How to prioritize and why you should do it
When I run courses on Time Management I always ask people what it is they need to learn about. A topic that never fails to come up is prioritization.
People really struggle with this task. It’s a vital skill in many areas and for many roles. Recently a candidate in a recruitment I was helping with did a task on prioritization and gave one of the best answers I have ever seen to a prioritization task. Here is part of it:
“It would help to see your mission statement.”
No one else has ever asked for that.
Prioritization depends on what you are trying to achieve. Once you know what that is you can identify a set of criteria to help you carry out your prioritization.
The problem is further up
The problem for many of the attendees on my workshops is that the people further up in
their organizations don’t know what their priorities are. This makes it impossible for those further down.
Even worse are places where the priorities are constantly changing. This is one of the best ways to reduce anyone’s performance. If you have worked for someone who keeps changing their mind about what they want you to do, I won’t need to tell you how bad it can be.
Prioritization is about being able to make decisions easily
You have to be able to look at a task and decide if it is a priority or not. To do this, you need clear criteria. It’s like having a sieve to put everything through.
Not being able to prioritize
People in this situation often dither or change their minds, which can lead to nothing being achieved – a very frustrating situation for everyone.
To find out what the criteria are in a specific situation, first identify your objective (what you need to achieve) and then ask yourself:
“What’s important about this?”
Let’s take a simple personal example. Let’s say you need to buy a pair of shoes. Ask yourself: “What’s important about the shoes?” Depending on the situation it could be all kinds of things. In my case it would be things like:
I can walk easily in them
They match a specific kind of outfit
I can drive in them
They are within a specific budget (OK, I admit I don’t use this one very often….)
I can get them by a specific date
They will last for years (this is a constant one for me)
They are flat
They are waterproof
If the team you are in is clear about its objectives and priorities you will find life is much easier. It means people can immediately decide what to do in virtually any situation.
The results you can get with effective prioritization
Many years ago I was fortunate enough to see this skill ably demonstrated by the new manager of a university library. Running a university library can be a thankless task. Liz sent a memo round to all the department heads in her first month explaining to them all what the priorities would be:
Month 1 – Finding out from all the department heads what they needed from the library
Month 2 – Working out a plan to meet their needs, when she would send them a copy of that plan. She asked them not to bother asking her to do anything else during that time. As a result of this there was much moaning and grumbling.
However, within six months she had changed the library beyond all recognition and my colleagues kept coming up to me and asking me if I’d been to the library and seen just how much better it was. (Sadly none of them made the link between her prioritization skills and the improvements.)
By prioritizing Liz was able to get her whole team focused on achieving each step of the plan at a time, which turned out to be much more efficient and effective than the bumbling random efforts of other colleagues.
A small amount of effort up front can make a big difference
It can be a bit tedious putting the effort in at the beginning to work out your priorities and your criteria, but it pays off. You end up achieve more for less effort. That’s got to be worth it.
Why objectives should be written in the positive
It’s all very well making your objectives SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) but that misses one other key aspect of objectives and that is that they need to be written in the positive.
When you are managing performance this is really important.
Why is this?
Don’t get that lawnmower.
Many years ago, we were in the process of buying a new lawnmower. A friend of ours had bought a very expensive petrol one that almost immediately broken down and seemed to be un-fixable.
So as my husband left to go to the lawnmower shop I said to him “Don’t do what Simon did.” Meaning get something reasonably priced that will keep going for a few years and do a good job.
Unfortunately, he went rather off-piste. He spent more than twice as much as Simon had on the petrol lawnmower and came back with the latest technology in the back of the car. He was delighted with it, of course. I wasn’t so pleased. But I realised it was my fault.
Instead of being really clear about what I thought we should be doing, I’d merely said what I didn’t want him to do. And he had followed those instructions. He hadn’t bought a petrol lawnmower. He hadn’t spent what Simon had spent. He’d spent much more.
The problem with negative objectives
This is exactly the problem when you agree negative objectives. It gives people a license to do all kinds of things that you hadn’t even imagined. And most stupidly, it doesn’t make clear what they need to achieve.
But what about health and safety objectives?
One of the most common negative objectives is this kind “No accidents” or “No safety hazards”.
Sometimes it’s hard to think of what you do want when you have been living with objectives like these for years. But it is possible. In the case of these health and safety objectives you want “A safe working environment”.
The other reason for not setting negative objectives
You probably know this one. If I ask you not to think of elephants, you can’t help but think of elephants. It’s just the way your brain works. However, I bet when you read that you didn’t think of rabbits (not till now anyway).
Take some time to be clear about what you need to achieve and what you need others to achieve and you will find you will the results you need.
Does Emotional Intelligence help you at work?
Did you watch the Wimbledon men’s final? I feel like I lost about a stone during the
exhausting three sets. (It was probably worse for the finalists though.)
If you watched any of the finals, you couldn’t have failed to notice that the emotional state of the players makes a massive difference to their chances of winning. Just watching one of Andy Murray’s first serves crash into the net, or him lose three match points is enough to show you how much nerves and stress really affect the performance of these athletes.
When you a player dejected at the loss of a point, or a ‘bad’ call by the line judge or upset after an ‘unforced errors’ in tennis language (‘mistakes’ in normal language) you know they are not going to play as well as normal.
Some manage to pull themselves round in time (usually the winners) but others don’t.
How does emotional intelligence help?
It’s clear that both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are amazingly fit and extremely skilled. They have done masses of training to get themselves fit and spent decades learning their craft so their level of skill is quite stunning. The trouble is that to be able to use those skills most effectively you also need emotional intelligence.
Key aspects of emotional intelligence include:
- Recognizing emotions, both in yourself and others
- Understanding what each emotion means
- Knowing which emotion will help you at the time
- Being able to access the emotional state for success in both in yourself and in others
Have you ever found yourself willing players to ‘snap out of it’ or to ‘pull themselves together’? But if you’ve ever been in that situation yourself (well, I don’t mean playing in a Wimbledon final, just the normal tricky situations you encounter), you know it’s just not that easy.
I have heard people say that you can’t learn those kinds of skills. That’s completely untrue. You can. In fact, Andy Murray is a great example of someone who has. If you are old enough to remember Bjorn Borg, the tall, silent Swede who won Wimbledon five times, you may be surprised to learn that he too had trouble in this are.
When he was in his teens, he was prone to outbursts that rivaled even John McEnroe, so his tennis club banned him for a year. During that time he learned to control his temper.
Doing a good job means you need to be able to access the right emotions so that you can use your skills to their best advantage.
Do you ever wallow in self-pity?
It’s very easy to find yourself wallowing in self-pity when things go wrong. The trouble is you aren’t always aware that you are doing it (though it’s all too easy to tell when your colleagues are). And even if you are aware, you don’t always know how to stop wallowing.
But it is vital, because, as we see from the tennis players, the wrong emotions have quite a drastic impact on your level of skill and your judgment. This is not just true for tennis players.
Can you improve your emotional intelligence?
Yes, absolutely. You need to practice, just like Andy Murray and Bjorn Borg.
Where do you start?
Here are a few steps to get yourself going:
- Actively pay attention to your moods. You might want to write them down.
- Identify what your mood is when you are performing well and what it is when you are performing not so well.
- Notice how you move yourself from one mood to another.
- Start practicing actively accessing the moods you find most useful.
The more you practice the easier it will be.
I’m not suggesting you’ll be winning Wimbledon any time soon, but what you will find is that you will be able to make much better use of the skills you do have, whatever field you are in. So, the ball’s in your court.
Should you recruit people you don’t like?
This is a question that often comes up. Recently I’ve seen two examples of clients who have recruited people mainly because they liked them more than other candidates who seemed more suitable.
It hasn’t gone well in either case.
The trouble with recruiting people you like
If you are going to recruit people you like, you need to be clear what it is you like about them, why that is the case and most particularly, if that means they will be able to do a good job. Sometimes you might like them because they tell you the things you want to hear, or it might be that they seem like fun.
Recruiting people who tell you what you want to hear can be very dangerous. Whilst it’s great to work with people who are fun to work with, it’s also important they have the skills you need in the role.
People you don’t like
Just as it’s useful to work out why you like the candidates you like, it’s also extremely useful to identify specifically what it is you don’t like about a candidate, especially if they have all the skills you are looking for. And also to be clear that sometimes, the very fact they have those skills may make them less likeable.
Our bookkeeper, Ros
You may recall that Ros, our dear bookkeeper for many years, died in December. We still
miss her a great deal. You probably don’t know that I didn’t completely like her when I recruited her.
I know what I’m like when it comes to expenses and all that boring paperwork stuff. I’m not very good on the detail and I make mistakes. I also don’t particularly enjoy having people point out my mistakes. But I know it’s important to get the figures right.
So when I was interviewing for this post, I was deliberately looking for someone who I found a bit irritating. Someone who would nit-pick and wouldn’t give up until they had the information they needed. Someone who would not be put off by my excuses of being too busy to do my expenses (have you ever tried that one?). That was Ros.
I soon got to like her
What I found was that, over a few months, I grew to like her. It was clear that she wasn’t just being annoying to annoy me. She was picking up issues to help, and she did it in a way that was as painless as possible. It was obvious she was good at the job and knew what she was doing. So usually she managed to point out my mistakes in a way that I could cope with and even laugh at. She was very honest at telling me about things that could and could not be done. Even when it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
Sometimes there are good reasons for disliking candidates
If you think someone is lying or they behave unpleasantly towards others, these could be good reasons not to take them on, no matter how good they are technically.
The important thing is to make sure you are clear about your reasons and that they make sense. I often work with people who are, to put it delicately, not very well organised. They know they need to be organised, but they tend to get on better with disorganised people who are more like themselves. This is understandable, but it can cause problems.
To misquote Oscar Wilde: To recruit one disorganised person, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To recruit two looks like carelessness. (Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest”.)
Get your specification clear and have the courage to stick to it, even if, sometimes, it means you might have to suffer a little initial discomfort. It usually pays off in the end.
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