“Get Lost in the Game” – 6 Ways to Perform Your Best

“I told him to get lost in the game.”

That was Kentucky coach John Calipari’s advice to one of his star players, Julius Randle, during half-time of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game this past Monday night. Coming into the game, Randle had been averaging over 15 points and 10 rebounds, yet entering half-time he had scored just 6 points, grabbed 2 rebounds, and was clearly fazed by the pressure-packed environment of the championship contest. Calipari knew his player was out of rhythm, trying too hard to contribute and forcing the action, rather than relaxing and letting the game come to him. Calipari wanted Randle to get lost in the game, to be in the flow.

The flow is the metal state you’re in when you’re fully immersed in an activity that consumes your entire focus, energizes your attention, and produces a deep level of satisfaction and joy through the process. In the groovein the zonewiredin the momenton fire…and my personal favorite, beast mode, are all ways of expressing this condition. It’s when we do our best work and experience the most fulfillment in our activities. It’s also a rare and fleeting circumstance to be in the flow.

How can we be in the flow more often? How can we get “lost in the game?” First, we have to understand the conditions that lead to flow experiences. Second, we have to take steps to create the environment for us to get in the flow.

Conditions for Flow Experiences
There are three basic conditions you need for flow experiences:

  1. A clear goal – This is why you often hear athletes talk about being in the zone or having tunnel focus when it comes to their activities. Whether it’s trying to hit a pitched ball, complete a pass, score a goal, make a last second shot, or cross the finish line ahead of others, there is a clear goal that lends purpose, structure, and process to the task at hand. A lack of clear goals is why we often don’t experience the flow at work. Unclear goals make it difficult to narrow our focus and attention and leaves us feeling stuck or overwhelmed with the work in front of us.
  2. A balance between your skills and the challenge of the task – If you perceive you have the skills to meet the difficulty of the challenge ahead of you, it’s easier to get in the flow. If you believe you’re ill-equipped or don’t have the talent to accomplish the goal, anxiety and stress will prevent you from achieving a flow-state. Conversely, if you believe the goal is not challenging enough given your experience and skills, you’ll encounter boredom or apathy. You need the goal to be challenging enough to capture your attention, while simultaneously having enough skill to give you the confidence that you can tackle the situation.
  3. Real time feedback on your performance – You can feel when you’re in the flow. It’s those occasions where you lose track of time because you’re completely immersed in an activity and things just, well…flow. And when you’re not, you feel like you’re trudging up a muddy hill, taking one step up and sliding back two. Flow is sustained by receiving feedback on your performance. When you see you’re performing well, it increases your confidence and desire to stay in the flow. When you see you’re off course, you can make adjustments to get back on track and in the flow.

How to Increase Flow Experiences
We can take concrete steps to help increase flow experiences at work that will allow us to perform our best. Here are six suggestions:

  1. Connect your work to the bigger picture – Too many of us view our work with a microscope rather than a telescope. A microscope allows you to zoom in on the details of a particular object, ignoring the surrounding area. A telescope, on the other hand, allows you to see long distances away—the big picture. Rather than being uninspired by the small tasks you have to do, connect them to the importance of the big picture. Figure out how your work contributes to the betterment of the world. How does your work help improve the lives of people by meeting their needs or desires? All work has redeeming value and it’s up to us to discover it. Tapping into the bigger picture will add motivation and commitment to your work and help you achieve flow in your activities.
  2. Clarify and prioritize goals – If your goals aren’t clear, work on gaining clarity. Figure out specifically what you’re trying to accomplish, what the standards are, the deadlines to meet, or the deliverables being produced. If you’re challenged with too many goals, work on prioritization. If you have conflicting priorities from multiple stakeholders, you may have to involve your supervisor to help you. Get clear on what you need to accomplish and then apply laser-like focus to your activities.
  3. View work as a game – Games in general, and video games in particular, lend themselves to flow experiences because they are immersive in nature. We get wrapped up in figuring how to reach the new level, unlock the next treasure, or beat the “boss.” You can apply the same principles to your work. Engage your mind in thinking about how can you accomplish things faster, better, or easier. Are there other ways you can approach tasks or activities that may bring more fulfillment? Look at work as a game you’re trying to master and let your creativity run wild.
  4. Seek out bigger challenges and/or improve your skills – Complacency, boredom, and apathy are flow killers. If you find your work lacking in challenge, seek out new ones. Work with your supervisor to see if there are increased responsibilities you can take on, project teams you can join, or other ways to add more challenge in your work. On the flip side, worry, stress, and anxiety are also flow killers. If you find your work is too challenging, explore skill development opportunities. Go back to school, read books, get a mentor, or seek out additional training to boost your confidence and capability to meet the challenges you face.
  5. Find your sweet spot – Your sweet spot is where your skills are matched appropriately to the challenge, and when you find that place, you have the greatest chance of achieving states of flow. Finding your sweet spot might mean following point #4 above, or it might mean transforming how you do your work by changing/improving processes, delegating it to someone, or collaborating with others.
  6. Choose your motivation – Your supervisor is not responsible for motivating you. You, and only you, control your level of motivation. You can choose to be disinterested in your work or feel like others are imposing work on you, or you can choose to shift your motivational outlook by focusing on areas of your work where you can exhibit autonomy in your activities, mastery over how well you do your job, and satisfaction in the relationships you build with others.

Kentucky ended up losing the championship to UConn and Julius Randle never really got into the flow of the game, finishing with just 10 points and 6 rebounds. However, it doesn’t negate the wisdom of Coach Calipari’s advice. We do our best work when we get lost in the game.

Posted in Ability, Engagement, Goal Setting, Learning, Morale, Motivation, Purpose, Responsibility, Sports, Success | 1 Comment

Everyday at Work is a Job Interview – 5 Tips for Demonstrating Your Value

Job Interview

The dress code in my office is business casual, but every once in a while I like to wear a tie. You know…look good, feel good…dress for the job you want, not the job you have…all that good stuff. Actually, there are times I just like to dress up for no special reason. But whenever I do, invariably I hear the same wisecrack from one or more team members: “Why are you all dressed up? Got a job interview today?” My response is always the same: “I interview for my job every day!”

Although I say that somewhat jokingly, there is an element of truth I’m trying to reinforce with my team—every day you show up to work is an interview for your job. In today’s economy you have to continually demonstrate to your employer how you’re adding value to the organization. I’m not talking about approaching your job from a state of fear, constantly afraid of being let go if you don’t hit a home run every time you come to bat. I’m talking about having an understanding and appreciation for how you have to “bring it” each day you walk through your company’s front door.

Here are five key principles that will help you increase your value and contribution to your organization:

1. Accept the new reality – My brother Ron had only one job his entire life. He recently retired from a 40+ year career with a national grocery store chain, having been employed by them since he was a 17 year-old high school student. Those days are gone. We live in a new reality of a dynamic, constantly shifting, and evolving global economy. It requires businesses to be agile and shift their strategies to take advantage of new opportunities, create new markets, or ward off upstart competitors. You have to come to grips with the need to constantly stay relevant in your job or profession. Complacency and stagnation makes you vulnerable and less valuable to your organization. If you aren’t adding value, you’re probably expendable.

2. Take charge of your own career development - As employees, all of us should expect our employer to help develop us in our role, but career development should be seen as a privilege, not a right. Organizations have an obligation to provide the right training, tools, and resources to enable employees to maximize their potential in the job they were hired to do. But career development (promotions, moving into new roles, etc.) is a privilege and is not the employer’s responsibility. Is it a smart thing for employers to facilitate career development in order to attract and retain key talent? Absolutely! But it’s up to you to keep learning, to further your education, improve proficiency in your job, and develop new skills in alignment with the direction of your organization’s goals and strategies. No one else except you is responsible for your career development.

3. Have an ownership mentality – How would the value of your contribution be different if you acted like you own the place? Would you be more emotionally invested and passionate about the work you do? Would you produce higher quality products? Would you be a little more prudent or cautious with company expenses? Would you care a little more about the customer experience? People who approach their jobs with an ownership mentality care about these sorts of things. They view themselves as stewards of the company’s resources and work hard to promote the success of the entire organization, not just their particular role, team, or department.

4. Build your brand - Whether you realize it or not, you have a brand image at work. Your brand image is not only how people perceive you (your reputation), but also what differentiates you from everyone else in your company. Tom Peters, the guru of personal branding, says, “If you are going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, what you’re proud of, and most important, what you can shamelessly take credit for.” Forget your job title. What is it about your performance that makes you memorable, distinct, or unique? What’s the “buzz” on you? Forget about your job description too. What accomplishments are you most proud of? How have you gone above, beyond, or outside the scope of your job description to add value to your organization? Those are the elements that make up your brand. Check out this article if you need help developing your brand.

5. Consider yourself an independent contractor – Most of us are governed by at-will employment agreements with our companies. Either party can decide to end the employment relationship at any time for any reason (within certain legal boundaries, of course). You would be well-served to view yourself as an independent contractor in the business of you—You, Inc. You have hired out your services to your employer in exchange for a specific level of compensation. At some point in time, either by your choice or your employer’s, that business arrangement may change or end. In the meantime, focus on building a portfolio of accomplishments you can use to secure business with future clients. See rules 1 and 2 above.

Thinking of yourself in these ways might be new to you. It takes a shift in perspective to view yourself as not just an employee doing a job, but as an independent contractor running your own business. If you make that shift, you’ll realize you have to constantly develop your skill-set (i.e., the services you have to offer), build an attractive brand image, and consistently demonstrate to your client (i.e., employer) how you’re adding value. Remember, you are in the business of YOU!

Posted in Brand, Career Growth, Leadership, Professionalism, Success | 14 Comments

4 Principles for Using Your Leadership Power

Power“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.”
~ Lord Acton

Power accompanies leadership. No matter how lofty or humble your title, whether you manage 3 people or 3,000, if you lead a girl scout troop or you’re the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, you will be faced with choices on how to use your power.

You’re probably familiar with the above quote from Lord Acton. Unfortunately, there is much truth in his quote and one only has to look at the news headlines for the latest example of a leader who has misused power for his/her own personal gain.

A good friend of mine who has spent his entire career developing other leaders once shared a keen observation with me. He said that people who need to be in power probably shouldn’t be. His learning was that those people who craved power, who had an inordinate desire to be in control, were the ones most likely to use power in unhealthy ways.

Of course my friend’s statement caused me to wrestle with the concept of power. Do I need to be in power? If so, why? Is it because of ego, status, or enjoyment of the privileges it affords? Is it a bad thing to want to be in power? Would I be unhappy or unfulfilled if I wasn’t in power? One question begets the next.

As I’ve pondered this question, the following ideas have become clearer to me:

1. The best use of power is in service to others. Being a servant leader, rather than a self-serving leader, means giving away my power to help other people achieve their personal goals, the objectives of the organization, and to allow them to reach their full expression and potential as individuals. I love the servant leadership example of Jesus. When two of his disciples came to him seeking positions of power and authority, he chastised them and challenged them to remember that “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” (Mt. 20:26-27) One of the paradoxes of leadership is that by placing others before ourselves, and using our power to serve, rather than dominate, actually brings us more power, respect, commitment and loyalty.

2. Followership is just as important, if not more so, than leadership. Learning to be a good follower is an essential component of being a wise leader who uses power appropriately. A person who learns to submit to the authority of others, collaborate with teammates, and sees first-hand the good and bad effects of the use of power, will have a greater appreciation for how power should be used in relationships. We can all probably think of examples of people who were bestowed leadership positions without ever being a follower, who then went on a “power trip” and showed just how ill-prepared they were to handle the power given them. Followership is the training ground for leadership.

3. The ego craves power. My leadership experiences have taught me that I need to be on guard to keep my ego in check. The ego views power as the nectar of the gods, and if leaders aren’t careful, their ego will intoxicate itself with power. In Ken Blanchard’s Servant Leadership program, he does an “Egos Anonymous” exercise that helps leaders come to grips with the power of the ego to make them self-serving leaders rather than servant leaders. Effective leadership starts on the inside and that means putting the ego in its proper place.

4. Power is held in trust. The power I have as a leader is something entrusted to me, both from my boss who put me in this position and by my followers who have consented to follow my lead. This power is not mine to keep. I’m a temporary steward of this power as long as I’m in my leadership role and it could be taken away at anytime should something drastic change in the relationship with my boss or followers. We’re all familiar with “consent of the governed,” the phrase that describes the political theory that a government’s legitimate and moral right to use state power over citizens can only be granted by the consent of the citizens themselves. The same concept applies to organizational leadership, and the minute our people no longer support our leadership, we have a serious problem.

So, do I need to be in power? I don’t think I need it to be fulfilled in my work, but it’s a question I haven’t yet fully answered. Do I like having power? Yes, I do. It allows me to help others in significant and positive ways. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I struggle with the shadow side of power and the temptation to use it to feed my ego.

Let me ask you the question: Do you need to be in power? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Posted in Leadership, Power, Servant Leadership | 24 Comments

3 Types of People, Projects, and Tasks Every Leader Needs to Eliminate

Pruning-roses-with-shearsAt this very moment, you have people, projects, or tasks you need to eliminate from your life. Maybe you’ve been dealing with a troubling employee situation for months, or even years, and despite your best efforts you don’t see any hope for improvement. Or maybe it’s a project that got off track months ago, but no one, particularly you, wants to admit it’s a failure and a new strategy is needed. Perhaps it’s a particular task or process you’ve maintained for years because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” but you have an inkling that if you stopped doing it tomorrow, no one would notice or care.

If this resonates with you, then it’s time for some pruning.. The core definition of pruning is to remove anything considered superfluous or undesirable. As Dr. Henry Cloud points out in his book, Necessary Endings, the areas of business and life that require your limited resources—your time, energy, talent, emotions, money—but aren’t achieving the vision you have for them, should be regularly pruned in order to reach their full potential.

Consider the cultivation of a prized rosebush to understand the purpose of pruning. The gardener removes branches or buds that fall into any of three categories:

  1. Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones,
  2. Sick branches that are not going to get well, and
  3. Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive.

These three categories of pruning apply to the types of people, projects, and tasks you are dealing with right now.

Type 1 – The Good Detracting from the Great

The rosebush produces more growth than the plant can optimally sustain. The plant has only so much life and energy to power its development, so the gardener trims what may be healthy, yet average blooms, so the plant can direct its resources to the best producing roses. The good roses, if left alone, will suck life away from the great roses. The result? A rosebush with average blooms performing below its potential.

What people, projects, or tasks are you involved with that, although good in and of themselves, are taking time and resources away from achieving greatness with your team or organization? There is no shortage of things demanding your attention, so the key is to prune your priorities down to the most essential ones that fuel the majority of your success.

Type 2 – The Sick That Can’t be Cured

Some branches in a rosebush become diseased and have to be removed to protect the health of the entire plant. When the caretaker notices a sick branch, he will spend some time trying to nurse it back to health. At some point in time the caretaker will reach a decision to prune the branch because he realizes that no amount of water, fertilizer, or care is going to heal the branch. Sick branches take energy from the rosebush, and pruning these sick branches allows the bush to direct more energy to the healthy ones.

You have people, projects, and tasks that are diseased and need to be removed. You have fertilized them, watered them, nurtured them, and done everything in your power to help cure them. For whatever reason, they aren’t getting better and they’re only taking time and energy away from the healthy things you need to focus on. This can be one of the toughest decisions a leader has to face. It might mean confronting the difficult truth that a key company initiative isn’t working as intended, or a long-term employee isn’t able to improve his performance to meet the needs of the organization. On the plus side, it is liberating to admit things aren’t working and changes need to be made because it frees up time, energy, and resources to focus on areas of new growth.

Type 3 – The Dead Preventing Growth of the Living

The third type of pruning is removing dead branches in order to make more room for the living branches to grow. If the dead branches aren’t removed, the path of the living branches will be obstructed and limited. The living branches need room to spread in order to reach their full potential and the dead branches impede that growth.

You have dead branches in your business and personal life that need to be removed if you want to reach your full potential. It might be misguided organizational strategies that served your company well ten years ago but are no longer relevant. Or maybe it’s processes, systems, or meetings you engage in but don’t add any value to the purpose you’re trying to achieve. If it’s dead and just taking up space, get rid of it. It’s time to cut that branch.

Prune with a Purpose

The gardener doesn’t prune willy-nilly, just clipping branches and blooms here and there without discretion. The gardener has a purpose. He knows what a healthy rosebush should look like and he prunes toward that standard. It illustrates the importance of having clear goals and expectations for your organization, your people, and yourself. Without clear goals and standards, you don’t have an objective measure by which to prune and you handicap yourself from reaching your full potential.

Posted in Change, Goal Setting, Leadership, Success | 13 Comments

Why Trust Is Worth It

You’ve been betrayed by people you trusted and it has shaken you to the core. Time and time again you’ve opened yourself to the risk of trusting, only to be disappointed repeatedly. You’re hurt and bruised; mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and maybe even physically. You question if trust is worth it.

You’re trapped in a downward spiral of distrust. Doubt and suspicion permeate your relationships, causing you to keep others at arm’s length. You fall further into states of anxiety, fear, and self-protection, until the only solution you see is to build walls around yourself to keep the pain out. It works. Your walls keep the pain out, but trap the loneliness inside. You question if trust is worth it.

You know that life without trust is unfulfilling and you want more. You deserve more. The safety, strength, freedom, joy, and happiness that comes with trust is waiting for you, so you resolve to try again. Baby steps perhaps, but you will start again. You believe that trust is worth it.

Posted in Relationships, Repairing Trust, Trust | 4 Comments