Think at London Business School
Too often, our well-meaning attempts to change long-held behaviours fail. Here’s how to create the optimal conditions
By Dan Cable
Lockdown has been a time to reassess the way we work. For many of us, pre-pandemic, our routine was to commute to the office five days a week. Now, after spending the past few months working remotely, we are questioning our work-life balance.
Do we want to go back to the workplace or do we prefer working from home? Are we more productive working remotely or do we thrive better in the office? Maybe we need a flexible approach that combines the two? Companies too are taking a fresh look into the ways we work, and finding ways to improve productivity and become better employers.
As face-to-face contact slowly resumes, there has never been a better time to reframe our working lives and bring our “best selves” to the job – wherever we are doing it.
The average person spends more than 90,000 hours at work during their lifetime – that’s a whopping one-third of your entire life. And a very long time to feel dissatisfied if your job has become a means to an end and something you dread every Sunday night. Shockingly, around 80% of employees have said they need to “shut off” just to get through their working days. But, in many cases, this doesn’t mean you have to hand in your notice and start over.
We are totally equipped to restructure our approach to work – mentally and practically. I call this process “work crafting”. In my new book, Exceptional, one of the topics I address is how to re-examine your signature strengths and bring them to your job. The best bit? Far from jeopardising your career, it will positively enhance it – and it will help your employer too.
We’ve been hardwired to focus on our weaknesses and limitations, trying to minimise or eradicate them. We’re used to critical feedback, not positive, especially at work. But resistance to recognising our best strengths comes at a cost – science has shown we can work long and hard on our deficiencies without making much real progress.
World-class athletes have the right idea: they create highlight reels of their finest moments and then study them, in order to perform that way more often and improve their performance. It works.
We too can create our personal highlight reels. It’s a simple process that involves creating a set of memories of times our signature strengths and gifts were in play – times we were doing the things we’re good at and which come naturally. These could include team-building, communication, research, strategy-making, even being a queen spelling bee or an ace at card games. Once you’ve captured your own list of memories, ask your friends, family and colleagues – the people you trust the most – to describe times when they’ve seen you make your peak contributions. It will be a game-changer to see how our best self is seen by others. Your highlight reel provides concrete evidence of how you shine, and can be used as proof in moments of self-doubt.
Bringing these core strengths to your job is a challenge that can be playful and rewarding. Take David Holmes, a flight attendant for America’s Southwest Airlines. David used to dread giving the pre-flight safety announcement. It became a draining experience that he rattled off on autopilot up to six times a day. Being ignored by passengers, most of whom switched off during these talks, made him feel like a robot.
So David decided to rescript the announcement using one of his signature strengths: his ability to have fun with people. He began his new act telling passengers: “We’re going to shake things up a bit. I need some audience participation or this won’t go well at all.” He got them to clap their hands and stomp their feet as he rapped the announcement.
By making it more fun, the passengers listened more and David felt he could bond with them. He was still saying all the things his job description required him to say, he was just saying them in his own, more playful way. The result? He felt more excitement and enthusiasm at work for the first time in years – which was infectious to everyone.
"Marcus felt more excitement and enthusiasm at work for the first time in years"
Marcus Buckingham, an author and speaker, is another example. Part of his job includes attending functions where he has to “work the room” and mingle. Unfortunately, he hates small talk and worries that he spends most of his time “shoulder surfing” – looking around for other people he feels he should be connecting with. One of his core strengths is curiosity, so he reframed “mingling” to “interviewing”. At each function he now seeks out three people to “interview”. This way he manages to build real connections and leaves each event feeling energised, not exhausted.
Such techniques can be incorporated into whichever job you do – reading your highlight reel, learning what your signature strengths are, and then bending your job to play to those strengths. You’ll find you won’t be adding to your workload, but enriching it. Often you can do this autonomously, or you may prefer to have a discussion with your supervisor, telling them which strengths you would like to bring to your job and how they could be valuable to the organisation.
Often the first thing people will ask upon meeting you, is “What job do you do?”. Sometimes a job title will tell them everything they need to know – “I’m a marine biologist in the South China Sea”; but sometimes a straight title, perhaps “marketing assistant”, won’t offer much information about how varied and challenging your job is, or reflect your personal values.
In research I conducted with Adam Grant and Justin Berg, also professors of organisational behaviour, to see if people can create job titles that are self-affirming, we found it is possible for many people to develop a job title that communicates who they are at their best.
Take the case of Theresa, a senior executive at a healthcare provider in North Carolina. Theresa decided to introduce herself with the informal title of “Office Dance Co-ordinator”. This highlighted her belief that teamwork is like a dance, and reflected her own passion for ballroom dancing. She found that her new title paid off, because it generated more interest when meeting people inside and outside work.
So, be creative with your job title. It’s fine to share it with people only outside work, if you prefer. The main objective is it tells a positive story about you and creates curiosity about your strengths.
All of our signature strengths make us who we are… and they don’t have to be compartmentalised into home strengths and work strengths. Some of those strengths you’ve been leaving at the door to the office could be making a real impact at work.
"Some of those strengths you’ve been leaving at the door to the office could be making a real impact at work"
In studying his highlight reel, Ben from Germany noticed that his non-work contributors had mentioned his curiosity as a strength. So he decided to spend Sunday nights – when he was normally having a bad attack of the “Sunday blues” – thinking about three things he was curious and excited about in the coming business week.
He then thought of conversations with three people which could be inspiring, resourceful and controversial, and actively tried to structure his week around these conversations. He also brought his curiosity to team briefings, asking people fmore questions and learning more about them. The outcome: he began to feel more engaged and authentic at work, his output improved and his client satisfaction rated higher than ever.
The trick is, don’t underestimate those strengths you’ve been leaving at home. They could include those park runs that energise you three times a week or being a party-planner extraordinaire. You can be creative with how you weave these qualities into your work life – just invest some time into working out how.
Organisations want people to be lit up. Not only will your strengths make you stand out; they will brighten up your day and energise you to give more of your best self.
Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Dan’s research and teaching focus is on employee engagement, change, organisational culture and leadership mindset. He teaches on a number of our Executive Education programmes including Becoming Exceptional – Online. His new book, Exceptional, is out on 22 September: you can pre-order it here
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