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.
At the end of each day, reflect on the moments where you lashed out or got short with someone. Then, pinpoint the circumstances surrounding the experience. Were you working on a specific task? Were you working with a specific person? Were you unrealistic about time or availability?
Evaluate these self-reflections and develop themes around your “stress triggers.”
Add these stress triggers to your “don’t do list” (the opposite of your to-do list) or to your goal setting documentation.
A key element of the self-leadership process is self-reflection. Our tendency is to ignore these unpleasant experiences. Instead, give them attention and do your best to prevent them from becoming a bigger issue.
How many times have you heard someone say, “let’s set a deadline for this?”
Deadlines are useful. They ensure that everyone involved knows the drop-dead date when the deliverable must be ready to ship. All involved can then plan and sequence tasks to ensure they hit the deadline.
The problem, however, is when the people we work with are unrealistic about their ability to hit deadlines. One of my biggest pet peeves is staying up late or rearranging my calendar to deliver, only to receive a last-minute email from someone stating that they need an extension.
Just because others “work better with a deadline” doesn’t mean you need to accommodate. Instead of sacrificing your own priorities, sometimes it’s better to make others deliver first before you take action.
Email is a ubiquitous workplace communication medium. And the inbox never stops filling up. To maximize productivity, it’s important to have the right mindset when you check your email.
The goal is not to read or reply to emails, the goal is to “triage your inbox.” Here’s the process (and it goes in this order):
(1) Delete emails you don’t need.
(2) Move FYI emails to appropriate folders.
(3) Answer any emails that only need a one-sentence response.
(4) Tag emails that need more than a one-sentence response to be addressed during deep-thinking time.
Too many of us go straight to #4 when we check our email, but we don’t have the time or space to craft an appropriate response. Instead, triage your inbox and make time for the important emails during designated time frames.
Imagine that you and your team have been trying to figure out a problem over several months. You’ve had meetings, conducted research, and interviewed outsiders. The next steps, however, are still unclear. What should you do?
Our tendencies in these situations is to take action - any action, even though we aren’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.
Sometimes the situation dictates that we must act. But many times decisions stem from our need for closure. Being the hyper-productive beings that we are, we want to cross things off the list or close the loop.
Relatedly, it’s time to get comfortable with “sunk cost.” Don’t make things worse by taking unnecessary action. Plus, time spent on one task takes away from time spent on another. Spending time figuring out that something should simply continue to be monitored and reevaluated in the future, in some cases, is the best decision.
Research illustrates that doing two things at once lowers our applied IQ to both tasks. This means that multi-tasking literally makes us dumber.
We’ve all been there - we’re on a zoom call, we’re not a key presenter of information, and our role is to passively listen because something might apply to us. But you’re busy. Can you check your email? Can you clean up your notes from the last meeting?
I would argue that yes, you can. Why not be honest with everyone? Perhaps be transparent and let everyone know that you have a few urgent items you’ll be simultaneously addressing while listening in. That way everyone knows to ping you and bring you into the conversation more directly when appropriate.
I would also argue that, in some circumstances, meeting organizers should let non-active participants decide for themselves whether they have the time to “sit in” on the call.
The working world has not yet figured out the true potential of asynchronous communication. The meeting organizer should record the video and take note of relevant points for individuals not in attendance.
If there was something pertinent that a non-attending colleague should know about, then they should send them the recording, and direct their attention to the conversation point of interest.
Time is precious. We should respect each others’ time and we should be transparent about how much time we have available.
The goal of appointment scheduling software - Acuity, Calendy, HubSpot, etc. - is a noble one. No more back-and-forth emails trying to pin down a meeting time.
I love it when people let me see their availability and pick the day and time that works best for me. But I rarely use this software for my own meeting invitations.
If time is money, then pinning down a meeting time is a negotiation. If someone lets me pick my ideal time, I win, because I get to pick the time that perfectly aligns with my productivity cadence.
I have a few standing meetings that appear every week or two. My goal is to only schedule ad-hoc meetings that are immediately before or after those regularly scheduled meetings. In effect, what I’m creating is a window of time where I’m in “talking mode” over the course of several meetings.
Having random meetings across the day is distracting, it leads to energy depletion, and it makes it harder to get into a state of flow. I take this to the extreme and try and create talking days for teaching and meetings, and non-talking days for deep thinking tasks like writing and analyzing data.
Scheduling software is amazing, but to my knowledge, none of them are smart enough to accommodate the level of customization necessary to ensure that my days are scheduled the way I want them to be scheduled.
I’m fine with a few back-and-forth emails. The cost of those few minutes pails in comparison to the cost of distractions.
The advice, “be authentic,” is widespread. In particular, there is a wide body of research illustrating the benefits of authentic leadership.
Many, however, have dismissed the idea of authenticity, saying that it’s unrealistic. One argument is that it’s unwise to only be what you want to be. It might not align with what your superiors or customers expect.
Another argument is that it’s unwise to speak your mind at all times. You’d get the unfortunate reputation of being antagonistic.
These critiques are missing the point. Being authentic doesn’t mean you have a license to skip being empathetic and do as you please. It’s a mindset that guides how you influence others.
Authenticity means first being in tune with who you are and what you believe (self-awareness). Then, you are forthcoming about your beliefs and why you believe them (relational transparency). The key is open-mindedness, ensuring that the other party knows that you are genuinely interested in learning more and exploring alternative rationales (balanced processing).
Authenticity shouldn’t lead to people being selfish. It should lead to people having transparent conversations where everyone respects each other’s perspectives.
There are four primary states of consciousness. Understanding their differences is a key step in maximizing productivity.
Mind wandering is when our attention jumps from topic to topic. This is our default. Although sometimes we have an “ah-ha” moment while mind wandering, it’s not inherently productive.
Ruminating and fantasizing entail a narrow focus on the past or the future, respectively. Not only are these states unproductive, but they can also perpetuate stress. Replaying your mistakes or thinking through unlikely worst-case scenarios is unhelpful.
The first productive state, mindfulness, entails present moment attention and being fully in tune with what is going on within your own mind as well as being aware of what is going on around you.
The second productive state, flow, also entails present moment attention. It’s akin to being “in the zone,” where time flies by, and our abilities are in perfect alignment with the demands of the task.
Given that mind wandering and ruminating/fantasizing are unproductive, the goal should be to continually come back to one of the present moment states - mindfulness or flow. But which is better?
If there is a specific task at hand that needs to be accomplished, especially a deep thinking task, getting into flow is the ideal. But in all other scenarios, being mindful is the way to go.
Many say social media is a time-waster. For me, it’s an important and enjoyable part of my job - connecting with practitioners, getting a handle on the latest trends, and finding new partnerships.
I agree that social media can be a time-suck, but only if you’re using it at the wrong time. Social media is a form of quick engagement. It doesn’t take long to read 140 characters and then like or share.
Social media is problematic when we use it during time frames that are supposed to be for deep thinking activities. Taking a social media break in the middle of putting together a detailed report, figuring out a coding mistake, or writing a novel, is not a good idea.
Breaks are only beneficial when they are as different from the original task behavior as possible. Continuing to look at a screen doesn’t have the same recovery effect.
So when should we look at social media? When we only have 2 or 3 minutes.
Waiting on someone to join a zoom? Go for it. Going to the bathroom? Why not. Walking up a flight of stairs? Perfect.
We spend a great deal of time in transitions from one activity to another. Although they might only be a few minutes, over the course of a day they add up to a significant amount of time. Try making this your social media screen time. Reserve the deep thinking time for deep thinking tasks.
Extremely challenging situations reveal our weaknesses and challenge our capacity to keep it together. On its surface, this doesn’t sound like fun.
But when the dust settles, we commonly self-reflect and realize that we’ve matured or learned something new.
Taking it a step further, dealing with the impossible makes us more marketable. For example, when screening potential new hires or deciding who to promote, organizations are drawn to the individuals with a story to tell - the ones who can breakdown how they grappled with uncertainty and change.
Ironically, there are also beneficial performance implications of diving into the impossible. The bar for performance is low because no one actually expects you to succeed. Even if you simply survive, not thrive, it’s considered a win.
Arguably, given these benefits, we should be running towards the potentially insurmountable obstacles. But why don’t we?
Our default is to strive for security. We want the sure thing.
Interestingly, if you stay somewhere long enough, a big challenge will eventually hit, and likely when you least expect it. Instead, then, perhaps it’s better to pick the challenge yourself and dive in with eyes wide open.
A little over one hundred years ago, a New England mill instituted the five-day workweek to accommodate Jewish and Christian day of rest observances.
One hundred years later, this five days on, 2 days off cadence still exists but is somewhat blurred. Thanks to the Internet, then mobile devices, and now the COVID-induced momentum towards virtual work, employees are more likely to sprinkle their work across all their waking hours (I.e., not just “9 to 5”)and across the seven days of the week.
Would it be so bad to work every day? I typically put in somewhere between 2 to 4 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Why not? I have relatively little, if any, emails, calls, or meetings on those days, so I’m very productive.
Additionally, because I work few hours during the traditional five-day workweek, I get more time to knock out non-work tasks, take breaks, and most importantly, spend time with family.
I find it somewhat odd that organizations are going the other direction and experimenting with a four-day workweek. This just means even more hours crammed into fewer days. Most of the time it doesn’t work because the marketplace demands quick responses.
I know that not everyone has the luxury of choosing when they work. But I can’t help be curious why more people don’t try working fewer hours each day, but six or seven days a week. For me at least, I don’t “work for the weekend.” I get my work done when I can so that I can live my life every day.
Social loafers are the worst. They don’t contribute but they are more than willing to put their name on the final deliverable.
To date, the best advice out there on reducing loafing is to increase individual accountability. This typically takes the form of peer performance ratings. That rarely works. We’re afraid to rate honestly for fear of potential retaliation. Perhaps something more drastic is in order.
What if team placement was determined by individual performance? In academia, I’ve heard rumors of professors putting student teams together by GPA. Fairness issues aside, it seems to work pretty well. Here’s what happens…
The teams with type-A superstars stop complaining about social loafers. They are overjoyed to be on a team full of overachievers.
The teams with lazy social loafers are forced to do something because if they don’t, they won’t have anything to deliver.
The teams with moderate performers tend to go-with-the-flow, enjoy the experience, and put together something that is pretty good, but not amazing.
Problem solved? Probably not. Teams are typically put together based on functional needs. But perhaps there’s a way to tease out social loafing on the front end - through team placement. If you want to work with the best, you’ve got to earn it.
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