I have really seen that more in the past two years than any other time in my work. And I think it’s a combination of technology and the economic realities, where so many people are doing more than one job. It’s the whole adage of doing more with less. To be really honest with you, I don’t think it’s doable. The expectations of what we can get done, and how well we can do it, are beyond human scale.
And because there’s always this readily available technology and you can get your emails all night long, there’s no stopping and celebrating or acknowledging the accomplishment of anything. Instead of feeling pride or recognition, what everyone is instead made to feel is, “Thank God, I can get to the next thing on my list.”
So as an individual working in such an environment, what can you do? And what if you’re a leader shaping that culture?
One thing that I think really makes a difference is simply to stop, recognize and offer feedback. Imagine someone who says, “Hey, I got the proposal done, I left it on Tom’s desk.” And the response is: “Great, the next thing we need to do is…” That conversation needs to stop, and the boss needs to say, “Sit down, let’s talk about it. I’d love to see a copy and go over it together. Tell me what you think works about it.” It’s about giving five minutes of feedback, of acknowledging that someone completed something important.
Feedback is a function of respect. But you know, the only feedback we get these days from leaders is corrective feedback. And the only way we can protect ourselves from that is by disengaging.
The other piece is, we have to encourage people to set boundaries around their work and respect them when they hold them. And I think as leaders we have to model that. One thing that I tell people all the time is, I’m not going to answer a call from you after nine o’clock at night or before nine o’clock in the morning unless it’s an emergency.
To me, a leader is someone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. And so what I think is really important is sustainability. If it’s crunch time and from Tuesday morning through Wednesday night all bets are off, then there should be some real boundary holding Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When people just don’t make themselves available, I think it’s healthy, and I think it’s smart.
I imagine a lot of people would love to do that but would probably say they’re scared to be the one person on a team who sets those boundaries.
You know what I would argue? Less than half the people I’ve interviewed would say they work around the clock out of fear, and more than half would say they do it out of habit. We use work to numb out. We can’t turn off our machines because we’re afraid we’re going to miss something.
I don’t want to dismiss the fact that people are fearful, but, you know, one of the biggest shame triggers at work for us is relevance. Our fear is that we’ll be perceived as not relevant or not necessary. So I think sometimes that’s why we jump on the weekend emails. You have to have buy-in from a lot of people to create a culture of immediacy and 24-hour working. I think as many of us are perpetuating that as are victims of it.
You have a quote in your book, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call ‘crazy-busy.’” Elaborate on this concept.
‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us.
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
You also write about the perils of being a perfectionist. How can people fight that inclination, and should they? Some might say that type of drive is a good thing.
When I interviewed really successful leaders, what I expected to hear was a lot of perfectionism. But what I heard consistently was, “I do not attribute my success to perfectionism. In fact, it’s the thing that I have to watch the most, because it will stop me from getting work done.”
Healthy striving is about striving for internal goals, and wanting to be our best selves. Perfectionism is not motivated internally. Perfectionism is about what people will think. And you do not see effective leaders in corporations sitting on an email for three hours to make sure it’s worded just perfectly. You don’t. They have work to get done.
You don’t see elite athletes letting themselves be discouraged by a bad workout or a single bad performance. It happens all the time. They’re accustomed to winning, they’re accustomed to losing. Once perfectionism becomes the goal, they’re out of the sport. I couldn’t find a single example, when we talk about what perfectionism really is, where it serves us in leadership or in getting work done.
Let’s go back to the example of the executive on the beach—could you walk through what that person should do to let life, as you say, catch up?
One of the things that I found was the importance of rest and play, and the willingness to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. A lot of people told me that when they put their work away and when they try to be still and be with family, sometimes they feel like they’re coming out of their skins. They’re thinking of everything they’re not doing, and they’re not used to that pace.
So when we make the transition from crazy-busy to rest, we have to find out what comforts us, what really refuels us, and do that. We deserve to not just put work away and be in service of someone else. What’s really meaningful for us? What do we want to be doing? That happens not just in work culture, I see it even with teenagers who now have four and five hours of homework and go to bed at one in the morning. We don’t know who we are without productivity as a metric of our worth. We don’t know what we enjoy, and we lose track of how tired we are.
What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve come across related to leadership in your research?
What struck me the most is the fact that so few managers and supervisors and teachers and leaders get any instruction on how to give feedback. When I interview H.R. people who spend their days doing exit interviews, over and over the most common criticism they hear [from people leaving their jobs] is, “I never got any feedback.”
That’s the piece that I still find the most shocking. How can you lead an organization when you don’t know how to sit down and have those conversations? I think to create a feedback culture where discomfort is normalized — where there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations but they’re going to be done respectfully and wholeheartedly, with the aim to move the mission of our work forward and to move your personal goals forward — that is the heart of engagement. People felt fundamentally ignored because they weren’t receiving feedback. And when they did, it was corrective. It was fast and not meaningful, and it was blaming.
We also lose people when there’s too big of a gap between our aspirational values and what’s actually practiced. Kids are keenly aware of the gap between what parents say their kids should be doing and how parents are actually behaving, but I didn’t realize that’s also the water-cooler subject in workplaces more than just about anything else. “Our leaders say this, but they’re doing that.”
It’s always going to be a struggle to live by our aspirational values, but there should at least be conversation about it. In the end, people just want to be seen and heard and valued. And they want to be inspired by leaders who engage in the behaviors they ask everyone to engage in. I think it’s that simple and that complicated.
Lillian Cunningham is the editor of the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
@lily_cunningham | @post_lead
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