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.
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