Monday, April 14, 2014

Practice more important than formal courses

Last week I gave a week long 'Public Speaking' course to secondary level students in a summer camp. The way I'd conduct the session would be to give a short introduction about the area we were focusing that day - for example: organization, body language or vocal variety - and then spend the rest of the class for practice through various activities. At the end of the five days I don't know if anybody became a better speaker. It might have been the first time few students were ever speaking in front of people. Yet I don't think anyone gained much from the short course. I say so because I know through experience that there are only three rules for becoming a better public speaker and that is "Practice. Practice. Practice."

I didn't become an effective public speaker or a good writer by taking a course or studying techniques. In fact, I don't have any formal training or qualification in these areas. What made me good was years of practice. I started speaking in front of public ever since I was in kindergarten. In fact, I loved it. I started writing somewhere around the same time. It was many years before I realized I was any good at it. So there comes a time when you actually begin to notice that you're actually good at something and you wish to take it to the next level. To do this, I've found a common group that meets regularly and has mentors to guide us as being the best option.

I've grown in manifolds as a public speaker ever since joining the Toastmasters' club. The club doesn't teach me the techniques of public speaking. Rather it is a platform where I can actually go on stage and speak. Every week I meet with a group of people with a common purpose - get better at public speaking. There are evaluators and mentors who help me find out my weak areas. I also get to learn my strong points. Thus, I believe that the best way for anyone to get better at any skill is not just to take a course but carry on regular practice most preferably in a group that meets regularly. However, a course could be the starting point that imparts us the basic techniques to get started. But the skill is learnt only through repeated experience and practice.

So if you want to be a better public speaker, join the Toastmasters' Club. If you want to be a better writer, start a blog. If you want to be a good artist, start making art. And in this process, always make sure that you get feedback and have good mentors to guide you. A course really doesn't change your skill. But a dedicated practice certainly does!
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Ego - a source of conflict

I am not an expert in conflict resolution. Yet I know one thing about conflict to be true - many times the source of it lies in the 'ego'.

Sometimes why does a manager resent a very hard-working and capable employee? The answer - "They did not act as I said or they did not do what I asked them to do." More than a case of discipline or the work not being done, it becomes a case of gratifying one's ego. "How can someone dare to disobey me", right? The same holds true for the employees. Instead of gracefully accepting a constructive criticism or feedback, they start contemplating that fact that the 'I' was criticized.

It is important for each person to have a sense of self-respect. There will be times when we have to choose to walk away or fight the fight. But a lot of conflict occurs because the two people in the conflict are too convinced about being right and too offended to hear anything said against the 'I'. Neither party is ready to compromise because the 'I' becomes more important than the issue at hand. Whether or not the problem gets solved 'I' should not be offended.

I believe that if people learn to move out from this obsession with the 'I' and focus on the problem or issue at hand instead, reaching a solution and avoiding conflicts would be a lot easier.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Gratitude at workplace

Do you have any idea what a job may mean for a person? It is taking care of a family, sending kids to school, being independent, buying that lovely dress you see in the mall, eating your favorite meal, paying rent and staying warm in winter. Yet most of the time all that a job gets is complaint - "This is not enough, that is not enough and blah blah... " - rather than gratitude.

Do you have any idea what someone working for you means? That person is making the functioning of a business possible. With his help your business, which is probably your dream, is moving ahead. The employees are giving their time, effort, attention for a dream that is yours. Yet an employee is treated with anything but gratitude - "I'm paying him so he better do as I ask him to do".

What happens in the larger context of events is that getting a job and giving a job is following a divine order. Each of us are neither selling ourselves nor doing any favor for each other. In the course of helping ourselves we're helping the other person as well. And this deserves gratitude.

What happens if employees start feeling grateful towards their employers for giving them a job? What if employers start feeling grateful towards their employees for making the functioning of business possible? Something amazing - we would be happier and so would the workplace. And since 'gratitude' is such a positive emotion, our lives would only get better and more prosperous.
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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Performance vs. Character

Someone close to me recently told me that her boss called her for a one-on-one meeting and told her, “From the time I’ve know you, you are someone who tries to please everyone. That does not work in real life. I expected you to change as a person but you haven’t. Please change that in you.” She was shocked by this comment and asked, “In what context are you saying this to me?” Her boss stayed mum. As far as her performance at work was concerned, nothing much was discussed. She expressed her dissatisfaction with me. I asked, “What gives your manager a right to comment upon your character? Isn’t it his job to help you with your performance instead?”

As a member of Toastmasters and as an evaluator of speeches, I’ve learnt that as an evaluator (which is also a part of being a leader) our job is to comment on the speeches and not the speaker. Thus, as a manager, I believe it is his or her responsibility to comment on our performance and not our character.

I would much appreciate my own boss if he gives me suggestion related to my work performance rather than suggestion related to how I should or should not be. I cannot change who I am for the sake of a job nor can anybody else. As managers and leaders, the responsibility of each person is to help others in improving their performance and changing them as a person. Perhaps as a mentor, one can drop few words of wisdom but no one has the rights to tell anyone “This is who you ought to be”.
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Telecommuting as a tool for productivity

The world has grown into a global village now. Thanks to computers and internet. But it’s not just our loved ones that the internet has been able to connect. It’s even the workers in organizations. Yet the benefits of this technology are not being utilized for purposes other than posting photos in Facebook. With the advent of the computer generation, change in work schedules and organizational structure has been possible. Yet at this part of the world, I don’t see these changes being adapted.

I work at an organization where one of my key works involves designing courses to be taught to school children. Now this work involves some thinking, some internet research and some book and article references. For this, I don’t need to be present at my workplace. I can do the work at home and submit the output with the click of a mouse. How much time does working from home save me? Two hours at least! These two hours is just the time for commute. There is also added time I need for rest due to the physical exhaustion I have to experience as a result of being a part of packed buses and be stuck for hours in traffic jams. Yet my workplace would consider me as working only if I am present at the workplace during office hours. What matters is that I remain within the office (even if I spend time in gossip) and not that I produce something worthwhile at my own time. Where are we heading with this mentality? Nowhere, I suppose because the focus is on whether the employees are giving their time to the organization or not for the salary they are paid each month. Zero focus is placed on productivity or output.

I know the justification for this could be the matter of trust of whether employees would honestly work from home or not. But if the work is made deadline based and result-oriented, then why does it matter at what time the employees work and at what time they choose to rest?

I believe that organizations need to trust their employees and make them more driven by focusing on results. I don’t think “The employees must give their time for the organization, even if they are idle, because we are paying them” is a positive attitude in part of organizations. Why not buy results or outputs from employees rather than their time?

There are jobs like that of administration, customer service or accounting that requires employees to remain at their work desk. That’s fine. But there are other kinds of work that may or may not require the employee to be within the periphery of the office all the time. And if social interactions are required, then what about a weekly get-together?

As an aid, why not make telecommuting a new basis of work design if the work is such that it can be performed from home? This way an organization is not just buying output but also granting the employees freedom to use their time at their will and showing trust upon their work commitments and capabilities.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Complain culture

Complaining has become a culture at our workplaces. But have we ever asked ourselves this question - what function does complain accomplish? Now complain can help in identifying or solving a problem. Complaints point out the weak areas management can focus on improving. But complaints can also be a way of exacerbating the intensity of our current problems. It is because when more people talk about what's dissatisfying, the problems occur to be bigger than they really are. In some cases, the complaint may not even be a problem in the first place. Yet the continuous discussion of what's not right makes a small glitch appear like a big devil.

Shiv Khera wrote in his book 'You can Win': "When you complain, 50% people don't care and 50% people are happy that you're dissatisfied, so why complain?" So honestly, complaining breeds no solution or results. What about being grateful instead? And, if there's nothing to be grateful about then, let us remember the Serenity Prayer:
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change
to change the ones I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference."

When each person starts to apply this prayer in his or her life, complaints will certainly stop. Can I do something about what I'm complaining about? If the answer is 'yes' - then lets do it! If the answer is 'no', then lets learn to accept it. But here's also a third way out - if you can't change and if you can't accept, then quit. Why worry yourself and worry others with your constant complaints?

I believe that if we can shift from this 'complain culture' to 'solution culture', we are walking the path of progress. It's better to spend time finding solutions rather than complaining. But as long as we continue to complain and not do anything about it, we're stuck in a quicksand. It would really help if most of us remembered the serenity prayer. Perhaps the extra time spent in complaining can be devoted to the practice of developing 'serenity' and 'courage' in each of us.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rat race - where did it all start?

Leg-pulling, back-stabbing and the rat race is prevalent and persistent in corporate culture. Manipulations and politicking to get ahead never stops. Soon after people enter the work life, they start reminiscing their childhood days in school or college. But my question has always been, "Where did this rat race start in the first place?" I found my answer today.

As I was conducting the 'Life Skills' class encouraging students to compete only with themselves, the coordinator madam entered the class. She picked one student and said, "Alice, you used to come in the 10th position and now you're 11th. Are you going to win next time? Are you going to let anyone overtake you?" Then she picked another one and said, "Alex, are you going to let anyone win you? You're going to be better than everyone else, right?" The kids nodded their head in agreement and I could see how desperate they were to get ahead of others and be better in relation to other classmates just to please the authority figures including the parents and teachers. That's when it struck me. This culture of rat race begins right from the roots of education.

Competition is a good thing as long as it inspires and encourages you to improve and excel than your previous self. But the way of motivating kids or motivating anyone as such has been through making them compete with someone else. A child who learns in his more than 10-15 years of schooling to compete and win others is definitely going to do the same thing when he enters his work life. Kids are simply not taught the value of co-operation and helping one another. It's not enough to teach 'Moral Science' when the basic form of judging the kids is based on their ranking on examination or how well they have performed in comparison to the next kid.

In one of the Toastmasters' meeting, an experienced Toastmaster said, "Toastmaster is not about competing with anybody else but competing with yourself. It is about improving your previous speech and becoming a better speaker yourself. You compete only with yourself." I also remember the lines from the sunscreen song, "Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and at the end it's only with yourself." But when will the educators and administrators learn about this? When will the kids learn about this? And as long as the kids don't understand the importance of competing only with oneself and the worthlessness and irrelevance of competing with others, how can we expect the workplace to be any different? We might enter a workplace and long for the good old days with friends without understanding that what we long for was the very place where the feeling of competition and the desperate urge to win was inculcated in our basic drive and instinct.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Plan vs. Implementation

My college is planning to implement a new set of procedures for the management program once again. It’s probably the third time that they have changed their way of teaching students. More class room participation, student-centered and web-based activities and thought-provoking session among students are encouraged. The intention of doing all this is good. In case of an effective implementation of this plan, the results would bring very remarkable results. More proactive students and critical and creative thinkers can be produced through this program. But the question is – will this program be effective? I can find myself nodding my head in a ‘No’ not because I don’t trust the plan but because I don’t trust the implementation process.

First, this plan does not consider the limitations of the inputs or change agents (in this case, the teachers). The new way of teaching demands the teachers to be more creative and flexible. In a two-hour period, it is the responsibility of the teachers to make the class interesting by not just focusing on the lectures but also making the subject more participative and interesting. It can be through the introduction of games, use of stories or audio-visual materials. But not all teachers who are the masters of a particular subject know how to be creative with the delivery. Aren’t we the ones who learnt in the old ways of teaching? So how can someone expect the teachers to suddenly come up with new alarming techniques to hold the fleeting attention of students? While much is being expected from the teachers, effort is not being put into the training and development of those concerned ones who will actually play a major role in the delivery and success of the plan. 

Second, this plan does not consider the basic characteristics and preference of the recipients of output. For example, I know I should be reading extra books to acquire more knowledge that will help me succeed in my career. Instead, my natural instinct prefers to go out on a movie with a group of friends. There is always a gap between what we want to do and what we ought to do. Considering the age of students majority of them will prefer to do what they want to do rather than what they ought to do. This does not mean they are bad students. It's just that human brains are wired to seek for pleasure and instant gratification. The program focuses too much on what the students ought to do - read more books, do more field visits, engage in more thought-provoking discussions and give more presentations. But what about what the majority of students want to do? Thus, telling them plainly that getting better grades will help you become more successful in life is just not done. What can be the innovative ways to motivate the students to actually work out of their love for doing what they're doing rather than as an obligation to fulfill the college requirement? It is because as long as the attitude of the students are not changed rules are not going to help in bringing real change at all. To attain the intended results one must think creatively to motivate the students. Of course, trust is essential. We trust the students to do their best. But then, it's human nature to find an easy way out. How could the same program be designed in such a way to make the students more excited about and committed towards it?

Third, the motivation part of the change agents are completely ignored. Not every teacher is a social worker who wants to make a big difference in the lives of students. Most are teaching for the sake of earning a living. A lot is expected out of the teachers. If a student is not original, then make him/her repeat his work and presentation. But at what cost? Doesn’t repetition mean additional burden not just for the students but also for the teachers? As a part-time teacher, why should I come on a Saturday to re-evaluate uninterested students at my own time and expense? Of course, I want to make a difference in the lives of people and do a good job. But not this way, not here. I would give my time and attention to the ones willing to learn but definitely not waste my effort coaxing an uninterested student. So where is the monetary motivation that would inspire me or any other teacher to give extra effort? I'm just thinking this from the perspective of an economist. Wouldn’t I rather go to an oldage home or an orphanage where the recipient of my service is much happier by my presence instead of the student who resents me making him/her repeat his/her project?

Every great project starts with a great plan, a vision. But in order to achieve the vision one needs to take proper steps and use the right techniques to get there. I have full respect and support for the plan my college management has come up with. However, it fails to consider the characteristics and capabilities of the inputs. It fails to consider basic human psychology and the factors regarding motivation. Any plan cannot be executed unless the tools of execution are in right order and right place. Also people seem to totally ignore that it is humans who make all the difference. I wish the plans of my college management would succeed. But before that wish comes true, I'm yet to see people understanding the importance of developing and motivating the change agents who actually help in making the plans turn into a reality.

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

What 'professionalism' means for me

The word 'professionalism' means two things for me - delivering what we promise and keeping our personal biases aside. 

Delivering what we promise
We need not be an expert. We might not even be the best in the field. But if we say we're going to deliver a certain product or service at a certain time and certain date, then we have to do it. That's delivering what we promise. Sometimes we may not be able deliver due to uncontrollable circumstances. In this case, proper communication about the delay is important. At times we might end up making errors. Accepting our mistakes and making improvements makes a big difference. When we take responsibility and deliver what we have promised we'll deliver, we're being a professional.

Keeping our personal biases aside
A person who is very good at his work may not get along well when it comes to personal relationships. We might have to work with someone with whom we have had some personal conflicts in the past. Sometimes ego clash may come in between work. But keeping all of this aside, work has to be aimed towards achieving a specific result or common goal. When a manager does a performance appraisal, he needs to look at the work and not his personal relationship with his sub-ordinate. If we are able to have an objective look at a person's work by keeping all the personal affairs aside, we're being a professional.

If we deliver what we promise but are involved in personal bias with our team members at work, then we're not professional. Similarly we may be very fair and just but if we fail to deliver what we promise then we're not being a professional either. Only the right blend of delivering promises and being fair produces the delightful taste of 'professionalism'. 
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Saturday, August 11, 2012

What kind of work you want to do?

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You have a work that enriches you and fulfills you internally. Your senior is not your boss but your mentor. He believes in you and your ability to do any task assigned. Even when you make mistakes or sometimes dodge deadlines, he doesn't make an issue out of it but tries to understand what has been bothering you. He has his complete faith in you and every time tells you 'you can' even when you're not doing your work as per his expectations. 

Scenario 2: You have a work that drains you from the inside. Your senior is a dictator. He constantly doubts your ability to do the work assigned to you. When you make an error, he gives this mocking smile and says "I knew you couldn't do it all right". He expects you to be a machine rather than a human. Even when you do the best of your work, all that anyone notices are the mistakes you've made and not the good work you have done.

Now it is quite evident what scenario anyone wants to be in. Everyone likes scenario one and no one likes scenario two. If you're in scenario 1, you're happy, motivated and loyal. On the other hand, scenario 2 means unhappiness, frustration and ultimately doubting your own capabilities. There are always professions we choose and we have this constant pressure and need of making a career for ourselves. But I believe before career comes happiness. Being happy means choosing scenario 1. The work may not add much to your career but it will surely add a great deal to your happiness and state of self-esteem. But if you're in scenario 2 then even if the job pays well and is a stepping stone for a brighter life ahead, as long as you're stuck there you're losing your happiness and draining yourself from your self-esteem.

However, there's no way of figuring out before you start any work whether you're joining scenario 1 or scenario 2. If by some bad misfortune, you're stuck in scenario 2 then perhaps that's a test in your life. One must learn to be patient and tolerate. There is much to learn from that kind of experience too. If you can handle that, you can handle anything in the world. But then there comes a time when integrity and a sense of peace and self-respect takes precedence over career. One must know when that time has come. Until then lets just survive the test and carry on.
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