Eyes On Your Own Paper!

nun-with-rulerTaking the SAT was one of the most taxing events of my teenage life. It’s outcome seemed to be able to determine your entire future in a way that would be insurmountable if you made one wrong move and was more pressure than I wanted to be bear. Add the pressure cooker environment enforced by the test proctor and it became a powder keg of anxiety for me. The idea of messing up was like a guillotine hanging above my head for an excruciating three hours that day but also for weeks before taking the actual test. As the proctor strolled around the room, I remember thinking that this person must only have one job, “alert the CIA at any perceived sign of cheating”. No actual cheating need be proven, but a turned head (perhaps a little neck roll to relax the muscles) or a sigh of exasperation over the last multiple choice question, would be enough to warrant being dragged from the room screaming “I am not a cheater”. So maybe I had an overactive imagination at the time but her repeated circling around the room with a short but low, “Keep your eyes on your own paper”, was a lesson that I took with me.

Fast forward to my years as a cheer mom in the hyper competitive All Star world and I recall this being an important lesson to teach my daughter but one that many parents missed. When my daughter was struggling with a skill that someone had already mastered, I often told her to “keep your eyes on your own paper”.  I wished that I could teach the mommy’s in the crowd—and reminded myself of–the same lesson but it’s much harder for adults to learn.

I’ve even seen the roving eye concept play out in personal relationships.  The woman with a wonderful husband (or vice versa) that can see the forest for the trees because a co-worker is getting flowers everyday!  Don’t be the girl that’s whining…”you never send ME flowers” to a guy that brings you lunch, remembers your birthday and appreciates the awesomeness of your intellect (yes, I’m going all girly and using awesomeness in this one).  The same could be said for the guy that has a hard working wife who supports the household, still gets to PTA, and increases the overall productivity of the home, how could you mention the neighbor who “cooks a homemade meal every night”?

Professionally, staying focused on my own production or circumstance has been a successful method but still isn’t without its challenges. Let’s set the stage: You’re a salesperson in any environment. Your metrics, achievements and (unfortunately) occasional failures are displayed and often discussed among teammates. In a highly sales driven organization your accomplishments are often lauded via email. This can be great and actually keep you on your toes but with this level of visibility comes a lot of contrast and compare scenarios. Knowing what the other salesperson is doing if not checked can become a distraction. I recall an early career experience with a salesperson that was a natural born quota crusher.  My competitive drive helped me watch his behaviors to find tips, tricks of the trade based on his knowledge but I worked to keep the distraction of not feeling adequate based on his success at bay, so that I could find my own. It only took one event for me to realize that a bell ringing moment for a colleague would cause you to lose sight of your accomplishments and become sidetracked. This happens in a new sales environment also. After having the reputation as a “closer”, I gave myself very little praise for the small wins along the way until a more experienced colleague reminded me that baby steps bring reward as well.

While salespeople are often reminded to focus on their own production, especially since they are likely to be verbal about their perception of performance among their team, the concept is rarely discussed in a general work environment–you know customer service, operations, accounting, etc. So let’s think about that. My grandmother referred to this concept as “sweeping around your own backyard”. Basically, taking care of your own business before focusing on others. Ironically, if you spend all of your time taking care of your responsibilities or doing your part, you won’t have much time to focus on others.

“Colleague watching” has become a negative workplace past time as things have become more competitive, individuals feel overworked and under appreciated, or simply, when they are not managing their careers appropriately. Rather than appreciating the hard work of a colleague or complimenting someone, it becomes a routine of dissecting the non-essential items and making things personal. Office gossip largely results from these petty discussions based on feelings and incorrect assumptions, even general dislike for a peer. Instead of “Lucy really deserved that promotion, did you see the results of her last project?”, it becomes, “I don’t know how she got that promotion, she’s always late”. Even if that perception is reality, it’s not exactly relevant to you, and more than likely you have a particular behavior that you wouldn’t want a non-managerial employee putting a spotlight on (assuming that none of us have reached sainthood).

Once it was brought to my attention that a colleague was seeking to find my blog with the hopes that it would cast a negative light with my employers. Without ever having read any of my posts, the assumed personal feelings or perhaps negative attitude of this person led them to believe that I must be saying bad things about the company and this would be the “gotcha” moment. Initially I was offended but I got over it quickly because it helped me finish a draft that I had begun months before. I realized that it was important to point out what is missed when you’re seeking to find fault with others. So, in appreciation of my lovely Grandma who always said “sweep around your own backyard before you sweep around mine”…here goes.

The Benefit of Keeping Your Eyes On Your Own Paper

1. It makes you more aware of areas that YOU need to improve upon. I always like to triple read a post and run it through a grammar checker before publishing, simply because I prefer to find my own errors. Being cognizant of areas of improvement spare me the embarrassment of being called on basic misspellings, usually the result of typing as fast as I think.  Imagine how much better your results would be if you spent time reviewing your work instead of searching for the shortcomings of others (and in turn…)

2. You will develop professionally and find opportunity to develop others. Leaders are people who have generated trust within their organizations. If you are known for being the Negative Nancy in the group, it will be less likely that the development of others will be entrusted to you, especially since it’s proof that you may still need to develop.

3. You will build bridges among your peers. Everyone can be drawn to an encouraging spirit while few enjoy the presence of a naysayer. What’s your network like? You can often identify the perception that others have of you in your moment of greatest need. When I experienced a lay off, years ago, it was easy to reach out to others that would WANT to help me.

4. It’s an attitude enhancer. Looking for the flaws of others is a “bitter making undertaking” (a little Mary Poppins style poetry).

5. You will be happier with your own performance and position. As tough as it may be, the actual outcome is more pleasant when you review your results in light of your previous performance, not others. A win for me may not be a win for you.

6. The merits of your position will be amplified when you’re not comparing yourself to others. Comparing your day-to-day experience with someone in another department, role, etc. won’t help you appreciate the benefits of your daily experience.  I used to hear complaints about the amount of money that salespeople would make in comparison with other areas of the business (operations, accounting), these apples to oranges narratives didn’t make sense and created irrational levels of dissatisfaction.  (for the record, you may not want to be in a position that has no pay when you don’t meet metrics although you have shown up everyday!).

7. Your frame of mind will change. Consistently searching for the negative will crowd your thoughts with exactly that, however, focusing on the positive when you find your mind drifting will be the best measure toward mental fortitude in any situation.

8. How people perceive you will change. It’s easy to say that you don’t care what others think of you but when the perception begins to impact your professional experience it also changes your performance in many cases.

9. Your mistakes will be more accepted (and trust me you will need this benevolence at some point). People will give you the benefit of the doubt when you are known to do the same.

10. You won’t risk uncomfortable personal interchanges at work. Repeating things that you hear puts you in the place of being challenged over unprofessional behavior that can have far-reaching ramifications.

Can you recall a time that you were distracted by the performance or perception of others? How has focusing on your performance enhanced your professional experience?

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18 thoughts on “Eyes On Your Own Paper!

  1. I have a friend that often tells her children to “take care of yourself and not bother with your brother/ sister” This is the same idea. It is better to focus on what you are doing, what you have, and where you are going than to revel in someone else’s life. 🙂

    • Exactly! The process of watching others bothers me even more when I think about how often it is the result of a negative mindset!
      It’s a great lesson for kids. I never let my children talk about what the other was doing and as teens they are good at forming their argument/case or opinion on their own merit. I wish that more people learned this as kids.

  2. I love it. Keep you eyes on your paper. If people worried about themselves and not what everyone else around them, they would accomplish more. I have promotional products internet business and I can’t tell how many times I can see that someone has copied me. It is frustrating. I don’t have time to focus on what someone else is doing, I have a task just keeping up with my own business. When you do something that is different you stand out, but if everyone is focusing on what the other person is doing and not being creative on their, then no one is unique. I loved your post. Great writing.

    • Thanks Arleen, you make a great point! Imagine if every artist stopped focusing on their craft to worry about others, we wouldn’t have any innovation. Your world is highly competitive (I’ve worked for and work for similiar industry), there’s always a start-up or upstart waiting to do what you have already done so I’m sure it wouldn’t make sense to be focused on that if you ever wanted to accomplish a goal.
      Your response makes me think of Madonna and Lady Gaga. Everyone talks about Gaga stealing Madonna’s style but you rarely hear about Madonna responding to it, she’s too busy creating something else for people to copy.

  3. True you have to look at yourself first and not take the easy option of blaming others for what goes wrong in your life – and take credit for what works out. You also have to take responsibility for your own success, and not rely on things to just happen to you. Or be given to you by others.

    • Agreed. I think in this case I have found that people aren’t even thinking about their own success or attempting to place blame they are simply just focused on the wrong thing at work, including watching what others are doing just for the sake of petty conversation.

  4. I know that there are students, children and adults who have this problem. Chances are it stems from low self-confidence somewhere along the way. That said though, I don’t remember ever having that problem. I figured my chances of getting a good grade was as good as anyone else’s. I didn’t feel the need to look at someone else’s paper. In the work place, there were things that I didn’t know that someone else was bound to know, so I would ask the person to show me or teach me. To me it’s been common sense to be upfront and honest with a positive attitude. Negativeness just causes problems.

    (BTW, I didn’t study for my SATs. If I wasn’t paying attention to my studies during school hours, it’s my own fault. However, my scores were high enough that I got a scholarship to a state university.)

    • I don’t think studying for the SATs is about getting good grades in school, there are many kids (especially in this time that is MUCH more competitive) that are taking standardized tests that are much broader than the average course load or just don’t test well. I ended up with a 1560 on a scale of 1600—but that’s another post for another day.

      For me keeping your eyes on your own paper is about the concept that people are paying too much attention to what other’s are doing. Everyone wants to be the “keeper of the keys” and often in situations that don’t warrant it. Whether it’s dropping levels of self confidence, lack of introspect or just our inherent nature to now find something “wrong” with others, I don’t know but it’s limiting.

  5. First, your grandma was one smart lady. This is a LIFE lesson and I applaud your efforts in teaching it to your daughter. The guy that has to raise himself up by standing on the back of a colleague he knocked down will, in the end, fail. And he won’t need anyone to help him. My grandmother used to say….”Don’t do a thing….he’s going to hang himself”

    • Thanks Jacqueline, it’s amazing what someone with an elementary education has been able to impart to me. Her lessons to me much farther than a lot of my classroom education. I agree with your grandmother’s advice as well, usually the person that is pointing out the sins of others ends up dealing with his/hers in a very public way!

  6. One of the things I am eternally grateful about is growing up when I did. Life is so much more complicated, needlessly. these days. Your last question was, How has focusing on your performance enhanced your professional experience? I find if I compare where I am, what and how I am doing with other people, there is not a winner: someone either comes up short or rates better. It’s not really a win. However if I focus on my own performance and without a comparison of what I did just yesterday, I always come up with a thumbs up. Insightful post – thanks.

    Patricia Weber, LinkedIn Group BHB

    • Thanks Patricia! This is the perspective that I was focusing on with the article, although others make good points about knowing what their peers are doing.
      I do find it hard to believe that being as engaged with what’s happening on your peers desk (unless it’s a direct impact to what you do) as what’s happening on your own will make you better. There are ways to compete without being caught up in the nay saying that focusing on others will often bring.

  7. I was recently reading about transparency in the workplace as one of the ways employers are dealing with employee engagement and productivity. Everything is open, what people are working on week to week, how they have met their goals, when they have failed to meet goals and even how they are compensated for their performance. It has increased productivity, but I imagine its not the kind of work atmosphere that everyone would enjoy. What I thought was particularly interesting is that it cut down on all that foolish commentary and office gossip. Apparently, when everyone can see everyone else’s paper it can have the same impact as keeping your eyes on your own paper.

    • Thanks for reading as usual Debra!

      As someone who’s always worked in the transparent sales world, I don’t have a problem with the amount of information shared among colleagues, etc, as a matter of fact, when I was a headhunter we had to post our goals on the wall and answer weekly/monthly/quarterly to questions about our progression or lack of. That process taught me a lot, particularly, how to focus on the goals so that I wouldn’t have to focus on the excuse for why I didn’t make it!
      If knowing what everyone was doing worked this way throughout an organization and had an impact, it would be great, but we will always have the influential and diverse factor of human behavior, which makes me doubt the ability for this to resolve the negativity—although it would be great and any reduction can be perceived as good.
      I think with this article my primary concern is “looking at everyone’s paper” from a non-manager, non-corporate tool perspective. If everyone can see the paper of their neighbor and they aren’t sidetracked by it (look at his territory, look at his salary, etc) then great!

  8. I see the wisdom both of your post, Stephanie, and also the counter-wisdom of what Debra is saying. We have got to be centered in what we are doing, rather than on what others are accomplishing (Stephanie’s insight). At the same time, the context we’re in is very important for us to know, and for that context to be transparent rather than murky makes us smarter, and evidently less prone to worry and gossip (Debra’s insight).

    I did sales for my own art business for more than a decade. The only person to compete with (at least directly) was myself. Or I should say, I was competing to see if I could pay all my bills (in many cases I lost that competition :(. Fast forward a decade or two: I now manage $13 million worth of rural-transit grants for the state of Oregon. My workplace is all about collaboration. Competition just isn’t part of the paradigm. We can all succeed together, and most of the time, that’s what we do. I love my work.

    What concerns me about the competition paradigm (“sell as much as you can as fast as you can”) is that it assumes endless economic growth is possible. But the natural resource base on which our economy and our lives depend is very finite. For example, clean water is becoming scarcer and scarcer. And we’re burning fossil fuels faster and faster, which escalates climate change, and the droughts, wildfires and Hurricane Sandy type events that are profoundly destructive.

    I’d love to see us all embrace healthy competition for who can use the SMALLEST amount of precious natural resources to create the highest quality of life. That would be my kind of competition. Which would really be a collaboration.

    Thanks for a good post, Stephanie. And thanks for your good comment at Diamond-Cut Life.

    • Thanks for coming by Alison, I appreciate it!

      Like you, I agree with Debra’s perspective in that regard and because I’ve been required to work in a very transparent environment. I think the uncontrolled factor will be the amount of time watching what others do/are doing as opposed to being satisfied with your own results.

      No problem with transparency (outside of pay perhaps) but my focus is how people seem to be caught up in the review of what everyone is doing instead of how much better they can be.

      Love the differing points of view that everyone is bringing to this! I wonder how comfortable we would all be if our salaries were put on the table for all to see?

  9. StephB, this is an interesting topic. Does it also apply to eavesdropping on phone conversations? Would “ears on your own conversation” also be a good rule of thumb?

    • Thanks Gill and yes, the same rules should apply! I don’t know if it’s my NYC roots or what but I tend to be a “mind your own business” kind of girl (for lack of better terms). I don’t feel the inherent need to know what’s happening in another department or with another employee unless it directly impacts my job. One of my major focuses is outdoing my best because I’m confident that I will always be on top of MY game that way.

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