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How to Beat the Winter Blues

hhibner —  February 10, 2017 — 2 Comments

 

young women reading in the show with title How to Beat the Winter Blues

I consider myself very fortunate to be quite healthy mentally. I do not suffer from anxiety or depression and am generally quite well adjusted. I do, however, find myself a little more on edge this time of year. Season affective disorder, maybe? I wouldn’t say it hinders me from doing my job, but I could definitely use an attitude adjustment right around the third week of January! My threshold for discomfort, my ability to take on new challenges, and my general excitement for my job wane. I am human, after all.

Some strategies I use to combat the winter blues include:

Exercise

It releases endorphins. It makes you feel good. It gives you energy.

Go outside

Get some sunshine. One of my co-workers religiously goes for a walk every afternoon, and that is just the smartest idea. I like to walk on my mornings off, but her dedication is even more effective.

Minimize stressful situations

Of course, this is good advice year round, but I have a better ability to deal with things the rest of the year, so in January I need to even more actively avoid stress! According to my Birkman, when stressed I am likely to become distracted and indecisive. I should avoid huge projects where decisions are necessary and situations where I need to focus very carefully. Unfortunately, we are in the throes of strategic planning at my library right now, and January is also employee performance review time, and next week I will experience my first ALA Midwinter conference as a Councilor-at-Large. I can’t avoid any of those things, so I need to approach them in a careful way where I have a lot of time to plan and think and be my usual introverted self. My comfort zone is…well, comforting when I’m stressed.

Build in fun

The parts of my job that I love the most are working with Interns, weeding my collections, and being on-desk. I do more of these things this time of year because they make me happy. For me, these are low stress and high reward activities.


As a leader, I also need to recognize that my co-workers may be suffering more this time of year too. I need to give them what they need, and encourage them to take walks and be healthy. I also need to help them to understand why I may be a bit more prickly than usual.

Nothing personal, it’s just February.

My library is currently undertaking strategic planning. As part of the process, our consultants (Right Management) are also leading us though “employee engagement.” Employee engagement is the extent that employees are committed to their jobs and, in our case, the library as a whole. Employees who are more engaged in their work and in the organization are generally more dedicated to helping achieve the goals of the institution. To this end, our employees were invited to take a test called the Birkman.

The Birkman identifies your interests, your normal actions, your stress actions, and your needs. The stress actions are those you display when your needs are not met. The report places a different symbol in one of four colored squares on a grid to graphically display where you fall in each of these categories. There is a red square (expediter), a green square (communicator), a yellow square (administrator), and a blue square (planner). There are also implications for task-oriented vs. people-oriented and direct vs. indirect, tangible vs. intangible, and louder vs. quieter. Apparently, my normal actions and interests fall strongly in the yellow square and my stress actions and needs are in the green square, but fairly close to the blue square. No surprises there!

Grid with four quadrants: Expediter, Communicator, Administrator, and PlannerThe Birkman also suggests careers that are most suited to you based on all of these things. Apparently I’d make a heck of an administrator, but should also consider literary, scientific, and numerical occupations. Of course, I’m not career-searching, but together these descriptions validate my career choice as a librarian middle manager: administrator = management, literary = information/books, scientific = research, and numerical = analytical/metrics. Those are all descriptions of me and my work, so it seems pretty accurate.

The employees who chose to take the Birkman were promised anonymity. We are all welcome to share our results as we see fit and self-disclose our results – and many did – but some people took the test for their own personal interest and have not shared the outcome. That’s totally fine! The idea behind sharing is so that you understand each other better and form the most efficient team possible, but there is certainly no rule that says anyone has to share their report. I believe strongly in personal privacy, so I’m glad everyone got the choice to participate (or not) and to share their results (or not). We were shown a composite grid with symbols representing each employee who took the test to see how we as an organization are distributed on the chart. There were no identifying characteristics – just a dot on the chart for each person – but it was interesting to see that the librarians mostly fell in the blue square, the administrative staff fell mostly in the yellow square, and as a whole staff we were fairly evenly distributed throughout the grid. The green square was the least-represented.

I’m fine with sharing my results, so I’ll give an example of how I could use my Birkman results. When projects are doled out for our strategic plan, I will happily volunteer for administrative projects that include things like quantifying results, measuring achievement, monitoring progress, or implementing a system. Those are all interests within the yellow square of the grid. I will avoid innovating, getting people to “buy in,” and selling or promoting services. Those are green square interests. (Remember, my green square identifiers were only for stress actions and needs. My normal actions and interests are in the yellow.) Also, I will be aware that my needs do not necessarily match my actions. I may show a proclivity for administrative activities, but I also have a need to keep unnecessary rules to a minimum, not overschedule myself, and vary my tasks. Those are the green square needs. When my yellow square interests are not met, my stress behaviors are defined by the green square, so I may become unsociable, easily sidetracked, and argumentative. (Who, me?)

The Birkman is much more complicated than I can go into in a blog post, but hopefully you get the idea of what the Birkman is and how it can be used for employee engagement. As with anything like this, I will take my results with a grain of salt and use it as a general guide for consideration. It won’t change who I am or how I behave – and it isn’t meant to. However, it just might make me communicate better with my co-workers and more efficient in my approach to projects.

pencil in book with text "don't let perfect prevent finished"

Do you find it difficult to make decisions without analyzing every single minute detail? Do you hone in on specific words people say and try to decipher their meaning in a variety of contexts? Do you find that even simple projects take more time than you anticipated because you can’t get past the initial steps? If you said yes to any of those questions, then you, my friend, are an over thinker.

There is a fine balance between being thoughtful and over thinking. You want to consider the bigger picture and put energy and attention into your work, but when the “if x then y” scenarios turn into an unmanageable list of possibilities, you’ve missed the point entirely.

Here’s an example. At a three-day conference I attended recently, we were asked to create a short presentation that creatively outlined the ideas we had learned in the workshop. My group performed a silly infomercial, which was horribly embarrassing, but which was well-received. Another group did a fairy tale skit that was dramatic and hilarious. One group, though, did nothing. They admitted, once they saw what the other groups had come up with, that they had overthought the whole concept. They were either unable to get past their performance hang ups, misunderstood the assignment, or maybe even disagreed on the learning outcomes of the workshop. Whatever it was, they never got past the first step of coming up with an idea to present.

Now think of the things you do at work every day and how you might overthink those projects. I make service desk schedules, and that is definitely an area where I overthink! I spend more time than is probably necessary making sure my co-workers get their favorite shifts at their favorite desks, making sure everyone has a break, making sure there is always backup available for Interns and Reference Assistants, making sure there are always Librarians in Charge in the building, making sure the right desks are double-covered at the right times on the right days…it’s enough to make me twitchy just writing about it! And yet, I know that every person on our reference staff is perfectly capable of working at any desk at any time, that they will fill in for each other if asked, that they will step up when needed, and they don’t really need me to orchestrate to such a degree. It will all be fine. Wow, look at that – I’m cured!

If only it were that easy. When our name is attached to a project, we want it to reflect our standards. Sometimes, though, too much planning is detrimental, and as you can see in the workshop example above nothing ends up getting completed.

Practicing mindfulness is a strategy that over-thinkers can try. Worry less about past mistakes and future possibilities and make decisions that are positive right now. The workshop group could have simply made a poster that reflected their indecision. A crazy Venn diagram or flow chart that imitated their discussion would have been fine. It wouldn’t have been the best presentation, but it would have been honest and productive, and would also have met the parameters of the assignment. It would have been something.

Another idea is to limit your choices. I’ve been on committees that spent hours on chair arrangement for a workshop, or on what to serve for lunch, or on what color the button on a new web site should be. I’ve also been on committees that were given a limited list of choices from which to pick, and they managed to choose a room setup, a lunch menu, and a color scheme all in under an hour. Give yourself limited choices for regular activities and you can simply make a quick decision.

Be creative where it counts. If the choices are buff vs. cream, then even a mistake isn’t that costly. Put your time and energy into the decisions that really matter and let go of the rest. Don’t overthink it.

In 2010, Green Peak Partners and Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations conducted a study about the importance of self-awareness as a trait for leaders. They found that a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of success. I am not surprised by this.

photo of a brown owl looking in a mirror

cc-by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes

Over the years I have met a few professionals who, when I hear them speak, I think “Yes! I agree completely!” Their philosophies match my own perfectly. However, then I find that their methods of following through on their ideas are actually demoralizing to staff, controlling, or insensitive. Their actions do not match the inspiration and enthusiasm of their words. Maybe they mistake aggression for assertiveness and are actually just a jerk with good ideas, or maybe they have no idea how they are coming across to others. That is, they mean well but have no self-awareness.

When hiring leaders, we should ask the candidates about how they accomplish their work, rather than just be impressed by the laundry list of important projects they have completed. We should also be sure that when we call their professional references, we ask about the candidates’ self-awareness. Not just “What are their strengths and weaknesses?”, but “How do they improve themselves?” and “How do they gain feedback?”. The important part here is how they gather feedback.

You can also use personality tests like Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder as part of the hiring process for positions of leadership. Are you hiring a personality type that complements those already on staff, and among those whom they will work most closely? Are you hiring a personality type that is compatible with the goals of the institution?

Leaders, to you I suggest putting yourself in your co-workers’ shoes. If your boss had this decision to make, this procedure to put in place, or this project to complete, how would you want to receive the information? What would make you feel included and empowered? Look at the last few big projects you completed. How do you think your co-workers would describe your effectiveness? Be honest, and take into consideration the areas you know to be your weaknesses.

If anyone has other good ideas about self-awareness and leadership, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

I stumbled across Words That Work, a 2007 book by Dr. Frank Luntz recently, and I’m so glad it happened! It is about how to use the right words at the right time to meet all of your goals, both personal and professional.

The author works with CEOs, politicians, activists, and world leaders. He teaches them how to use language to inspire people, to evoke emotion, to gain credibility, and to satisfy their listeners.

Dr. Luntz has “Ten rules of effective language”:

  1. Simplicity: use small words
  2. Brevity: use short sentences
  3. Credibility is as important as philosophy
  4. Consistency matters
  5. Novelty: offer something new
  6. Sound and texture matter
  7. Speak aspirationally
  8. Visualize
  9. Ask a question
  10. Provide context and explain relevance

The details of each rule are completely relevant to library leaders and managers. Anyone who gives performance reviews, persuades voters, presents to library board members, runs meetings, trains employees, looks for buy-in on new ideas – and so many other activities library leaders do every day! – simply must read this book.