Taking Busy Off Its Pedestal

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen.  ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau's Cabin on Walden Pond
Are you busy?  

That’s a question I get asked frequently. It's part of the culture of owning a small business and/or being self-employed. And I do the same; I ask my business friends "Are you busy?" For some reason when I was asked that question recently, it struck me differently somehow. I suddenly thought to myself, is that really how we've come to judge our success  Is being busy good and not being busy bad?

With just a couple of minutes of research I discovered that I'm certainly not the first person to ask that question. Below are a few quotes I pulled from an article in the NY Times entitled, "Too Busy to Notice that You're too Busy."
While those who are overworked and overwhelmed complain ceaselessly, it is often with an undertone of boastfulness; the hidden message is that I'm so busy because I'm so important. 
It's a status symbol. 
We avoid dealing with life's really big issues — death, global warming, AIDS, terrorism — by running from task to task. 
It is a kind of high. 
Paradoxically, Dr. Hallowell writes in "CrazyBusy," it is in part the desire for control that has led people to lose it.  "You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets," he writes. "Many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to every magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks — all in the sense that this is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it's the magnets that have the control."
So when and where did I succumb to the idea that "busy" is something to be idolized? To be put on a pedestal?  To define success? Like many things in life, I think it happened slowly and gradually over time and it wasn't until I had been asked the question for maybe the 100th time that I finally started to wonder if I too was associating busy with success or importance.

As leaders, should we be identifying ourselves with "busy?" Are we imposing that same expectation onto others without even realizing it?  And, is busy really good anyway?

When I look back on my life I don’t think I want to look back and see that I was "busy" and somehow equate that with a legacy I want to leave behind. To change that, I could start by taking "busy" off of the pedestal of importance and no longer ask people "Are you busy?" Maybe I could change that obligatory business networking question to something like, "What have you learned lately?" or "What's the greatest difference you've made or impact you've been able to have this year?" or "What have you been working on that's brought you personal fulfillment?" The list could go on, but beginning to associate my conversation openers with something I value more than busyness seems like a good start.
Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

Two Terrifying Exercises that Might Foist Your Team toward Greater Candor and Innovation

Asking for direct, critical feedback is
terrifying. Of course, not knowing
what you're missing is even more
Photo used with
permission via Flickr
Here’s a fun little exercise for you.

I’m just kidding. The idea is terrifying.

Maybe you should do it anyway.

Imagine assembling your leadership team in the room, and then taking turns answering this question:
The one thing I absolutely do not want you to know about me is ___(fill in the blank)___.
Then, once you’ve spat that out, ask your team to answer this question about you:
The most powerful negative feedback I have for you is ___(fill in the blank)___.
Is your heart racing yet, just at the thought? What would they think of me if they knew ….? Could I really handle hearing the worst my team has to say about me? My most ugly character trait?

These exercises came from Shawn Riegsecker, the CEO and founder of Centro, a software firm recognized by Crain’s Chicago as the #1 best place to work. He offered the exercises to a room full of executives, with the suggestion that they try this with their senior teams. (For that last question, he always has a psychologist in the room to facilitate the conversation - and everyone takes a turn in the hot seat.)

The idea, he says, is to experience these extremes in a safe environment so that you know the worst. It’s out there. They were able to say it. You were able to hear it. And you survived.

In this case, survival means you have created a team where trust, safety, and candor are possible. And in that context, you can expect some creativity, some innovation, and some strong employee engagement to result. Certainly it makes candor more possible - and more valued - in future team meetings.

"We're basically lying to each other all the time," Riegsecker told the leaders gathered at the Executive Breakfast Club of Oak Brook's monthly meeting. And when that happens, when we're always holding back part of the truth, we are also unintentionally putting ourselves and our companies at risk in ways we might not realize. Creating an environment of trust and candor makes it possible for leaders to speak up, to be a voice of opposition. While it sometimes seems criticism creates conflict, it can actually lead toward greater stability.

Maybe you’re thinking this exercise should come with one of those television captions that read, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Riegsecker admits the exercises don't always go well: he's had to host long listening sessions in his office, to deal with the fallout of hearing the truth. But if the end result is greater candor, and an environment where risk is minimized and innovation can grow, it's worth it, he says.

I am not advocating testing these exercises at your workplace. It wouldn't make sense in all company cultures or with all teams. And even where the exercises might make sense, they should not be approached without some solid advance groundwork to establish a safe environment. But if the thought of these exercises terrifies you, then there are a few more questions for you to consider privately:

  • What are you afraid your team would say about you?
  • Is there a reason you haven’t respectfully discussed your negative feedback with individual teammates before? 
  • What will be the end result of keeping “the thing you don’t want them to know” from your team? 

Tackle those questions today.
Amber Johnson is the CVDL's corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist.

How to Create Fresh Starts for Your Team: Lessons from Back to School Season

Back to Work photos aren't as popular on Facebook 
as the Back to School counterparts. But should they
be? Read on to consider how you can have a fresh
start this post-summer season.  
If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, then today you're witnessing a deluge of Back to School photos: back-pack wearing kids, scrubbed clean and in their best new t-shirts, alternately grinning or scowling for the camera.

Having now been in the workforce for twice (maybe three times) as long as those kids have been alive, I'm envious of the annual fresh start they get each new school year. Starting a new grade of school gives you a reminder of what you've accomplished in the past, a chance at a clean slate, and an opportunity to reinvent yourself.

Work rarely offers these milestones - certainly not in any annual, smile-for-the-camera sort of celebration.

Since there's no annual reason for celebration, values-driven leaders have to create them. The day after Labor Day (when summer has officially come to a close and vacations are over) offers a chance to push the reset button, giving your team a mini fresh start.

Put these ideas into practice today, or at any point throughout the year. You may not want to post a photo on Facebook, but your team will appreciate the acknowledgement just the same.

1. Celebrate milestones and accomplishments. 
Celebrating wins is foundational to good leadership. It gives you an opportunity to publicly (or privately) recognize hard work and success. Praise the effort of your team members as much as you praise the results. Mark the completion of projects and initiatives, and the anniversary of start dates or promotions as well.

Everyone has their own method of feeling accomplishment. For me, I keep a hand written to-do list of priority projects. When one is completed, I use a thick black Sharpie marker to cross through the item. Doing so gives me a modest sense of joy: I've accomplished something that day. As a leader, help your team joyfully "cross off" that item from your shared to-do lists.

2. Offer a clean slate. 
Part of what makes "Back to School" so meaningful is the chance to start over with fresh notebooks, empty folders, and no negative marks in the grade book.

This concept can transfer to the workplace in a variety of ways: posting new goals on the walls of your shared office space; through private conversations, offering a struggling employee a chance at a fresh start; removing clutter in common areas; or using a staff meeting to set new objectives or work practices. Clean slates don't have to be dramatic, but they do have to be acknowledged.

3. Reinvent yourself, and make it possible for others to do the same.
New teachers and new classmates makes reinventing yourself possible for students. It's harder in the workforce where your colleagues, leaders, and employees have not changed. But it's still possible.

One CEO I work with determined he wanted to be less angry and more approachable. He could have set this goal privately and made quiet, personal efforts to reach it. But he knew accountability would be important, so he declared the goal publicly and asked his staff to (respectfully) call him on violations.

Could you do the same? Maybe you want to be more responsive to messages from your staff, learn a new technical skill, or be better at listening. Whatever your intention is, publicly state it to your team, your executives, or a small circle of trusted colleagues. Then ask for their support. Ask those you lead to set intentions, and offer your support for their growth.

How do you create fresh starts for your team? Share your ideas here, or on Twitter (tag us, @ValuesDriven).
Amber Johnson is the CVDL's corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist.