Mindful Management: A No-Brainer  

UnknownThere are all sorts of books out there telling people how to be better managers – do these 5 things (e.g., “expect excellence”), etc. But having both been a manager and been managed for many years in lots of different organizations, I think it really boils down to one key thing: being mindful.

In other words, pay attention – to the people and situations around you, and to your own words and actions. Are they serving you and others well? Not surprisingly, serving others reverberates; studies show that employees who are happy are also more productive.

So, for example, as a manager, when someone has done a good job or gone out of their way to help you, do you take the time to notice, acknowledge, and thank them? Do you take the time to review their work and offer feedback? Do you show interest in what they care about?

Or, when you’re feeling stressed or irritable, do you snap at the people who work for you, or suggest the problem you’re having is their fault? The instinct to blame is common, and perhaps natural, given that it’s painful to acknowledge our responsibility for a bad situation and difficult to accept that sometimes things just go awry. But if the blame is unwarranted, as it often is, it generates the kind of resentment that’s toxic to any workplace. I’ve seen this in clients, where managers can’t understand why they have such high employee turnover, yet don’t stop to think about what their own behavior is contributing. The result is often chronic problems caused by inexperienced and poorly trained employees, because no one sticks around long enough either to do the job or to show new people the ropes. Those who do stick around are often so scared that they’re competing with new employees rather than helping to train them.

Of course, treating people mindfully sounds like a no-brainer.  And studies have even shown that “the more mindful the leader, the lower the employee’s emotional exhaustion,” leading to “better overall job performance ratings of the employee,” according to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. But I’m repeatedly amazed at how often such a simple practice is just not done. Although the concept of mindfulness has become popular in recent years, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the rungs of upper management in many organizations. And to be fair, it’s not easy; it’s not what most of us were trained to do.  So, many managers, facing their own pressures, often disregard their impact on other people, or don’t even bother to consider that the people who work for them are other people. And it brings the whole organization down.

In a recent radio interview, the makers of the new documentary The Hand That Feeds, which follows an organizing effort by workers at an Upper East Side Manhattan store of the Hot and Crusty restaurant chain, said the real reason the workers formed a union and went on strike was largely because managers never said “please” and “thank you.” It wasn’t just the poor wages and conditions; it was that they felt disrespected.

While we don’t all run offices or restaurants or other organizations, to some degree, we’re all managers, at least of our own lives, and can be more mindful of our impact on others. Each day involves interaction with other people — from the person next to you on the train to the worker behind the take-out counter where you get your lunch to the receptionist who minds the company’s front desk. To that extent, we all have an opportunity to be more mindful – and to appreciate its impact.

It reminds me of a line in a poem by Jack Kerouac I came across the other day on the site Brainpickings: “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you are already in heaven now.”

Finding Joy at Work

imagesI joined a meditation group in my neighborhood recently, and the other night the teacher’s talk was about Joy.

Joy. It’s not something many of us tend to think about much. We focus on getting work done, on what’s annoying us, on the onslaught of problems we need to solve or that we’re hearing about in the world, but joy is something that many of us – maybe especially New Yorkers – tend to overlook.

When do you experience joy?

Of course, there’s joy to be experienced in everyday life: in the enthusiastic face-lickings I get from my dog when I arrive home, in the savoring of a good meal or a good conversation or the company of good friends. But one thing I realized listening to this talk, which came after a particularly intense day at the office, was that I rarely experience joy at work.

As I reflected on my work (I’m talking about my office job, not my coaching work), I realized that so much of it is spent focusing on awful things going on in the world that it’s hard to even think of joy in that context. I imagine that’s true for lots of people working as advocates, whose job it is to focus on some problem in the world and try to fix it. But that itself creates a problem.

Joy is essential. It’s what motivates us, and allows us to appreciate our lives and the world around us. Without joy, can we really bring our full selves to anything we do, and can we really do a good job? I don’t think so. But most importantly, without joy, work will leave us feeling pretty miserable.

How do you cultivate joy at work when your job involves things that are inherently a bummer? That may be some big social justice issue or a problem in your neighborhood or your company or with a product. Whatever it is, the potential for joy may not be apparent.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When I work with coaching clients, there may be parts that are difficult, but I find joy in the interaction itself, and in the feeling that I’m helping somebody, even if just by listening and helping them reflect on what’s on their mind and what might be getting in their way. When I work as a legal advocate, though, there isn’t that immediate connection with another person, or that satisfaction at the end of a session. Instead, it’s a long, endless slog toward improving a long-term situation that really sucks. You may never see the outcome, and anyway, the outcome probably won’t be what you’re hoping for. Where’s the joy in that?

Still, I see a lot of value in people advocating collectively for justice or other kinds of social and political change. It’s important work that in the long run, can make a difference. But can it be joyful?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your work meaningful, setting your own goals and acknowledging your successes. But I’m talking here about the daily experience of a job, which is a little different. As an advocate, you may know you’re part of an important effort to, say, stop global warming, but that may not make lobbying a Republican Congress led by climate change-deniers to pass laws reducing carbon emissions any more joyful.

So I’ve decided to embark on an experiment. I’m going to dedicate myself to bringing joy into my work every day. It may be in making a point to have one really good conversation with a colleague in the office, or in writing an advocacy piece that I really put my heart into. It could just involve going out of my way to acknowledge the great work done by one of my colleagues – a kind of “sympathetic joy” as Buddhists would call it . (“Sympathetic joy” is taking pleasure in other people’s happiness or success.) If none of those are possibilities, maybe it’s just taking time out of the day to quietly savor a good lunch or cup of coffee or listen to some really good music. Whatever it is, it has to be something that I actually stop and notice as joyful in some way, whether the process itself or the outcome.

Consider trying this with me. Because no matter what our work may be, if we can’t find one thing a day in it to truly enjoy in it, then in the long run, we’re not going to be doing anyone very much good.

The Snark Defense

snark-warningSunday was graduation day for my coaching class. As I boarded the Q train to Manhattan, I was half dreading it. We’d all been asked to make a short presentation about what the program and our colleagues had meant to us. My immediate response was an eye-roll. I hate this kind of thing, I thought – the sappy language, the forced emotions. I managed to fulfill the obligation by finding a kind of clever, snarky poem I could read, and I did get a laugh. Job done.

But as I watched my classmates make their presentations, some of which involved heartfelt displays of acting, singing, dancing, personal poetry and videos, I realized once again that I’d taken the easy way out. And, I realized, I’d lost out in the process.

Hiding behind a wall of cynicism is not just something I do in coaching class. My response to frustrations at work, for example, has often been to withdraw, make snarky comments or otherwise join in a generally negative office atmosphere. While that’s protected me in some ways from taking disappointments personally, it’s also kept me from really engaging in a positive way with some of the really wonderful people who work there.

I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as a lawyer and a journalist, both professions where emotional distance and a critical eye are considered essential to doing a good job. (In the age of online journalism and social media, it’s even worse – the snarkiest posts get the most eyeballs.) Or maybe it’s the way I grew up – my parents were both doctors, another profession where emotional involvement is forbidden, and critical judgment prized.

Whatever the reason, the result is I’m not someone who displays deep emotions very easily. I always though that was helpful, at least professionally – no one wants to be caught crying in the office, for example. But increasingly, I’ve come to realize it’s also an impediment. Sure, I can come up with a snarky response on Twitter pretty quickly (though not nearly so quickly as some), but when it comes to face-to-face communication and connection, with co-workers, classmates or anyone else, it’s a barrier. I’ve also come to realize, mostly through coaching, that genuine connection with other people is something I really deeply value. My snarkiness has been getting in the way.

Not that criticism or sarcasm doesn’t have its place. As Alan Henry puts it in this post I came across: “There’s a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem.” Henry cites the “wake-up moment” of Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, who once tweeted:


Henry goes on to list all the bad things snarkiness and cynicism can do, including:

On Sunday, it mostly just made me sad.

As I watched my classmates belt out a song, recite their own poetry, or dance gracefully to music that brought tears even to my eyes, I realized that I’m the one missing out. 

Learning to become a coach has begun to crack me open. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had those tears in my eyes and I probably wouldn’t have realized what I’d missed. I would have just been relieved when it was over, and my unexamined tension relieved.

This time, as I sat through our graduation ceremony – a candle-lit, spiritual music-filled affair – I felt both grateful and a bit disappointed. Yes, I had completed the program and learned valuable skills as a coach and am now certified and eager to help others. That’s what I came here for. But by holding part of myself back, by maintaining some of my critical distance, I had in some ways kept myself from fully participating in the experience. As I looked around the room, I saw 34 amazing people who I’d come to know some really meaningful things about, but whom I hadn’t really come to know.

Maybe we never fully know other people, but I’m increasingly realizing that the more we open ourselves up to them, the more they open to us, and the more we share the world together. And that makes it a much less lonely – and far more fun – place to be.

I’m not going to be really hard on myself about this: we all protect ourselves in various ways, and I’ve always been on the shy side. Dramatic performance about my innermost feelings was not going to come easily for me. That’s okay.

And I’m slowly getting better. All weekend I was dreading that time at the end of the final class when everyone has to hug and kiss goodbye, worried no one would really care to say goodbye to me or that it would all feel fake and I would want to run and hide in the bathroom. Instead, I just took a breath and slowed down. I decided I would just be real. No one was watching me or expecting me to perform. So I could decide, who did I want to say goodbye to, and what did I want to say? I found that when I let myself actually face those feelings, I had a lot to say, to a lot of people: about how much I appreciated what they’d brought to the class, to me, and to the whole 9-month training experience. And it turned out, I genuinely felt, and wanted to express, that each one really brought a lot. And that I truly appreciated it all.

When I could let go of my shyness and fear and the snarky shell I wear over it, I could genuinely share what I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to connect with everyone I wanted to. But I did manage to hug a whole lot of them. And that felt great.

Respect Yourself

I was at a company retreat a while back, one of those two-day events where management spends a lot of people’s time and the organization’s money having people participate in getting-to-know you exercises and breakout groups designed to make employees feel like their opinions about the organization’s work and direction actually matter. Everyone put on a good face and participated, at least half-heartedly, with the underlying understanding that nothing anyone contributed at the event would actually make any difference. After all, it never had before.

Just before the retreat ended, though, each department held a group meeting, at which employees could actually ask questions related to the work they really do.

That’s when sparks flew. One after another employee, from the most junior to the most senior (except the department head, who presided over the meeting), some with anger and some choking back tears, asked why it was so hard to get anything done; why decision-making by higher-ups was so opaque or nonexistent; why backbiting among staff had become the norm; and ultimately, what did the boss plan to do about it?

Not surprisingly, the boss, who has his own boss to answer to so ultimately couldn’t answer most of the questions, let alone solve the problems, had little to say. But what struck me was that under all of the complaints was one core problem: no one felt valued. Whether the complaint was that they didn’t receive timely responses to important questions, that necessary approvals for work to be completed never materialized, or that they were tired of another departments’ employees’ snickering comments, the upshot of it was that no one felt like the work they did was appreciated.

It was stunning to see: the same core problem had infected all rungs of the organization, from the most junior administrative staff to the most senior professionals.

This ties back to what I wrote in an earlier post: bosses aren’t there to make you feel good. Most of the time, they’re not thinking about you at all. They’re just thinking about what you produce and whether it meets their needs. If it does, they may or may not tell you that. If it doesn’t, you’ll hear about it – or it will trickle down to you in some fashion, because that’s what the boss is focusing on. But even if you’re doing great work, or the best you can, given the situation’s limitations, you may never hear about it. Managers are usually too busy focusing on all the things that aren’t working. And most bosses aren’t thinking about whether the people who report to them feel valued or good about their work.

That’s not a good thing, and I’m not making excuses for it. Organizations can and should do better. But ultimately, feeling good about your work is your job. And it’s important, especially if, like most people, you spend most of your waking hours working. If all it’s giving you is a paycheck, that’s a waste of a good chunk of your life.

This applies no matter what your job is. Whether it’s ministering to the poor, cleaning the office or running a company, it’s important to feel like you’re accomplishing something of value. And you can be. Even if no one ever tells you that.

The key is to set goals for yourself — and celebrate when you achieve them.

It’s something I’ve had to learn. When I was a journalist, it was easy enough: at the end of every project was a story that got published, and I had this tangible thing I could feel good about. I made sure I was always working on at least one story that interested me, so I could always feel like I was accomplishing something.

But when I joined an organization, it became much harder. Now that I was part of a larger machine, my work had to get approved by lots of other people before it could be completed. Much of it didn’t involve finished products with my name on them. And even when they did, I often felt like I didn’t get the credit I wanted for all the hard work I’d put into it, or the support I’d hoped for to ensure it made an impact.

It was on a leadership retreat that I learned the importance of setting my own goals and doing everything I could to meet them. I was choosing to meet them not because someone else expected or required me to, but because these were goals I had decided were important. When I met them – and when I set them myself, I usually did – I could feel really good about it. Eventually other people in the organization might have noticed, too, but what was important was that I knew I had a purpose that mattered to me, and I had fulfilled it.

Yes, it’s still annoying when you don’t get the recognition you deserve from higher-ups – and most managers need to do a far better job of letting employees know their work is important and appreciated. But if you value your own work, you don’t need to put nearly so much stock in winning the recognition of others. What’s important is knowing you’re accomplishing something that matters to you.

(And if you’re not, by the way, then that’s a whole other problem – to be addressed in a future post.)

What if Competence is Just a Mindset?

mindset-for-achieving-goalThere are a lot of reasons I love this recent story by Bruce Grierson — What if Age is Nothing But a Mindset? — that ran in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.  If you missed it, it’s worth a read, if only for how it reinforces the power of our minds over our bodies and our perspectives on our lives and possibilities.

But there’s also this mention in there of a previous study by the psychologist Ellen Langer, the subject of the piece, that really struck me. Here’s Grierson’s description:

Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

I find this fascinating, not just for what it says about how we treat the elderly, but also for the implications in the workplace.  I hear repeatedly from clients — and have seen firsthand — how employers undervalue their employees, fail to recognize their talents and skills, and therefore fail to give them adequate responsibilities and work that challenges them.  The result is not only employers who waste time and money hiring outsiders to do the job their own employees can already do, but the rapid demoralization and incapacitation of the employees themselves.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze talk about this in their book, Walk Out, Walk On.  I’ve quoted parts of this before, but I think it’s worth revisiting in light of the Langer study.  Wheatley and Frieze write that rigid hierarchies and “command-and-control” leadership — “the most common form of leadership worldwide” — actually “smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming…. When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.”

“This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth,” they write. And it’s why people stuck in rigid hierarchies “can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.”

“Power of this kind,” they continue, “has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness.  People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice.  They must take control if anything is going to get done.”

I’ve seen this happen repeatedly in organizations. Leaders get so caught up in their top-down command models that they end up creating zombie employees who will do just enough to get by but not more, because they’re “not authorized” or that’s “above their pay grade.” And they come to believe that they’re not capable of more, either.

Being treated as incompetent can also leave employees seething. But if you find yourself in this situation, the key is to channel that energy into something productive rather than letting it eat you up inside and fuel that destructive cycle.  Even if for now you have to follow the rules at the organization you work for, keep reminding yourself what you know you’re capable of, because that will eventually help you leave the organization, act outside of it or change it.  To remember your own talents and abilities, try reflecting on a time when you were in a position to act on them and what you were able to accomplish (recall a “peak experience” when you felt empowered, for example), and find supportive people around you (such as a friend, family member or coach) who can remind you of those times and of your strengths.

Ultimately, as Langer tells Grierson, it all comes down to being aware of what’s going on around you, and not giving in to the labels, judgments or expectations someone else may have slapped on you or on a situation that have little to do with reality.

“If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them,” Langer says, “they would fulfill their potential and improve their health.”

Grierson, quoting Langer, sums it up:  “When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual’ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

Let It Split

sculptures-in-the-sand-2“I feel like my head’s split in two,” I complained to my partner one morning as I struggled to get out of bed after a long weekend.

“Then let it split,” he said.

I’d just spent the Columbus Day weekend working through my coaching program’s final exam — 26 pages’ worth of explaining how I’d help clients explore their values, fears and dreams so they could make the changes they wanted and lead more fulfilling lives. Then that morning, as I prepared to return to my job, I was scrolling through an e-mail inbox full of dense legal arguments over whether the president could lawfully bomb ISIS in Syria or whether Congress needs to pass a new law. I felt like two very different people.

I guess we all feel that way sometimes, trying to reconcile parts of ourselves that seem strikingly different or even diametrically opposed. “Let it split” was the best advice I’d heard in a long time.

Those words actually echo one of the coaching “pathways” I’ve been learning, which involves helping clients fully experience a significant moment in their lives that raises an issue they’re struggling with. If that moment happens to be filled with pain or confusion, that’s okay. You just let it be that. The idea, which I’ve described here before, is that if you sit with it, and really feel it rather than judge or analyze it, the feeling inevitably transforms into something else, which often contains new insights that help resolve the initial angst. Instead of running away or distracting yourself from your emotions, then, you let yourself have them. Don’t wallow in them, but observe them, let whatever’s beneath them bubble up. You’ll learn something.

This has been a very hard thing for me to learn. My general approach to life has always been as a problem-solver. I see a problem and I immediately want to fix it. I not only do that in my own life, but I was recently called out by my coaching mentor for doing this with a client. Turns out that’s a big coaching no-no.

My mentor had listened to a session I’d recorded – with the client’s permission, of course, as part of my training – and noted that I’d failed to acknowledge and explore the obvious frustrations the client was having trying to balance the demands of the paying work he found empty with doing the more creative work that he loved, but which didn’t pay the bills. Instead of encouraging him to further explore those feelings, or his true desires, she observed, I’d repeatedly tried to coax him into what I thought was a good solution: better time management. By the end of the session, he still sounded frustrated. “Just dance with him, be curious, trust the process,” my mentor counseled. “He’ll come up with the solution himself.”

I felt chastened, skeptical, and annoyed.  After all, I was just trying to help.

With a little distance, though, I can see that sometimes, merely helping people sit with and accept what they’re feeling is the best help I can provide. With support and encouragement, they’ll eventually discover for themselves whether, when and how they want to act.

That’s basically what “let it split” did for me. Instead of torturing myself over whether I want to be a human rights lawyer or a coach, I’m just letting myself be both — and I’m feeling much better. Sure, sometimes I’m thrown off by how different these two kinds of work actually are. But they’re just different sides of myself. And in some ways, each nurtures the other. My coach training has helped me respond in much healthier and more productive ways to the frustrations I encounter in my job; meanwhile, running into brick walls in the workplace and as an advocate has helped me relate to what many of my clients experience. Ultimately, exploring and developing the various facets of our personalities and interests helps us make greater contributions and lead richer and more fulfilling lives.

After the critique from my mentor, I had another session with that same client. This time, I let him run the show. Rather than try to solve his problem for him, I encouraged him to fully experience how it felt, and to explore, from that place, what he truly valued, wanted and needed. He really responded to that. By the end of our session, he said he felt much better:  instead of trying to choose between one or another role to play or label to apply to what he does with his life, he could see that what he really wants – at least for now – is to do both.

Power, Play and Hierarchy

40694-24568For anyone who questions rigid hierarchies and power structures or just feels discouraged or deflated by them, the book Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, is worth checking out.

“Walk Outs,” the authors write, are “people who bravely choose to leave behind situations, jobs, relationships and ideas that restrict and confine them, anything that inhibits them.” They “walk on” to “ideas, people, and practices that enable them to explore and discover news gifts, new possibilities.”  Rejecting rigid hierarchies and outworn notions of how things should be done, they learn and create new things.

The book traces seven projects in different parts of the world where individuals and communities created something out of what looked like nothing, relying not on outside expertise or a pre-designed plan, but on the dreams, ingenuity and creativity of local people joining together to build something they need.  I won’t get into the different projects here, which are really pretty amazing and worth reading about.  But I do want to share a few choice observations on power and hierarchy from the authors that could apply as much to a modern workplace in midtown Manhattan as to an impoverished favela in Brazil, the site of one of the projects described.

In physics, power is defined as the rate at which work gets done. This works fine for machines, but it has no relevance for humans. Yet many leaders assume that people are machines, that we can be programmed, motivated and supervised through external force and authority. This “command-and-control” leadership smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming.  Yet it is the most common form of leadership worldwide.  When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.

This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth…. It’s also visible in rigid hierarchies where people, confined to small boxes, can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.

Power of this kind has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness.  People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice.  They must take control if anything is going to get done.

What if solving a problem were instead approached as playing a game, write Wheatley and Frieze, and everyone with something at stake were invited to participate?

Games invite us to let go of our resignation and our sense of limitation – and simply to start dreaming, creating and imagining…. In the logic of play, people are invited to break rules, experiment, innovate, and be original…. Play returns us to a state in which we can see what’s possible–not what’s so…. We are inspired to experiment, to try out new ideas, to take ourselves a little less seriously. We do not have to conform to what we already know.

That’s the reasoning underlying the kind of leadership that leads to the stunningly successful projects described in this book.

It’s also consistent with new social science research showing that people perform much better and have far more energy for tasks they choose to do because the outcome matters to them, even if the task itself seems somewhat tedious, than for work they don’t really care about.  And people generally care far more about work they’ve chosen, using methods they’ve created, than work they’re told to do following someone else’s dictates.

All of this may seem obvious.  But it’s surprising how few leaders in workplaces consider this.  As I’ve written before, your boss may or may not be among the more enlightened leaders, but there are ways of setting your own goals and choosing your own means of accomplishing them that can go a long way towards putting you in the driver’s seat of your own work.

And if your job really doesn’t allow you that?  Then it may be time to “walk out” and “walk on.”


Not Your Job. Or Is It?

Workplace-HellI realize that unemployment in this country is a serious problem, but talk to people who have jobs and most will tell you they don’t like them very much.

Reason #1 is that the purpose of the job isn’t your satisfaction: you’re working for someone, or some company, whose goal is to maximize profit (or attract funding, if it’s a nonprofit), not to make you happy. You’re inherently a cog in the machine, and most bosses treat their employees that way.

That’s not to say that all bosses are bad or mean people. Many may be great to their families and friends, committed to righteous causes, and maybe even decent to work for. But lots of bosses are under lots of pressure themselves to perform: to demonstrate their value to their boss, in some measurable way, whether by increasing profits or producing some other specific outcomes that will capture their manager’s attention, and keep them employed with the hopes of eventually reaching a higher rung on the ladder. And you, as a cog in the machine that they’re required to manage, are not on top of their list of priorities.

Again, they may be very well-meaning. But human beings pretty universally put their own needs first. Some are better or worse at considering the needs of others, but chances are your boss isn’t losing sleep over whether you’re feeling fulfilled in your work, employing your greatest talents or learning anything new. That’s for you to lose sleep over.

If you do, and you actually want to feel fulfilled at work (reportedly only 13% of people in the world actually feel engaged in their work) you have two choices: either 1) quit and work for yourself, so you get to be your own boss (and take on the boss’s responsibilities as well); or 2) find ways to create meaning for yourself while working for someone else. Above all, don’t expect someone else to do it for you.

In a recent NYT column, Management Consultant and Executive Coach Tony Schwartz laid out six ways managers can make their workplaces better, including such basic things as respecting the people who work for them, measuring employees’ worth for what they create and not their hours clocked, and encouraging them to get off 24-7 e-mail. All of that sounds really good, but I’d bet your boss didn’t read that column. Probably he was too busy answering to his boss; or, he was enjoying his own free time and not worrying too much about you. After all, he generally doesn’t have to. Yes, his employees might be happier and more productive if he did, but managers, like politicians, don’t generally think that far ahead. They tend to be more focused on getting done what they have to so they can get out of the office and go vent (or ignore) their own frustrations.

While management consultants may have great advice on how to create a better workplace, in my experience, few employers actually take them up on it. It falls to employees to make the better work environment for themselves. While you can’t control everything, there are probably many more things you can control and take charge of than you realize.

So, I’m going to take the liberty of twisting Tony Schwartz’s tips to put the power back in our own hands. Here are my top six ways:

1. Respect yourself, and your own work. Instead of looking to the boss to tell you you’re doing a good job, consider your own goals at work. What are you trying to accomplish? What matters to you about this job? What will be different if you do a better job, and how would you even define that? Then, set an intention to fulfill your own goals, for your own purposes. And feel proud of yourself when you do.

2. Measure yourself by how well you do what’s important in your work, and not by how many hours you put into it or show up at the office. Many employees worry about “face time” or otherwise looking like they’re working hard, maybe by sending a lot of useless e-mails. For those who work on occasion from home, we worry we’re not taken as seriously or efficiently because we’re not seen sitting at our office computer. My advice: forget about all that. Instead, keep in mind your own goals for the job, the outcomes you want to accomplish, and measure yourself by how well you achieve those, or how much you focused your efforts on achieving those, if the outcomes aren’t within your control. Forget what you look to others, since chances are they’re not paying as much attention to you as you think. But in case they are, be sure to let the higher-ups know when you do accomplish something you’re proud of. They might not know about it otherwise.

3. Get off e-mail. Stop reacting immediately to every e-mail you receive, or you’ll never get anything else done. Unless that’s the primary function of your job, take time to disengage from the constant e-mail chatter so you can concentrate on the work you want to accomplish and the goals you’ve set for yourself. E-mail is a huge distraction and a time-suck. And while sometimes it’s necessary, few people really have to respond as quickly as we do, in most instances. Maybe keep an eye out for e-mails from your boss, is she’s a stickler for quick responses, but otherwise, take time to turn it all off and focus. You’ll find you’re able to accomplish a lot more of what matters. Then you can send an e-mail letting everyone know that.

4. Build downtime into your life. The more demanding, stressful or boring your job is, the more important it is for you to take time off from it. Make sure you have daily things you do that aren’t work-related and really take you away from the job. They could be exercise, meditation, yoga, gardening, walking, painting or dancing – whatever it is, have other things you do in your life that you find fulfilling and relaxing and take you away. That’s key to not feeling burned out by work, whether you like your job or hate it.

5. Define your work in ways that matter to you. Why did you take this job in the first place? Other than the pay, was there anything about it that interested or appealed to you? Are those things still possible? If not, have new aspects of the work opened up where you feel you can make some difference? In other words, what’s important to you about your job, and how can you stay connected to that? Ultimately, that’s what should define how you feel about your work, more than how somebody else judges your performance, and whether or not anyone else ever tells you your work is appreciated.

6. Remember what you can do for others. Ultimately, workplaces are collections of people who come together with at least some shared purposes, even if it’s just to earn a living. And in those people are lots of possibilities, both to learn from and be enriched by them, and to give them something of yourself. We all have basically the same needs for appreciation, respect and security, and each of us has some role to play in helping others get those needs met. So when you go to work each day, consider what you can do for someone else to make them feel more appreciated and respected – whether it’s the receptionist, your office mate or your boss. That will both make you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile each day, and can help prevent conflicts (particularly with your boss) in the future.

Each of these points merits a lot more attention and consideration, and I’ll go into more depth on them in future posts. But this summary list is my first step toward exploring how we can all stop waiting for the managers in our lives to change things from the top. Chances are, it’s not going to happen. Start taking the matter of your work – and your life – into your own hands.

It’s Okay To Be Blue

screamblueNow that we’ve passed Labor Day, there’s all sorts of advice out there about how to beat the post-vacation blues. Tips range from immediately unpacking your suitcases to going for a run to taking stock of your life and your work.  All good ideas.

But in a culture obsessed with the quick fix — things you can do, buy, eat or drink to make you happy — there’s one bit of advice you rarely hear:  let yourself feel lousy.

You’ve left your idyllic vacation spot, returned to a noisy city, a boring or stressful job, and re-immersed yourself in all the day’s bad news. It’s not surprising you don’t feel great.

After a recent week of traveling and being completely checked out, I made a huge effort to appreciate my return to home and work, ease back into my life, etc..  And I still felt crappy for a while. That’s okay. In fact, it can be a good thing to let yourself actually experience your emotions rather than pushing them away.  One surprising thing I’ve learned through coaching is that really sitting with my emotions for a while allows them to slowly transform — and can lead to some pretty amazing insights.

Left alone, emotions themselves last only about 90 seconds to 2 minutes.   It’s the story we tell ourselves about them – that my life sucks, my job sucks, I’m stuck in this place I hate, etc. – that tends to drag out that emotion, and cause us to have it over and over again and feel stuck.  Pema Chodron talks about this beautifully in her books, and suggests people “lean in” to the emotion rather than run from it. (This is a very different concept of leaning in from Sheryl Sandberg‘s.)

When I was feeling particularly lousy one evening, I called up my copy of Jon Kabat Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses. A professor of Medicine at University of Massachuseetts medical school and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Zinn talks about the healing power of just focusing on the present and experiencing your emotions, without the overlay of thoughts.

As Zinn explains:

Enthralled once again, even when in great pain, with the story of me that I am busy creating, unwittingly, merely out of habit, I have an opportunity, countless opportunities, to see its unfolding and to cease and desist from feeding it, to issue a restraining order if necessary, to turn the key which has been sitting in the lock all along, to step out of jail, and therefore meet the world in new and more expansive and appropriate ways by embracing it fully rather than contracting, recoiling, or turning away.

So when you’re hit with that defeated or sad feeling, try just letting it be. Notice it, check in with yourself, with your body, and really feel it. Where do you feel it? What does it feel like? Drop the story line that’s feeding it, and see what else comes up. Does it begin to shift? What I’ve found particularly amazing about doing this is that by sitting with it, the pain not only goes away, but turns into something else — something new — that moves me forward.

A Labor Day Launch

For most people, Labor Day is the last day of summer vacation, a time to enjoy the final barbecue or picnic or party of the season before heading back to work or sending the kids back to school.

But it’s also a good time to think about work – what it means to us, and the huge role it plays in our lives and society. There are, of course, huge problems with work in this country, most obviously how unequally people are paid for it, both historically and now, and the ongoing failure of our public policies to deal with that.

In this new blog, I’m focusing on the more personal dimension of work: what makes it satisfying, aside from the paycheck, which we all tend to think is too small. In my own career, I’ve gone from being a lawyer to a journalist and then some mix of the two, all in a quest for some sort of meaning and fulfillment. Both aspects of my career have provided me some of that, more or less at different times.

Still, more recently, I’ve wanted something else:  to contribute more directly to the people around me. As a human rights lawyer, I advocate for a more humane and less bellicose U.S. national security policy, and try to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center or restrain the United States’ remote-controlled drone killings of suspected terrorists. But the benefits of that work feel very distant and intangible. Who am I helping, really, and how? What are the actual consequences of lobbying Congress and the White House, or of writing op-eds and blogs to try to sway public opinion? It’s all pretty unclear.

So over the last year, I’ve embarked on a new adventure: coaching. The idea isn’t completely divorced from my experience: it actually came out of being a National Security and Human Rights fellow with the Rockwood Leadership Institute, which runs trainings and fellowships for “leaders” in the nonprofit advocacy world. (I put “leaders” in quotes only because the underlying idea is that we’re all leaders in one way or another, not only within our organizations but also in our own lives. Job titles don’t necessarily capture that.) As part of the fellowship, I was assigned a coach, who I worked with over the course of several months. I found that experience, along with the fellowship retreats, to be really eye-opening. Most importantly, it helped me realize that we have more choice over our own experiences of work than we tend to acknowledge. It’s far easier to blame someone else – a boss, senior manager or colleague, usually – for our frustrations and dissatisfaction, than to look at our own actions and how we’re contributing to a bad situation.

That’s not to say that a boss, manager or colleague isn’t annoying or even doing something to actively obstruct us or make our lives more difficult. It’s just that focusing our attention on that is usually counterproductive: it just makes us angrier. Through my own coaching experience, and now intensive coach training, I’ve come to realize I do much better if I focus on what I can do to change and direct my own experience.

Since starting a coach training and certification course last Spring, I’ve been really delving into this question: how can each of us change, and improve, our own work – and life — experiences? How can we make choices that direct our own lives toward how we truly want to live them? And how can we gain sufficient clarity to become truly aware of our current experiences, our desires for the future, and the steps we need to take to move in that direction?

I’m still working as a human rights advocate as I explore this new realm. But I’m also relating to that work differently – more aware and accepting of what I can and can’t control, both about the work itself and its consequences. I know what I can and want to contribute, but I’m also more willing to do that work and let go of the outcomes. It’s a perspective that I think can reduce the stress levels – and burnout rates — of many advocates. It’s an area I plan to explore further.

This new blog is my way of working through some of what I’m learning as I develop a coaching practice and continue my human rights work. While the two might seem incompatible, they’re not, really: it’s all about human dignity. In my view, we all have a right to work and to live in a way that’s meaningful to us. That will mean something different to everybody, but I hope the insights I’m learning and will share here, and with my coaching clients, prove useful, even in some small way, toward helping people realize that real potential – and their own human right.