What I’m reading now: Saying “No”

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of gatekeeping: a clean, crisp way of whittling down the requests and a solution to the guilt that comes from saying no.

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Insights from the “Facing Challenges” Tweetchat

Last week I hosted my final tweetchat of 2012 on the topic of facing challenges in the workplace. I started the discussion with a question: “What is the number one challenge you face in the workplace?” Three key challenges emerged, and along with them, many ideas for overcoming them.

The 9 to 5, or 6, or 7, or…

The combination of mobile technology with increased work pressures and expectations has contributed to more people working more hours. While we appreciate increased flexibility, the additional workload can be daunting and at times even paralyzing.  However, there are strategies we can implement to manage our workloads, improve overall performance, and even make time for the little people (AKA your children). Managing your workload is really about managing your time, for example, setting appropriate boundaries for work and personal time or what I called in a previous post, managing “work/life imbalance.” Those in the tweetchat also had good ideas for time management. Strategy Consultant, Alan Howze, had recently been experimenting with “Living Your Calendar,” which takes your traditional to do list to the next level by helping to prioritize and set aside time for specific tasks, instead of focusing solely on urgent tasks while pushing aside important ones (a critical distinction).  The tweeters at Online Business Degree suggested breaking down projects and setting time limits on individual tasks. Moral is, if your workload is burning you out, and you find you don’t have time to do the things you love or really need to do, then take a good, hard look at your calendar, chances are it could be better organized.

Fear of Failure

“What will my boss think or say or even worse, do?” Often employees are afraid to speak up or take action, because they are concerned about the recourse. But as David Williams wrote in his recent article, “Employees who are afraid of something or someone in the organization will naturally close up to protect themselves, and can no longer perform at their full capacity.” Plain and simple, fear is a performance and innovation killer. However, leaders can play a significant role in reducing employee fears. As leaders, we should advocate for and truly live an “open door” policy. Give your employees the opportunity to get to know you and what you stand for. Walk the halls and introduce yourself to people you don’t know. As employees get to know their leaders, they become less afraid of them and more willing to contribute new ideas. As for the individual, consultant, Brianna Lux, had a whole different suggestion: Improv. Yes, I mean the “stage, mic, random acts of comedy” improv, and it turns out, Forbes agrees.

Employee Dissatisfaction

One of the greatest challenges an organization can face is employee dissatisfaction. Low morale contributes to equally low performance. I thought it would be better to ask the group what would improve employee satisfaction rather than propose ideas myself: “Provide a clear career path and encourage employees to engage mentors who can assist with their development,” wrote Adam Jelic, Workforce Transformation Lead. “Find what motivates your teams!” interjected Senior Managing Consultant, Bill Kirst.  While Alison Nickerson suggested, “Let people feel they can contribute and be a part of something.” Three very different ideas that prove there are many ways to overcome employee dissatisfaction – and for more ideas start by asking your employees.

For a conversation about challenges, and trust me, it wasn’t difficult for participants to name a few, it had a distinctly hopeful feeling. I think this gets at the question of why even have a conversation about something seemingly unpleasant? Hiding challenges will almost never make them go away, but acknowledging them and then collaboratively addressing them will not only eliminate the problem, but build camaraderie too.

Work/Life Imbalance

We often hear the phrase “work/life balance.”  The truth about work/life balance, not often implied by the term itself, is that your work and your personal life can’t always be perfectly in balance, and it’s important to recognize that there will be times where one will take priority over the other. It doesn’t mean you are a bad parent, friend, or coworker – it’s just a reality.

So the real question people should be asking is not, “How do I achieve work/life balance,” but: “how do I prioritize my work/life activities – preparing for an imbalance of the two at any given time?” Four small things make a huge difference for me in preparing for imbalance:

1) Proactively manage priorities: Take a look at everything going on in your life and determine where things fall as priorities. Perhaps work is your #1 priority, perhaps family, perhaps something else entirely. Even look at your tasks on a more micro level: Your son’s soccer game, that presentation for your boss’s meeting, volunteering, and so on. One method for doing this is using the Urgent/Important Matrix attributed to both former US President Eisenhower and Dr. Stephen Covey. Keep in mind that this list is not tattooed to you, priorities shift over time, depending on where you are in your life and what’s happening around you. Revisit your list as things change, and don’t be afraid to reprioritize. There is only so much time in the day, so understanding your priorities is the first step to allocating your time properly. Your top priorities (and remember, not everything can be a top priority!) are the things to focus on first and which to dedicate the most energy. These are the things that you clear your calendar for and that take precedence when another demand comes knocking. Those tasks that are not your top priorities require management as well, which brings us to your network.

2) Rely on your network: I know the idea of relinquishing responsibilities can sometimes be challenging, like giving the keys to your new car to your teenage daughter. You said you would do it, but you find yourself still tightly holding the keys as she tries to pry them from your locked fingers. But the thing is, if you don’t give her the keys a couple things will happen: A) She won’t develop into a good driver herself without practice and B) You will be required to continue shuttling her to and from various activities, which I am guessing didn’t make it into your top three priorities. Point is, relying on other people, in and out of work, is both necessary and good. What projects can be delegated to others on your team (how to delegate work and responsibility); can another neighbor host the block party? We sometimes have the tendency to feel guilty for relying on our network, but that’s what they’re there for and when they need you, that’s what you’re there for too.

3) Set boundaries and communicate them: A question to ask yourself: “Why do I have doors on my house, but not in my life?” Doors play an integral role in our homes, they let people in, but they also keep people out, preserving your security and sanity. The problem is that we don’t use the door mentality with our lives; we don’t lockdown time for ourselves to keep people/tasks out and preserve security and sanity in our everyday work life.  You must set boundaries, and even more importantly, you must let everyone else know what those boundaries are. If having dinner with your family every night is a priority, then you need to leave the office at a certain time. If finishing that revenue analysis is urgent, then you are going to need uninterrupted time to work on it and you can’t take on additional work until it’s done (or as the Harvard Business Review refers to it: The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time). For each of your priorities, determine the requirements, including the boundaries, and respect them, if you don’t, no one else will either.

4) Continue to perform: The thing to remember is exactly what we said in the beginning: Your priorities are constantly evolving and you need to reassess them continuously in order to do your best work. When we see people getting burned out or failing to meet their goals, it is because they fail to prioritize, utilize their network and/or set the proper boundaries. Work life balance is a process, not a single moment. If you maintain the process, then you can continue to be successful in your tasks – and whether that task is related to work or not, you will see the benefits of high performance.

One final note:  Lead by example: The best way to show your coworkers, friends and family how to manage both their jobs and their personal lives is to do it yourself. One of the top questions I get as a leader is how I manage both the rigors of my job and the requirements of being a mom. My answer is, “I’m doing it right now. Follow me in a day and you’ll see how.” It is possible to do all the things that you want to do as long as you are willing to accept that the secret to work life balance is actually about preparing and managing work life imbalance.