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.

Pretty darned great

I have always loved to read. Books have been a huge part of my life every since I was little. My parents read and my sisters read. They read to themselves and they read to me. And after I learned to read I started reading too just as much as they did. We always had books at home and it was one thing we were allowed to indulge in as much as we wanted. Not at the dinner table, however, but my sisters and I would still constantly try to sneak in books to read on the sly under the table because we just couldn’t put them down. And we always got caught but still never stopped trying the same trick over and over again.

Growing up with books, I always thought that the single most awesome thing must be to write a book. I never really though I would because it seemed like an unattainable dream that was just granted very few special people. Little did I know that one day this would actually happen to me.

Even as I started doing research and planning a book based on that research, I still sort of felt that writing and publishing a book was the ultimate thing. Then one day I started writing a book proposal and it became the first step in quite a long and slow process. The book contract was a long time coming, and then after I finally submitted my manuscript, there was the slow and sometimes tedious and frustrating process of copywriting, cover design, checking indexes… and the process was so slow that that somewhere along the way publishing a book no longer seemed like it was going to be the magical thing I thought it would be.

It actually turned out to be more of a non-event than anything else to tell you the truth. I had been notified of an approximate publishing date of the hardback, but then months in advance noticed by accident that my book was actually already available for pre-order through numerous online bookstores. Since it was an academic book (even though I made sure to write it in a way that made it accessible to anyone, so anyone could enjoy it) the first hardback version was also so expensive that I realized that few people would actually be prepared to spend that much money on a book – even a good book if I may say so myself. I have filled it with stories of women who have opted out and in, and made it a good read, but still. So that was quite disappointing, although I was learning a lot about publishing.

But I had a more affordable paperback version in my contract. I was happy about that since I know I have readers who are interested in the book. But it seemed so far away. And it really was a long wait. So long that I was starting to wonder whether or not I would actually be able to muster the energy to even get excited about it when the time finally came.

Well guess what. Last week I received news that the paperback version is going to be published in August. It is set at an affordable price, which I am absolutely thrilled about, because, as I said, my intention was all along to write a book about opting out and in that was accessible to a wider audience. And you know what? Now that it is finally happening, it sure feels pretty darned great.

So check out my book: Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles by Ingrid Biese

You can already preorder it. Click here for more information.

Where you lead, I will follow

I’m working on an academic paper with a colleague at the moment and I’m supposed to be going through my data set to see if I can find a few more relevant quotes for the different issues we raise in the paper. However, I sometimes find it hard to think without writing, and in order to find the right quotes I needed to create a storyline for myself just to get my head around the task. So I decided to start writing instead. It is only when I am forced to put my thoughts into words that they actually start to crystallize.

So I started writing, and when I do that the funniest thing often happens. It often feels like the text starts living a life of it’s own. It leads the way and I follow as well as I can and I’m never completely sure where we are going until the words are on the paper and the text is written. And the end result is often much better than I originally planned.

This also happened this morning with the paper I am working on. I first wrote down subheadings to match the issues we had agreed were the central ones. But then when I started writing, one thing (or word) led to the next and before I knew it a whole new set of subheadings opened up for me. Although the issues we want to raise are still the same, I realized that the way I had started out was not the best or most logical way to structure the analysis. It wasn’t until my writing revealed this to me that all the pieces fell into place.

This might sound strange to someone who doesn’t write, but I’ve heard many writers of fiction say the same thing. They never really know what will happen to their characters when they set out; it’s like they have a will of their own. And really it’s not so strange; it’s just how our brains work. It isn’t until we actually write things down that we realize which way we should go with our texts. But it does feel a bit magical and it’s what I think is one of the most exciting things about writing.

So, let the text lead the way and I will follow! I can’t wait to see where we end up.

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.

The discipline of a master procrastinator

I’ve never really thought of myself as disciplined. I’m actually a master procrastinator. Sometimes it can inexplicably take me forever to get around to doing something – inexplicably because the things that don’t get done are usually really not a big deal. They wouldn’t necessarily take very long to do at all if I just got around to them.

So imagine my surprise when people started telling me they really admired my discipline. It all started when I was on maternity leave with my first child and taking social psychology classes. Since I was living abroad without a network of friends and relatives to help, I couldn’t leave my baby and actually go to class, but I would study the literature at home and then go to the university to take the exams. And this is what I did: I would spend time with the baby in the morning and when I put her down for her nap I would devour as much of the course literature as I could until she woke up. Then I would spend time with her again until her next nap and then I was off again to the world of group dynamics, prejudice, dialogue, disorder… you name it I was reading it. I was tired and my house was literally a mess, but I loved every minute. Studying social psychology was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but it also provided a pretty good counterweight to the sometimes lovely and oftentimes uneventful days at home with a baby.

I was told that I was amazing, so disciplined.

Another time I heard this was when I was working on my PhD at home in a different country than the university where I was enrolled, and also finished within the designated time. People would wonder how I had the discipline. Some people talked about how they would never be able to write a doctoral dissertation at home because they would get too distracted. Well, the discipline part really wasn’t that hard. After I enrolled as a PhD student, my job was suddenly to read again and think, as much as I possibly could. The things that might have distracted me at home, were things like laundry and dirty dishes and other never ending tasks that, to be honest, I didn’t want to do anyway. No, I didn’t feel particularly disciplined; I was just doing what I really wanted to do.

The other day I attended an event where I heard Paul Auster being interviewed. What an interesting man. Paul Auster, when asked about having the discipline to write every day, said that he always thinks that’s an irrelevant question. Because it’s not a matter of discipline, it’s a matter of wanting or not wanting to do what you do. If you really love what you do, discipline isn’t an issue.

So what do we learn from this? Well, maybe if you like what you do you don’t have to worry about discipline, but if you have to force yourself to do what you’re supposed to be doing, maybe you don’t really want to do it in the first place?

But I also have to say, procrastination really isn’t such a bad thing. It’s not the enemy of productivity, nor the opposite of discipline. There is a study that shows that procrastinators are, in fact, more creative than people who don’t procrastinate. I mean if you think about it, maybe procrastination is a way for creative people to allow themselves a break to actually reflect. We don’t generally get a lot of time to reflect in society, even though we know that you need to have time to reflect to actually be able to create.

So on that note, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and procrastinate for a while. No discipline needed for that either.

The times they are a changing, and we can be part of that change

I’m at a conference at the moment in the beautiful city of Turku, Finland, and the topic of the conference is the future of work. You can imagine, I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store. I mean, this is what my research on opting out and in is all about: to decipher clues that might tell us something about how people want to and will work in the future.

Well, I listened to a very interesting keynote presentation yesterday. It was given by Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future. Gorbis said something that really hit home: you can shape change as it is happening, but you can’t put it back in the box thinking that things can continue as before. Because they won’t.

We’re living in an extremely interesting and exciting, if not also somewhat frightening, time in history and things are changing at a mindboggling speed all around us. The nature of work is being completely revolutionized and we need to be involved in shaping this change. According to Gorbis, jobs are being broken down into tasks and micro-contributions and organizations have access to large networks rather than just a finite number of employees to complete these tasks. To a certain degree, management is being replaced by algorithmic coordination.

Gorbis talked about machines as economic agents and how many people feel threatened by this, by machines, technology, and artificial intelligence, but that these are, in fact, not part of the problem. The real problem is that we’re competing not against machines when shaping our lives and work, but against social processes and institutions. We’re in a time of dramatic change and development, but we are stuck in our ways, which makes it difficult to influence the change in a way that will serve us – humanity – in the best possible way.

And this is true. This is what I see in my research. People want to work differently, to create alternative ways of understanding and organizing their work. However, many organizations are stuck in routines and mindsets that date back to industrialization. When these organizations are unable to change with the times and accommodate the people who work for them, and who would most likely continue to work for them under different circumstances, some people see no other alternative but to leave – to opt out.

Another thing that I have found is that the change that is needed for these people to want to stay is really not that dramatic. They aren’t asking for much, just some flexibility, freedom, and control over their lives and their time. They still want to work, and they want to do so in a meaningful way. No, the change people crave isn’t necessarily really that great, but it involves a change of mindset; a change of the social processes and institutions that Gorbis talked about.

So to tell you the truth, as I was listening to her talking about the future, the future that is already here by the way, and describing the innovative ways in which people already organize their work – for better and for worse – I realized how ridiculous the situation really is. The fact that these organizations that people have opted out of are worried about things like flexible hours or working offsite is laughable. Come on organizations, catch up already!

100 reasons

My opting out and in journey has been going on for years now. I usually say it began in 2009 when I left my job in consulting to work on my PhD, but really it started way before that. It had been going on in my head, more or less consciously, for years, as I would ponder whether or not this was it or if there was some other lifestyle out there for me.

And I have to say, despite the ups and downs of academic life, I don’t regret my decision at all. I love doing research – more that I realized I would when I jumped – and although there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future, I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am right now and have faith that when the time comes (read: when my funding ends) one step will lead to the next and new opportunities will appear.

This blog has been an important part of my journey. As I’ve negotiated my terms with myself and others, and thought about what compromises I am and am not willing to make; the opting out blog has been a space where I have been able to do things my way. I have been the one who has decided what to write, when to write it, and how to go about it.

To me the blog is about opting out on several levels. I write about my research around opting out and anything related to that, and I write about my own opting out experiences. But part of doing it on my own terms is that I don’t only limit my posts to opting out. I opt to also write about other things, things that I think are important or things that I have been thinking about, and I do so in whatever way I please. Having this ability to be the one to decide all this has been both liberating and empowering. It has been my breathing space and the one place that has been all mine to do with as I please.

About a year ago, I was asked to think about my blog, about what and how I write and who I write for – my audience. These questions were a part of a larger process and were definitely relevant. The thing is though, that as I was asked to analyze my blog, I started to find it more and more difficult to write my posts. From having had a situation where texts just flowed from my head through my fingers onto the screen whenever ideas came to me, writing suddenly became a chore and just one more thing on my to-do list. I continued writing anyway because I wanted to keep updating my blog regularly, if not for myself then for my readers, but it sort of stopped being fun.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that not everything has to or even should be analyzed and quantified. I could probably be more strategic in my writing, but what good would that do me if takes all the fun out of it and kills my creativity? So my conclusion is that this particular blog needs to be left alone, as it plays an important role for me just the way it is. Besides, I do believe that if I write what I feel like writing and it makes me happy, my posts will inevitably be better and more interesting to read.

So I’m going to keep writing what I want to write, when I want to, and for as long as it brings me joy. Besides, this is my 100th blog post. That if anything is 100 reasons to continue.

Sometimes slow is faster

I remember when I was working on my PhD. I would get so stressed over how long everything took. As I wrote chapter drafts, I couldn’t believe how incredibly slow the writing process was. Academic writing is a very particular and exact art form, not like jotting down a blog post. Well anyway, it felt excruciating at times and what I thought would take one week, took two or three, and then I would wait for feedback, after which I would have to rewrite parts… At a certain point I thought I would never finish, and never make the four-year deadline.

Well I did finally finish, but the thing I realized as I was working on my thesis was that the faster I tried to work, the slower it went. When I rushed, which I tend to do when I get stressed, I ended up having to rewrite more, not to mention rereading and having to go over my sources again more carefully. In other words, rushing really slowed my process down. So when stressed, I forced myself not to let my impatience get the better of me, and my mantra became “it has to be allowed to take the time it takes”.

I know this doesn’t sound very profound, but to me it really was. Because things do just take the time they take, whether it’s writing or learning a new skill or recovering from an illness. In this age of quick fixes and instant gratification, this can be hard to accept, but sometimes we just have to.

A while back as a group of us at work were fretting over looming deadlines and too much too do in too little time, a friend and colleague recommended a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber titled The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This book is about academic life, but many of the points the authors make are definitely relevant to all of us.

The authors talk about what they call a “culture of speed”. In fact it is exactly this – the sheer speed of things – that many sociologists have argued is what makes contemporary life different from any time we have ever experienced before. The problem as Berg and Seeber see it, is that there is a constant pressure to increase productivity, which means that work tends to take over what should be our down time. As a result we end up having to manage also our free time in order to squeeze everything in (work, spending time with kids/friends/family, exercising, having fun…). And this, in turn, can lead to stress, a feeling of time poverty, and even mental health issues, in addition to stifling creativity, which at least for an academic trying to write is absolutely vital.

Besides, we cannot constantly create or write, we also need time to reflect so that we actually come up with something to write or create. We need quiet down time not only to recuperate, but also to actually be productive. Productivity does not necessarily come from doing more.

So let’s make sure we have enough down time this weekend so that we can be more creative and productive and whatever else it is we need to be.

What’s wrong with providing employees with mindfulness training?

I have very mixed feelings about mindfulness. It’s not mindfulness as such. Being mindful is not a bad thing. Research has shown that being mindful can help people be more resilient and prevent them from overreacting in different situations. This, in turn, has a positive impact on work environments in organizations. If people aren’t shooting from the hip so much, but instead taking a moment to reflect – to being mindful – then it is bound to have a calming impact on situations that might otherwise be conflicted.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when we use mindfulness to fix a symptom instead of solving the actual problem.

I was at a conference last week organized by the European Association for Work and Organizational Psychology. Being a sociologist, this was a new crowd for me. Sociologist and psychologists do have a lot of research interests in common, although the methods used are often different. One thing that struck me was how popular mindfulness research was also at this conference. Although studying the effects of mindfulness can be interesting and intriguing, the problem is that much of the research focuses on the individual and not on the systems and structures in which these individuals are embedded.

But not only are we researching mindfulness like never before, I also constantly see new consulting companies that specialize in mindfulness and that provide programs to help employees learn and practice mindfulness.

Work environments today are incredibly hectic. Focus is more on short-term wins than on long-term development and sustainability. Jobs are insecure and as Richard Sennett observes, past experiences aren’t so important anymore. It’s rather about potential and you’re only as good as your next accomplishment. However, since seriously questioning and changing the system is hard, instead of going to the source if people aren’t coping well in their jobs, we try to fix the symptoms by helping people deal. And the latest fad on that front is mindfulness.

So instead of creating sustainable working cultures where people can thrive and can work to their full potential, we give them tools so they can be better at dealing with the hectic work pace and organizational culture. By teaching them mindfulness we help them cope.

And yes, it’s good to be able to cope. But it’s bad if it means ignoring the actual problem, which in this case is organizational cultures and structures that don’t necessarily work anymore. They just no longer correspond to how a lot of people want and need to live and work.

So by all means, practice mindfulness. It’s good for many things, and something I probably need to do more of too. But let’s not use mindfulness to ignore the real problem at hand. And please, don’t provide mindfulness training to your employees thinking that you’re off the hook. We still have a lot to do when it comes to creating better and more sustainable working models and environments.

Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.