I hadn’t seen Joe for a while and then I bumped into him recently. We got chatting and he was trying to recall what I do for a living. Joe said: “You’re in the err…. self-improvement business, aren’t you?” I tried to explain to him that we own a staff training and leadership development company but he’d already made up his mind up we were in the “self-improvement” business. So, I just let it be.
Traveling home, I chewed over those two words: “self” and “improvement” and came to the conclusion — these are two words when put together are the exact opposite of what we endeavor to do in our business. My observation is: a focus on self is what got many people into the pickle they’re in. The bookshelves of many an old-school bookstore along with the virtual shelves of many an online retailer is filled with books about “self-improvement.”
The work we do with people and organizations all around the world is to help them focus on principles and not self. Principles are objective — they’re not subjective. Principles exist without our permission. Principles are external to us and they’re universal — they apply to all. A natural principle would be gravity. I mean, you can say you don’t agree with gravity and make the claim that it’s subjective. You can declare to the world that gravity doesn’t work for you and doesn’t apply to you but if you jump off the top of a building guess what wins?
See, principles govern. At work we see the Law of the Harvest at play — we do reap what we sow. At work we see the Golden Rule at play — if we treat people in a way we ourselves would like to be treated we tend to have effective and efficient work relations. If we’ve been given the noble, honorable responsibility to supervise the work of others, we yield good results if we see ourselves as a servant leader rather than lording it over others as if they were our servile minions.
I hope I bump into Joe again. I’d like to tell him we’re really in the “principle business”. We encourage people and organizations to align their perceptions and their behaviors with principles to make the world of work a better place to be. Perceptions are the windows through which we see our world. Even though we’ve all heard the line: “Perception is reality” — it’s simply not true. I am sure we can all think of an example where our perceptions were shifted because we took on new information and saw the situation for what it really is.
Sometimes perceptions are called paradigms, which comes from the Latin word: “paradigma” which means “mental map” or the “pattern we expect to see”. Sometimes the windows through which we see the world are cracked, dirty or facing the wrong way. Our behaviors come from our perceptions. Behaviors are no more complicated than what we say; what we don’t say; what we do and what we don’t do. The results we get at work, (as well as in our personal lives) come from our behaviors. People don’t know what our frame of reference is — they cannot see our perceptions. Our workplace colleagues, family and friends only experience our behaviors.
I’d even go so far as to claim that what we say doesn’t count in the workplace as much as what we do. A quote often assigned to Sir. Winston Churchill is: “I no longer listen to what people say, I just watch what they do. Behavior never lies.” So no, we’re not in the self-improvement business. I have observed that when people at work focus on “self” they tend to only have three close colleagues — Me, Myself and I.
The history of work is peppered with stories of leaders who focused on self and how ultimately and eventually the sin of self-focus tapped them on the shoulder. When they turned round to see who it was they saw themselves in the mirror and then it all began to crack and crumble.
So Joe: no we’re not in the “self-improvement business”. If anything, you could say we’re in the “self-denial business”.