Question status quo, but take positive approach

How you view yourself, your colleagues and your company can help or hinder your career. If, for example, you cannot respect the other person’s point of view, your chances of working together with him successfully are substantially reduced. If you are reluctant to give, or share, credit with others, they will not be anxious to work with you. In short, positive attitudes are crucial to personal success. Four of the most important are:

  1. A realistic outlook. Problems do not disappear simply because we ignore them. Promotions do not materialize out of the blue through wishful thinking. Although it is occasionally good strategy to emphasize the positive aspects of what is essentially a negative situation, don’t fall into the trap of accepting only rosy interpretations of harsh facts. The more you allow yourself to stray from reality, the harder it is to see things as they truly are. If you build your work on faulty premises, your work product is bound to suffer.
  2. A positive approach. If you are convinced that you cannot do something, it’s 10 to 1 that you will fail. This is not to suggest that the reverse is always true-that if you believe you can do something, you will succeed. But self-confidence certainly helps.

  1. The habit of questioning the status quo. Unless you question the way things are done today, you are unlikely to devise ways of doing them better tomorrow. Employees who do what is expected of them-but no more-are early identified as merely competent, not contenders for any dramatic upward movement. Senior management is not looking for acceptance of Things As They Are in their people. They are looking for those with critical and experimental attitudes, who are in the habit of questioning old policies and on a constant alert for better ways to do things. If you do not habitually examine your work environment with a view toward improving it, you will never be given the opportunity to try.
  2. Flexibility. Dealing successfully with changing business conditions requires, above all, flexibility. That is, we must keep our minds open and receptive to new ideas and trends. Problems are always changing. Why shouldn’t solutions as well? Of course, it’s important to differentiate between flexibility and wishy-washiness. The inability to reach a conclusion after hearing both sides of a story is not flexibility; it’s indecisiveness. Your best safeguard is to keep yourself up-to-date and informed on issues. Listen carefully, and critically, to the ideas of others. Read widely, both inside and outside your field. And police the tendency to jump to conclusions.


Although most managers would agree on the desirability of good two-way communications with their people, they often feel that, under the pressures of time and getting the work done, maintaining a continuing dialogue is an impossible goal. Some subjects seem exhausted; others often require secrecy. And there is sometimes that old defensive-but very human-query: “Why look for trouble?”

However, the fact remains that a manager is judged as much by what he doesn’t do as by what he does. And whenever he leaves people hanging on something that is important to them, their acceptance of his leadership is, to some degree, diminished.

The attitude of the people who report to you can often tell you what they think of your dialogue skills. For example:

  • Do your people frequently seem to misunderstand you or say that you’ve instructed them to do something in a certain way that you honestly cannot recall recommending? If so, chances are you aren’t organizing your thoughts carefully enough before you speak. Thus, your contribution to any dialogue may strike people as a challenge to their powers of comprehension, rather than a stimulus to respond to.
  • Do they appear relaxed when talking to you, or do they seem anxious to get away? A boss who knows how to put others at ease creates the right atmosphere for a useful dialogue-but it’s something he has to work at if, in the past, he has ruled through fear and constant criticism.
  • Do they keep you abreast of how their work is developing and bring important problems to you for help? If they do, they’re demonstrating that they believe you when you say you’re interested in them, both as human beings and as co-workers.
  • Do you get questions from people when you present new information or instructions? If you do, it’s a good sign. It shows that you’ve stimulated their thinking and that they don’t feel they have to pretend instant comprehension in order to get your respect.

Some managers who know their own dialogue skills are weak nevertheless consider improvement a low priority project. “Talking is a waste of time” sums up their feelings. “I just want to get the work out.”

The trouble is, the work won’t get out as efficiently as it should if the head of the department has no real rapport with the people who have to carry out his orders. When all the words come from him or her, many subordinates will tend to tune out at least part of the time for their own psychological self-protection.

Even when managers decide to encourage departmental dialogue, they can’t expect immediate results. It takes constant encouragement to get people to speak out. However, some guidelines can help:

  • Solve your own work problems first. Many managers who have trouble with the people part of their responsibilities are honestly overloaded with other matters that require their attention. They need to analyze their own workloads, delegate what they can to give themselves more time for a creative relationship with their people.
  • Conceal your impatience. It may not be easy to hold a discussion with someone who appears somewhat dense or seems to discuss matters that are old hat. Think, though, of doctors who give each patient a feeling that his or her problems are uniquely interesting even though they have heard them all hundreds of times before.
  • Make a conscious effort. Building a dialogue means making a continuing effort to seek responses, to encourage questions, to arrange your schedule so that people know they can get back to you when something is important to them. For some managers, it may also mean working to change the tone they habitually take in speaking to subordinates or erasing a frown that comes too easily or controlling nervous gestures that make others feel they’re wasting valuable time.


Under the pressure of all their responsibilities, at one time or another many managers have experienced the frustration and embarrassment of having allowed some piece of urgent business to “slip between the cracks” simply because they forgot about it. In retrospect, it seems hard to believe that you can blank out on performing a specific task, but during the press of the working day, there it goes-into oblivion.

You can improve your memory by harnessing these four laws on your behalf:

  1. The law of association. If two or more things are experienced or heard together frequently enough, the presence of one elicits the recall of the other. Just as we learn by association, we remember by it, too. We recall the things that are easier to remember and then make the transfer to the more difficult. Therefore, the things that are to be remembered and used together should be learned together.
  2. The law of succession. If two things are frequently experienced in immediate succession, the presence of the first tends to trigger recall of the second. For example, sometimes it is difficult to remember offhand what letter of the alphabet comes before another, but recite the letters in sequence and there you are! The great advantage to learning in succession is that when you remember one item in a list, you recall the next, then the next and so on.

  1. The law of similarity. If two things are similar, the thought of one causes the recall of the other.
  2. The law of contrast. If you have ever daydreamed about a sunny beach while waiting for a bus in a snowstorm, then you know that extremes or opposites serve as reminders of each other. When you think of the tallest person you’ve ever seen, you may also think of the shortest. The use of contrast improves the vividness of the impression and the ability to recall.


Managers who run a one man (or woman) show hurt their companies over the long run. Sometimes, it’s because they suffer from a “star” complex; sometimes, it is simply because it has never occurred to them that there are ways and means available to them to increase their own productivity and value. Here are three areas worth investigating.

Develop people. Explore their hidden capabilities. For example, if you have an individual you think might make a good sales call, give him or her a chance to make one.

Too often, employers are afraid to give employees opportunities. Yet, you never know what a person can do until you try him or her.

So don’t fear letting people try new things. Chances are they’ll do a good job more often than not. And keep in mind that the more things your people can do, the more work you can accomplish through them.

Save by spending. Some managers overlook new equipment that could help them do their work more efficiently. Others spurn them because they have closed minds. “I can’t afford them,” they say.

A mini tape recorder, for example, can be an investment rather than an expense. One manager says his paid for itself inside of a month. “I dictate my mail into it on my way to work,” he explains. “This gives me additional time for other things in the morning.”

Look for new ideas. Most successful managers stay alert for new ideas that can pep up their productivity. One practices what he calls “looking for self-disciplined ideas.”

As he drives to work each day, he thinks about one idea for improving his department. Some days it’s a machine. On other days, it’s the way he hands out assignments. “When there’s no pressure on me to solve a specific problem in a hurry,” he says, “I can be more objective in my thinking. Often I come up with an idea that helps me and my company.”


Ironically, many hardworking managers get buried under their jobs because they’re working hard on the wrong things.

To determine what is most important at any given time is one of management’s toughest challenges. But the person who continually meets this challenge is almost certain to stay on top of the job.

The truth is, in the dynamic world of business the things that are most important today may be among the least important tomorrow. But how do you determine the ever-shifting priorities of your work?

One manager does it this way: at a monthly meeting with his people, he invites them to give their estimates of the most important problems the department faces. Their answers reflect the priorities in their own areas of responsibility. He then weighs their opinions against his.

This accomplishes two things. First, he spots projects that are being overrated and can take steps to place them where they belong on the scale of importance. He also pinpoints projects that are being delayed because they have been mistakenly put at the bottom of the priorities list.

He thus accomplishes what every manager must accomplish if he is to do his job: he keeps the partnership between himself and his people alive and vibrant. And he learns from those who are closest to the jobs at hand. A manager like that is ready for a bigger job.


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