Research…or analysis paralysis?

I have written previously about some issues of work/life balance for people working at home during the pandemic. As a coach I always encourage self-reflection as part of the learning and adapting process and clients who treat this seriously, are often the ones who make the greatest strides in a shorter period of time. However, I have noticed on occasions, a side effect of spending more time working from home, which appears to lead to an imbalance in the amount of time which has been spent on research and reading around the subject. For some, the apparently reduced time constraints compared to a busy office, has meant that they are able to spend hours googling and reading, in the hope of getting ever more recent ideas and the latest theory. With some clients this can lead to a level of almost paralysis and feed concerns and self-doubt about their own knowledge and skill. With others in a leadership position, there can be a danger of constantly seeking the ‘next right thing’, with a result that some of their staff may be left wondering what they are supposed to do to try to keep up, or at worst, ignoring the idea completely, knowing that another one will be along next week.
All of us as professionals have a duty to constantly question, to refresh our knowledge and to make sure that we are as up to date as possible with current thinking. However, there is also merit in having some faith in proven ideas and processes which have worked well in the past or trusting your own skills and judgment. A couple of examples…
A very well-read CEO was extremely knowledgeable about leadership and management best practices and had a great deal of self-awareness for good measure. His blind spot, however, was his prodigious consumption of leadership and management books, talks, webinars and blogs…to the extent that I began to question my own ability to add value to him through my coaching and mentoring. He ‘butterflied’ from one to the other and felt unable to settle on some basic principles or methodology which were right for his current business and current circumstances. With his anxiety levels rising he was in danger of losing his ability to lead effectively altogether. As I have suggested previously, a return to some basic values was important. But it was as important to help him settle on a management paradigm appropriate for his company at the time….and then to be consistent in how he communicated that to staff and how he implemented it across the company. He has not stopped reading or researching, but he asks himself some key questions first. ‘What is the problem with what I am doing now?’ ‘Is the new idea significantly better than what I am doing?’ ‘What will be the impact on my staff (of making a change)?’ He is still inquisitive and keen to learn, but his anxiety levels have reduced, and he is more able to focus on key outcomes for the business and driving it forward.
A freelance worker found herself overcome with anxiety that the proposals and ideas she was putting forward were simply not the best and that there must be people out there who were doing it right. The amount of time she spent researching alternatives meant that she started to miss deadlines. Breaking this habit came as a result of focusing on her own abilities using objective evidence as the key. In this instance it focused on the work she has completed and the actual feedback from clients who have re-engaged her for subsequent projects. We spent time developing an appropriate balance between the need for her, a professionally isolated individual, to research and the need to deliver proposals to the client.
So, what is the essential learning in all this? Inquisitiveness, research and learning are all fundamental to individuals and organisations which are forward-thinking, dynamic and ultimately successful. However, there is also a place for trust in those methods and practices which have served you well in the past…and an objective look at your own achievements. In the end it is all about balance and not silver bullets.

Work/life balance and/or ambition?

Working with clients remotely during lockdown and the recent easing, has highlighted some real opportunities for individuals and organisations whilst also raising some interesting dilemmas.

The lockdown experience for some, offered an opportunity to work from home and to adopt a lifestyle geared more around family and home life. For some it meant doing some early work for a couple of hours, then being part of a family routine with children, before getting back down to some more work perhaps even in the evenings. For others however, the lack of an externally imposed routine meant that boundaries became more blurred and guilt, coupled with assumed expectations (“I must be able to answer phone or emails or zoom requests immediately”) resulted in feelings of being on a work treadmill where even home offered no respite. Helping people to work through their boundaries and expectations has been both challenging and rewarding. But what of the other side of the debate?

“Work/life balance is fine, but I need drive and ambition …(from my managers)”. Is a near quote from a senior manager in the hospitality industry. He felt that the competitive edge had been lost among some of his managers, as they worked from home preparing for a return to a new way of working. He was itching to get his staff back in to regain (my words) a sense of control and personal direction.  He was frustrated that staff were not always instantly available to talk things through with him and seemed to take this as a lack of commitment or drive.

The example above was in complete contrast to a Principal in the public sector, who accepted that many of his younger staff were trying to balance conflicting demands arising from lockdown and took a more relaxed approach to some of the tasks and routines he would normally expect.

The final piece of the jigsaw for me was a young manager who had been struggling and who was quite depressed at times around the demands of work. Partial working from home gave him time to reappraise his personal ambition and work/life balance, and also his role in delivering the goals for the organisation. His final outcome was a negotiation with his manager which was honest about his own perception of balance. The two of them had a discussion focussed entirely on outcomes (for students) and what his role in delivering that would be. He was able to come to terms with the fact that it meant another manager would become the deputy Principal.

Talking to them subsequently, the relief from both was clearly apparent. The senior manger had clarity about levels of responsibility and justifiable expectations about outcomes, while the more junior manager felt that he was once again in control of key parts of his life and emotions. This level of joint acceptance is not always easy to obtain and it required a lot of self-understanding and honesty from both parties together with a relentless focus solely on outcomes for the organisation rather than tasks or jobs. However, if it can be achieved, the benefits for both people and organisations really do point the way to new and more productive ways of working with a contented, yet still organisationally ambitious workforce.

Values… and helping to reduce anxiety

Over the past few months there has been a noticeable rise in the levels of anxiety experienced by both individuals and organisations as a whole. Without stating the obvious, this is as a direct result of the increase in uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity within our personal and professional environments. As we emerge from some of the strictures of lockdown, this has paradoxically for many, heightened the sense of volatility and loss of control and can lead to paralysis in decision making and a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

Successful (and long term) managers will often say that learning to live with ambiguity and embracing change has been a key factor in both their longevity and their success. But that of course is easier said than done both in life and in business. It is easy to believe that if only we had some kind of plan or roadmap, we could work our way through to the golden and sunlit uplands of success and certainty. Perhaps one of the only certain things about plans though, is that they will gather electronic dust in forgotten folders on your laptop as the latest round of changes heave over the horizon.

So, what can we do to not just cope with all this, but actively embrace the present and feel a sense of ease and contentment with whatever the future may bring?

Some things never change…
Having talked about change and uncertainty, there are however, some fundamentals in both life and business which rarely change and that is our fundamental set of core values. They may be personal values based around honesty, respect, and integrity, or they may be inherent in your business around value, fairness, inclusivity, service etc. If those values are truly core, then your personal and business behaviours will always be guided by them, no matter what the external environment brings. Living up to those values will of themselves lead to a greater sense of contentment with the present and all the benefits that will bring to you personally and to your business.

What I have ended up working on with clients both private and corporate over the past few months, has often been around a reaffirmation of those core values and establishing that firm ground from which the future can be embraced with a greater sense of vision, clarity and purpose.

Going back to these basics was, for one corporate client, the key to establishing a sense of purpose, excitement and motivation for a new senior team who had hardly any chance to meet in person before lockdown. Discussions were constantly brought back to the core (and agreed) values, leading to focus and impact for both individuals and the business.

For a private client working from home and feeling isolated, re-establishing her core values was central to her regaining her own sense of self-worth and purpose. By concentrating on the present and focusing her daily activities around her own values, she was able to make some key decisions both personally and professionally leading to greater happiness and reduced levels of anxiety.

So, in these uncertain times, do not be afraid of going back to basics and focusing on the present without always trying to predict the future.

Uncertainty to opportunity…

Uncertainty for most of us is a given at the moment, with issues surrounding work, personal life and both professional and personal relationships. Each of us is creating a new normal, but this moment of crisis will pass and the question will remain about what the post Covid 19 normal will look like.

Many individuals and organisations have talked for years about the ideals of flexible working, but the reality is that (with some exceptions) the traditional methods have remained in place around being physically present in a workplace and often with limited flexibility around times. However, what this crisis has shown is that very many businesses and individuals have developed (often very rapidly) new ways of working and connecting…and my belief is that these new work and relationship paradigms could enable a different, more flexible and perhaps more effective future.

Working with clients recently has highlighted vulnerabilities for sure, but it has also enabled some positive and affirmative re-evaluation at a fundamental level for others. It is very easy to feel negative and isolated at this time, but at the risk of being drawn into cliches, there is an imense power in starting to be creative about our journey beyond the next few weeks.