Self-help books often do more harm than good. Released by the thousand every year, they tend to bury useful information beneath reams of unlikely anecdotes or quasi-spiritual nonsense. They can be expensive too, in terms of both money and time. Most people seek help when they need it urgently. The last thing anyone needs is a pile of turgid reading matter clogging up their in-tray.
Thankfully, a few books exist that can genuinely improve the personal skills, working relationships and general well-being of any reader. They are aimed not at specific disciplines, such as personnel management, but at the generic issues faced by most workers, regardless of rank or role.
You may, therefore, find it helpful to keep a few copies of each in your office, to refresh your own skills and complement your advice to others. Better still, you could encourage your board to distribute them widely, to prevent problems across the organisation.
The recommended reading list below is by no means exhaustive, but each book represents a good return on investment as they are all accessible, concise and practical. The list covers a range of skills and solutions that should boost the productivity of any workplace.
Read faster, read better
How To Be A Rapid Reader: Six steps to increased speed and concentration, by Kathryn Redway (National Textbook Company, ISBN: 0844229431, £4.99 from Amazon.co.uk).
Imagine all the printed material that crosses your desk each day. Now imagine racing through it, twice as fast as usual. Impossible? Not at all. In fact, the skill of speed-reading can be learned and applied in just a few hours. And far from forcing you to skip information, it will actually help you to retain even more.
Kathryn Redway’s brilliant tutorial is 119 pages long and can be read in an afternoon. Indeed, you will probably finish it much sooner, as your reading picks up speed. The book aims to rid you of childhood reading habits, such as subvocalisation (reading words aloud in your head), and to replace them with new ones, such as using your peripheral vision to read several words at a glance.
It includes dedicated chapters on how to speed-read complex material such as business reports, legal texts and periodicals. So it should prove useful to workers in any sector. In organisations that depend on the ability of their staff to read and retain new information, it will boost productivity at a stroke.
How to get things done
The Now Habit: A strategic programme for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play, by Neil A Fiore (Penguin Putnam, ISBN: 0874775043, £6.57 from Amazon.co.uk).
You could be forgiven for thinking this book was the business equivalent of a rigorous diet plan. In fact, it is easy to read, quick to finish (at about 200 pages) and immediately useful. It aims to help the reader overcome procrastination – the tendency to put off tasks – which for many people creates poor work-life balance.
“The typical procrastinator completes most assignments on time,” says author Neil Fiore, “but the pressure of doing work at the last minute causes unnecessary anxiety and diminishes the quality of the end result.” He points out that most of us motivate ourselves with sticks rather than carrots. In contrast, his programme encourages you to build your schedule around a rewarding social life.
Fiore avoids self-help platitudes such as “set priorities” because, he says, you would do these things if you could. Instead, he offers practical advice on dealing with underlying issues such as fear of failure, perfectionism and indecisiveness. He also explains how to deal with procrastinating colleagues.
Avoid information fatigue
Information Overload: Practical strategies for surviving in today’s workplace, by David Lewis (Penguin, ISBN: 0140274650, around £5 from Amazon.co.uk).
It’s easy to get deluged by data. Some is essential, but most is superfluous, and by trying to absorb too much of it we can enter a state of “analysis paralysis” and, in extreme cases, make ourselves ill.
This book is designed to help you sort the wheat from the chaff. It does so by going back to basics and examining the way people learn new concepts, memorise them and apply them to decisions or solutions. This may sound woolly, but it will make an immediate difference to your working life.
Among other things it reveals: why the “step by step” approach to learning taken by schools can hinder development in adults; how to apply information quickly no matter how much you have to consider; and advanced techniques to improve your speed-reading and memory.
Information Overload was published in 1999 and is now out of print, but it remains unrivalled for the breadth, brevity and practicality of its advice. Secondhand copies are available for about 5. Alternatively, you could hire its author David Lewis – the man who coined the term “information fatigue syndrome” – by checking out his profile at www.absolute-speakers.co.uk
Deal with difficult managers
How To Manage Your Boss: Developing the perfect working relationship, by Ros Jay (Prentice Hall, ISBN: 0273659316, around £13 from most bookshops).
Anyone who has to deal with a problematic boss will benefit from this book, provided, of course, that they read it at home rather than at the office (this is definitely one to recommend rather than distribute).
Ros Jay explains how to deal effectively with characters ranging from bullies and control freaks to bosses who take credit for your ideas. She suggests ways to neutralise, or overcome, irritating and stress-inducing problems such as the boss who won’t listen, constant interruptions and having to answer to two bosses at the same time.
One of the book’s most interesting recommendations is to get to know your boss’s boss. By doing so, you’ll have a better understanding of what motivates your boss, what puts them under pressure and where their worst habits originated. Overall, the aim is to get your boss to “look up with pleasure when you walk into the room” and to bear you in mind for pay rises and promotions.
If a member of your staff comes to you with a minor, but intractable grievance about their boss, steer them in the direction of this book.
Fluency in body language
Body Language At Work: Read the signs and make the right moves, by Peter Clayton (Hamlyn, ISBN: 0600608026, priced around 12 from most bookshops).
Body language skills are essential if you want to avoid offence while travelling. In Islamic countries, you should use only your right hand while eating and presenting gifts; the left hand is used solely for hygiene purposes. Meanwhile, in Hungary, men should not offer to shake hands with women unless invited.
However, as Peter Clayton demonstrates, body language can be just important between people of the same culture, especially if one gets it badly wrong. His comprehensive, well-illustrated guide covers foreign faux pas and the less obvious, but equally damaging, mistakes we make in everyday business situations in the UK.
Clayton explains that you can ruin a deal by standing too close to someone and can blow your credibility as a manager by using the wrong body language with your staff. He includes sections on how individuals can pitch successfully to small groups and how seating plans can make a difference to sales. And everyone should be familiar with his advice in the section entitled “How to lie well”.
Networking for nice people
Rapid Result Referrals: Powerful tips and ideas to boost your sales, by Roy Sheppard (Centre Publishing, ISBN: 1901534049, £9.99 from Royspeaks.com, with discounts for bulk orders).
The Ultimate Guide To Successful Networking, by Carole Stone (Vermillion, ISBN: 091900255, £4.99 from most bookshops).
Most companies win a high proportion of their new business through recommendation and referral. Yet very few have a formal system in place to generate such leads. This could be because “networking” became a dirty word in the 1980s, associated with self-serving social climbers.
Roy Sheppard and Carole Stone turn this definition on its head by suggesting that good networkers seek to help others, thereby earning themselves a good reputation. If positive things happen as a result, whether personal or professional, they should be treated as a bonus. Equally, there are sure-fire ways to make such things happen more often.
As the title suggests, Sheppard’s book is geared more towards sales people. It explains in detail how to put structures in place that will generate more recommendations and referrals for your company. It advises on how to boost your reputation via trade shows, conferences, speaking events and the press.
Stone’s book focuses more on soft skills and is particularly suited to those who are unsure of themselves in social situations. It explains how to “work the room” to seize networking opportunities, and how to nurture business relationships in the same way as friendships.
The painless way to flawless grammar
Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson (Penguin, ISBN: 0767910436, £6,99 from most bookshops).
Very few books on grammar are designed to be read for enjoyment and those that are, tend to be structured like novels rather than reference books. Yet Bill Bryson manages to inject humour and clarity into this useful A-to-Z guide.
Before he wrote Notes From A Small Island, Bryson was a sub-editor at various publications including the Times and the Independent newspapers. This experience put him in a good position to identify our most commonly misused words. Indeed, throughout Troublesome Words, he tends to cite errors committed by supposed custodians of the English language, “to show how easily such errors are made”.
Start by browsing the entries for common words. You may recognise the distinction between ‘forgo’ and ‘forego’, but what about ‘that’ and ‘which’? And are you sure your staff understand how a ‘defective’ product is different from one that is ‘deficient’? Do they know the difference between ‘percentages’ and ‘percentage points’?
You may wish to keep this book nearby to prevent you from using a word without being certain of its usage and meaning. Yet it wouldn’t look out of place on the bedside table. The style is so accessible, it will be received more gratefully by your staff than any formal effort to improve their grammar.
Be your own IT geek
Troubleshooting Your PC For Dummies, by Dan Gookin (Wiley Publishing, ISBN: 0764516698, £18.95 from most bookshops).
Sad Macs, Bombs And Other Disasters: and what to do about them, by Ted Landau (Peachpit Press, ISBN: 0201622076, £18.89 from Amazon.co.uk).
Have you ever waited an eternity for someone from IT, only to watch them fix your computer in just a few seconds? Most office workers in the UK are unsure of how the software and hardware they use every day works. And they’re even more in the dark when it comes to solving problems – also known as troubleshooting in IT jargon.
In part, this ignorance is the fault of IT professionals, who generally resist the idea of workers trying to repair their own equipment. Yet the average computer user could solve most minor problems, with negligible risk to their system or network, if they had just a little extra knowledge. Your organisation may prohibit staff from administering first aid to their computers. Even so, a good book on troubleshooting should ease communication between your IT support function and other departments.
The best authors of these books unravel jargon and ensure you have a thorough grasp of basic concepts. They tend to have their own websites providing tips and support to users of a specific platform. For example, Dan Gookin runs www.wambooli.com for PC users while Ted Landau runs www.macfixit.com. Buy the latest edition of one of their books and you can be sure it will contain up-to-date, comprehensive information.
Beat the world’s favourite ailment – stress
Self-Help For Your Nerves: Learn to relax and enjoy life again by overcoming stress and fear, by Dr Claire Weekes (Thorsons, ISBN: 0722531559, £7.99 from most bookshops).
We all claim to suffer from stress on occasion, but what does the word mean? In the workplace, it is generally used to describe an unhealthy state of mind brought on by excessive demands. While pressure can bring out the best in us, stress implies we have taken on too much and made ourselves ill.
Yet in physiological terms, stress is no different from fear. This does not mean stressed-out workers are cowards. On the contrary, as Dr Claire Weekes states early on in this book: “The sufferer from nervous breakdown is neither fool nor coward, but often a remarkably brave person… with commendable, although often misdirected, courage.”
You don’t have to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown to benefit from this book. It will help someone with even the mildest stress problem. However, in just 172 pages it provides enough guidance to alleviate the most acute suffering. It is also an ideal beginner’s guide to the origins and symptoms of nervous illness. No wonder it has remained a best-seller in its class since it was first published in 1962.
Smash through the glass ceiling
Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office: Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers, by Lois P Frankel (Warner Business Books, ISBN: 0446531324, £9.59 from Amazon.co.uk).
This book is a best-seller in the US, and has been praised by female critics on both sides of the Atlantic for its brutally frank advice. Author Lois P Frankel acknowledges gender bias is still prevalent in the modern workplace, but makes no apologies for highlighting “the ways in which women hold themselves back from achieving their full potential”.
A former psychotherapist and HR manager, Frankel is also co-founder and president of her own consultancy, Corporate Coaching International. Having worked with thousands of male and female executives, many at Fortune 500 companies, she has arrived at this conclusion: “From early childhood, girls are taught that their well-being and ultimate success is contingent upon acting in certain stereotypical ways.”
In the workplace, she says, many women continue to behave subconsciously like girls, and thereby sabotage their own success.
Her book details 101 mistakes and how to rectify or prevent them. The most useful sections deal with supposedly unfeminine traits such as competitiveness and self-assertiveness. For example, it suggests that consideration is emphasised more in the upbringing of girls than boys. As a result, women tend to be too patient, waiting too long for promotions, rises and bonuses.
Other sections deal with neutralising chauvinistic behaviour and playing the game of business successfully, without having to act like a man.