3 Ways to Up Your Game at Work

By Erica Ariel Fox

Florian wanted to up his game. His recent review went fine. But he wasn’t getting noticed by the higher-ups. Jeff had the opposite problem. His evaluator said he took up too much air time at meetings, concluding with a pointed jab: “you know, Jeff, every time things go wrong, I look around and find you with your hand in the cookie jar.”

Where Florian needed to step up, Jeff needed to step back. But how?

Whether we’re establishing new work habits or just trying to waste less time surfing the internet, change is hard. We like to do what we’ve always done. It’s easy. Familiar. There’s a reason we call what we already know our “comfort zone.” It’s cozy in there.

Of course, for the very same reason, we don’t call it the “breakthrough zone.”

So, what can you do to take yourself to the next level? How can you perform better tomorrow than you do today?

Here are 3 ways to up your game:

Find Your Starting Line

Real change starts with knowing where you are right now, as well as where you want to go. Only then can you chart a course from point A to point B. Most of us skip right over the part where we discover what’s happening now. We want things to change, so we set goals. We tell ourselves that when we reach them, everything will be better. Dreamy. Perfect.

Never mind that you’ve never volunteered for a project before in your life. Starting today you will raise your hand for any opportunity that comes across your desk. Come to think of it, why stop there? Maybe something fantastic is hiding nearby, maybe under the desk? You’ll look anywhere and everywhere for ways to stretch yourself.

Trouble is, there’s an explanation for why you’re not volunteering now (nor for the previous decade). You have your reasons. And little is likely to change until you figure out what they are. Before you race off toward the finish line, put in the effort to understand what drives you to make the choices you do now. Like Fraulein Maria sang in The Sound of Music’s “Do Re Mi,” the beginning is a very fine place to start.

Plan for Pit Stops

In performing the job you already do, you burn lots of fuel every day. Now you’re upping your game. Challenging yourself. Trying new things. Metaphorically speaking, you’re firing on all cylinders because you’re drawing out all the power you can from yourself.

Race cars do that, too. Their engines burn fuel at extreme rates. But to succeed, they don’t act like that indefinitely. On the contrary, an effective pit strategy – planning how many stops and which repairs to do when — plays a key role in winning.

The same is true for you.

As you expand your capacity or develop new skills, you need time to catch your breath. Time to reflect, to integrate what you’re learning, to celebrate your progress. I’ve seen countless professionals start down the path of change only to get overwhelmed or burned-out before they reach their goals.

Only you know the best way to use your “pit stops.” Could be as simple as taking five minutes every morning to jot down a few thoughts about how things are going. Maybe it’s a full-blown stop, where you take a week off, or you attend a training workshop where you can learn from mistakes that don’t matter in the real world. However you do it, make sure to plan when and how you’ll re-fuel along the way.

Value Good Sportsmanship

In competitive sports, we hear the axiom that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Of course we know that’s not true on the ball field. And it’s certainly not true at work. How we behave toward people, whether we treat our colleagues fairly, if we respect and follow the law: all of this pertains to how we succeed, and that matters a great deal.

Good sportsmanship in the context of getting ahead at work, though, can mean more than fair play toward your opponents. It’s about enjoying the development of your mastery for its own sake. Yes, you might earn a promotion. Get a bonus. Become Employee of the Month. Those are excellent rewards for your effort, but they’re not the whole point of playing the game.

While striving to please your boss, get a raise, or hit higher quarterly targets are all valuable goals, external measures of success will take you only so far. As Arianna Huffington writes about in her new book Thrive, you want to pursue success that gives you intrinsicsatisfaction. It’s the victories that feel good even though nobody knows about them. It’s taking pleasure in seeing yourself learn, simply because growing is fundamental to living. It’s recognizing that upping your game involves not just reaching a new finish line, but also truly savoring the race along the way.

To learn about leading change by leading from within, see Nate Boaz and Erica Ariel Fox, “Change Leader, Change Thyself” McKinsey Quarterly, April 2014.

Erica Ariel Fox is a founding partner at Mobius Executive Leadership, a lecturer in negotiation at Harvard Law School, and a senior adviser to McKinsey Leadership Development. She is the author of Winning from Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change (HarperBusiness, 2013).

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