Your Worst Working Moment

Think of one of your best working moments.  One of those times when you felt on top of the world, when you were just ‘flowing’ or when you felt the warm glow of success.  It could have been when you closed that important deal, when you finally got through to your under-performing staff while at the same time growing positive working relationships or when you overcame your fears to achieve a breakthrough of some sort.  You will doubtless have many of these moments; right now, focus on just one of them.  Recall what you were doing, who was with you, how you felt, how others responded to you.

Now bring to mind your worst working moment.  That time you wanted the earth to open up and swallow you, when you felt so bad that you couldn’t look others in the eyes, that moment you would like to wipe from your memory because the mere thought of it ties your stomach in knots.  I won’t ask you to dwell on this for too long, lest it has the power to infect you today.

I will lay good money on two things: 1) the thing that made your peak moment so awesome and your worst moment so dreadful was probably not to do with technical expertise or lack thereof, it was more likely to do with your personal capabilities, and; 2) the thing that made these  moments what they were, are unique to you and your makeup.

I want to address these two assertions because they have important implications for leader development.  Spoiler alert: some of what follows may incense some readers.

Assertion 1: Technical know-how vs. personal capability:  This assertion points to a phenomenon which is already evident, that is, people and organisations are becoming more discerning in how they spend their time, effort and money on workplace training.  For one thing, more people are slowly coming to understand the difference between training and development.  I said a little more about this in a previous blog article, “Are you Investing in Sticky Learning?”.  Neuroscience is now proving what people like Jakob Moreno knew intuitively back in the 1920’s: that we go on learning and developing until the day we die.  Neuroscience is also giving us more hard evidence on how learning happens and it behoves us to respond to new facts and information by radically altering how we teach leadership.  More organisations are coming round to the idea that what makes us up as humans is pivotal to how we execute our work, even if they don’t know what to do about that.  We are living in an age when our personal beliefs and values, our emotions and our motivations must be accorded their due attention when it comes to performance at work.  While technical information and job-specific content is, of course, absolutely essential in order to carry out our jobs, they are not sufficient.  They are merely the ‘what’.

Who we are, as people, drives how we carry out our jobs, and organisations ignore this at their peril.  It is not enough to pay it lip service.  A genuine effort must be made to incorporate real and significant personal development into workplace learning.  There is a world of difference, for example, between learning about interpersonal skills and developing interpersonal skills.  Given the current state of learning and development offerings, if I were to attend a training seminar about Communication Skills, I would expect to come away with not much more than a sheaf of notes and information.  As far as I’m concerned, a waste of my time and money.  I’ve just done a google search: ‘How can I improve my communication skills?” brought up 74, 700,000 results.  We don’t need more information about stuff.  If you are still sending your people on an annual sales seminar and your sales figures aren’t changing, I would suggest you try something different.  Invest in something which grows capability, not adds information.  This is especially true the higher up the food chain you are.  If you are managing people, are at C-level or are hovering around C-level, your job is less about technical expertise and more about intra- and inter-personal capability.  Capability, mind you; not knowledge.

Assertion 2: The #1 capability that you should learn:  The thing that made your worst working moment so horrendous was unique to you.  I realise I may upset even more folks with this second point….but give. me. strength.  I realise that the rules of engagement on Twitter and other social media dictate some use of hyperbole and superlative, promises of quick enlightenment and feel-good platitudes masquerading as wisdom, in order to draw attention to yourself.  Social media ‘gurus’ even tell you this is how to get noticed; and I’m reminded of Peter Drucker’s quote: “We are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.”

Using these linguistic devices is tempting.  I succumb to this temptation myself; look at the title of this section.  The breathtaking cheek!  I also use tweet-scheduling on TweetDeck. Such audacity!  However, I tire of the “Ten Top Tips When Having Difficult Conversations at Work” or “The #1 Most Important Food Group Every Leader Should Eat for Breakfast”, when, in the realm of human development, there is truly no such thing.  Human development is not one-size-fits-all, nor paint-by-numbers.  We are still infected by the old mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of seeing the world, hence we are compelled to read something when it promises enlightenment in five easy steps.  I do it all the time.  And I’m left wanting.  The world is not that simplistic nor black and white, and neither are we humans.  There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.  If you are looking for the #1 capability that will transform you and make your working life 73% more satisfying, read no further.  I don’t have the answer.

Well, I do, actually.  But I don’t.

The answer is: the one that YOU most require.  Training and development courses promise to provide you with learning that is relevant to you, but how many actually work with YOUR real concerns, help you to really overcome the things that catch YOU out, assist you to really face the things that scare YOU?  How many of these courses actually leave you a different person when you walk out of the room?  I am not suggesting a day of getting naked with your colleagues.  A learning programme is tailor-made when it accommodates your learning styles and preferences, when it takes account of your current knowledge and capabilities and builds on those, when what is learnt is directly relevant and applicable in your day-to-day and when the providers tune into you and what transformation you are at the threshold of.

How do you work out what you need to develop?  Some of us just know.  If you have embarked on a path of self-knowledge, you are likely to have some sense of the areas within yourself that require further growth and development.  There will be other areas that are less known to you.  We can surround ourselves with trusted friends and associates who don’t shy away from sharing uncomfortable truths with us.  We can develop mindfulness: this is not sitting on a yoga mat burning jossticks (although it may include this); it is developing a discipline of non-judgemental self-observance.  Just like our communities and workplaces, we are complex systems within systems.  The Top Ten Whatevers may be interesting bits of information, but they are unlikely to transform you.

The point again: what is the #1 capability you should be learning?  Answer: the one (or ones) that YOU most need; right now in your life, taking account of what you already know and know how to do and your current situation in life.


4 thoughts on “Your Worst Working Moment

  1. Great article John! You remind us that human development is messy and non-linear: “We are still infected by the old mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of seeing the world, hence we are compelled to read something when it promises enlightenment in five easy steps.” The promise of enlightenment is very seductive indeed! I get hooked on it too – all the time. Its the promise of that one insight that will make all the difference.

    I love this quote too: “Just like our communities and workplaces, we are complex systems within systems.” Absolutely! And it makes my job as a facilitator and coach that much harder – there is no one recipe that works for all. It also makes it far more interesting – being responsive and intrigued and engaged – with my own development – and my clients too.

    Thanks again for an awesome article.


    1. Thanks for your comments Zoe, I always get a thrill when I encounter a kindred mind. I think more and more folks are getting to realise that development is messy and divergent; exciting times to live in. And it’s the thing that gives me a buzz in my work, too. By the way, I like the name of your company, Inner Compass. We all need to find our own true north, I reckon. Warmly, John

  2. You make many great points here John – this point in particular resonates with me: “Invest in something which grows capability, not adds information.” There is still way too much attention being given to delivering content and not near enough to how to translate that into capabilities that enable people to make an even bigger difference.

    1. Thanks for adding in Susan. This thing about content vs capability really drives me. There is way too much cynicism about the usefulness of leader development, but I think it comes from the disappointment people feel when they come away from a training experience without much actual change having occurred. Let’s keep getting the message out there. Warmly, John

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