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How to Make the Most Out of Your Job

We spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else. Shouldn’t we make the most of it?

Happy employees

I work with the Gallup Organization, the group known for its polls and studies on people’s opinions regarding everything from the economy to spirituality.

My research focuses on attitudes toward work. I’ve studied businesses all over the country, and I’ve talked to employees, employers and customers.

I was surprised to discover an estimated 22 million Americans are what I call “actively disengaged” with their work. Meaning they are not only unhappy, they act out on their feelings and undermine their coworkers.

Negative people love nothing more than to take others down with them. Dissatisfied employees cost between $250 billion and $300 billion in lost productivity each year.

That got me wondering: Why don’t companies—and individuals, for that matter—take my grandfather’s approach? My granddad, Don Clifton, taught psychology at the University of Nebraska. Back then, in the 1950s, research centered on what was wrong with people.

A born optimist, Don turned the idea around and decided to concentrate on what’s right with people. Over the next five decades he and his colleagues conducted millions of interviews, looking at the effects of positive interactions in and out of the workplace.

Their conclusion? Positive interactions don’t just make your job easier. They are vital to a healthy and fulfilling work life. Want to make the most of all those hours you spend at work? Here are some tips I learned from my grandfather:

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1. Filling is fulfilling. Don had a theory of the Dipper and the Bucket. Each of us, he’d say, has an invisible bucket inside. It is filled or emptied by what people say or do to us. Full? You’ll feel great! Empty? Awful!

You also have an invisible dipper. You can use it to dip from others’ buckets by saying or doing negative things. Or you can fill people’s buckets by saying or doing things that increase positive emotions.

At its most basic, this means giving praise and recognition. A little goes a long way. I learned that early in my Nebraska boyhood. When I was 10, Don suggested I start some kind of business. Good idea. I opened a little snack stand.

Don took note of the smallest accomplishment. “Your first sale? That’s fantastic, Tom!” By the time I was 12, my business employed more than 20 of my classmates. We sold candy, apparel and small merchandise, and got written up in the newspaper. A pretty big deal for a 12-year-old.

But, you know, that article paled in comparison to the stream of encouragement from my grandfather. That’s what really kept me working on making my business a success.

Doesn’t sound so hard to give positive reinforcement, right? Yet 65 percent of people—an astonishing number—claim they received no recognition for good work last year. No wonder they’re disengaged!

Feeling unappreciated is the number-one reason people quit jobs. Even if they do stay on, disengaged employees can have wide-ranging negative effects on a business.

Recently, Gallup studied 4,583 call-center representatives from a major telecommunications company. There were three reps who scared off every single customer they spoke with. Those customers never returned. The company would have been better off paying those employees to stay home.

The study also identified seven reps who retained every single customer they spoke with. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to talk with a rep like that—one who really listened to what you were saying and took care of the issue promptly.

Chances are you told others about the first-class service and you’re a customer to this day.

All because one employee made the effort to engage you in a positive interaction. That turned out to be good for the customer, the employer and the employee, who not only won points with the boss but also went home with a higher level of job satisfaction. See what a little bucket-filling can do?

2. Best friends. Our studies show that people who have a best friend at work have better safety records, receive higher customer satisfaction scores and improve productivity across the board. Okay, it might be awkward to be buddies with the boss, but how about someone on the same level as you?

Start by listening to your coworkers with unconditionally positive regard. Find out what matters to them and support them. Become known around the workplace for noticing when someone does a good job. The more positive your interactions, the more people will want to be around you.

When I was 16, I worked with my grandfather on a project studying the homeless in Nebraska. Some ended up with jobs, homes and restored lives. Yet others lived on the streets until the bitter end.

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What made the difference? Our research showed that having just one strong relationship, just one person who believed in them, was enough to get someone off the streets for good.

Best friends are key to your well-being. If you don’t already have one at work, make one.

3. Got gifts? Every single one of us has our own God-given talents. It says so in the Bible. Things you do instinctively and that give you satisfaction. For instance, you might perform well in a competitive environment, thrive under pressure, pick up on others’ emotions or enjoy puzzles.

If you’re lucky, your job fits your strengths perfectly. But you probably got hired and then were expected to change to fit the job description.

If you struggled, maybe you got sent to some kind of class to “fix the problem.” Or in your end-of-the-year performance reviews, the boss said, “You did okay, but here are five areas where I want to see improvement.”

That’s a weakness-based approach. Why not go at your job from a position of strength—your strengths?

Make a list of five things you do well. Then write down five things you’re expected to do in your job. Compare the lists. See how your talents line up with the company’s expectations. Focus on those areas where there’s a match and ask for assignments that play to your strengths.

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Say your talent is being perceptive to others’ needs; why not mentor the new hire in the next cubicle? Or, if organization comes easily to you, volunteer to put together your department’s next presentation. Concentrating on your strengths will help you thrive in the workplace.

4. Learn to take it. A compliment, that is. Once you start to fill buckets, it’s inevitable others will want to fill yours in return. Perhaps on Monday you noticed the receptionist’s new bracelet. Then, on Tuesday, she tells you she likes your tie.

“Oh, this old thing?” you say. “I’m only wearing it because tonight I’m seeing the person who gave it to me.” Right there you’re draining the very bucket you filled just the day before.

When someone goes out of their way to compliment you, that person is in a vulnerable position. Downplaying the compliment is like a slap in the face. Try responding with a simple and gracious “Thanks!” It will put a smile on both your faces.

5. Reverse the Golden Rule. My grandfather was all for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, but he discovered it works even better to do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

Give what Don called a “drop.” As in a drop in the bucket, or the kind of praise each individual considers most meaningful. One size doesn’t fit all. Some prefer to be praised in front of a group; others, one-on-one. A complimentary e-mail is nice; for some, a good old-fashioned card is better.

Take Susan, a manager at a large insurance company. She wanted to inspire her troops and honor her top reps, especially the number-one guy, Matt. She planned an awards banquet and ordered fancy plaques for the reps. But Matt had already won countless plaques in his career.

Susan noticed that he loved to talk about his two young daughters. So she quietly asked Matt’s wife to take the girls to the best photography studio in town. At the banquet, Susan presented Matt with a beautiful portrait of his daughters. He had to wipe away the tears.

The lesson? Be specific in your praise and honor people in a way that is meaningful to them. “Good job, Tom,” my grandfather would say in my snack-stand days, then follow up with something that told me he was really paying attention, like, “It was smart to list all the condiments you offer for free.”

A mere drop in the bucket, maybe. But isn’t drop by drop how buckets get filled?

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