Trust and Workload

April 27, 2013

RubberbandsDo you have far too much work to do than any human being can achieve on a daily basis? Is this a habitual problem at your place of work? If so, then join the club of millions of workers who feel that way.

I view the workload issue like a rubber band. In good times, the rubber band is slack, and people have a comfortable workload that has peaks of stretch and some slack times. As the economy gets tighter, the rubber band of resources gets stretched tighter and tighter until it nearly snaps. In some cases it actually does snap, and people break down from the load and stress. We’ve seen that a lot recently.

The other phenomenon is that when you stretch anything beyond its elastic limit, then its ability to snap back to a normal relaxed state is lost. If you take a rubber band and hold it fully stretched long enough, then it will not go back to a fully relaxed state. We also see this happening as people have been held at the snapping point so long that they simply have forgotten how it feels to have a reasonable work load. There is no ability to increase capacity, yet in a time where there is a little slack, they cannot contract to enjoy it.

There is a flip side to this argument. I have witnessed people who are constantly complaining about the crushing load and that they simply cannot do everything they are told to do, but if you watch them, they really do have many opportunities to conserve time and change their situation for the better. I know many people who spend an average of 2-3 hours a day on the phone and in face to face bitch sessions with others. The primary topic is usually how there is simply not enough time to get their work done. Hmmm.

When talking with managers, they will tell me that they do not have enough resources to make ends meet. The habitual statement is “I simply need more people to do the work,” yet when I get these same managers together to talk about how they can make improvements, they readily tell me they are frustrated because too many people are goofing off and not applying themselves as they should. Hmmm again.

I believe the average company in the USA obtains less than 50% of the potential from their workforce on a regular basis. That figure is generous based on many studies I have read. There seems to be a disconnect between how people perceive being overloaded and the actual state of being overloaded. That is not true in every single case, of course. There are situations where the overload is genuine and completely inappropriate, but I believe those cases are the minority.

According to a recent study of 2000 people by Wrike ( roughly 60% of people feel they are overloaded, yet in reality there is plenty of slack time remaining, and with some basic reengineering of the functions and habits, there would be even more slack time.

The cure for this problem is a thing called engagement, and the road to achieve engagement is paved with trust. Without trust, workers will not reach anywhere near their potential because they will not really be engaged in the work. It has been demonstrated by numerous studies that the productivity of high trust groups is 200% to 500% higher than the productivity of low trust groups.* If you want to have people be able to tolerate the stretch of the rubber band that is so common these days, then work on developing a culture of higher trust.

*Here are two references of studies showing high trust groups are more productive.
Trust Across America
Covey, Stephen M.R. Smart Trust, Free Press, 2012, New York, NY

12 Ways to Improve Online Communication

April 19, 2013

Something wrong with my pcOverarching consideration: Use the right mode of communication – often e-mail or texting are not the right ways to communicate a particular message.

1. Do not treat online notes like a conversation. In normal conversation we use the feedback of body language to modify our message, pace, tone, and emphasis in order to stay out of trouble. In e-mail or in texting, we do not have this real-time feedback.

2. Keep messages short. A good e-mail or text should take only 15-30 seconds to read (texts as little as 2-3 seconds) and absorb. Less is more in online communication. Try to have the entire message fit onto the first screen. When a messages goes “over the horizon,” the reader does not know how long it is, which creates a psychological block.

3. Establish the right tone upfront. Online messages have a momentum. If you start on the wrong foot, you will have a difficult time connecting. The “Subject” line and the first three words of a note establish the tone.

4. Remember the permanent nature of e-mails. Using e-mail to praise helps people remember the kind words. Using e-mail to be critical is usually a bad idea because people will re-read the note many times.

5. Keep your objective in mind. Establish a clear objective of how you want the reader to react to your note. For sensitive notes, write the objective down. When proofreading your note, check to see if your intended reaction is likely to happen. If not, reword the note.

6. Do not write notes when you are not yourself. This sounds simple, but it is really much more difficult than meets the eye. Learn the techniques to avoid this problem.

7. Avoid “online grenade” battles. Do not take the bait. Simply do not respond to edgy note in kind. Change the venue to be more effective.

8. Be careful with use of pronouns in notes. Pronouns establish the tone. The most dangerous pronoun in an online note is “you.”

9. Avoid using “absolutes.” Avoid words such as: never, always, impossible, or cannot. Soften the absolutes if you want to be more credible online.

10. Avoid sarcasm. Humor at the expense of another person will come back to haunt you.

11. Learn techniques to keep your e-mail inbox clean (down to zero notes each day) so you are highly responsive when needed. Adopting proper distribution rules in your organization will cut e-mail traffic by more than 30% instantly.

12. Understand the rules for writing challenging notes so you always get the result you want rather than create a need for damage control.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work in an environment unhampered by the problems of poor online communication. This takes some education and a customized set of rules for your unique environment, but the effort is well worth it.

• Employees are not consumed with trying to sort out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Your coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build rather than destroy trust.

For leaders and managers, once you learn the essentials of e-body language, a whole new world of communication emerges. You will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and have a better sense of how your messages are interpreted by others. You will understand the secret code that is written “between the lines” of all messages and enhance the quality of online communications in your sphere of influence.

Training in this skill area does not require months of struggling with hidden gremlins. While employees often push back on productivity improvement or OD training, they welcome this topic enthusiastically because it improves their quality of work life instantly. Four hours of training and a set of rules can change a lifetime of bad habits.

Working Ahead of the Power Curve

November 4, 2012

Ever find yourself scrambling near a deadline to get all the work done? I suspect we have all experienced a time crunch on a project, whether it was a term paper in school, a special project at work, or even a party to celebrate a holiday. As we pull an all-nighter to finish our project just ahead of the deadline, what we are really doing is lowering our chances of a successful effort.

The alternative is to arrange your life so that you can complete your work well ahead of the due date. My mentor used to refer to this as “working ahead of the power curve.” There are many advantages of getting the work done early. Here are seven obvious advantages:

1. You have more time to polish the work, so the quality is significantly higher.

2. You can do dry runs of the material, so your work comes out more professional looking.

3. You can relax and not be uptight about working close to the deadline. That also improves the quality of the material along with the quality of your life.

4. You get the reputation as an organized person who has his or her act together.

5. You can spend some time looking at potential problems that might arise and have contingencies ready to go.

6. Since you know you are prepared, you appear more confident and relaxed when the event arrives.

7. You are more creative because there is time to soak on ideas.

With the help of my mentor, I got the idea of doing this many years ago. It sounded impossible to me at the time because, like everyone else, I was always so backed up with dozens of projects. Actually, it was not as difficult as I thought to get into the habit of tricking myself into believing the deadline was a week or two ahead of the actual due date. Once I experienced the tremendous benefits of working ahead of the power curve, as described above, I have tried to work that way ever since.

There are still some times when things get just overwhelming, but when that happens, I just get up earlier to keep things moving.

Try the formula of working ahead of the power curve in your life. If you can acquire the discipline to do it, you will find that the quality of your work will rise, while at the same time your stress level will go down. It is a life skill well worth cultivating.

Load Rage

May 1, 2011

As organizations wrestle with global competition and economic cycles, the pressure on productivity is more acute each year. I do not see an end to the pressure to accomplish more work with less. There comes a point when leaders ask people to stretch beyond their elastic limit, and they burn out. As the constant requests for more work with fewer resources starts to take a physical toll on the health of workers at all levels, people become justifiably angry. I see evidence of what I call “load rage” in nearly every organization in which I work.

An interesting flip side of this problem is the observation made by many researchers that working human beings generally operate at only a fraction of their true capability. I have read estimates of organizations extracting on average something like 30-50% of the inherent capability in the workforce; some estimates are even lower. It would be impossible for anyone to continually operate at 100% of capacity because that would require the adrenal glands to secrete a constant stream or adrenaline that would kill the person. However, if the estimates of typical capacity used are accurate, there is still a lot of upside in people, so why the “load rage”?

The reason is that we base our perception of how hard we are working at any moment on a sliding scale. We base our feelings of load on how busy we are, not on what percentage of our capacity is being consumed. Many of our activities are simply traps that we invent because of habitual patterns in our daily work. We tolerate a multitude of inhibiting actions that steal seconds from our minutes and minutes from our hours. We excuse these diversions as not being very important, but in reality they are exceedingly relevant to our output and to our stress level. Let me cite a few examples.

Look at the inbox of your e-mail account. If you are like most people there are more than a few notes waiting for your attention. We have all kinds of reasons (really rationalizations) for not keeping our inbox totally cleaned out each day. I will share that at this moment I have 5 “read” notes and no “unread” notes in my inbox, and it is driving me crazy. I need to get that down to zero within the hour, but right now I am consumed writing this article. If we are honest, it is inescapable that having more than 2-3 notes waiting attention will cause a few milliseconds of search time when we want to do anything on e-mail. That time is lost forever, and it cannot be replaced. We all know people who have maxed out the inbox capability and have literally thousands of e-mails to chew through. These people are drowning in a sea of time wasters just like a young adult with 20 credit cards is drowning in a sea of debt. It is inevitable.

You know at least a few people in your circle of friends or working comrades who spend a hefty chunk of their day going around lamenting how there is not enough time to do the work. Admit it – we all do this to some extent. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Looks like I have plenty of time and not much to do.” OK, old geezers in the home have this problem and so do young children who are dependent on mommy to think up things to keep them occupied. For most of us in the adult or working world, our time is the most scarce and precious commodity we have, yet we habitually squander it in tiny ways that add up to major stress for us. I suspect that even the most proficient time-management guru finds it possible to waste over 30% of his or her time on things that do not matter.

One healthy antidote, especially at work, is to have a “stop doing” list. Most people have a “to do” list, but you rarely see someone crossing things off a “don’t do” list. Think how liberating and refreshing it would be if each of us found an extra hour or two each day by just consciously deciding to stop doing things that do not matter. Whole groups can do this exercise and gain incredible productivity. The technique is called “work out,” where groups consciously redesign processes to take work out of the system. If you examine how you use your time today, I guarantee that if you are brutally honest you can find at least 2 hours of time you are wasting on busy work with no real purpose. Wow, two hours would be a gift for anyone.

Another technique is to really load up your schedule. You think that you are overworked now, but just imagine if you added 5 major new activities that had to be done on top of your present activities. That would feel insane, but you would find ways to cope. Then if you cut back to your current load next week, what seemed like an untenable burden a few weeks ago would feel like a cake walk. I can recall a time in the Fall of 2004 when I was teaching 11 different courses at the same time. That was in addition to writing a book and developing a leadership consulting practice. I will admit that was a little over the top, but did I ever enjoy the load when I cut it back to only three courses at a time.

Another huge time burner is conflict. We spend more time than we realize trying to manage others so our world is as close to what we want as possible. When things are out of kilter, we can spend hours of time on the phone or e-mail negotiating with others in a political struggle to get them to think more like us. The typical thought pattern going through the mind during these times is “why can’t you be more like me.” The energy and time to have these discussions can really eat up the clock time during the day.

Dither is another issue for many of us. I already shared that while I am writing this paper, I am really procrastinating from opening up and dealing with the 5 notes in my inbox (oops – now 6) (now 7). I typically get between 100-150 e-mails a day. There are other things I must do today, but I am having fun writing this paper, so the “work” is getting pushed back. I will pay for this indulgence later, but at least I do recognize what I am doing here. The point is that most of the time that we lose is unconscious. We have all figured out how to justify the time wasters in our lives, and we still complain that there are not enough hours in the day.

There is no cure for this malaise. It is part of the human condition. I think it helps to remind ourselves that when we feel overloaded, particularly with work, it is really just a priority issue, and we honestly do have plenty of time to do everything with still some slack time to take a breath. If you do not agree, then I suspect you are in denial.

Now, I need to be excused to go clean out my inbox!