with allergies, so I drove down the road to a small grocery store to buy some over-the-counter medicine.

I found what I wanted and headed toward the checkout stand. In front of me was a little lady, probably about 80 years old, examining a display of eyeglasses. These were not sunglasses. They had clear lenses like you’d want to use to read small print or do needlework. This lady tried on two or three pairs of glasses, each time carefully checking the focus by looking at a card on the display case that had different sizes of print. Obviously she was very eager to select the perfect pair.

Finally, with a very self-satisfied expression on her face, she found a pair of glasses that seemed to work.  ”These will do,” she said, and headed toward the cash register.

I said to her, “Ma’am, I’ve never seen anyone buy a pair of eyeglasses in a grocery store. I suppose it’s really hard to find a pair that’s just right.”

And she answered: “Yep, it sure is, mister. Especially since I’m buyin’ ‘em for my neighbor!”

I was delighted by this lady’s attentiveness to her neighbor’s view of the world. Although I can’t recommend her method of optometry, I applaud her care and concern for others.

We can learn a lot from that. Most of us don’t operate in isolation. Ours is an interdependent world. One of the hallmarks of people who get consistently superior results is the ability to interact with others in ways that encourage them to cooperate and collaborate. Social psychologists refer to this as reciprocity.

Here are five rules for making the most of your relationships at work. And you know what? They’ll also boost your value on the job.

Resist the urge to be a smarty pants. You were no doubt hired because someone thinks you have brains, skills, experience, or other credentials that will help you produce good outcomes. Or maybe you were hired because someone thinks you have potential and wants to give you a chance. Either way, stay humble. I’m not talking about tossing your self confidence out the window or hiding your ability. I’m talking about resisting the urge to show off. Don’t be coy. If you were hired for your brain power and skills, by all means don’t hold back.  At the same time, don’t try to play one-upsmanship with your colleagues. The workplace is not a fraternity party where everyone horses around and constantly tries to out do others. In the real world of real work, mature people are expected to bring out the best in each other.

Years ago I worked with Gordon McGovern when he was president of Campbell Soup CPB -2.47% Company. Gordon brought a boatload of brainpower to the table. But he had a humble, teachable way about him that was not only endearing, it enabled him to learn from anyone at most any time. I once saw him huddled at a table with a young intern. The two of them were folding pieces of cardboard as they excitedly discussed different kinds of packaging for a new product. Gordon already had years of experience when this intern was born, but he honored the youngster’s ideas and showed respect by engaging him one-on-one. By the way, the young guy’s ideas found their way into the new packaging.

Don’t believe everything you think. Sure, your ability to think got you where you are today. Everything you do is a product of your thinking. Every single act is rooted in a thought. Your thoughts may be subtle or even unconscious, but they are nevertheless at the root of your behavior.

When we fail to challenge our own thinking, however, we can miss opportunities. Or get into trouble. A lot of people at Kodak clung to the view that film would continue to rule the day and that digital photography would be only a passing fad. How did that work out for them? There was a time when Detroit automakers thought the marketplace surge of Japanese cars was a temporary fluke. What do you see on the streets these days? There was a time when IBM IBM +0.7% regarded Apple AAPL -2.51% as only a pesky interloper in the computer business.

Take a tip from the best entrepreneurs, product developers, and innovators: Challenge your own assumptions. And welcome similar challenges from people all around you. No matter how smart you may be, you’re sure to have some blind spots.

Listen to learn, not to judge. As Plutarch said, “Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.” Give opposing views a fair chance.

For some people, “listening” seems to be little more than the feigned courtesy of letting someone else talk while they prepare their rebuttal. The most capable people I know are excellent listeners. Their listening is all about an eagerness to learn, not at all rooted in pride or a need to “be right” or show off.

My friend Ed Schein—retired MIT professor, bestselling author, and widely regarded as father of the field of organizational culture (he’s credited with coining the phrase)—is an excellent example of effective listening. At a luncheon one time I watched Ed engage my wife in a spirited conversation on a range of topics. He asked a lot of questions about her opinions on many issues. She asked him a lot of questions about his views. Occasionally I’d hear one of them say something like, “Oh, that’s interesting. How did you reach that conclusion?” These were two smart people enjoying a lively (and highly informative) conversation that was all about learning, not judging. (By the way, Ed’s latest book is on this very subject. It’s called Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.)

To make the most of your conversations—with anyone at any “level” in your organization—take a deep breath. Let go of the urge to prepare your response while the other person is talking. Genuinely listen. Listen to learn.

Ask engaging questions. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz said it best: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

If you’re really serious about listening to learn—and you should be—you’ll discover that asking engaging questions is perhaps the best pump-primer for meaningful conversations.

Engaging questions can stimulate exploration and even serendipity. Edwin Land was walking along the beach with his young daughter. He stopped to snap a few photos with his Brownie camera. Impatient for the results, his little girl asked an intriguing question: “Daddy, why can’t we see the pictures right now?” It was a problem in search of a solution, and from that innocent question came the development of the Polaroid Land camera and the ability to see a completed photograph only seconds after it was taken. The development of the Post-It Note was an example of a solution in search of a problem. The sticky-but-not-too-sticky adhesive concocted in a 3M MMM -0.62% laboratory was at first considered a failure. Then someone asked “How can we make a bookmark that will stick to the page but won’t tear the paper when we remove it?”

Learn to be a questioning detective. Remember Columbo, the television cop who always solved the crime by asking (in his famously offhand manner) just one more question? We should be more like Columbo, asking that extra question to probe and clarify until we’re sure we understand what we need to know or do. Good journalists, good detectives, good thinkers focus on five Ws and an H—Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. They ask questions that march them down the path to the information or understanding they seek. They know that not everyone volunteers information, so they ask. They know that some people speak in generalities, so they ask for specifics. They know that assumptions can be faulty, so they question assumptions—beginning with their own.

Be willing to change. If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.

As one observer noted, we live in a moment of history where change is so fast-paced that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing. Change is not just fast. It’s also exploding in quantity and magnitude. Experts say we can expect more change in our lifetimes than has occurred since the beginning of civilization. Trying to keep up with change can feel like getting trapped on a runaway treadmill.

But keep up we must. Listening to learn and challenging assumptions are critical steps to managing change. I’m not at all implying that we should abandon our core values. Navigating our lives with a solid moral compass is of paramount importance. But to provide the greatest value—to our colleagues, clients, and other stakeholders—we must constantly challenge the status quo. Even when things are going well, we should be exploring paths to improvement.

For some people, change and transition can have a fingernail-on-the-chalkboard quality. When handled well, change and transition can be at once energizing and comforting. Be smart and strategic about the change you champion, and you can become the go-to person when improvements are inevitably needed.

Follow these five rules and you can significantly boost your value in the workplace. To quote Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”


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