Leadership

How to Stop Doing the Stupid Stuff and Break Bad Workplace Habits

Photo illustration by istockphoto.com

As a business leader, one of the things I always marveled at was how much crap creeps into a business operation over time. Processes go out of date (and become void of any usefulness) yet they remain as habits.

New chaotic and reactive activities crop up in lieu of sensible process or infrastructure, misunderstandings cause stalls, re-work and duplication, and silos block useful communication — and this is when everyone is generally motivated to get along!

(Misaligned, politicized organizations have a whole raft of additional obstacles that block growth.)

Question the habits

Habit is a very powerful force that makes organizations get stuck doing things the same way over and over again. Habits become ingrained (both good and bad ones).

And then everyone gets too over-busy to think about how there might be a better way to do something.

One of most useful things I repeatedly did in my career was to step outside of the current business’s tendencies — and really observe, question, and then improve them.

Here are three of my favorite approaches:

1. Be the new guy

When you start a new job, you need to first figure out what is going on.

You’re the new guy or gal. So you need to observe and learn. You ask a lot of questions and you do an assessment. You consider what is working and not working, and you identify stuff that is missing or broken.

So why not just pretend to be the new guy in your current job?

If you came in with a fresh perspective and looked at your organization’s structure priorities, processes and habits — without any familiarity or fondness of any of them — which ones would genuinely impress you? And which ones would embarrass you, and make you think, “man, that needs to change?”

2. What stupid stuff are we doing?

I used to have a staff meeting about once a year where the key topic was, “let’s talk about what stupid stuff we are doing.”

This was always a fun and fruitful discussion, where people got permission to look outside their current pressures and demands. We could all step back consider ways to improve how we did business.

I highly recommend doing this. Most times I’ve done this, the group naturally moved from listing bad habits to solving them.

If your team gets into a negative, non-productive, complaining, downward spiral just say, “OK, now let’s decide which one we want to change, and what to do.”

Defining a desired outcome and an action plan to improve something gets you back on highly positive ground — and you fix something important.

I recommend doing this as an open discussion – no PowerPoint! You’ll get a better discussion and more insight if you let your group really talk.

I do this with management teams regularly, and we always leave with a concrete action plan to remove obstacles to growth (that are driving everyone crazy anyway).

3. In a Parallel Universe…

There were times when things got really bad — for me. I was stressed, frustrated, and felt like the corporate bureaucracy, or a particular adversary, was blocking me from doing the right things.

Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk in a parallel universe in the original “Star Trek.”

My back is up against a wall, nothing seems to be working, the pressure is mounting, the support I thought I had has disappeared, people are angry, the mission seems generally impossible, I am miserable, and I am stuck.

When I would find myself in this situation, I did what I refer to as my “parallel universe” thought exercise.

I imagine that a parallel universe exists which replicates the same situation exactly.

All the same pressures are there. Everything about the situation is exactly the same — except there is a version of me in that universe who is more capable and better than me in every way — smarter, faster thinker, better problem solver, better negotiator, better communicator, better networker, and with better hair.

Never struggle alone

I then ask myself: what would that person do?

This has never failed to help me come up with an idea to get un-stuck, feel less victimized, and start moving forward.

One idea that the Patty with the better hair always offers is to go get some help.

When you are struggling to solve a problem, never struggle alone — find help. Find an expert. Remember, the desired outcome is to get the business result, not to solve everything all by yourself.

The better Patty, always had more energy to keep fighting, and a new angle to try. What would a better version of me do?

It’s a useful and mobilizing question!

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .
  • Heather Huhman

    It’s great you’re touching on this because such habits are a major waste of valuable company resources. Aside from scheduling meetings where the entire staff discusses these issues, you can use scheduled employee performance reviews to get feedback as well. Once you’re done critiquing performance and giving praise, ask your employees what they’d like to see change within the organization and why. The common themes that emerge from these conversations hint at where you should begin your work of making necessary changes.