Recently, when describing the performance in one of our business lines, a business leader mentioned it was fine, considering some of the challenges in the environment. In reality though, the performance was sub-par. And he was couching it in a way that he thought seemed more palatable.
Come to think of it,“fine” is among the more misused words in the English language. We turn to it, often by default, to avoid honest communication and pretend that things are going well-even when they’re not. We even deploy it when we’re settling for mediocrity.
In her article, “Fine” never means “things are fine”, Claire Lew sums up the problem well:
To me, “fine” is the ultimate indicator of apathy and discontent. “Fine” means a standard is barely being met. “Fine” means there’s the potential for something to be better. “Fine” means there’s more to learn and dig into.
By definition, “fine” means pleasing, satisfactory, good. It is also used to indicate superior quality: fine dining, a fine performance, fine clothing, and so on. But the way in which the word is used in our everyday lives is quite far removed from the pages of a dictionary, isn’t it?
When we say “I’m fine”, it doesn’t always mean we’re pleased or happy. In fact, we frequently use the phrase to deflect the question, so that we don’t have to get into details about our problems or our troubled state of mind. Similarly, we accept this reply from colleagues and friends all too often-even when they are clearly struggling.
We use this bland descriptor for work that barely makes the cut and is just about adequate. A culture that sees “fine” as an acceptable standard is setting itself up for mediocrity and failure in the long run.
So, my message this week is about striving for more than “fine”-how to foster open communication and stop settling for mediocre work.
Here are a few ways in which you can get started:
1. Share your feelings
Next time someone asks you how you’re doing, take a moment to really think about the question. Are you tired? Facing an unexpected snag? Excited about a new project? Worried about a friend? Instead of hiding your emotions and shutting down the possibility of dialogue with “I’m fine”, volunteer some meaningful information about yourself. Be willing to have a real conversation, as honestly as you can. Authentic sharing is a win-win: it lets people see who you truly are, increasing trust and loyalty. And it prevents you from bottling up and internalising all your feelings.
Of course, “how are you?” may sometimes be asked as what seems like a mere formality—but that doesn’t mean your colleagues will not be interested in a genuine answer. Leaders, especially, have a responsibility to lead by example. How can we ask other people to be open about their feelings if we ourselves refuse to do so? And don’t forget, it’s not just about sharing your challenges and sorrows; it’s also about sharing your joys and achievements.
2. Ask like you mean it
Along with opening up about your own feelings, it’s crucial to create an environment in which your team can do the same. One good way of doing this is to show that you actually care about what they have to say: ask questions only when you have the time and bandwidth to listen to the answer. Tossing out a “how are you doing?” as you breeze by a colleague’s desk on the way to a meeting simply isn’t good enough!
When leaders make the time for important personal conversations, when they demonstrate the importance of going beyond a one-word answer, then the rest of the group follows. By fostering open, supportive communication within the team, you create a safety net for each and every member: people become eager to lend support and encouragement to others, confident that the same will be offered to them in turn.
3. Look beyond the words
Pay attention to tone and expression. Your colleague might proclaim that she’s just fine-but if you pay close attention, the exhaustion in her voice and the strain in her smile will tell you a different story. In such a situation, you will have to achieve the delicate task of gently encouraging her to share the problem, without being forceful or interfering.
On a related note: Given the ongoing global conversation about mental health, especially on social media, I think all of us have become more aware of the importance of paying attention to signs of depression and anxiety. Many times, the simplest gestures can have the biggest impact. Simply knowing that someone cares enough to see through an automatic “I’m fine” and ask “Are you sure? I’m here if you want to talk” can be a powerful thing.
4. Push past average
Be alert to the usage of “fine” when it comes to work—it generally means there is scope to do better. When you finish a task or a project, ask yourself how you feel about it. Are you happy? Proud? Excited to share it with others? Or are you simply “fine” with it? If that is the only word that comes to mind, there is definitely room for improvement. Instead of making do with sub-standard work, push yourself a little bit harder to take it to the next level.
Apply the same rule when getting feedback from leaders or peers. If your work is classified as “fine”, dig deeper to find out what would make it awesome, excellent, superb. Ask questions, get advice, and go that all-important extra mile to pull yourself out of mediocrity.
5. Create clarity
The way in which we use “fine” has become practically meaningless, so it’s time to demand clearer, sharper vocabulary-from yourself as well as from your colleagues. For instance, that meeting wasn’t really “fine”; it went off-track and no decisions were made. By using more accurate words to describe events and behaviours, we can identify hidden problems and start to address them. Whereas if we continue hiding behind “fine”, the same problems occur again and again.
Accuracy is equally important when it comes to highlighting the positives. If you found a team presentation to be inspiring, engaging and well-coordinated, then say exactly that. Meaningful praise is vital for a meaningful, satisfactory professional life.
6. Reveal guideposts for change
The war on “fine” can extend far beyond the domain of work. For example, you may describe certain friendships as warm, rewarding, enjoyable, supportive; whereas others just seem “fine”.
Such descriptions are an interesting way to re-examine your priorities. Of course, every relationship or pursuit goes through certain phases of “fine”-that is inevitable. But if you find yourself returning to this colourless description on a long-term basis, then it may be time to ask yourself if the person/activity is really worth your time and effort. Think of “fine” as a personal warning sign, one that marks portions of your life that may need to be altered, reinvented or left behind.
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.