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?