A friend of mine has a very demanding position within a Fortune 500 company. His inbox is constantly overflowing. Nonetheless, he doesn’t work late or on weekends. I see him with his kids all the time, he volunteers, and he’s even got hobbies. How is this possible?
I think that this ability to set boundaries and work pre-defined, reasonable hours is two-fold.
First, you need to be so good at what you do that your organization doesn’t mind waiting more than 24 hours to get your opinion.
If you really are the best at what you do, they’re not going to let you go because you don’t respond to every inquiry within five minutes. Easier said than done, I know. But this highlights the newest incentives for being a high performer: autonomy and flexibility.
Second, you need to have enough confidence and self-control that you feel comfortable shutting down your system.
Stress management literature would suggest that taking a psychological break from the onslaught of complex stimuli will help us recenter. But we incorrectly believe that if we work through it, and chip away at the never-ending requests, that we’ll feel less stressed. It takes a very disciplined person to recognize the real solution to the problem.
Unfortunately, most organizations “reward” highly productive people with more work. It’s up to you to articulate your value and set boundaries.
When it comes to what we’re looking for in a leader, we’ve seen a major swing over the last three decades. At first we wanted confident and authoritative leaders, but now we are repulsed by narcissistic, bottom-line mentality leadership.
Hence the rise of the humble leader - someone who doesn’t pretend that they know everything and signals the importance of learning from others.
The problem, however, is that egregious displays of humility can backfire. Although employees want leaders that admit when they don’t know something, they also want leaders who know what they are doing.
Humility is good, but exhibiting an extreme amount of humility to come across as more “likable” is unnecessary. Employees want advice and direction just as much as they want open-mindedness.
I was trying to pin down a meeting time with someone to finally knock out an upcoming deliverable. We were both busy and didn’t seem to have much overlap in availability. Their response was “lets just play it by ear.” Not exactly the most helpful response.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing many times over. Upon reflection, I think there are a variety of different reasons why I, and perhaps others, take this stance.
Sometimes the real reason is that we don’t actually want to participate. Our intention is to delay to the point where there isn’t enough time remaining and the project becomes so low-priority that it goes away for good.
Sometimes we opt for this go-with-the-flow response because we’re being lazy. We don’t want to take the time to re-prioritize our tasks and deliverables in ways that allow us to make a logical decision.
And finally, sometimes we play it by ear because there are variables, inputs, or contextual circumstances that might dictate the ability to bring closure to the initiative. This final reason is the only one that is reasonable.
It’s important to get to the bottom of why one wants to “play it by ear.” If circumstantial ambiguity is the cause, that’s fine. But if it’s any other reason, then you are ignoring bigger, underlying issues.
We have a tendency to evaluate one employee characteristic at a time. Indeed, it is helpful to understand the extent to which someone is extroverted, tolerant of ambiguity, proactive, and more.
The problem, however, is that it’s not all that informative or practical to view people as one defining characteristic. People are a complex profile of many characteristics. We’re more like a matrix than a single line.
It’s not surprising that we evaluate one characteristic at a time. It’s easier and more actionable. But we shouldn’t give up on evaluating profiles.
The first step is defining which characteristics matter given the context of the work environment. If there’s no direct influence on the outcome of interest it can temporarily be set aside.
The second step is looking for common profiles (also called clusters). In any one setting, there is likely to be a relatively stable set of profiles.
The third step is mapping these different profiles to different jobs, team roles, and behaviors. From there, we have a more accurate view of how individual characteristics influence work outcomes.
Tracking individual characteristics is important, but it’s just the beginning. Start working towards profile analysis in order to balance the needs for generalizability and simplicity with accuracy and specificity.
For decades we’ve been told that employees want more autonomy and interesting and complex work. In the world of “enhanced work design,” more is better.
It turns out this isn’t always true. Research is consistently illustrating what’s called the “too-much-of-a-good-thing-effect” (yes, this is the name of an actual applied psychology theory).
We all want autonomy, but not everyone needs or wants extreme levels. It’s great to be able to have discretion on decisions and processes. But if there’s extreme autonomy, we’re annoyed because we don’t get any direction or we are stressed out because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing.
Similarly, we want to be intellectually stimulated. But extreme levels of complex and challenging work lead to burnout. No one wants to feel like they are dealing with the impossible day-in and day-out for long periods of time.
The same trends are surfacing for work characteristics like variety, interdependence, and social support.
Research clearly illustrates that employees want enhanced work designs, but if we take it too far, it makes things worse.
I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of hacks - shortcuts or novel methods that help increase personal efficiency and effectiveness.
Making changes to optimize is aligned with my favorite theory of personal development: self-leadership. But hacks should be approached with caution. What works for some will be counterproductive for others.
Those that blindly adopt hacks will cycle through them like fad diets. It doesn’t last and it makes it harder to meet long-term goals.
The first step is to think about the rationale behind the new method. What new habit is the change setting into motion?
The second step is to think about the implications behind the new method. Does this change fit within your unique context of work and life?
Hacks are ideas, not universal truths. Take the time to figure out whether and how it might work.
While grabbing a cup of coffee with a mentor, his wife of 50+ years called. He rolled his eyes a few times. A snarky “yes dear” was dropped more than once.
I was engaged to my now wife at the time. When he hung up he asked, “You’re engaged right? Want to know the secret to making it work?” Of course I did.
He went on to explain that there are three characteristics of compatibility.
The first is traits - the way we tend to behave and react, like introversion-extroversion. He explained that those don’t really matter. Every couple will be similar in some ways and different on others, which will inevitably be annoying. “Just deal with it,” he said.
The second is interests - the things we’re interested in that help us enjoy our time on earth. He said these also don’t matter. Hobbies come and go, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they don’t. Work at finding some common hobbies, but don’t let that determine who you choose as a partner.
The third is values - the things that are important to us and define us. These are the only things that really matter. They don’t change much over time and they are the source of all of our decisions, the big and the small, whether we realize it or not.
I think this advice has implications for all of our relationships, including those at work. Everyone is different on traits and interests. Those shouldn’t mean much.
Learn to work around personality differences and celebrate our diverse hobbies. Start connecting with people on things that are meaningful, like values, so that we always have a source of compatibility.
We say it all the time - “it depends.” This is both the best and worst response to any form of inquiry.
It’s the best response because it’s true. When it comes to work at least, there is no such thing as a universal truth. The context always dictates what is ideal.
It’s the worst response because people tend to hide behind it. They claim that “it depends” but don’t dive deeper.
The response, “it depends,” has potential, but it requires work to be a high-quality response.
The next step is defining the most relevant contextual variables that might determine why or when something is ideal. From there, probabilities can be debated and worst-case scenarios can be fleshed out.
Don’t stop at “it depends.” Keep going.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges in business is trying to convince individuals to do what’s best for the collective. Hence the phrase, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”
The problem here is that employees will never work for free and they are unlikely to completely forgo their well-being for their organizations. That’s not being selfish, that’s just human nature.
Indeed, self-agency is universal. We are self-interested beings and operate within social units. We recognize that our self-interests can be maximized when we work within collective entities. The goal was never to join an organization to serve its mission. The goal was to serve our mission (e.g., financial security, sense of purpose/community) through a pre-existing business model.
Thus, I would argue that “you can’t spell ‘team’ without ‘me’.” Instead of trying to persuade employees to put the organization’s collective interests above their self-interests, focus on aligning employees’ needs and preferences with collective goals. That’s both fair and more realistic.
I vividly remember asking a well-known professor if he would be on my dissertation committee. In my little academic world, he was godlike. Insanely productive and capable of giving feedback that could determine my career success.
I spent days crafting the perfect message to ask (more like beg) if he’d be willing to be on my committee. It was detailed and organized with no stone left unturned.
His response was simple. Literally one word: Committee?
He wanted to know who he would have to work with. I dutifully crafted a thorough response with perfectly cultivated profiles of the other committee members.
His response was again simple, and one word: Yes.
The contrast between my long-winded and detailed questions and his one-word responses sticks with me to this day.
Perhaps the reason he is so productive is that he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the source of the problem and makes a decision. In his case, as long as the other committee members were easy to work with, he was game.
We spend a great deal of time and energy talking through all the scenarios, options, and caveats. In some cases this is helpful, but in others, it’s a waste.
Get to the core of the issue first. Then make a decision.
Here’s how most feedback sessions typically unfold:
First, they tell you something that you are doing really well.
Second, they tell you something that you could improve, but it’s minor and unimportant.
Third, they tell you another thing that you are doing really well.
This is the sandwich method at its finest (the “bad” comment is hidden in the middle). In these conversations, the feedback recipient learns nothing, but they get a nice pat on the back. The feedback giver escapes the session without offending, and life goes on.
It’s up to you to set the context for these conversations.
Make it clear that you don’t need feedback, you want what’s called constructive criticism. Constructive criticism skips the fluff - the things we’re doing well - and gets straight to what will actually help us in the future.
Also, make it clear that you’re not asking the other party to declare what you are doing wrong. Instead, you’re asking them to help you think through ideas for how to grow, develop, and learn. This takes the pressure off the other party and ensures a candid conversation ensues.
I was excited to share my big idea, so I invited a mentor to lunch to explain my plan of action. He patiently listened.
When I was done, he responded with the following: “Everything sounds amazing over a beer or a cup of coffee. If you really want to know if your idea is any good…write it down.”
The insight here is understanding how to align the medium - talking versus writing - with the goal at hand.
If you’re at the idea development stage, talk it out. Have a two-way dialogue where you brainstorm, ask questions, and get feedback.
If you’re at the idea execution stage, write it out. Writing creates structure and clarity. It requires linear and logical arguments.
My problem was that I was attempting to execute an idea in a conversation. Instead, I should have used the conversation to flesh out new perspectives that could have eventually been solidified in written form.
Talk first, write second. You need both and in that order.
Dan Harris, news anchor and author of 10% Happier, had an on-air meltdown in front of millions of viewers. He eventually admitted that he was using substances to deal with his anxiety.
One of his favorite lines about dealing with mental health challenges has been to “hug the dragon.” He argues that if you try to slay it, it gets stronger. But if you accept it - you hug it - it eventually gives up and goes away.
This advice has roots in Buddhist philosophy and is a part of the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program popularized by John Kabat-Zinn.
The overarching goal is that of acceptance. Whatever happened, happened. You can’t change it.
Further, we have to try to stop claiming the stress as “existential” (I am angry). Instead, the goal is to treat stress as “experiential” (I am experiencing anger).
Stress is simply a physiological and psychological occurrence that will eventually dissipate and return some other day.
Fight with it and it stays to play. Accept and it goes away. Over time, hopefully the dragon gets bored.
I’m a runner. Not a fast runner. But a runner nonetheless.
After years of marathons, I’ve figured out that if I run at a 9-minute mile pace, I can do any distance without bonking or getting hurt.
We should have the same mindset when it comes to finding the right work pace. Your mind and body are a system. Just like in running, if you go too fast for too long, you’ll burnout. But at the same time, you don’t want to go too slow, because then you’re not reaching your full potential.
In many cases, the moment-to-moment work pace is out of our control. When a crisis hits or an urgent request comes in we must do our best to keep up. But across time, our work pace is still up to us.
When we do have autonomy, we should be filtering work in ways that align with our work pace. When we don’t have autonomy, and the work pace is overbearing, you have two choices: you can either hang on for the ride and inevitably crash sooner or later, or you can proactively look for a job that has a different pace.
Find your pace and the job and work environment that supports that pace, and stick with it.
We’ve all heard the adage, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” But is this really good advice?
Assuming the goal is reasonable (e.g., I’ll never be a professional basketball player), is hard work all that’s necessary for landing your dream job, switching careers, or living the life you want?
I think that the answer is yes, but there’s a catch. Everything has a cost. We have a finite amount of resources - time, energy, money, etc.
It’s about deciding whether or not you’re willing to use your precious resources to overcome the probabilities embedded within each challenge.
Are you willing to forgo time spent with family to garner new skills or moonlight in the evenings? Are you willing to risk your savings to start a new business?
The question isn’t whether or not you can do it. You can. The question is whether or not it’s worth it.
When we picture a team, we typically think of a handful of people working together on a project or our entire department.
Conceptually speaking, yes, these are our teams. But when it comes to improving our team processes this conceptualization is unhelpful.
How many times does your entire team actually sit down together to work on something? Smaller teams might do weekly check-ins, but most departments rarely meet more than monthly or quarterly. These one-hour team sessions don’t define the quality of the team interaction.
Although we typically visualize our team as a large group sitting at a massive conference table (or on a zoom call), this isn’t how work gets done.
Teams are a collection of smaller, dyadic interactions that take place from moment-to-moment. The vast majority of our emails, slack messages, phone calls, and meetings involve two people. It is in these moments were high-quality teams are created.
So if you’re interested in team building, don’t start at the team-level, that’s too abstract. Instead, focus on helping each team member engage in better dyadic interactions.
Of all the leadership concepts floating around the infosphere, there’s only one that fits the bill as a universal, leadership ideal.
It’s not transformational leadership, servant leadership, level-5 leadership, or any other leadership “style.” A specific approach to leadership that works in one context won’t always work in another.
Along those lines, the ideal approach to leadership is what’s called situational leadership. Situational leadership recognizes that there are three moving parts to any decision regarding how to lead others.
First is the leader themselves. What are the individual characteristics of the leader? What are their tendencies, values, strengths, weaknesses, etc. The goal is to act from a place of authenticity, but also get outside of our comfort zone when necessary and within reason.
The second is the followers. What are the characteristics of the individual or team that is being led? How are they motivated? What are their goals? What are their individual characteristics? Everyone is unique; therefore, it is important to flex the influence approaches that align with those individualized needs.
The third is the context. What are the contextual conditions surrounding the leader-follower dyadic interaction? Is this interaction during a time of quiet or chaos? Is this interaction taking place within a bureaucratic (e.g., the Federal government) or decentralized (e.g., a startup venture) organization.
It is helpful to understand all the different styles of leadership. But it’s arguably more helpful to think through whether and how those styles will be successful given who you are as a leader, who you are leading, and the context surrounding your leadership influence.
Getting stuck with under-performing team members is tricky. We don’t have the authority to correct the problem. And if we do try to correct the problem, the backlash typically isn’t worth the effort.
Ignore it - But this causes you to look bad too, especially if you are working with interdependent colleagues where you co-create deliverables.
Do everything yourself - But you’ll inevitably be overwhelmed with the increased workload.
Tell your manager - But you risk coming across as a caddy team member, which is unflattering.
Although it will take some work, below are the ideal solutions…
Document examples - It’s possible that you are being overly critical or biased. This will help you objectively express your concerns if you are approached by superiors for your opinion.
Express concern - There might be a good reason as to why they are under-performing. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are stretched too thin or they have personal circumstances at play. Approach the conversation with questions that get at their situation (e.g., workload, work-family conflict) and not at their individual characteristics (e.g., competence, motivation).
Advocate for anonymity - The primary reason team members don’t give accurate feedback on other team members is because they’re worried about the backlash if someone were to uncover the source. Explain to managers that you aren’t interested in participating in feedback about team members until proper systems have been put into place that ensures anonymity.
Ignoring issues typically causes stress and resentment. Be proactive, polite, and realistic about team member feedback to minimize these unnecessary outcomes.
“Here’s what you need to be successful in the 21st century.”
This is a common headline in work-related outlets. For example, the most common suggestions include things like being savvier with technology or being more in-tune with how to leverage demographic or cultural differences.
These suggestions are on-point, however, they address micro-level trends. The bigger, macro-level trend that deserves attention is that the speed at which micro-level trends evolve is becoming exponentially faster.
A better suggestion, therefore, is less about reminding people which trends to stay on top of, and more so about reminding people that they need to spend more time learning new things versus mastering what they already know.
The key question to ask yourself, then, is “how much of your time are you investing in learning new skills?” Over time, the answer to this question should gradually increase.
Being a workaholic entails working so much that it becomes detrimental to your personal health or your social relationships. It also entails the inability to slow down even though you know it will have a detrimental impact on your life.
Alternatively, loving your work, working hard, or working long hours does not automatically mean that you are a workaholic. Work can be fulfilling and meaningful. It can also add to our sense of security by way of increased income, reputation, or social capital.
If you simply love your work, but you’re not addicted to it, keep it up. Don’t let others shame you into working less. The goal here is to set boundaries and ensure that your workload doesn’t sneak up on you and become detrimental to your well-being.
If you are a workaholic, it’s important to get to the source of the issue. In most cases, it’s a complicated array of individual characteristics like self-esteem, security needs, and ego, and organizational pressures like unrealistic work demands and flawed reward systems.
Definitions matter. Be honest with yourself - are you a workaholic or a happy worker? This will ensure that you self-regulate in ways that are productive.
Sometimes we’re “just not feeling it.” We know there’s work to be done, but we can’t seem to get into the right mindset and get started.
We tend to be self-critical and assume that we’re not motivated enough. But motivation is an outcome, not a defining personal characteristic.
Interestingly, our emotions - which come and go - are strongly associated with our in-the-moment capacity to get started on something. So if you’re stuck, the best course of action is to do something that gets you into a better state of mind.
As an example, sleep research suggests that if you can’t get to sleep, the best thing you can do is get out of bed and do something else. Walk around the house, meditate, get a drink of water, etc.
The same goes for motivation. Staring at a blank computer screen waiting for inspiration won’t help. Get up, mix it up, and come back after you’re in an improved state of mind.
Organizations spend a great deal of time, effort, and money evaluating applicants. Assuming the applicants have the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to perform their job, the conversation then turns to alternative questions.
Will they work hard? Will they work well in teams? Do they have leadership potential?
We assess all types of psychographics in order to figure out the answers to these questions. But research clearly illustrates that there is one psychographic that is consistently associated with employee performance: conscientiousness.
Although not as sexy as being adaptive, creative, or emotionally intelligent, meta-analytic evidence clearly illustrates that individuals that are disciplined, organized, and reliable are the strongest performers.
If we really want to cut to the chase, we should be asking applicants and their references for examples of conscientiousness. Everything else is a distant second.
Research suggests that, in general, people value flexibility more than money. Why, then, don’t we start compensating people with flexibility instead of money?
Organizations’ biggest push-back against offering employee flexibility is that it’s inefficient, it limits productive interactions with colleagues, or reduces customer response time.
It’s not impossible to quantify these costs. Want to work from home? That will cost you $5,000 a year. Want to cram all of your work hours into three days? That will cost you $20,000.
People don’t need more money, they need more time. To win the talent war of the 21st century, organizations need to focus on flexibility.
Last year I was half-way through proctoring a final exam when a student - disheveled, sweating, and breathing heavy - came bursting into the classroom. He was 40 minutes late for an 80-minute final exam.
“Are you okay?” I asked. He briefly explained a part-tragic, part-crazy experience that had kept him up all night at the hospital with his roommate. I gave him the option to make up his exam at a later date. His response, “If Elon Musk can do it, so can I.”
He went on to explain that Elon Musk can deliver under pressure and doesn’t need to sleep. Somehow this student was so enamored with the extreme behavior and success of Elon Musk that he was willing to flunk his final, and the class, because he, like Elon Musk, thrives under pressure.
It’s time to retire the idea of “heroic leadership.” As a society, we are obsessed with the likes of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Tony Hsieh, may the latter two rest in peace. Uber-successful and relatively eccentric entrepreneur-CEOs.
Yes, the world needs people who are willing to push the envelope. But for every Elon Musk, there are millions of fantastic leaders who don’t exhibit extreme behavior.
It’s time to start championing the boring leader - the conscientious, roll-up-their-sleeves type. Although they’re not as interesting to read about, they are more realistic role models.
Before the COVID pandemic, I agreed to participate in a specific project. As things settled, it was time to reevaluate the initiative.
Everyone’s schedules and priorities had changed. For some, the project became more important, but for me, it remained a relatively low priority initiative. I was asked if I’d be interested in taking on a more prominent role. Much to their disappointment, I declined.
I felt bad, but it was also the right thing to do. The change in circumstances was not my fault. I had made it clear upfront what role I was willing to play.
As a people-pleaser, in a prior life, I would have taken on the additional work, resented the project and the relationships, and would have been forced to downgrade the importance of alternative commitments.
It’s okay to say no. And although it doesn’t make it any easier, being polite, honest, and transparent can help maintain the relationship.
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