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
More from On Leadership:
A love note to the workaholic
Is it less stressful to be in charge?
How to completely, utterly destroy an employee’s work life