Sigmund Freud it was who propounded the doctrine of pain and pleasure. The pleasure principle says that we will seek immediate gratification of needs, for which our bodies reward us with feelings of pleasure, while the pain principle propounds that we also seek to avoid pain. This may be true but it is definitely incomplete. Can we not be motivated by things that do not fit squarely under pain or pleasure?
Or rather, “What if our definition of pleasure or pain is flawed?” by this I mean to ask, “Is there pain that is welcome and pleasure that should be avoided?” Eg. Steel is sharpened and shaped as it goes through fire.Gold is purified by fire (painful it would seem). Even flour enters the baking furnace to become bread. Early in your career one of the best things that could happen to you is to work in a high-pressure-high-standard environment (HPHS).
This type of work environment can seemingly be painful or stressful and the first temptation maybe to avoid such. Do not! A highly demanding workplace falls under what is commonly referred to as a ‘blessing in disguise’ i.e a type of painful experience that has the fruits of pleasure but the roots of pain.
A high-pressure-high standards (HPHS) environment is a huge opportunity that should be keenly sought after. Let me describe it so that it is clearer.
A HPHS workplace is a place where there is pressure from the volume of work, more work than you think you are capable of; pressure from ‘unreasonable’ deadlines, where deliverables are expected within impossibly short timelines, or such timelines are changed at the drop of a hat; work comes that is or seems beyond your knowledge or skills, and there is nil training; difficult to satisfy bosses, people and places with too high standards and requirements; ever increasing targets, and when you meet them you are rewarded with bigger ones; changing expectations; working long hours, working on weekends; having set standards and processes for doing almost everything; disregard for work-life balance etc.
Let’s call her name Ijeoma. She was Head of HR of a place I consulted for years ago. The General Manager who was her supervisor seemed to have a penchant for over-reviewing her memos – they were never good enough. Each memo returned in a sea of red ink marks. It was frustrating for her. Years later she admitted that she got better in her writing on account of this over-critical boss.
I once had this boss who went as far as teaching me how to use a stapler (as if I don’t know it already). He lived daily on the extra mile –that you did it wasn’t enough, how you did it seemed to matter more. That you went wasn’t enough, that you got there early was crucial.
That you weren’t able to achieve a goal wasn’t the end of the discussion, he wanted to know if you tried other nine hundred and ninety other options. Five minutes late was like two days late for him. Haba! Years after I admit I became a better professional and in fact a better person for it.
Disclaimer: let me state here that the high-pressure-high-standards workplace or environment that I speak of isn’t the same one that a lot of youths refer to on their resumes when they claim they have “ability to work under pressure”. My submission is that when pressure of the minutest level shows up most youths bail out on their obligations.
There are many things to be gained from working, particularly early in your career, in a high-pressure-high-standards organization. These benefits not only overweigh the effort but have the capacity to impact your future in ways you can only imagine. There is knowledge to be acquired, habits to be inculcated, skills to be learnt, and attitudes and mindsets to be imbibed. Permit me to run you a list.
Value for Time
These HSHPs are the best training ground on the value of time. You certainly don’t learn it in school. Society doesn’t teach it either, instead it teaches you a disregard for time. It is even worsened by the fact that our employees and businesses are not paid on hourly basis. It means that there is a disconnect between how people spend their time and how they are rewarded.
Whereas in developed climes the line of sight between time usage and reward is clear. These high-standard-high-pressure workplaces serve as recalibration centres, particularly for people who are entering the workplace for the first time. Eg. It was on my first job that I started (am still learning) the value of time.
A friend of mine tells of his boss, a Caucasian living in Nigerian, who prefers to arrive for a meeting at least two hours ahead just so that he is able to avoid the traffic and guarantee he arrives early. He would arrive and wait at a nearby eatery until close to the meeting time.
I usually tell young people who come for our workplace readiness programs that for you to develop a habit of arriving early, you must be comfortable with generally arriving at a place two hours ahead.
Value for Productive Time and Planning
The value of time goes beyond arriving early of course. There is also productive time. Time is completely amoral – you can fill it with as many productive or non-productive activities as possible. It’s your choice. It’s about priorities. These HSHPs force you to clarify and prioritise your work and aspirations. You are unconsciously asked to determine what is important and what is urgent and all the shades between.
They teach you that you can actually do more with less time and if you are not careful, little with more time. Since they would give you more work than you would like anyway and even add more work to the overload, you are gradually forced to plan, prioritise and perform.
Call it focus and call it planning.
“You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it.” (Charles Buxton).
“Those who make the worst of their time most complain about its shortness.” (La Bruyere).
“If you want to accomplish something, the ability to focus is better than having a high IQ with no focus.” (Peter Turla).
“Therefore, if we want to succeed in life we ought to chalk out what we are going to do with the minutes, hours, days, months and years at our disposal. This is the first step to success.
Secondly, work must never be postponed; tomorrow’ may never materialise. We can only be sure of the present’ which in our hands. Postponement and laziness are the ropes which strangle time. Thus, time can create us or destroy us. It all depends on how we utilise time” (DarshanKadu).
Related to time and related to the broader issue of how we live our lives is the issue of excuses.These HSHPs have a high distaste for excuses. They have a low tolerance for excuses, explanations, etc. They know that “when you’re good at making excuses, it’s hard to excel at anything else” (John Mason). They know that because of our infrastructural challenges it is easy to find an excuse not to do something or to do it badly.
“You can make excuses or you can get the job done, but you can’t do both” (Hap Holmstead). “If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another” (Yiddish Proverb). “We are all manufacturers – some make good, others make trouble, and still others make excuses”(Author Unknown). They make you know that because something is new or unfamiliar doesn’t make it impossible or difficult.
“We excuse our sloth under the pretext of difficulty” (MarcusQuintilian). These HSHPs help you to avoid excuses or slothfulness in little things so as to become immune from them in the weightier matters of life. “Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses” (George Carver). Whereas,“no one ever excused his way to success”(Dave Del Dotto).
In these type of workplaces you are told to find a way – find a way through, or around or over or under, but find a way nonetheless. You are told to look for how to sell ice to the Eskimo. Persistence is demanded and required. In a world of fast foods, instant messaging, and two minute noodles, people tend to forget that some results require persistence. This is a life skill that isn’t taught in schools.
Someone said “the road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places”. In these places you are taught persistence with tasks, with people, with projects with clients, you name it. “Don’t be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones will tend to take care of themselves”(Dale Carnegie).
There is also persistence on a task, which is, “staying on”, or never giving up. HSHP workplaces don’t want to know that you tried once and didn’t get a result.“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent” (Calvin Coolidge). “Success is almost totally dependent upon drive and persistence. The extra energy required to make another effort or try another approach is the secret of winning” (Denis Waitley).
High Standards and a Passion & Pursuit of Excellence
In these places you don’t do things anyhow you want to. They have minimum levels of performance or standard outputs. They would not fall below those standards no matter what. I recall an MD asking for a consignment of diaries to be destroyed because it fell below their standard. How you do it is as important as what you do. Here the package is as important as the content.
Here their motto is: “mediocrity will never do. You are capable of something better.” (Gordon B. Hinckley). Ralph Marston said, “Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude. At HSHP environments you are taught the attitude of excellence. “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” (Colin Powell).
These HSHP workplaces are always looking to better their last performance hence setting new standards. And this attitude they pass onto you. “Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary.” (Warren Bennis).
There are many more lessons these workplaces teach. An important one is that they try to teach you to have ultimate value for the customer. They keep you focused on delighting the customer. You also pick up execution skills and the attitude for getting things done along the way. You learn how to handle yourself in a crisis. You could also learn how to do a lot in less time.
Project management may come to you more naturally than the next person through working in these high-standard-high-pressure workplaces. A high-standard-high-pressure environment can sometimes seem like a painful or discomfiting experience but it is one that equips the recipient with life and work mindsets, attitudes and skills that help to deliver a successful future. Join them. Enjoy the ride. Everything rises and falls on expectations – go where they expect more from you and you will likely become more and do more than you had ever thought is possible.