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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Don’t send me the same shoes over and over again

One thing that really bothers me about the infamous algorithms on social media is that by showing me what they think I want to see they provide me with a skewed picture of what is trending. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of articles and posts about the advantages of working from home and on how entrepreneurs tend to be happier. You’d think I’d be excited about this since I’m continuously getting support for my research and confirmation that I’m on to something. But something tells me that the real reason I’m seeing this is that this is exactly what I’ve been posting and writing about on my blog. I’m of course finding these articles very interesting, but when I look out into the world to see what is out there, I don’t want to look into a mirror and only see myself.

Besides, reality is never that simple. Working from home is something I really like to do, but it has its plusses and minuses. It’s not for everyone or for every job, nor does it have to be an either or solution. Working from home doesn’t have to mean always working from home.

Incidentally, I’ve also done some research on entrepreneurs and their sense of well-being as many of the people I have interviewed have opted out of work in large corporations to set up businesses of their own. They do this for a myriad of reasons, the main ones being an attempt to gain more control over their lives and their time; as well as to be able to do what they love, and to do so to their full potential without being held back by rigid structures, corporate culture or discrimination to name a few. So yes, in many ways they are happier, because being an entrepreneur, in their case, means more control and a feeling of being able to be themselves.

But it’s not that simple. It turns out that this is not necessarily true for all entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs don’t always experience more autonomy and control. It is generally entrepreneurs who set up small businesses without any employees who experience this the most. So again, although trending (or not trending) articles will have us believe that this is the answer for all, it isn’t necessarily the case. Entrepreneurship has both advantages and disadvantages and it’s good to be aware of both.

I’ve actually published a chapter recently with a colleague where we discuss opting in to entrepreneurship, among other things: Creating Alternative Solutions for Work.

In the meantime I would like to ask the algorithms if they could be so kind and stop sending me more of the same. It’s like when I bought a pair of woolen slippers a while back. After my purchase, I kept seeing ads for more of the same slippers, but I had already bought a pair. Honestly, I think it would have been a smarter move to send me ads for footwear that I hadn’t just purchased.

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

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.

Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?

Give yourself a break

I’ve been very busy during the past couple of weeks. I’ve been preoccupied on several different fronts; some things work related, some things not, some things positive and fun, some things not so much, and some things just plain exhausting. And, to tell you the truth, I was shocked to notice that it’s been two weeks since I last posted on my blog. These two weeks have gone so fast!

Last night when I noticed how long it’s been, I thought I should quickly put a post together to publish first thing in the morning. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than two weeks between posts. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was tired, I wanted to spend my Sunday evening with my family, and to be honest, my mind was completely blank anyway. Despite all the things I have experienced lately, all the eye-opening events, and all the meaningful discussions I’ve had with people, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I didn’t have a single idea, and had I had one, I don’t think I would have had the energy to write about it anyway.

So I didn’t. I did nothing even remotely work related last night and it felt great.

The thing is though, I like writing blog posts. I like engaging in discussions and I’ve really had some interesting ones since I started blogging. It feels meaningful and it gives me energy. At the same time, since I have readers, I don’t want to let them – you – down. I want to keep my end of the deal and post regularly just as I’ve promised. I tend to be hard on myself though; I tend to push myself, regarding anything that I have promised myself or others that I will do. Sometimes it becomes too much, but a promise is a promise, right?

You will be happy to hear that I have actually gotten better at being kind to myself. As the years go by I’ve realized if I can’t count on myself to be forgiving then who can I count on? I think this is especially important today in our hectic work cultures but also in society at large where even free time has become so streamlined and professionalized. And I think this is especially important for women. Women are taught from a very young age to be good girls and that they have to do their very best, or rather even better than that, to succeed.

But as I said, the older I get the more forgiving of myself I get, and strange as it may sound, I have started to realize that I am only human. I still do my best to keep my promises. Sometimes, however, things happen and that’s just life, and if that is the case, I ironically find that others are usually more forgiving and understanding of my situation than I am.

So with these thoughts, triggered by my need to live up to my own sometimes unrealistic standards, what I’m trying to say is be kind to yourselves. If you aren’t nobody will be, and you can probably really use a break.

Time well wasted

I have a weakness for signs. Not the cosmic type, I don’t believe in those. I think when people look for signs, what they’re really doing is looking for confirmation for things they have already decided or already know to be true in their hearts. They see what they want to see and attribute meaning so that they get the confirmation they need.

No, the signs I’m talking about are physical signs, words written on a slab of wood or a sheet of metal. I have two hanging on the wall over my desk in my office. One says, “Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat.” and was a gift from a dear friend. Looking at it makes me feel strong and, if not fearless, then at least less afraid. The other one was a birthday present from my family and it says, “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.” It makes me laugh, and the truth be told, I do talk to myself a lot.

Not too long ago I saw a sign in a shop that said, “Every day without laughter is a day wasted.” I was drawn to this sign because I truly believe in laughter. Laughter is so important. It’s healing, it’s therapeutic, it’s the glue that keeps families together, and it’s fun. But there was something about this sign that just didn’t feel right. I realized it was the part about days wasted.

Let me set one thing straight. No day is ever a waste of time, regardless of whether it’s filled with joy, sadness, stress, or just boredom. Every day is important, a piece of the puzzle that makes up your life and who you are. We can’t go through life always laughing. Some days I, at least, definitely don’t feel like laughing and those days are important too. A day without laughter may not be a fun day, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad day, and definitely not a wasted day.

This whole concept of wasting time gets to me. Ever since industrialization, productivity has become a mantra; it’s become something to strive for in everything we do. Organizations are supposed to be productive, individuals are supposed to be productive, and we streamline to the point of maximizing productivity at all times. We are led to believe that anything less is a failure to live to our maximum potential. This, however, is not a truth, it’s not a law of nature; it is just the way we are conditioned to think in society. We constantly seem to weigh everything’s worth instead of letting things be for the sake of being.

As I write this, I’m lying on the couch, nursing a cold, and thinking about how I should be using my time. I’m definitely not feeling very productive. Instead of just focusing on getting better, a part of me feels pressured to at least make an effort and answer emails – even though I’m feeling too tired to work – because aren’t we sort of expected to work anyway, even when we’re sick? Even though resting will make us better faster? Productivity is so ingrained also in my consciousness that even I, who research these things, get filled with self-doubt if I don’t feel I live up to social expectations.

Well, I’ve been relatively successful at resisting the temptation to work. I have taken a well-deserved rest, and let me tell you what happened: As I lay here on the couch doing nothing, I got bored. My mind started to wander and I started thinking about that book proposal I’m supposed to be working on but just haven’t had the peace of mind to get my head around. I started to see how I want to structure the book and jotted down a preliminary table of contents. This gave me such an energy boost that it inspired me also to write a blog post. Hooray for so-called wasted time!

P.S. And yes, I’m going to write another book! I’ll keep you posted, so stayed tuned!