Star-shaped points

May 1, 2008

We seem to have started off talking about round holes and whether they are real holes or holes of our own making.

But what I get really excited about is star-shaped points.

In her most recent post, SJ wrote “I feel just as undervalued and underused as I did then; I’m just as convinced that my job isn’t making full use of my skills.” And I thought, oh, yeah, I remember. This is why we’re here. I spent fifteen years feeling like that. Whether or not I could have done it differently, that’s the reality of my experience and I believe it’s the experience of many women in the workplace.

I’ve spent a lot of my career working for very large financial institutions (henceforth VLFI for ease of typing). VLFI tend to have very standardised processes for people management, and one of these processes is the competency framework.

I am not an fan of competency frameworks. Their intention – to make sure that employees are competent to do their jobs – may be sensible (albeit still patriarchal and privileged). They can fulfil useful purposes, like making sure that it’s not okay to bully subordinates into a nervous breakdown. But all too often they become a way to make sure that everyone behaves alike. People whose faces don’t fit find that their careers run aground on the competency framework. It’s written by the people who are in charge at the moment, so of course it highlights what they currently do well. And then they hire people who look and act like them, because it’s safer. And so the system is perpetuated.

Mostly I am not a fan of competency frameworks because they are so stupid. How can you possibly get the best out of people by telling them all to act the same way? People are not the same. We are star-shaped. We have different strengths and different motivations and different gifts.

During my fifteen years of corporate alienation, I saw amazing things happen and I occasionally – gasp! – did some really great work. Invariably this was when people were able to use their strengths. But until now, it’s seemed to happen by chance, and it’s dissolved quickly when the organisation has re-organised or the project has ended.

I am now studying positive psychology. Positive psychology encompasses a lot of areas – it is not just ‘the science of happiness’ – and my particular area of interest is strengths. Positive psychologists have started to study strengths and, although it’s a subject in its infancy, some interesting results are emerging.

The VIA Inventory of Strengths is far from perfect, but I think it’s a really great start in helping people to understand, define and connect to their strengths. Mine are creativity, spirituality, kindness and wisdom – not obvious candidates for a glittering career in corporate life. But the fact remains that those are my strengths. I might like different ones, but these are the ones I’ve got.

When I ask the question, ‘how shall I use my strengths in the work I’m going to do today?’, everything goes better. Even the small and stupid stuff goes better. I reorganised a filing system that I’d been procrastinating about for a year, by looking for a creative solution and not a ruthlessly efficient one. (And I’m thrilled with it. Go me.) By valuing kindness as a strength, I can remember that my contribution to project teams has often kept others going. Spirituality’s probably one of the hardest to find a role for in the workplace – but it can give me the motivation to keep ploughing on through the roughest of rough patches.

I think this works for two reasons. The first is that when we are using our strengths, we’re better all-round. More authentic, more energetic, more alive. The second is that using our strengths enables us to perceive ourselves in a positive way. No longer do we rank ourselves against somebody else’s competency framework and notice only how we fail to measure up. Instead we are seeing our own star-shaped points, and by focusing on them we get more of them.

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18 Responses to “Star-shaped points”

  1. Sarah Jane Says:

    I had a look at the inventory of strengths. Apparently mine are critical thinking, humour, love of learning, creativity and fairness, none of which comes as much of a surprise. Love of learning is how I ended up being an accountant. Critical thinking and fairness are both important to a role that involves analysis of complex information and allocation of scarce resources; creativity is also surprisingly relevant.

    And the humour? That’s just what gets me through the days.

  2. Francesca Says:

    Interesting. So, you’re telling me that you’re perfectly suited to a role that you’ve spent the last two years telling me that you’re perfectly unsuited to.

  3. Sarah Jane Says:

    Well, I think that what I’m actually saying is that I can certainly apply my strengths to the career I have ended up in. I suspect I could also have applied them to several other careers, but seeing as I’m here…

    I can also see how my current position plays against my strengths. In particular fairness; as I said yesterday, I have real problems with the amount of privilege attached to the organisation, and (more significantly) the lack of recognition of that. If I was doing the same job at %similar but less privileged organisation up the road I think things would be a lot easier. There’s a certain amount of high-level analysis, but a lot of routine grunt work that a monkey that had been trained to add 3% to things could do. My position seems to be viewed as a high-level technician, rather than a professional expert, so I don’t get much chance to offer creative solutions (and when I volunteer them they’re mostly treated as a joke). The lack of a structured management development programme frustrates my love of learning.

    In the time you’ve known me I’ve been going through a pretty serious career crisis. I’ve been in roles that didn’t play to my strengths at all, and it’s been difficult to separate “frustrated with my job” from “frustrated by being an accountant”. I’ve been pretty confused myself, so it’s probably unsurprising that I’ve been confusing everyone else!

  4. Francesca Says:

    Are you interested in what might happen if you were to concentrate on the matches rather than the mismatches?

  5. Sarah Jane Says:

    Even in the current position?

    I think that part of the reason the last year has been such a rollercoaster is that that’s what I’ve been trying to do. So I have positive phases when I manage to get my head around what’s good about the job, and convince myself that I can make it work. And then I get derailed by the mismatches (mainly the fairness one, but also the lack of opportunity to be creative).

    I suppose I could work on applying creativity in small ways, though. I’m not sure how to get past the privilege question. Your thoughts would be appreciated. If I can make this even half-work I stand a far better chance of the next move actually being a positive one.

  6. Francesca Says:

    Twelve-step wisdom would go something like this.

    You are powerless over how much privilege other people have, and how they choose to use it. All you can influence is your own thoughts, feelings, actions, behaviours.

    So, when you find yourself thinking about what other people are doing, or thinking, or what they have and whether they should have it – stop it. Just stop it. Think about something else. If they’re actively abusing you, get out of the situation if you can. Otherwise, it is not a good use of your mental energy because you cannot do a thing about it. Take action because you believe it’s right, by all means, but don’t take action in the expectation that you will get someone else to change what they’re doing.

    Then, examine your own thoughts and ask if they’re helping you. If your anger is draining or paralysing you, step away from it. (If it’s helping you, by all means keep it.) But don’t blame other people for it, because they can’t change what you’re thinking and doing any more than you can change what they’re thinking and doing.

    This is easy to say and hard to do. I manage it – sometimes – because I spend practically every moment of the day thinking about how I’m going to let go of the old stuff and only fill my head with what’s good for me. But, as said elsewhere, that’s because I’m desperate. It depends how much you care.

    But every single time I have done this, it has worked.

  7. Francesca Says:

    Also, in answer to your first question, especially in the current position.

  8. Sarah Jane Says:

    But it’s not about me wanting to change what other people are doing or thinking. It’s about me not wanting to be part of an organisation that behaves in a way that is contrary to my beliefs about how to make the world a better and fairer place, and feeling deeply uneasy that I am contributing to that. And I don’t want to stop feeling angry about this, because that would be selling out my principles.

    I can ignore the individual privilege of people I encounter from day to day. I can’t ignore the fact that the privilege is enshrined in and perpetuated by the organisation as a whole.

  9. Calluna V. Says:

    I took the test. I’m a wee bit dubious about some of the apparently unexamined assumptions as to what is a strength, and things like what counts as spirituality. I expect they probably *were* examined, they just seem unexamined.

    I’m also not sure this tells me anything useful. I already know myself better than this test does. I think the only thing it does for me, really, is highlight some aspects of my perception about myself – that I consider myself to be highly unreliable, for instance. That’s worth thinking about. Other than that, it seemed less revealing than a good fortune-telling, for me. That may not be the norm, though. I don’t know. I could see it being very useful and a very helpful tool.

  10. Francesca Says:

    Reply to SJ:

    It’s an interesting space. I wouldn’t want to argue about it, because I do think it’s so much a matter of individual choice. Different things work for different people.

    The only thing I would say, though, for me, is that this way of working is enabling me to do far more, and that includes giving me more of an ability to combat privilege. I couldn’t do it before – I couldn’t do much of anything – because all my energy was taken up with being angry and disaffected.

  11. Francesca Says:

    Reply to Calluna:

    Oh, I just wrote an essay that completely debunks the classification. It was so much fun. I don’t think it’s sound at all.

    I do think it’s a great starting place for getting people to think about their strengths, and I think it’s a really useful thing to be thinking about for many, many people. But individual mileage will absolutely vary.

    Surely anything would be less revealing than a good fortune-telling?

  12. Ros Says:

    Well, that was a fun way to spend half an hour. It says my top strengths are creativity, honest, spirituality and appreciation of beauty and excellence. I was surprised that love of learning didn’t come higher, because I’m pretty sure I ticked all those boxes.

  13. Francesca Says:

    Do you think that you might do or think about anything differently because of doing that, and, if so, what?

  14. Ros Says:

    I might make more of an effort to visit museums on a regular basis. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy that.

    I’m not sure that it will affect anything in my ‘work’ life immediately. It did remind me of something I found when I was teaching, which is that I really, really liked working with the brightest kids and not so much the middle of the road or the really struggling ones. So that’ll be something to consider if and when I finally get to the stage where I’m teaching again, though there are certainly differences in teaching adults.

  15. dan Says:

    Where does “these are my strengths” become self-fulfilling? Should I think of this as, “these are my strengths right now” or “this is who I am, period [you Brits say ‘full stop’, I’m told]”?


  16. I find myself getting a little sidetracked by the questionnaire … 😉

    I found the long and short tests very different in terms of the results they yielded: the long test has me as chiefly curious (it didn’t mention anything about bunnies), optimistic, appreciative of beauty in all forms, zesty, and loving. The short test has me as principally brave, loyal, fair, and grateful.

    When I look at the percentile scores given after the short test, I am struck by the thought that what this test is really, is a self-esteem-ometer. I have faith in myself to be a basically decent human being most of the time (though goodness knows I have my off days), so mostly I am checking boxes that say that I do the right thing more often than not.

    Thank you for linking to the test, though. I think mostly it tells me that I want a job where I get to look at pretty stuff and in which there is a lot going on, and that I’ll be pretty happy with anything so long as I can imagine a future in it.

  17. patrickhadfield Says:

    This was an excellent post. It makes a lot of sense.

  18. Sarah Jane Says:

    *revisiting post while approving P’s comment*

    Dear god, was I really that much of an arrogant, self-centred idiot only a few months ago?


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