IT ISN’T about avoiding work; it is about avoiding negative emotions.
In the early 1980s, Douglas Adams was struggling to make progress on the fourth instalment in his beloved series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The great sci-fi humorist had learnt from writing the previous books that good ideas usually came to him in the bath, so he would spend his mornings soaking in the tub until he had a eureka moment. Then he would get out to start writing, only to forget the idea while getting dressed, which meant he had no choice but to head right back to the tub.
After many months of failing to make progress, he scheduled a solo writing retreat for several weeks at a country manor. Unfortunately, he ended up befriending the hosts, and he spent most of the trip drinking wine. Just weeks before his manuscript was due, Adams had produced just 25 pages. “I love deadlines,” he has said. “I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”
If there was a world championship of procrastination, some of the top contenders every year would be writers. Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood said that her writing routine was to “spend the morning procrastinating and worrying, then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3pm when it looked as though I might not get anything done.” Yet when interviewed recently on the TED podcast, WorkLife, Atwood said that she had never missed a deadline.
Procrastination is delaying a task even though you expect that delay to come at a cost. The question is what causes it and how to overcome it, and Atwood had an immediate answer: she procrastinates because she’s lazy. With all due respect, I beg to differ. Psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois have discovered that procrastination isn’t about avoiding work, it is about avoiding negative emotions. We procrastinate when a task stirs up feelings such as anxiety, confusion or boredom. Although it makes us feel better today, we end up feeling worse and falling behind tomorrow.
This means that if you want to procrastinate less, you don’t have to increase your work ethic or improve your time management, instead you can focus on changing your habits around emotion management. One option is to put an end to self-inflicted pain. Adams suffered from what psychologists call neurotic perfectionism: he was his harshest critic. He would throw pages away as he typed them.
Atwood went further: she hesitated to even put words on a page. For three years, she put off writing The Handmaid’s Tale. “I thought it was just too batty,” she said. Those anxieties finally started to subside when she shifted her focus away from what readers might think and stopped judging her work as she was creating it.
That is what productive perfectionists do: they aim high based on their own standards, not out of concern about what others will think. When a draft disappoints you, instead of beating yourself up, it can help to try self-compassion: Remind yourself that you’re human and that everyone procrastinates sometimes, then start making plans to close the gap between your work and your expectations.
A second option is to reconsider when you do the task. Multiple studies have suggested that procrastinators tend to be night owls. The work day begins before their minds are most alert, a dull task becomes deflating when you’re only half-awake. If that’s you, shifting tasks that you often put off until later in the day can help. That’s a win-win. If you plan to do the task later because you’ll do it better, you’re not procrastinating.
A third option is to think about who’s doing the task with you. In one study, when people sat next to someone who was twice as productive as average, their own productivity increased by 10%. Sometimes, highly productive people make tasks more fun or more meaningful. Other times, they make procrastinating so painful that progress suddenly feels like a more attractive path.
It is easy to slip into procrastination when you’re working alone on tasks that seem ambiguous and meaningless. But you probably haven’t seen too many surgeons put off medical procedures. I’ve found that we’re more likely to stay on task when we know other people are counting on us. Seeing the person who’s depending on our work can bring focus and meaning or at least a frenzy of anxiety.
Adams understood that. With his deadline looming and his bathtub inspiration sessions failing him, his editor came to the rescue. He booked a hotel suite and sat with Adams, watching him type every day. After a couple of weeks, the manuscript was done.
Procrastination is not a disease that can be cured permanently – it is a challenge we all have to manage. There will always be undesirable tasks that conjure unwanted emotions. Avoiding those feelings is a habit we can work on breaking. Although Adams never conquered procrastination, he did get ahead of schedule on writing his own epitaph: “He finally met his deadline.”
This article first appeared in The New York Times.
PEOPLE want feedback that helps them grow and improve. But how you deliver it matters too.
Imagine a company where directness is prized above all else. Managers deliver blunt, harsh feedback in the name of efficiency. Now, imagine another company with a very different culture. Here, directness is nowhere to be found. Managers are accommodating and kind, overlooking mistakes or issues so as not to hurt feelings. What’s the problem with each? The first creates a toxic culture of brilliant jerks that drives people out and eats itself from within, while the second ignores issues until they build up and affect business metrics.
We have all seen these companies in the news, as a trending topic or even firsthand. You may be at one now. But it’s when we combine directness and compassion that we create a culture in which people can truly thrive at work. At Thrive Global, a behaviour-change tech company, it is called compassionate directness. It is a core value, which fuels all others. Compassionate directness is about empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree and show problems in real time. But it has to be done with compassion, empathy and understanding.
It is what allows course-correcting, improving and meeting challenges while also building teams that collaborate and care for one another. Of course, you can’t just declare you have a culture of compassionate directness. You have to create an atmosphere of mutual trust. When people get feedback from someone they trust, they know their best interests are at heart. They can see that the feedback isn’t some kind of personal attack, but it is actually a kind of support because it is offered in the spirit of helping them improve.
Without an atmosphere of trust, feedback can be a catalyst for stress and self-doubt. If you’ve ever found yourself puzzled about what your manager really meant or whether there was some kind of coded message hidden in the feedback you received, it may be a sign that you’re not working in an atmosphere of trust. How feedback is delivered is one of the most vital – and underappreciated – indicators of a company’s success. People are hungry for feedback that helps them grow and improve. According to a survey by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, 92% of people agreed that “negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance”.
But that’s a big if. A recent Gallup poll found that 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they get helps them improve their work. Poorly delivered feedback makes us disengaged and disempowered. By contrast, cultures that value only compassion go off course in another way. Years ago, I worked with a leader who had a habit of giving critical negative feedback padded with so many positives that his subordinates often came out thinking they were getting a promotion. Studies have long shown that managers have a tendency to soften feedback out of aversion to what they perceive as conflict. When that happens, challenges that should easily be identified and tackled are instead allowed to take root and fester – and the opportunity to course-correct.
“By presenting sub-par performance more positively than they should, managers make it impossible for employees to learn, damaging their careers and, often, the company,” Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab, organisational behaviour experts, wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review. It needs to be said: Being told we’re missing the mark can be a blow to our ego and even our identity. That’s why it is so important to shift our mindsets on how we receive feedback. Constructive feedback, after all, is how we learn and grow. It is the basis for healthy parenting, lasting friendships, career development and so much more.
If we shelter our children, friends and colleagues from information that might enrich and enhance their lives, we’re not being caring – we’re actually doing them a disservice. For many of us, especially those of us who have been raised in families or within cultures that encourage indirectness, compassionate directness may seem really hard. When we flex our compassionate-directness muscle, we’ll find that it becomes easier and more natural. We’ll see benefits at work, at home and in our relationships. To start implementing compassionate-directness into your own life, here are some small steps:
- Give one piece of constructive feedback and let it stand on its own
Don’t cloud your message by padding it with irrelevant positive statements. This might be uncomfortable at first, but research shows that people are hungry for constructive feedback.
- Before your next on-one, pause to reflect before giving feedback
If you’re stressed or rushed, you’re more likely to deliver feedback without compassion or empathy, even if that’s unintentional.
- When you notice a problem, find a way to show it immediately
Don’t just hope a problem will go away or assume someone else will fix it. When you speak up with compassionate directness, everyone benefits.
- In your next meeting or one-on-one, consider another person’s perspective
It can be as simple as pausing before a meeting to ask yourself: “Where is this person coming from?” By zooming out, you’ll be better able to see others’ motivations and understand their priorities.
- When you get constructive feedback, write it down and come back to it later
That will allow you to move beyond the emotion of the moment and consider more dispassionately whether it is true.
- Turn a digital exchange into an in-person conversation
A lot of nuances of human communication are lost in digital interaction. When you get to know your colleagues as people instead of just names in your inbox, you’ll build trust and camaraderie.
- Once a day, have a conversation where you listen mostly
Don’t underestimate the power of your silence. Instead of giving your opinion or changing the subject, invite the other person to go deeper.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.
Must you say hello to your colleagues?
Why can taking computers to a meeting be dangerous? Caity Weaver, a specialist writer for The New York Times, responds to two questions from readers.
Q: I work in a high school where two teachers receive a stipend for supervising the entrance at the beginning of the day. Both teachers sit behind a table facing the entrance, by which all teachers and students must pass, but they never say hello to the students or staff.
If I say hello, they sometimes respond, but other times they say nothing. I have stopped saying “good morning”, but find it terribly uncomfortable to walk past in silence.
Other times of day these teachers try to engage in conversation, but I harbour resentment from the morning. Shouldn’t greeters say hello? – Anonymous
A: Yes, it would be nice if everyone trudging into school received a personal country club welcome. You are clearly passionate about this issue, so consider arriving at work early to greet crowds the way they deserve, pro bono.
You give no indication that the teachers are frequently absent or otherwise preoccupied. It sounds like they are performing their assigned task ably – “supervising the entrance”.
Here are a few possible explanations for why they might not greet you: They are scanning the perimeter for interlopers. They are not early birds. They recall past attempts to engage you in conversation that found you stand-offish, owing to your secret tendency to “harbour resentment from the morning”.
The best way to make a friend is to be a friend, and the best way to force someone to say hello to you is to make eye contact and offer a clear, bright “Hello!” every morning until you break them. Let’s be gentle with one another before 10am.
Q: Our team had a meeting with another team requiring a screen share from my laptop. As the meeting ended and everyone “hung up”, my manager, who was unable to attend, sent me a message to ask how it went.
I was unaware that our messaging was not the private conversation I thought it was; other people were reading our messages because they hadn’t closed out their screens.
None of what we said was unprofessional or untrue, but a woman who can be difficult did a screenshot of the messages and sent it to my boss’s boss, who had been on the call. I am really upset about this invasion of privacy, lack of respect and questionable ethical judgment.
I want to address this situation, as I feel violated and wronged. This person needs to have consequences. She is a vice-president and should know better.
I don’t know her well and will see her in person at a large-ish meeting in two weeks. I don’t really want to call her myself, but I feel like HR should do something, but all of this just furthers the friction, even though she’s bringing it on herself.
Shouldn’t this person have closed her screen and/or let me know that my screen was still open? Why forward the screenshot to my boss’s boss. What could she have hoped to achieve with that? – Anonymous
A: Yes, that is the professional, polite and kind thing to do, but not the most strategic, entertaining or delicious thing to do, which is why many people would not do it.
A good guess about what she hoped to achieve? Everything from your worst nightmares such as making you and your manager look careless, disagreeable, technologically inept, etc.
It certainly sounds like a lot of difficult people work in your office, but without my knowing your boss’s boss, it is difficult to determine how close your co-worker might have come to achieving her goal.
That some people hate secrets and that the leaked conversation does not sound explosive are points in your favour. I am curious who alerted you to the existence of the screenshot. If it was your boss’s boss, you have a powerful ally (good) who loves drama (chaotic).
As an ever-increasing amount of office communication takes place in digital environments offering the appearance but not guarantee of privacy for participants, it is crucial to shed the presumption that these conversations are secret. At a minimum, don’t send anything over a work platform – be it instant messenger, email or chat room – you wouldn’t feel comfortable hearing read aloud by opposing counsel.
Even better, don’t transmit anything you couldn’t say at a normal volume in a restaurant across the street from your office.
From the comprehensive way you list your co-worker’s failures of judgement and the resulting negative impacts on your emotions, I suspect you are experienced in the alchemy of transforming your complaints into others’ punishment.
It is for your own office reputation that I advise that this is not an HR issue. Your computer was not hacked.The good news is this will never happen to you again, because you will be paranoid about it for the rest of your life.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.
Whether you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer. In offices ranging from a museum to a car dealership or the IT department, the workforce is adopting a tech industry concept called agile computing.
No doubt, Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips.
But people may not realise that it is the more subtle aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries. The idea has been around for at least 15 years.
The agile part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple. Rather than try to do big projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy and progress can be measured in small steps; one little project at a time.
“Folks want to talk about the Airbnb and Uber, but this is like when the assembly line showed up,” said Douglas Safford, vice-president of technology innovation at Allstate, the insurance giant. “All the layers and specialisation are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week,” he said.
Tech culture finding its way into other industries is nothing new. Decades ago, Intel’s founders tried to create an equal culture where the chief executive sat among his employees, and everyone at the company shared in the risks and rewards through stock options.
In more recent years, Google’s drive to take care of employees’ everyday needs, like commuting or dry cleaning (so they could focus on work), has been adopted with mixed success in other industries.
Now cloud computing is having an ripple influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a strong combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.
New technologies and the management ideas that come with them have always presented risks to rank-and-file workers. Email improved communication and helped do away with a layer of management that was responsible for that communication inside big companies. Global fibre networks joined the world together and made it easier for jobs to be outsourced to other countries, and automation and robotics have wiped out countless manufacturing jobs.
With cloud computing, the risk appears more subtle. The average worker may have more flexible hours. What that can really mean is they are expected to work all the time. And they are expected to react faster to bosses’ demands with more varied skills.
“Work has changed and everyone needs more expertise, more consultation,” said Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. “There’s more speed with which projects have to get out, because of competition, and people are pulled on and off projects much more.”
There is also a question of identity in this new workplace: If you are asked to be flexible and jump from one little project to another without hesitation, what sense of ownership do you have of your work?
“It’s like you have to constantly walk through walls, producing fast, with no chance to regroup,” she said. “As humans, we crave being known for something. If you’re constantly moving in and out of teams, what’s your identity?”
If agile type work is the new organisational pattern, it will be in a long tradition of companies styling themselves after the technology they consume. Standard corporate organisation charts looked something like assembly-line factories, with strictly defined jobs moving up narrow silos of production.
If you don’t want to live like a coder for life. Good luck, said Safford.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.
In the era of the virtual office, when even workers who are physically present often wall off their senses with oversized headphones and rely on instant messaging platforms to chat with colleagues sitting in desks next to them, forced fun at the corporate level may represent the last, best hope for human interaction among co-workers who would otherwise remain the closest of strangers.
“I can’t think of anything more depressing than an office where no one actually talks to each other,” said Lois Najarian O’Neill, the founder of the Door Idea House. This New York public relations and branding agency enforces a no-phone, no-screen policy at the company’s midweek overnight outings. “Our retreat is our saving grace.”
Even so, company mixers and retreats come with plenty of baggage. The problems, according to several professionals interviewed, are many.
For starters, these company get-togethers sometimes put pressure on employees to showcase skills that have little to do with job performance.
While working at a research firm in the management consulting industry, Jessie Hunter found that cocktail mixers organised by her firm “took the extrovert-introvert differences” among colleagues “and turned them up to 11pm”.
In such settings, office gossip also tends to flourish. This is not entirely a bad thing. A 2005 article in The New York Times about the psychological benefits of gossip noted that furtive smack-talking “not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together”, but can offer “a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out”.
But as a morale-booster, gossip has its limits.
Liz Hall, an executive assistant, recalled exchanging cheeky barbs with colleagues at company outings during her stint at a career-search start-up which, at first, felt good. “You felt united against the common enemy, annoying co-workers,” she said.
The benefits did not last. Eventually, she said: “I realised that all that gossiping was causing me to get more disgruntled than I would have been if I had just kept my head down. It was basically creating steam instead of blowing it off.”
In a #MeToo era when sensitivity concerns are in overdrive, gossip is hardly the only potential hazard at work outings, especially ones involving alcohol.
Recalling her days at a big jewellery company, Barbara Palumbo, enjoyed going out with friends after work. But the mandatory nonsense is just that”, she added, “especially with more and more stories of work-related harassment coming into the light, who wants the obligation of going bowling with the creepy guy from the Wichita office who walks around with his fly unzipped?”
This is not to say that company outings yield nothing beyond expense reports for managers. Now the company outing or retreat is essentially just a different way to work.
When she was an intern with the legal department of a baseball team, Daley Epstein, now an attorney, saw an employee softball game on the diamond of the team’s stadium as an opportunity for self-marketing for younger staff. Although the game was just for fun, junior employees could also use it to “showcase their competitive side and leadership skills on the field,” she said, so that the “the manager who witnessed it may later decide they had what it takes to run the next major project”.
Company outings can also collapse, or even invert, office hierarchies.
When Dina Kaplan was helping run a video-sharing platform, she and the other founders helped organise a paintball excursion for their employees. The outing gave the staff a chance to plug away at management with impunity. “I wanted to hide on the field, but wasn’t sure if that looked cowardly to the team,” added Kaplan, who came away with black-and-blue welts. “The irony is that I was afraid to look afraid.”
Cutting-edge companies are starting to treat company mixers and retreats as an effort to challenge employees, not coddle them, in an effort to inspire them to new professional heights.
LinkedIn recently hired a company to push its executives to the limit on a corporate retreat at a ski resort. The employees were awakened one morning with a frantic knock on the cabin door, urging them to organise a high-stakes search-and-rescue mission for a fictional missing skier, providing them only with maps, compasses, avalanche beacons and other basic gear. Afterwards, their performance was evaluated over wine by an executive coach during a fireside debrief.
“Teams connect when they are having fun and genuinely challenged,” said Noah Rainey, a company founder.
Connection, after all, is the point. This is particularly crucial in the virtual modern workplace where even elevator chit chat is being replaced by workers staring glassy-eyed at their smartphones on the trip to the 12th floor.
At her company’s most recent retreat in the Catskills, O’Neill gathered her employees, many of them millennials, to watch a video by Simon Sinek, the author and motivational speaker, about millennials and tech addiction. They then broke off into groups to discuss whether they were angered or enlightened.
“I knew some would be totally offended by his words,” she said. But one of the sessions resulted in an overdue ‘Ten Commandments of Slack’ policy for the office, Commandment 6: Don’t hide behind Slack for hard conversations.
“It was a hallelujah moment for me,” said O’Neill. “It’s sinking in!”
This article first appeared in The New York Times.