When doing nothing actually does more harm than doing something

I went to lunch yesterday with a friend of mine and we had a really good conversation about workplaces we have experienced and how frustrating it can be when people do nothing, thinking it won’t effect the situation, the team, or the work culture.

I’m talking about how no management can be one of the worst kinds of management.

We’ve all experienced bad managers, I’m sure. Managers who don’t seem to know how to talk to people; managers who are controlling and micromanage you out of distrust; or managers who just don’t seem to have the skills needed and are struggling to get by. Some of us have also experienced managers who do nothing – who simply don’t manage. They don’t meddle, they don’t talk to their team members, they don’t inform people of things – they simply don’t seem to care.

I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for why someone would approach their management responsibility in this way. Maybe they do care, they just don’t have the foggiest how to go about it. Or maybe they are so overwhelmed that they just don’t have any energy left over to do anything other than survive. Whether or not there is a viable reason, the fact remains that these people still just seem like they don’t care.

The problem is though, that while they might think doing nothing at least won’t make the situation worse, this isn’t the case. While I appreciate someone who isn’t trying to hurt or trick people on purpose – I’ve also had my share of back-stabbers – they are wrong. Not doing anything may actually cause damage.

One is information. This is such a basic thing. People need to know what’s going on. They need to know what is expected of them. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing and where they can expect their job, their career, and the organization to develop from here. Not sharing information causes people to speculate which leads to gossip. People draw their own conclusions and false information starts to spread. People start feeling insecure and it can quickly become quite destructive. Gossip is one of the single worst things for workplace wellbeing.

But there are also other routine things that there just need to be processes for. For example, how do you welcome a new employee to your workplace? How do you make sure this person has everything he or she needs, and yes this includes information. How do you show new people, but also old employees, that they are important and that you care? Having a boss who seems to genuinely not care about what you do and how, is actually really demotivating. It kind of makes you feel invisible, and definitely not like a valued member of the team.

Managing people is hard. There are some great managers out there, and there are also unfortunately many not so great managers. This is true for both the business and the academic world.

I recently read an article about how academics are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues than employees in any other profession. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is the precarious work. Unless you have tenure, which is really hard to come by, work is very insecure in academia. People work on short contracts, never sure about how or when they are going to get funding again. For many the research is also very closely linked to who they are. They are their research, which means if everything is going well, they feel like they are doing well as a person, but if they get rejected – which really happens a lot in academia – it’s a hit to their very identity.

But then there is also bad management. I have seen a lot of bad management in the academic world. Academics aren’t necessarily interested in managing or being managed, which is probably why they became successful academics in the first place. But we also tend to forget that universities and departments are organizations with employees like any other organization. They need to be managed in a way that works. Granted, academics are probably not the easiest group to manage, but doing nothing really does more harm than good.

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So what do we actually need to do to create more sustainable solutions for work?

Last week I published a post on creating sustainable solutions for work, and reading it now, I realize there is so much that I still want to say on the subject, that the length of a single blog post didn’t allow.

I argued, that in order for working cultures to become more sustainable, change needs to come from inside the organizations. Existing organizations need to change their practices so that they can cater to different wants and needs. They need to really embrace diversity in order to create environments that are sustainable not only for their employees, but also for themselves. After all, one thing that this opting out and in research has taught me, is that if we don’t start thinking about sustainability and wellbeing in real terms, we will see much more opting out as time goes on, and not less. And opting out is not a good long-term solution for our economy, although changing the way we understand work, is. We need to create workplaces that people won’t want to opt out of.

Now, when I say this, I often get the question, well how does one go about that because it sound like a major undertaking. But the thing is, I really don’t think it is. When people opt out, the step from a feeling of no control to a feeling of having control really doesn’t have to be that big. It involves allowing employees to take a holistic approach to work and other areas of life that are important to them, and allowing them to decide when and how they move between these different areas of life. However, when people ask for more flexibility, they will probably settle with a bit more flexibility as long as it is real flexibility and not the illusion of flexibility that solutions like flexitime create.

The hard part really isn’t creating new work practices and routines. We have the tools to do this and there are already plenty of examples of companies that are already doing exciting things in providing real flexibility. The hardest part is getting organizations to see this, getting them to change their mindset and take this leap of faith. But even that isn’t impossible. It craves a change of mindset that permeates the entire organization and that every employer is a part of creating and sustaining. That is the only way to go about successfully changing organizational culture.

And the good news is that this is very doable. This is exactly what I did with my colleagues when I used to work as a consultant. Let me know if you want to know more about this. You can email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com

How to create sustainable solutions for work

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago where I, among other things, attended an event on good work and alternative organizing. It caught my eye in the conference program, as it sounded pretty much exactly like what I am currently researching and spending most of my time thinking about. That is, what constitutes good work and how we can create different solutions for work that are sustainable but that also cater to the diverse wants, needs, and objectives of the people who make up the work force?

The event was basically a panel discussion between scholars who research different types of organizing and much of the discussion revolved around work cooperatives. A work cooperative is an organization that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Either the workers are all democratically involved in the decision-making together, or they elect a person to manage the cooperative and make decisions for them. The work cooperative follows certain principles like democracy, training, and control, which provides meaning and is also one of the reasons it might appeal to people as a solution for organizing.

This struck a chord with me because control is one of the major issues that comes up in narratives of opting out and in. People experience little or no control over their lives and their time before opting out, but once they have opted in to new lifestyles, mindsets and solutions for work, they gain control over when, where, and how they work, which not only is important to them, it also adds to their sense of authenticity and wellbeing. (You can read more about that here and here.)

Another thing that I found interesting was that the researcher who had been studying cooperatives was obviously very intrigued by this way of organizing. When talking about cooperatives, she confessed that she was almost reluctant to admit that work in cooperatives can also be problematic as it can be precarious and lack security. In other words, it is not always a good solution for everyone. She was reluctant because she kind of really wanted it to be.

As someone who researches opting out and in, I can recognize that feeling. One of the things that is symptomatic of opting out and in, is that people generally come out the other end of their journeys – which can be very difficult and troubling experiences – feeling happy and better about themselves simply because they have more control and they feel like they can finally be themselves. Because of that they typically feel that their journey has been a successful one, and it becomes easy to think that maybe it could be a solution for everyone. But it isn’t.

Success is actually quite a complex and multifaceted issue. When we speak of success, we have to ask ourselves, out of whose perspective? When people opt out of successful careers, they often give up their high salaries, which, in turn, may have a direct effect on their pensions later on in life. This is something they seldom think of at the time. It might also entail an increased dependence on a spouse, which makes a person more vulnerable should something happen (for more about that, I can recommend The Feminine Mistakeby Leslie Bennetts). And then there is of course the societal perspective. If women, for example, opt out of power positions in society by choosing not to have careers, how will that effect gendered structures and gender equality?

No, even though opting out and in can be a wonderful and emancipating experience in many ways – I should know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past decade – it’s not a solution for everyone, nor should it be. And to have an increasing number of people opt out is, in the long run, certainly not a sustainable solution out of a societal perspective.

So the answer isn’t to abandon all traditional ways of organizing. The answer is to change organizations from the inside. We need to help organizations create sites for good work, where people can have a sense of control and wellbeing so that they won’t feel a need to opt out or choose precarious work in order to feel authentic and find meaning. That will of course mean different things to different people, but what it would mean for organizations is that instead of just talking about it, they would have to really embrace diversity in the real meaning of the word.

That is what we need to do to create sustainable solutions for work, solutions that are sustainable not only for the employee, but for the employer and for the economy as well.

Be yourself

When I was at my first job out of business school and applying for my second, a very supportive senior manager who I had worked with gave me a piece of friendly advice. She said, “Try not to be so ‘nice’.”

Now, you have to understand where she was coming from. She was a woman who had probably learned the hard way to not be too nice or too feminine in order to get to where she was, and she was trying being helpful. Maybe she was wishing someone had given her the same advice when she was starting out in her career. And I did appreciate her taking an interest in me and wanting to help.

Well, my job search led to an interview. Behind the interviewer there was a huge mirror and about half way through the interview I noticed my reflection. I was scowling and for a second I didn’t even recognize myself. I was shocked by how unfriendly I looked and tried to relax my face. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job and I’m not sure if it was because I succeeded in not coming across as ‘too nice’ or if it was because I decided to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t about half way through the interview. All I know is that in that moment I decided that I couldn’t and I wouldn’t rearrange my face or my attitude according to someone else’s definition of what it takes to succeed. I decided that if I’m not hired because I seem too nice or too friendly for some organization, then it’s not the right organization for me.

But that senior manager is by no means alone in her experiences. What I have found in my research is that many people – both men and women, but especially women – feel like they can’t really be themselves in their corporate jobs. It’s one of the main issues that hits me in so many of the narratives of opting out and in that I have collected. After having created a way of working on their own terms, many report finally being able to be who they really are and not having to hide different aspects of their lives and personalities. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of authenticity, which has a great positive impact on their wellbeing.

So imagine my surprise when I was attending the Work Goes Happy event in Helsinki last week. I walked past a stand with a poster displaying necessary, strategic elements for a successful and productive career, and in one of the big circles it said, “be yourself”. I stopped in my tracks and asked the person at the stand to tell me more about that, because in my experience this is something that people don’t necessarily feel that they can do.

Well, it might be a generational issue. Are the people currently starting out in their career better at being themselves and making sure they are allowed to do so than older generations? Or maybe it’s a hierarchical issue? Is it harder to be yourself the higher up you get in corporate hierarchies? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

But one thing I do know is that being yourself is a good thing. I’m with that consultant I met at the event on this. It’s good for you, but it’s also good for your organization. We already know that diversity is a strength, but allowing for diversity also means letting people be who they are and not trying to force them into a mold. It increases their sense of authenticity and acceptance, their wellbeing, and as a result also their productivity. Letting them be themselves will simply make them happier at work.

So, let’s do it. Let’s all be ourselves. Besides, it’ll make your organization a much more interesting place to be.

Providing employees with control over where, when, and how they work can have a positive effect on both productivity and culture. Here is what you need to think about.

The one thing that all people who opt out and in seem to have in common is the issue of control. Control over their lives and their time is what they lack before opting out, and control is what they look for in their new lifestyles and solutions for work. Control over where, when, and how they work.

This can mean different things to different people. Some people like to work in an office, others don’t. Some people like to work for long stretches at a time and others can’t. Some people fare better when they can work in small bursts and intertwine different areas of life in a more seamless way. I think it’s safe to say that we are gradually becoming more aware of the fact that individuals’ needs vary, but many may not know that individualized solutions could potentially increase productivity. After all, if you are allowed to work in a way that works for you, it tends to increase the quality of your output. In fact, according to the co-founders of the job-search platform Werk, flexibility should be a business imperative and not just a lifestyle perk. But most organizations still seem to be at a loss as to how to go about this.

If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, ‘how do you know that a person is working if they aren’t in the office’ or ‘if everybody was allowed to do as they please we would have anarchy’.

Well first off, let me set one thing straight: a person isn’t necessarily working just because he or she is in the office, and no one said anything about having people randomly do anything they want anyway. We’re still talking about work that is managed and structured and measured to make sure we meet our targets. And it’s doable, it’s just a question of changing attitudes and management routines.

Although most companies still subscribe to the importance of face time (i.e. coming into the office and showing your face), there are companies out there doing new and exciting things. The other day I stumbled across an article about a Baltimore based company that realized it couldn’t rely on geography to find the right people for the company and they ended up recruiting from all over the country, in addition to having people employed in their local office. They found this to be a really good solution; what they call the hybrid model (having people work on and off site) was apparently good for both their productivity and their organizational culture.

One reason was that the remote workers displayed high self-motivation and responsibility, which apparently rubbed off on other employees making the whole company more productive as a whole. But they also changed some management routines to make working with a hybrid model possible. The main thing they worked on was communication, and getting the right communication technology and using it in the right way. Giving employees a chance to get to know each other face-to-face also makes remote communication easier.

But there are other things to consider as well. Another article emphasizes the importance of emotionally intelligent managers (although also here what we’re talking about is communication) and boils it down to four points:

  • Don’t create two classes of employees: One way of doing this is to have everyone participate in meetings on the same terms. If a few have to be online, have everyone be online from their desks, even the ones located in the office building.
  • Lead with trust, not control: If you don’t trust the people you recruit then you have a problem. Still, many managers have a hard time trusting, but as I said before, having people in the office creates a false sense of security because physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing their jobs or doing them well. If you have people working remotely you’re going to have to get over that hurdle, and you’re going to have to communicate with them better and more regularly. Get to know them and try empathizing with their situations; you’ll find the trust issue much easier to deal with.
  • Ask more questions and learn to listen: Again, this is about communication. If you have people working remotely you won’t automatically find things out about them and their lives by just seeing them around, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Ask questions about them and about what’s important to them. You’ll not only get to know them better, they will also feel more understood and valued, which may lead to greater motivation and commitment. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.
  • Talk about the difficult things: This is always true, but especially when you have people working remotely. You need to be able to embrace and raise uncomfortable issues and frictions; no beating around the bush here, you need to be upfront. Your employees will thank you for it because they will have a better idea of what is expected and working with you will just be easier.

And then, of course, you have to follow up on targets and results. But hand on heart, isn’t this what a good manager should be doing anyway? What we’re talking about really isn’t rocket science. It’s not that dramatic a change, we just need to get past this old-fashioned idea of having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do a job properly. We have the technology, now all we need is the will. After all, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!

Two things you need to do to change your life

The one question I get asked most often is, how does one do it? If you want to opt out, how do you figure out what it is you want to do instead and how do you take the step?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer, no recipe or magic formula to follow. However the good news is that there are things you can do.

First of all, you have to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. If you continue the way you have within the safe realm of what you know, things will most likely not change. The other day I stumbled across an article that really hit the nail on its head. It argued that you have to do things that make you uncomfortable to find happiness and success (and it also listed what these uncomfortable things are).

Those of you who know me, and are familiar with my writing, know that I find this constant search for happiness problematic to say the least. Happiness and success are a result of something else, of doing something meaningful and something you love. We tend to love what we are good at and become good at what we love, simply because being good at something tends to be fun and if you really like doing it you generally throw yourself into it with gusto, which tends to lead to success. And research has shown that the constant search for happiness, which seems to have become a societal obsession of sorts, actually makes people less happy and less fulfilled. So they continue searching and end up in a vicious circle.

So how to we know what we love if we haven’t found it yet? To find out, here are two things you should do:

  1. You have to put yourself out there and explore. That means talking to people. Tell people that you’re looking, ask them what they do, find out more about what kinds of things, activities, and jobs there are. It’s hard to imagine anything other than what we know. That was certainly true for me before I opted out; I couldn’t really imagine working in any other way than I always had. Without talking to people and exploring you don’t even know what you don’t know. But if you reach out to find out more, worlds you didn’t even know existed will open up and you will find new activities, lifestyles, and forms of work to try.
  2. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. I’m a very private person and this was a mistake I used to make a lot. I used to never talk about my thoughts and dreams until I had it figured out. I guess I was worried I would seem stupid or something if things didn’t turn out the way I had planned. However, I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands that plans are only plans and that they can change. The risk of waiting to tell people, or to take steps before you have everything figured out and ready, is that you may never figure it out unless you talk to people. This is related to the previous point on putting yourself out there.

What this means is, you don’t have to leap right away. You can start small while you’re still figuring it out. You might want to try something on the side, and then if that doesn’t work or you realize you don’t like it as much as you thought you would you can stop doing that and try something else. And remember: don’t stop exploring just because you don’t find your thing right away. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to life, there is no such thing as a quick fix. You’ll get there; you just need to give it time.

And one more thing, don’t forget what Brené Brown says: you don’t need to negotiate your right to be anywhere with anyone. You are the one who decides that.