People sometimes ask me how I transitioned from the corporate rat race to running my own show.
The answer is it took some time; patience, grit, planning and taking one step forward every day towards the work I felt drawn to do.
Truth is, I didn’t dislike my job, in fact I was good at it and relished working with, and learning from, energising people in a company that was rich in opportunity, challenging and stimulating. To all intents and purposes, I was successful and at the top of my game. It wasn’t enough though, there was something missing.
I started paying attention to when I was at my best, what was I pulled towards, what was going on around me that lit me up, what was I observing that either filled my heart with joy, or riled me enough to want to do something about it.
I found my work; to help leaders understand how to get the best out of people, how to create conditions which are conducive to collaboration, creativity, grit, graft, purposeful, meaningful and productive work. The simple concept of the service profit chain – people who enjoy their work perform better, have happier customers who spend more and have an emotional attachment and loyalty to the company, which increases sales, profits and ultimately shareholder value.
How is it some people love the cut and thrust of corporate life, they thrive on the political energy, deadlines, faster, more, now, constant judgement and exposure? And others become smaller, paler versions of themselves and learn to play the game. They survive; accepting the trade off between steady income and tangible rewards with not quite feeling aligned and safe in their surroundings. Worryingly, the latter can appear to be engaged at work on the surface but inside are looking for an escape, a way out, freedom from the shackles. According to the surveys there’s a lot of these folks in the big firms, the corporate prisoners not actively disengaged but equally not engaged enough to tackle the challenges and give their all. This is not good for anyone, the business or the individuals and their families. These people are effectively in a constant away state.
A mindset of escaping from something isn’t healthy for anyone. Better to be pulled towards something more fulfilling and purposeful.
I’ve learned through my own experience, and talking to others in corporate life who are, on the surface, successful but seeking something more fulfilling, that it’s much easier to change things for what you really want when you are in a towards state rather than away mindset. In other words, to focus on what you want and not what you don’t want.
This is because when we are in a towards state, our brains are bathed in helpful chemicals and hormones that enable us to be open to new ideas, have courage to try new things, be inspired by those around us and attract people who are like-minded kin folk. In a towards state, we are naturally drawn to energisers, people who nudge us to take the steps forward rather than the sappers, who can inadvertently, and with all good intent, hold us back from achieving our potential, contaminating us with their fears.
The thought of ‘I don’t like my job I need to get out of this’, triggers an away state and this is when our brains become bathed in stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, getting us ready to deal with danger, real or perceived, closing down openness to new ideas and inspiration. It might not even be a conscious thought, it could be a nagging feeling you can’t quite put your finger on, something isn’t right, work just doesn’t feel right and yet logically it should be, the firm is great, the pay is great and the prospects are great.
This same concept of creating a towards state applies even if you’re not looking to change your working path. Bosses who are driving people with fear and implicit threats of punishment will inadvertently trigger away states in their teams and the people around them. People will naturally become defensive, and at a time when companies need people to be performing at their best ever as we come out of the economic downturn, they actually become less creative, collaborative and energetic as they seek safety.
The reason many bosses use fear as a tool to get people to move into action is understandable. Fear is a more powerful emotion than pleasure – you will run much faster away from the burning bridge than you will towards a party. This is why change consultants use the metaphor of the burning platform when designing change programmes for companies. They know that people will jump to safety far quicker when faced with perceived danger.
The problem with fear as the primary motivator is it is plainly unhealthy and unsustainable in large doses and over prolonged periods of time. An away state is handy enough, and part of our biological make-up for survival but only meant for short bursts. Far healthier is to be motivated to take steps towards what you want, who you want to be, a new career, change of direction, whatever it is you’re pulled to do. You can tell the people who are doing this, they smile a lot.