The COVID-10 pandemic has made 2020 a unique year with new challenges for everyone. In my coaching practice, a common topic of discussion with my clients has been the forced reality of working from home, where many have no access to their office environment. There are several themes that drive this such as work/life balance, sharing space and time with family, feeling connected to others among them. The common thread among these topics seems to be that people are struggling with how to manage within this unfamiliar paradigm. More accurately, the struggle is with “how do I manage me?”.
Self management and its relationship to emotional intelligence
Self-management has arguably never been as important to our success at work as it is right now. So what is it? It has many facets, but can largely be summed up as our ability to manage our thoughts, wants and feelings in a conscious and productive way. This definition has its roots in emotional intelligence theory, where this capability may also be referred to as self-regulation. Self-regulation is supported by our capacity for self-awareness which helps us create conscious access to these thoughts, wants and feelings. Those with well developed self-awareness and self-regulation are well positioned to develop a set of self-management skills that support them on their work and personal journey.
From an organizational perspective, the ability for team members to self-manage is critical to the effective functioning of an organization. Imagine an environment where the majority of those working within it were unable to self-manage. That implies that someone else would have to do it for them on a pretty much full-time basis in order to ensure everyone was on-task, on strategy, on schedule. The costs of having to do this would be prohibitive and make getting anything more than the simplest projects done almost impossible and thus self-management is fundamental to organizational effectiveness.
Seven skills to increase your self-management capabilities
1. Role clarity – those with role clarity know what their responsibilities are, who their work matters to and how they are measured. They also know who they are dependent on to get their work done. In short, they have a good sense of how they fit into the system and how their work serves the organization. Let’s use Ibrahim as our example. Ibrahim is a product manager in a software provider. He knows that his job is to develop product plans and strategies to address the needs of the market, and the products he creates affect the success of the sales team. He also knows that his team doesn’t build the products, so he is dependent on the development team to translate his functional requirements into functioning products
2. Alignment – closely related to role clarity is alignment to organizational goals. If these goals provide the “why” to our role, continually aligning to them adds focus to the “what” of our responsibilities. Knowing “how” is why we have been trained for our role. Ibrahim recently connected with his executive team and learned that the key strategy for the year is to move “up market” into the enterprise space and investment funding is to be focused on this new capability. Ibrahim knew then he needed to understand the unique needs of that market and to begin to develop a plan to create new functionality to address them.
3. Strategic planning – the next skill in this progression, strategic planning is the ability to understand what we need to do to in order to support organizational goals. We work backward from the desired future state in order to figure out the components of our work (our “what”). Ibrahim created plans to work with marketing to set up customer focus groups, assessed his team’s resourcing and skills for fit, and engaged with technical architects to understand any scaling limitations within the platform.
4. Priority-setting – now that we know what we need to do, we need to make sure that we set our priorities so we get them done. We have to ensure we have the time to hit our goals, which support organizational goals, knowing that there are all kinds of other demands on our time coming, most related to other people’s priorities. We must leave time to support our colleagues as well (just as we need them to support us) but if we don’t plan for our priorities experience shows that our days fill up, leaving us short on time to get to our “big rocks”. Ibrahim now had new priorities, and time had to be made for them. He decided he needed a day a week for the next three months to get through the first phase of his plan. He did two things … he set aside blocks of time on his calendar that he would dedicate to this project, and he pushed out less important projects by communicating with stakeholders using his alignment skills.
5. Self-awareness – as described above, the ability to consciously access our thoughts, wants and feelings and understand how they are influencing our behaviours and impact on others has a direct correlation to our performance and how others perceive us. You can’t deal with what you can’t see, so creating awareness of our subconscious inputs allows for a realistic (and likely more positive) understanding of ourselves. As Ibrahim worked through his plan, he began to notice some anxious feelings within his body, and found himself ruminating at night. He began to sense his “ego attachment” to the opportunity to succeed in the eyes of others, and a sense of worry about whether he is the right guy to do this.
6. Emotional regulation – one of the things self-awareness brings to us is our feelings or emotions. Knowing what we are feeling is a prerequisite to regulating them. Two examples to consider:
- Feeling anger – if we aren’t aware we may lash out or engage in ways that don’t serve us. To be conscious of anger allows a more considered response such as to calmly name our emotion (“I’m frustrated”) or to clarify any inputs that led to the emotion (“can you give me some background on that thought?”).
- Feeling fear – fear can be distressing and provoke fight/flight type reactions if we aren’t able to elevate it to our consciousness. Ibrahim’s self-awareness allowed him to understand that he felt a fear he expressed as “not belonging with the big dogs”, or being seen as a small business player who couldn’t understand their needs. When he faced this emotion, he could think rationally about his strengths and how they applied to any market segment. It allowed him to refocus on what he does best and work through this discomfort.
7. Self-care – the only person who can truly be responsible for our care is ourselves. Thriving as an individual starts with nurturing ourselves. Many of us carry ingrained beliefs that serving others is our calling, or self-sacrifice is noble, thinking about ourselves is selfish or maybe just a belief to tough it out. The fact is, we need to be at our best to do our best and if we don’t practice self-care, we begin to erode our capacity for contribution. How many of us have hit a “tough stretch” at work where we end up putting in 80 hours a week for several weeks in a row, only to find our clarity of thought and productivity declining due to a lack of sleep and concern about our relationships outside of work. For Ibrahim, he had been through this before. Big work assignments had created imbalance in his life before, so he knew going in that he had to create structure for himself by planning time for exercise, and to use proven techniques for him to be able to leave open tasks at work to allow time for family. He replaced “selfish” with “self-ish”.
12 tips to sharpen your self-management skills
1. Keep your promises – there are two parts to keeping your promises. First … do what you said you would do (DWYSYWD). It creates trust with others and within you. Second … be careful what you say yes to. Your job is not to be a hero. It is to stay focused on your role and to work to your strengths. Know your boundaries, but apply compassion as you hold them.
2. Align to the right level of engagement – appropriate engagement varies from the executive table to individual contributors. There is a continuum from strategy to execution that moves from “why” to “what” to “how”. Keep your focus on the right point for your role. As a middle manager, for example, your job is to translate the “why” of strategy into the “what” of discreet projects. It isn’t your job to figure out how to do those projects.
3. Focus on what you can control – no matter how good the plan we make, we are not in control of or responsible for everything that happens around us. What we are in control of is how we respond to the impact of these circumstances. Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, likes to ask “how are you response-able?”. What is the best action you can take right now?
4. Be a player, not a victim – if you begin to feel things like “this isn’t fair” or “why didn’t they meet the deadline?” you are likely seeing yourself as a victim. How can you move from victim to player? A player works with intention rather than being controlled by external events. They can often find themselves engaged more productively by evoking a coaching stance, being creative to propose solutions or respectfully challenging the status quo.
5. Know who you are (and who you aren’t) – keep an inventory of your strengths in mind, and as you plan your work, assign yourself work that fits to these strengths. The corollary here is that you also know what you aren’t good at, which means finding others who are. For example, I’m aware that I am strong in looking at a new requirement and building solutions to address them. I am poor at (and disinterested in) fixing things already in use so always look to have a trouble-shooter around me.
6. First things first – if we have a good plan we know the critical items we have to get done. We also know that there will be many demands/requests for our time helping others meet their objectives. We need to stake out time on our calendars for our work first, while still allowing enough time to be supportive of others and to stay in tune with the organization. By doing this, you control which items of lesser priority get your time.
7. Meetings with yourself – one of my favorite HBR articles addresses this topic. Make time for yourself to stay on plan. At a minimum, I suggest a one hour weekly meeting where you take stock of progress, catalog problems, notice opportunities and then update your plans for the next week/month/quarter. If taking work home with you is a problem, you might do this daily to “check out” of the office so you know where to pick up in the morning.
8. Nurture yourself – you can’t do your best if you aren’t at your best. Know that you will be most effective if you eat well, focus on physical fitness and get at least seven hours of sleep.
9. Take breaks – it is very easy to get caught up in work, and being tied to your desk is counter productive. Taking breaks allows time to release stress and re-charge. Get creative … go visit a colleague, get some water, get out in nature or call your partner. Just get away from work a few minutes several times a day. Or …
10. Practice mindfulness – a very useful break you can take is to introduce the habit of mindful meditation into your day. When we enter a state of meditation, it is as helpful to our brains and bodies as sleep. Taking 5-10 minutes a couple of times a day can create new energy for us.
11. Avoid “coveting” – coveting is defined as yearning to possess or have something. When we do this, we attach our happiness to future outcomes which can provoke feelings of stress in the present about achieving those outcomes. Keep your energy in the present, knowing that good work now leads to good outcomes later.
12. Don’t multi-task – the idea of multi-tasking has somehow been given a badge of honour. The fact is that human minds don’t work that way. We are wired to do one thing, and then switch tasks. Switching tasks requires energy to refocus, so the more we do it the more time and energy we waste.