Make Work Happier

Good morning friends

Earlier this year the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired one of South African ceramicist Zizipo Poswa’s works. This followed a 2019 purchase of two of her works by the LA County Museum of Art. On 25 March, Poswa’s debut exhibition opens at the Southern Guild Gallery.

These are momentous events for any artist. Take a look at her work, and you’ll understand why she is attracting this acclaim.

Now, filled with the beauty of great art, let us turn our attention to what I had promised in last week’s letter – how to make work happier.

/ strategy

We often think that the answers to improving work rest in sweeping strategies, yet there is immense power in getting granular.

Think of the relief when you remove that small splinter from your finger or shake that irritating piece of gravel out of your shoe. So small and so debilitating.

Sometimes, making work better means sorting out the day-to-day flow. When you do it – like when you remove the splinter – the sense of relief is palpable, the energy dividend to the individual and the organisation is immense.

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has identified four causes of Zoom fatigue AND, wonderfully, some simple fixes.

The Stanford News article on Bailenson’s research includes this memorable line, “When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.”

No wonder we’re tired!

A simple solution is to move the screen further back. I do most of my calls with my laptop placed on a chair some distance from me.
One of the peculiar things about being human is that something emerges, then we do it, then we forget about other ways of being.
All my clients have told me about a surge in video meetings. Conversations that used to be telephone only, suddenly shifted to a video-call.

The fix? Before scheduling another video call think about if its necessary. Try a phone call instead.

Bailenson reflects on the presence of the ‘self-view’ screen, saying “In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.”

Apparently when you consistently see a reflection of yourself, you are more critical of yourself. The fix? Hide the self-view.

We have spoken about e-mail before. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, has recently published his book A World Without Email. He shares some of his key insights in this wonderfully titled New Yorker article, Email Is Making Us Miserable.

Newport cites numerous studies showing an unequivocal link between email and unhappiness. The consequences are clear, “When employees are miserable, they perform worse. They’re also more likely…to burn out, leading to increased health-care costs and expensive employee turnover.”

In that fabulous way that crises can spiral, University of California researchers found when people are fatigued or stressed, they are more likely to reply to emails angrily. We all know what happens next…

Newport suggests looking for ways to minimize unstructured communication.

Some ideas:

  • Agree ‘no email’ times and days.
  • Are you using multiple channels? I leave many conversations bewildered by the number of channels in one team – WhatsApp, Slack, Twist, Email, Telephone. How could you reduce that?

If you’re leading a team in a multinational, you might feel the need to take a sedative at the prospect of working a change through all the corporate channels for it to become policy.

Start small. Discuss with your team what they think might work. Try it for a day. Reflect together on what worked and what didn’t. Do another experiment. When you feel like you’ve got it working, try it for a slightly longer period. Then consolidate what was most effective.

Each team and organisation is different, so find what works for you.

The principle though is clear; less communication in a more structured fashion will reduce stress and anxiety, leading to a better and more effective work life.

The lead-up to International Women’s Day saw the release of reports by PWCThe Cherie-Blair Foundation (thank you Shireen Motara for sharing this with me) and others.

Across all the research, there is a common theme. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected working mothers with children of school-going age. The reasons are self-evident, so I won’t repeat them here. What is does mean though, is that organisations need to be hyper conscious of and implement targeted actions to offer support.

/ self

Being micro-managed is often a source of workplace unhappiness. Yet, as Alison Beard, HBR senior editor, points out in her IdeaCast conversation with Colin Fisher, Stop Micromanaging and Give People The Help They Really Need this is something leaders often struggle with, most often because their intent is to help not harm.

So how do you help your team members when you can see they’re struggling?

Fisher, associate professor at the University College London, School of Management, co-authored a HBR article with Teresa Amabile and Julianna Pillemer entitled How To Help (without micromanaging) sharing their research on how managers can help more effectively.

He notes that the confusion comes about because leaders hold various roles, one of which is evaluator. You are the source of reward, punishment, and continued employment. If you’re not clear about what it is that you’re trying to do, people often assume they’re at risk.

This is heightened during this time of economic uncertainty where people feel more vulnerable and because remote communication robs off us being able to see subtle non-verbal cues. So being even clearer is imperative.

Fisher says, “The people who are able to really get their hands dirty and help without being seen as micromanagers are being really, really explicit with the fact that they’re trying to be helpful. They’re clarifying that their role is to be a helper. They’re asking a lot of questions to find out what people need.”

He goes on to say, “Figuring out what it is people need is one of the most important parts of being a helpful boss, the most helpful bosses figure out what people need usually by asking and listening really actively to what they’re being told.”

He suggests that if you feel as if you’re being micro-managed, you should initiate a conversation in which you can establish clarity and alignment around expectations. Remember, in all likelihood, your manager just wants to help.

The step beyond not micromanaging is effective delegation. Julie Zhou’s ‘Rule of Thumb for Delegation’ is valuable and pragmatic. You can read it here.

Lastly, Fisher suggests that you look for ways to add back time to your teams. Addressing communication overload as discussed above will help. In instances where you employ mothers with young children, explore with them what resources the business might be able to offer to assist. A simple fix like occasional dinner deliveries could help enormously.

/ soul

Today, we end as we began. With art.

We often place ourselves under enormous pressure to define our lives. Yet life is always unfolding. We can always create a next phase, sometimes through reconnecting to earlier parts of our journey.

In February, pioneering Kenyan artist, Rosemary Karuga passed on at the age of 93. In The Conversation, artist and academic Anne Mwiti reflects on Karuga’s journey.

In the early 1950s Karuga studied art, but then worked as a teacher and subsistence farmer for 35 years, not creating any artwork. At 59, she returned to art taking up a residency at the Paa ya Paa Arts Centre in Nairobi. Over the next 20 years, she built global acclaim.

A life is always evolving. Art student, teacher, farmer, artist.

What might the next phase of your journey be?

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PS: Leadership is a complex undertaking. When working with my clients in developing their vision and strategy for the next phase of their lives, I often help them strengthen their approach to systems, processes, and the day-to-day stuff of leadership. You can read what they say about working with me, by looking at the recommendations section of my LinkedIn profile.

(This letter was first published on 14 March 2021)

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