Inspiration for the workplace

Seeking approval and being competitive at work is a waste of time

ABC Life

/ By Lisa Leong

If you’re spending time fostering your image as a workplace superhero, we have some news for you.(Pexels: Bruce Mars/ABC Life: Nathan Nankervis)

Do you get upset when a boss doesn’t acknowledge your brilliant work? Do you stop contributing because “nobody seems to care”, or spend time and mental energy in silent competition with your colleagues?

Perhaps you should stop doing these things. Immediately.

This is advice from author Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi, a philosopher and academic specialising in psychology.

Together they wrote The Courage to be Disliked, a bestseller we chose to kick off a new book club on our radio program, This Working Life. The purpose of “Lisa’s Book Club” is to discuss books that can be applied to work. Ones that “optimise”, but also books that may make you happier and more fulfilled.

Joining me for our inaugural meeting were Catherine Robson, award-winning financial adviser, and associate professor Patrick Stokes, the coolest (and only) philosopher I know.

There are two critical lessons from the book that I found particularly worthy of unpacking, and which contain a lot of practical advice you might take for a spin.

Lesson 1: Stop seeking recognition and approval at work

Two years ago I started a company with Tristan, a friend I’ve known for 25 years.

At the beginning, I kept wondering why Tristan didn’t tell me how much he values my contribution. I wondered this every day.

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Six months in, when I complained about it, he reflected, “Lisa, you are a bottomless pit for compliments. I will never be able to fill it!”

His comment made me wonder why I needed this verbal affirmation. We chose to run a business together, so he obviously values my contribution.

Applying this lesson from The Courage to be Disliked has helped me tap into an internal compass for my work, rather than looking for external guidance and validation.

The result has been incredibly freeing. In fact, my work product is so much better as a result. Don’t you think, Tristan? Oh. Whoops.

Lesson 2: Life is not a competition

Consider the following scenario: you’re in your monthly team gathering and your boss singles out a co-worker for praise. Honestly, how are you feeling? Warm and fuzzy, basking in the collective glow, or a bit jealous and angry at yourself for not having a similar win?

Does it feel like it somehow takes something away from your own contribution?

Almost controversially, this lesson proposes that life is not a competition. A competitive world view, which the book calls a “life lie” (wow, take that, competitive people!), gets in the way of your real work.

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Your focus is to improve yourself, without competing or comparing yourself with anyone. Our true comparison is with our own better or ideal self.

If you need something visual to grasp this lesson better, consider relationships as “horizontal, not vertical”. Instead of picturing a staircase, where you are climbing up, pushing past others to get to the top, replace that with a picture of a level playing field on which people are moving forward. Some of those people are moving forward behind you.

So why isn’t life a competition? According to the authors, it is because we are all “different but equal”.

The philosopher in the book explains it this way:

“Look, all of us are different. Gender, age, knowledge, experience, appearance — no two of us are exactly the same. Let’s acknowledge in a positive manner the fact that other people are different from us. And that we are not the same, but we are equal.”

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Far from feeling guilty about doing nothing, it’s important to actually schedule it into your day.

In our book club, Patrick did note a practical point. In a work context, this lesson runs up against the whole infrastructure of how we set up modern workplaces and industries.

“Even in academia, we are measured very closely on how much we produce and where we publish,” he says.

Patrick reflects that even if this approach is right, be aware of the opposing forces of your current work structures.

The Courage to be Disliked questions whether the rise up the corporate greasy pole should be the ultimate aim anyway: “People want to climb the corporate ladder for status — it’s the desire for recognition. But if you get that recognition, have you really found happiness?”

Has your workplace managed to create a horizontal rather than vertical structure?

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Practical things you might try this week1.Do one thing at work that you believe, in your heart, should be done and which you can derive pleasure from undertaking. Do not seek any acknowledgement, recognition or reward for performing this task.2.Chant “all relationships are horizontal and not vertical — life is not a competition” (we’ll give you permission to do this bit quietly, or just to yourself, in the bathroom) — then speak up with your view in a team meeting and contribute your equal voice.3.When a team member does something well, bask in the collective glow, knowing that your unique energy contributed to the success of the whole team.

Lisa Leong is the radio host of This Working Life on ABC RN. Listen to the episode here, and head to the program page where you can hear “Lisa’s Book Club”. Up next, The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin.


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