A New Way to Work

Success and change without burnout by Dr. Geri Puleo

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Working Wisdom: Is Apathy the Worst of All Evils?

Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.  
– Helen Keller (1880-1968), from her book “My Religion” (1927).  

Apathy precedes burnout.  As workers descend the burnout spiral, their original hope deteriorates into frustration, anger and apathy before burning out.  Why does someone no longer care?  Change is a double-edged sword:  the paradox of the excitement in the challenge and the fear of the unknown.  When company leaders ignore the emotionally draining challenges that accompany their workers’ attempts to embrace and implement the changes, once-committed workers feel devalued and depersonalized.  Overwhelmed, they retreat into apathy as a defense against the increasing stress.  All change is emotionally charged.  The stress can only be alleviated by actively embracing the humanity of those asked to change.  Science will not find the cure for apathy – but humanism can.

Working Wisdom uses my favorite quotes to think about work in a new way.

What to Do When Someone Else’s Disorganization Creates Your Chaos

I’m a planner; it’s the only way that I can accomplish all my goals without burning out or going a little crazy.  So what do you do when an authority figure gives you wrong information – but then YOU have to change your entire schedule in order to deal with the resulting chaos?  It changes all your priorities by turning important things into important AND urgent crises (thanks, Stephen Covey for these insights).

Well, that’s what happened to me in the past two weeks.  I’m teaching a class that I was told had a standardized curriculum – but there were no quizzes, tests or reports assigned.  Being a planner, I was pulling together my teacher’s guide for the class 3 weeks before it started and noticed these omissions.  I notified the person in charge and was told that everything would be posted a few days before the class start.  Guess what?  They weren’t.

So I was now in a situation where class had started and neither the 25 adult learners nor I knew what the assignments and due dates would be for the course.  Oh, and by the way, there was no repository of questions or assignments from which I could quickly pull the new curriculum.  Needless to say, everything else went on the back burner and I had to focus exclusively on developing the entire course curriculum from scratch as quickly as possible.

So much for managing my schedule to avoid burnout.

Do these types of things happen in business?  Sure, they do.  Are they fair to the person who must scramble to complete a project as the result of someone else’s disorganization?  No, they aren’t.  My question is:  what can be done about it?  Here’s my checklist to prevent these crises from happening in the future.

#1:  Keep your priorities.  Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I looked at which projects were most critical and had the closest due dates.  The other things were rescheduled.  I didn’t want one crisis to snowball into a week full of crises (luckily, it didn’t).

#2:  Check with at least 2 authority figures if something is missing or feels wrong.  Don’t rely on just one answer.  Of course, this can make the original person whom you ask somewhat miffed, but you don’t want to be in a situation that causes additional stress to either you or the people who are depending on you.

#3:  Be a pest.  This follows the previous point – keep asking if your instincts tell you that the answer is wrong.

#4:  Be honest with the people who are depending on you.  I notified my students immediately about the confusion and asked for their patience.  Of course, I also gave them additional time to complete the assignments.  The result was very positive and had somewhat of a bonding effect on a new class.

#5:  Be honest with the people who will be the victims of the trickle down effect resulting from the drain on your time.  Since I’m teaching more than one class, I notified my other students that I would be running behind on correcting their assignments.  Again, the result was positive.  Silence can be deadly.

#6:  Use more than one way to contact the people who are depending on you.  Not only did I post announcements, but I also emailed the entire class to keep them apprised of the progress.  (It took 2 solid weeks to pull together the curriculum.)

#7:  Give at least a portion of the total project to the people who are depending on you – then work diligently to finish the balance as soon as possible.  In this way, my students were able to work on the first few weeks’ assignments and I had a little breathing room to develop the rest of them.

#8:  Take a break.  While I put in a lot of extra, unplanned hours to complete the curriculum, I didn’t kill myself by attempting an all-nighter.  (I can’t do them anymore because I’m a zombie for a few days after and can’t accomplish anything!)  Continuing to push when you’re exhausted creates a shoddy result – which, if you genuinely care about what you do, means you’re going to spend more time re-doing it.

#9:  Don’t get angry.  Concentrate on the light at the end of the tunnel – then celebrate when you’re done.  Being angry just causes more stress and anxiety and is counterproductive.

#10:  Learn the lesson.  Some organizations are notoriously disorganized, while some may have just suffered a temporary glitch.  Figure out which one applies – then keep this in mind for future projects.

Working Wisdom: Your Response to Stress Determines Your Outcome

It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable. 

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)

A stressor doesn’t necessarily lead to stress.  Surprised?  It’s because a stressor is simply an external condition or event – while stress is an internal reaction that may or may not occur in response to a stressor.  Our perception, therefore, becomes our reality.  The likelihood that a stressor will lead to feelings of unease is determined by our interpretation, perception and reaction to it.  A stressor in and of itself is not predictive of the outcome.  When something ‘stressful’ happens, do you characterize it as a catastrophe or a failure?  What about redefining it as an opportunity to learn or as an exciting possibility?  Our attitudes toward a stressful situation will determine the emotions and behaviors of our response – which, in turn, will set the stage for the ultimate outcome.  Will you be miserable – or make lemonade out of lemons?  The choice is yours.

Working Wisdom uses my favorite quotes to think about work in a new way.

Working Wisdom: The Heart of Business

Only do what your heart tells you. – Princess Diana 

Mankind is a thinking species, but also an emotional one.  This fact is often overlooked in today’s hyperactive, quantitative business environment.  Critical analysis, measurement and judgment are necessary “hard skills” of business – but they are insufficient.  “Hard skills” don’t lend themselves to innovation nor do they provide the fertile ground for insights and gut feelings that may defy linear logic.  To break out of the box requires vision, courage and emotional commitment.  Creativity and inspiration are the cornerstones of innovation and innovation requires passion arising from the hearts of workers.  Only a head tempered with an emotionally centered heart can fearlessly ask “why” and “why not.”

Working Wisdom uses my favorite quotes to think about work in a new way.

Meetings: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

OK, I admit it — I hate attending most meetings.

Why?  Because in over 30 years of meetings, I’ve found that there is rarely a set agenda, attendees tend to come minimally prepared and there doesn’t seem to be a defined reason or objective to hold the meeting in the first place.  And most people feel that the meeting takes them away from what they’re supposed to be doing.

Meetings shouldn’t be a necessary evil.  Meetings (either face-to-face or via teleconference or webcasts) can be a great way to brainstorm, keep everybody apprised of what’s going on and monitor progress toward goals.  Just like I believe that we need to find a new way to work, I also believe that we need to find a new way to meet.  So I’ve created my Top 5 list of what I believe makes a great meeting.

#1:  Respect people’s time.  Start when you’re say you’ll start and end when you say you’ll finish.  It’s amazing how time limits help focus attention on the real reason why you’re meeting.

#2:  Do the preliminary work.  When I launched Tri-State SHRM (a local chapter of the Society of Human Resources Management), I had all the Board members submit a 1-page maximum summary of each of their committee’s goals and the progress that they made on those goals in the previous month – and they emailed it to all the members 2 days before the meeting.  One page of bullet points.  Not only was it easy to pull together, but it was also easy for Board members to read – which means that they actually reviewed it before the meeting.

#3:  Don’t rehash what everybody already knows.  Just like it’s bad practice to simply read a PowerPoint slide to an audience, it’s equally bad practice (and, quite frankly, rather insulting) to read your report verbatim in a meeting.  Focus on the highlights.  Consolidate similar activities into one statement; for example, if all the goals have been met on 2 projects, just say that.  Keep it simple.

#4:  Don’t confuse apples and oranges – make the reason for the meeting clear.  Some meetings are progress meetings that summarize what has been accomplished on key projects.  These are the quick status updates – so keep them short.  But before you can have the status updates that focus on efficiency, you have to have a brainstorming and idea building session that determines whether these projects are needed in the first place – in other words, you also have to focus on effectiveness.  Since ideas take time, these can be longer.  The trick is not to confuse these two very different types of meetings.  At Tri-State SHRM, we had a quarterly idea session that was face-to-face (usually over breakfast or lunch – which was great for teambuilding, by the way) that was supplemented with monthly status updates via teleconferences in-between.

#5:  Everybody doesn’t have to be at every meeting.  Only invite those people to the meeting who have something substantial to contribute or will be affected by the results.  I was once asked to drive 5 hours to attend an all-day meeting – where my “contribution” was a 10-minute PowerPoint.  I refused to attend and instead was conference called into the meeting.  Since all the attendees already had my PowerPoint handout, I simply needed to summarize and answer any questions that they might have.  Not only would it have been costly to the client to have me attend in person, but it was also a waste of time, effectiveness and efficiency.

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