Don’t be Blown Off Course

December 21, 2013

Full Moon SantaEach of us has a vision of how our day will go if things occur “as expected,” but then life happens: There is an accident, illness, phone call, weather related issue, burned food, delivery, robbery, injury, the boss walks in, and on and on.

We are forced to react to these changes and try to juggle the interruption as best we can to still try to accomplish the objectives for our day.

On most days, most professionals have this kind of planning chaos occur. We can mourn the confusion, but it is better to just realize that these interruptions or distractions are what give life its spice.

One idea is to try waking up each morning with excited anticipation. The feeling should be, “OK I have a plan and objectives for my day, yet I know there will be large and small ‘adventures’ that take me off track.

Some of these may actually be fun, but many of them will be things I would rather not do. I look forward to stepping up to the challenge of accomplishing my goals while dealing with the distractions as they come up.”

Give yourself permission to get a bit testy if the interruptions become extreme. It is OK to put barbed wire and flares around your desk when a critical task has to be completed and you cannot be disturbed.

You just need to establish a priority for each task and work your way through the interruptions until you are back on course.

One technique I find helpful is to get up earlier and earlier until I get caught up with the backlog. The hours between 1 am and 7 am are delightfully free from interruptions, so my work time is more productive. Of course, I need to go to bed earlier and earlier to get enough rest, but the habit really does help me from getting buried for long periods of time.

Of course, some people are night people and others prefer the morning.

If you are habitually overloaded such that you never really get caught up, that is a stress problem that may be impacting your health. Depending on your tolerance for work, you may need to readjust your activities to make more time and reduce the amount of activities you are trying to juggle.

Another helpful technique is to use the word “no” more often. If you refuse to be blown off course every day, then you will be able to manage the remaining activities in the time you have.

That is often easier said than done, because sometimes the interruptions cannot be denied. If your child has fallen and has a broken arm, you cannot say, “Well, sorry, I have this report that is due out by tomorrow; we will take care of your needs after I get it done.”

Another technique is to identify how much time you are actually wasting. Sure, we all need to rejuvenate, but often we get involved in some TV program or in reading a book and just spend too much time doing the things we want to do, thus leaving not enough time for the things we have to do. Each of us has to find the right balance.

Ironically there is a practice that takes time away from work that is a real trap for some people. That is the habit of complaining about not enough time to do the work we have.

I once knew a man at work who spent nearly half his time walking around the office complaining to other people how there were simply not enough hours in the day to get his work done.

That activity was not only blowing him off course, but it also tied up the person who was listening to his rant. The idea is to ask yourself seriously if you are truly applying yourself fully to the work. Sometimes you may be actually procrastinating, yet you feel overloaded.

My experience has been that when I truly apply myself, I can get more done than I would have thought possible on most days. What happens when I let the distractions lure me away from what needs to be done is that I fall short of my inherent capacity.

It’s not that I couldn’t get everything done; it’s that I didn’t get everything done. There is a huge difference between those two statements.

To be fair, we all need a down day every once in a while where we just choose to goof off. The problem is that some people tend to have a percentage of goofing off as part of each day. That means when they get blown off course, there is no reserve time to flex to the situation. That creates frustration.

If you compartmentalize your tasks and keep pursuing your original list of things to do with excellent application, you can usually survive the winds that would blow you off course for the day.

Preventing Social Loafing

October 5, 2013

One Minute LateSocial loafing is a name given to the phenomenon where one or more people fail to pull their fair share of the load. We see evidence of it in every aspect of our lives from family slackers who leave messes for others to clean up, to sports teams where some players like to skip practice, to hospitals where some staff work at their own pace even when resources are stretched to the max.

We see it in church groups where one person will gladly take credit, even though she was not present at any of the events or meetings.

In a work setting, social loafing is the single biggest reason for team stress. I contend it is a rare team that does not experience some form of social loafing, and it creates ill will among the group every time.

The reason for the ubiquitous nature of this problem is that the work is never equally accomplished by all members of the team. Some people will have issues that prevent them from contributing as much as others. The issues may be legitimate, like a death in the family, or a chronic health condition, or they may be fabricated.

Since the load is never completely equal, those who pull more than their fair share become resentful of those who get equal credit but fail to do equal work.

A variation of the work setting is in the area of volunteer groups. It gets more tricky in these groups because people are stepping up to volunteer their time and talent for a cause.

Worse in the volunteer world...

In the commercial business arena, if a person slacks off, then he or she can be punished or even terminated, but in the volunteer world, there is much less leverage because the time is donated. In this case, some other form of inducement, usually peer pressure, is the only leverage that can help reduce social loafing.

Since this problem is debilitating to teams and is universal, is there a simple cure for the disease? I believe there is, but I also think it is not often used very well. The trick is to create an agreement at the start that everyone will pull his or her share of the load.

People usually buy into the concept at the start of a team: after all, fair is fair. It is only after the team gets going that life happens and the slackers are revealed. Good intentions at the start of an activity are necessary but not sufficient to prevent social loafing.

What is needed is an agreed-upon penalty or consequence that will befall a person who does not perform as previously stated.

Let me share two examples of how this works and how the concept really does nip the problem of social loafing in the bud. I will use one example in an online university setting and a second example in a volunteer organization.

I do a lot of teaching in the online environment. Students have individual assignments and team assignments (usually papers to write) where there is a lot of work to be done by several remote individuals. Students come into the team environment with all good intentions where all students will do their fair share of the work, but inevitably one or two people will fall behind the pace and hold the team back.

This lack of following rules causes the other members to scramble to get the paper finished at the last minute because one student did not do the assigned part. That infuriates the other students because their grade on the team paper is dependent on everyone pulling a fair share of the load.

In every single team there is this same problem to some degree. Occasionally it is hard to detect due to a particular set of individuals, but even there I see signs of stress when one student procrastinates a bit and leaves the others waiting and wondering.

The cure is so simple. If the penalty for goofing off is spelled out specifically at the start, then the stress goes away and performance improves.

Suppose the team agrees that all team members will submit their part of the paper three days before it is due, to allow time for editing and clean up.

Now comes the critical element. The team agrees that if one member does not comply with the agreed timing, his name will be left off the team paper, and he will receive no points for the weekly assignment. That is a very stiff penalty because it will immediately lower the final grade for a course for that student by one letter grade.

By insisting on a specific consequence to be agreed upon at the start of the course (when everyone has good intentions) then the social loafing rarely occurs. Reason: The would-be slacker has already agreed to accept the dreaded consequence, so there is no doubt about what will happen to him if he fails to meet expectations.

If he tests the system and finds he got no points for the assignment, he cannot cry foul. He already signed off on the consequence. The result is that he never does it again.

A second example is from a volunteer organization. Here we cannot specify leaving the person’s name off a paper because there is none. Instead we need to get more creative with a penalty. The time to brainstorm possible consequences for social loafing is at the start when the team is forming.

The team should brainstorm acceptable behaviors and then the group needs to identify what will happen to an individual if he or she does not abide by the established rules. Let’s take a specific example of a group that is planning an event. Each volunteer has a specific role to play, and they identify that any individual member not doing the job will be responsible for providing refreshments at the next meeting or washing the dishes after the meeting. This penalty is not debilitating, but the embarrassment factor of having to bring in goodies for the rest of the team should be a strong deterrent against social loafing.

You can come up with any specific penalty as long as it has two elements 1) the penalty is specified before the slacking occurs, and 2) everyone agrees to enforce the penalty.

Having a specific penalty associated with failure to perform up to good intentions is the most effective way to prevent social loafing or deal with it when it happens. Try it in your group and see how this simple step is like a miracle for better teamwork.