Tuesday, January 31, 2020

What's So Good About the Work Ethic?

Many people believe in the importance of a powerful work ethic. Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish philosopher, summed up this view in a speech in 1866, when he said:
Work is the grandest cure for all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind.
An attachment to the virtues of hard work and close family ties is often seen as basic to traditional values. In a country like the US, this viewpoint has been further strengthened by waves of poor immigrants, all seeking a better life they could achieve only by arduous labor to escape the poverty that drove them from their original homelands.

Certain politicians in countries where social welfare is generous complain that such payments encourage a generation of "slackers." Conservative thinkers worldwide believe hard work can save young people from "decadence" and a slew of supposed moral ills. And it's common to hear older people complain the young lack their dedication to work; that they're too keen to find easy ways to survive without making appropriate effort—whatever that's assumed to be.

I suspect Roman grandfathers complained the youth of their day were lazy and addicted to watching gladiatorial combats. Ancient Egyptian conservatives probably went around telling people that slaving day by day on another pyramid was good for the workers and kept them from wasting their time in immoral pastimes. Hard work has long been seen as a virtue in itself—especially by those too old or too rich to need to do it for themselves. It's worth thinking about this idea more fully, especially since it's often used even today to justify long hours and the supremacy of work over leisure.

What is it about hard work that's so virtuous?

People tend to glorify effort in most walks of life. There's a natural assumption that what costs most—whether in terms of money, sweat or years of training—must be most valuable. If something is easily obtained, it's judged to have little worth. This has no logical basis, of course, but it seems deeply rooted in human thinking. Climbing a long flight of stairs is seen as trivial, because almost anyone can do it; climbing Everest is praiseworthy because it's so hard only a few even make the attempt.

This way of thinking has little to commend it. Some praiseworthy actions are indeed hard, but their value doesn't come from their difficulty; it comes from what they achieve for good or noble ends. Other valuable actions are extremely easy—like showing small acts of kindness to the people you meet—but no less worthwhile because of that. Of course, our media focus on the unusual and difficult, but that's because they're seeking news, and what anyone can do isn't newsworthy. The value of an action doesn't arise from how hard it is; it comes from the usefulness or benefit of the act itself.

If hard actions aren't intrinsically valuable because they demand effort, maybe their value comes from their effect on character?

This is a very common belief and dates back, at least, to the days of the first Protestant reformers in Europe. In their reaction against medieval notions of buying forgiveness from sin by donations to the church, they stressed a belief that forgiveness couldn't be bought: that God wasn't in the business of selling grace for money or favors. Even the other approach to winning salvation—facing the effort and danger of a long pilgrimage—was discounted, perhaps because of its association with the "worship" of saints. What was left was simple: to accept protestant teachings and live a good life. And their definition of a good life, since most were serious, conservative people, included hard work and independence.

During the Victorian era, the building of "character" became a fetish, especially in the rarified atmosphere of English upper-class public schools. Physical exercise, cold baths and proper attention to sportsmanship were valued aristocratic pursuits. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as The Duke of Wellington claimed, it was because of the devotion to character-building typical of the British Empire. Nowadays, such ideas are seen as quaint—even laughable. Yet the belief that hard work builds an estimable character lives on, creating our modern worship of the self-made, millionaire entrepreneur.

Does hard work build good character? Or do people of good character show a willingness to pursue valuable goals, even if it takes hard work to achieve them? Human thinking is riddled with errors caused by assuming causation where none exists.

Let's be clear. Many worthwhile enterprises demand hard work, but their value does not come from the need for work itself. People of good character are willing to make great efforts to achieve their goals, yet the effort is incidental to the goals themselves. Hard work doesn't create goodness. Many criminals work hard at their crimes; they turn to crime because they believe it pays better than honest work. We've seen plenty of recent examples of hard-working, dedicated entrepreneurs and executives engaged in all kinds of swindles. Nor does hard work prevent vice, anymore than cold baths suppressed sexual desire in Victorian youth. Some of the hardest working, most savagely disciplined and punished people ever were the sailors of the British navy in Nelson's time. But they were also notorious for gambling, drunkenness and sexual excess (when they could get it).

Hard work is, sometimes, a necessary means to a desirable end. Sometimes, with luck, the same end can be achieved without it. Neither situation affects the value of what is being done. You can work long hours, ruin your health, disrupt your relationships and amass large amounts of money in the pursuit of morally and ethically dubious goals—or ones that stand as beacons of light in a darkened world.

It's the result that counts, not the way you achieve it.

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Sunday, January 29, 2020

Are You One of the Keystone Kops?

Our world has twin obsessions: size and speed. Manufacturers are fascinated by making things smaller, so people walk around with gadgets that have tiny keyboards you can only operate with your thumbs (producing a new disease: strained thumb syndrome). You can cram several days of continuous music onto a device that fits in a shirt pocket without making a bulge. Not content with tiny cellphones, fashion says they must now contain video cameras and MP3 players; while cameras themselves have become so small nobody with normal-sized hands can use the controls.

And then there's speed. Faster is automatically judged better. Instant answers (provided you choose one of the preset instant questions); instant information; instant dessert. This is an age where instant gratification is already too slow. Waiting for anything has become a burden. Because they want everything, and want it now, people cram their lives full of non-stop, helter-skelter activity. Children at kindergarten need personal calendars to keep track of their after-school and weekend events: ballet, football, soccer, Little League, church events. Everything is meshed into a schedule that leaves no time for playing or simply messing around, as children have done for centuries. Add the 8-10 hours they spend watching TV each week and the habits of a lifetime are securely in place.

Their parents are no better. Eat, sleep, work 14 hours a day, drive the children to all their activities, go to bed, get up before dawn to start again. Meals are taken on the run, providing a bonanza for the manufacturers of heartburn and indigestion remedies. There's no time for conversation, for being together, even for sex in many cases. Too tired, too stressed, too distracted.

The theme that runs through all this madness is the same: there is never enough time.
Imagine your favorite piece of music. it has a correct tempo: the one that sounds best. Probably the one the composer intended. It's not absolute, of course. Some performances go a little faster, others slower. Speeding up the tempo adds a little extra excitement: slowing it down may make the piece sound more dreamy or romantic. But there are limits. Played still slower, the melody labors and the piece sounds ridiculous. Played a little too fast, it becomes rushed and out-ot-breath.
Now imagine playing it even faster. If it's a song, it'll start to sound comic, like the Chipmunks. Instrumental music will blur into continuous noise. Faster still and all you'll hear is a wail like a police siren.

It's the same with the tempo of life. It has a correct speed—the one that works best—and a range around that speed which is still workable. A little faster when you're excited; a little slower when you're tired or feel like dreaming. Outside that range, things start to go wrong.

Slowing down too much is rarely an issue today, so we'll concentrate on the faster end. When the tempo of your life is too fast, but still just possible, it also becomes comic. Like The Keystone Kops of silent film days, you rush around idiotically, tripping over yourself and looking like a speeded-up puppet. "I'm late, I'm late," you shout. "Got to go. No time now." And you rush away to your next activity, the last one already faded in your mind. You do know it's really, really funny for the rest of us to watch, don't you?

Speed life up still more and things become seriously distorted. Like the hellish wail of music speeded up beyond tolerance, life becomes unbearable. It's not funny any more. Your health breaks down because your coping mechanisms can no longer take the strain. Mental collapse, burn-out, strokes, heart attacks and suicides are the result.

Returning to the correct tempo is the only way to restore your health and bring back the opportunity to enjoy life. You can do it while you still have your health and sanity; or wait until you're forced into it by physical or mental breakdown. Mankind has a long history of trying to defy Nature's demands. But Nature has an equally long history of getting her way in the end—and she rarely shows any scruples.

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Friday, January 27, 2020

Slow Leadership and Ethics

Several people commented about the mention of ethical considerations in our preliminary survey findings. Do these suggest most people are not sufficiently interested in ethics? That's not how I read the result. Take it at face value and it says ethical questions aren't a current problem for the majority. Hopefully, that means they don't find themselves in working situations that raise ethical concerns in their minds.

Yet there is a clear link, I believe, between ethics and the ideas of Slow Leadership. I'd like to try to clarify my thinking on this point. Please join in with your own thoughts. It's an important issue.

Slow Leadership is about creating the right balance between the needs of corporations and the people who work within them. Corporations need to be profitable, productive, competitive and able to produce products or services people want. Slow Leadership helps in all these areas by minimizing mistakes, avoiding rash choices, preventing poor quality due to haste, and limiting reworking and false starts. It also lowers costs by aiding the retention and recruitment of high-quality employees.

For people working in organizations that espouse Slow Leadership, work becomes a more attractive and satisfying activity. There is time to be creative and explore fresh options, as well as get current work done correctly and on time. The false cult of overwork and continual speed doesn't produce the results people claim for it, as I have explain before on this site.

Then there is the ethical element. Treating people badly in the cause of profit or personal greed cannot be ethically or morally correct. No creed or set of ethical standards allows it. It is simply wrong. Since Slow Leadership promotes civilized standards of leadership behavior, it includes an ethical belief that to stress and overwork employees is both ineffective, in business terms, and indefensible, in moral ones.

That is the position I see for Slow Leadership, at least at present. I would be very happy to receive your views, for or against the points I have made.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2020

More Survey Feedback

Sometimes it's important to see what doesn't figure as important, especially if what other people have written suggested it should be. Take coping with jobs cuts. There has been considerable discussion of this in the media, but our survey results give it very little importance as a source of overwork or problems with work/life balance.

Amongst those who have responded to the survey so far, only 19% said job cuts are important as a current issue, compared with 43% who rated it as "marginal" or "unimportant." Indeed, 38% dismissed it altogether, noting it as "not applicable."

Ethical issues too haven't had the importance you might guess from recent high-profile cases. 46% said that ethical problems don't affect them, compared with 18% who rate them as occurring at least sometimes.

What's leading the pack of problems? Feeling too little job satisfaction, finding time to think and plan and do my own work, and constant interruptions. No change there.

I'll leave you with another powerful comment from the survey:
We are faced with the expectation of miracles. We constantly perform miracles, because it's the only way to survive. But this leads to the expectation of constant performance at the miracle level, which is unsustainable, unless we completely ignore the need for work/life balance and just plain sanity in our workforce.
For a few more days, there's still time to add your voice to this survey. Just use this link.

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Monday, January 23, 2020

First feedback from our survey

As organizations push harder to lower costs and boost productivity, the people who work for them are feeling ever greater strain. That's the message that's coming through clearly from a preliminary look at the survey I launched a week or so ago.

What is the single problem people find most critical?It's finding time to think and plan and do my own work. 67% of people rate that currently as a "critical" or "essential" area for them. In the same vein, 53% say they're feeling swamped by conficting demands; 43% say they're not enjoying their jobs anymore; and 47% even say they're unsure about what's expected of me.
The drive to do more with fewer resources, a constant beat of saving money by defering essential activities is creating a situation where failure is inevitiable but the timing of that failure is the only thing in doubt.
It seems that old-fashioned "command and control" management is very much alive and well. Organizations are using open pressure to drive people harder. There's a pattern that is coming through, which can be summarized as demanding that people meet the targets set for them, even if they're unreasonable, and labeling any who don't as unsatisfactory, uncommitted or poor workers. One respondent describes this in stark terms:
My perception is that the "chain of command" has turned into a way of sending blame and stress down the chain for decisions made in a self imposed vacuum at the top of the chain. I don't know how to enable my staff to succeed and enjoy work when it seems my management only sets us up to fail over and over with more unreasonable expectations each time.
Senior executives come in for a great deal of criticism, not just for the demands they make, but for the way they force middle and junior managers to relay that same, unfeeling culture downwards. Here's what one person wrote:
I have a boss that expects immediate results on zero budget and highly limited staff, but he expects the results to be as though we had a huge staff and a multibillion dollar budget. I don't want to transfer the feeling of frantic insanity I feel to my subordinates, but I also need to get the results quickly and done well, so I have to apply some amount of pressure. It's a difficult balancing act that I feel I'm failing.
Another sees the problem as endemic to the management culture:
Problems are delegated, not tasks. There is a culture that says "If you can't meet the deadline it must be because you're not trying hard enough", rather than "You're not meeting the deadline. Is there a problem? Can we help?"
And while it's often the people who are blamed, poor systems are at the root of it all:
I am not in any way empowered to fix the devastatingly inefficient systems that are currently in place. All I can do is look on in horror.
It seems there's a crisis gathering itself; a crisis of people's wishes to live a sensible lifestyle versus the endless demands of corporations to produce greater profit. This sets up a chain effect, where each higher level of management passes some (maybe most) of its own pressures downwards to those immediately below. Eventually, the pressures reach those who can delegate no further.

There's still time to add your voice to this survey, which is shaping up to provide considerable insight into the real problems facing people at work today. Just use this link to add your voice.

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Sunday, January 22, 2020

More Press Cuttings

According to Time magazine, increasing mindfulness through meditation produces beneficial physical changes in the brain:
Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brainscanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory.
Brain scan studies appear to show definite improvements in concentration and mental energy: good news for anyone who has to cope with sudden, unexpected demands or work long hours to meet a deadline.

Angela Patmore, a British author, has written a book called: The Truth About Stress. Her view is that stress is mostly hype. Peter Leo, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, summarizies her views as:
…stress is a myth and … the "stress epidemic" of the last two decades is "not only bogus but deeply harmful to society. Rather than encouraging individuals to confront routine concerns and thus overcome them, it turns them into 'sufferers.' " In short, life is, uh, stressful. Stop whining, and get on with it.
Professor Cary Cooper, a British psychologist doesn't agree:
It's silly to say that stress doesn't exist. It's always been in the human condition. Sometimes the pressure reaches a point where we can't cope. That's not debatable, it just is the case.
Ms. Patmore does have a point though when she writes:
"If the problem is bad management, poor training or overwork, calling it 'stress' can lead to the action necessary to improve the situation not being taken."
Writers at the University of Passau in Germany have tackled burnout with typical Teutonic thoroughness. What they say about organizational causes makes interesting reading:
Three things are associated with burnout:
  • role conflict: A person who has conflicting responsibilities will begin to feel pulled in many directions and will try to do everything equally well without setting priorities. The result will be the feelings of fatigue or exhaustion associated with burnout.

  • role ambiguity: The individual does not know what is expected of her. She knows she is expected to be a good career person but is not quite sure how to accomplish this because she has no role model or guidelines to follow. The result is that she never feels that she has accomplished anything worthwhile.

  • role overload: The individual can't say no and keeps on taking on more responsibility than he can handle until he finally burns out.
If you aren't certain whether you're burned out or not (How does that work?), Queendom.com offers you an on-line test to find out. Queendom claims to be: "… an internet magazine with a difference: We provide an interactive avenue for self-exploration with a healthy dose of fun." They offer scores of different tests, if that's what fun means for you.

If you haven't already completed our survey, please take a moment to do so. We're closing in on 200 respondents, and the more responses we can get, the more impact we can make when we announce the results. Just use this link.
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Thursday, January 19, 2020

Does This Sound Familiar?

A British newspaper, The Guardian, reports major problems facing the Japanese economy as a direct result of their culture of exaggerated work ethic. Things have become so bad, it seems, the government is considering enacting laws to force people to spend sufficient time away from work. Why? To boost the birth rate.

It appears Japanese couples are so focused on work they aren't producing enough children for the needs of the economy. So this isn't about creating a more civilized society; the politicians are concerned there won't be enough people to pay taxes. Nothing gets politicians involved faster than the prospect of a shrinking tax-base. The Guardian reporter explains:
The fault for destroying Japanese families, experts say, lies partly with slave-driving bosses for whom loyalty is measured in hours spent behind a desk. Overwork is one of the most commonly cited reasons why young Japanese couples shy away from having children.
There is even a government minister for boosting the birthrate, who is now threatening legislation to require employees to take their full vacation entitlement and convert overtime into additional paid holiday.

It's tempting to smile. Before you do, listen to this description of one 57-year old Japanese manager's life:
On a busy day, I turn up for work at about 5am and don't finish until 2am the next morning," he says. "It's not that we don't want to go home—we just can't. We have to think about the people around us at work. I know that's a very Japanese way of thinking, but that's the way it is.
According to the Japanese government, the average worker takes around half the meager 18 days of vacation allowed; only 46% take their full vacation entitlement. Many work long hours, plus extra overtime, just to keep pace with work demands.

Like their American and European counterparts, Japanese employees are being squeezed by organizations seeking to cut staffing to make themselves "more competitive." But while economic thinking rules corporate boardrooms, human beings are not designed to live by the imperatives of Wall Street. In the past, only slaves and the most downtrodden members of society endured constant demands to work, well past what is comfortable or tolerable. For the rest—the craftsmen, merchants and members of a profession—better education and higher social status brought freedom to set their own hours and enjoy adequate leisure time.

Work that's slavery in all but name still exists, even in America, to our nation's shame. Still, there are also increasing numbers of highly-paid, highly-skilled and prestigious jobs: jobs in the professions, healthcare, science, technology, education and management. By all rights, people who work hard to gain these positions should at least be as free from drudgery as our modestly prosperous ancestors. Yet it is not so. We have traded time, leisure and freedom from compulsion for more money: money we have neither the time to enjoy nor the ability to forego. The USA runs an economy based on people routinely spending more than they can afford. The result is a treadmill of credit they cannot leave.

They are not alone. Other countries may have less personal debt, but our consumption-lead Western economies demand people spend as fast as they earn. Only that will feed the stock-market's constant demand for higher sales, higher profits and greater returns to shareholders.

Productivity has brought enormous benefits, but it comes with a price. Part of it was paid when mechanization destroyed millions of manufacturing jobs. The prophesied calamity didn't come, because the service sector more than filled the gap—though new jobs were often less well paid than the ones lost. Service sector jobs depend on people with the personal wealth to consume those services: our well-paid, highly-educated knowledge workers. So they must work harder to drive the service economy along, spending more and more each year—until they too are replaced by technology, or their jobs outsourced to countries with lower wages.

To parody Sir Winston Churchill's words: "Never has so much been required by so many from so few." The Japanese government is recognizing that fewer people will be available to work in their economy and pay taxes. What they may have missed is that, on past trends, fewer will be needed. Those few will work hard—and probably for long hours—earning high salaries and paying high taxes as a result; and the gap between the "rich" consumers of services and the "poor" who provide them will widen still more. Already the earnings of the top one or two percent of US citizens are increasing at least four or five times faster than the average. Maybe we will return to something like an eighteenth-century aristocracy, with rich people and their servants, only this time based on earned rather than inherited wealth.

Does it have to be like this? I don't believe it does, but it will take more than a minister for increasing the birthrate—or even Japanese men and women having enough leisure time to do what's needed to procreate—to change our thoughtless, economically-derived myopia on the subject.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2020

Wry Thoughts from Down Under

I should soon be able to report some results from the Slow Leadership survey. To provide some early context, you might be interested in a long opinion piece from a New Zealander, Finlay MacDonald (some Scots ancestry I guess), bemoaning the annual rash of "back to work" and "time to change your life" stories that flourish in the media during January.

There's a sour attitude about his article: a sense that the places where people work are not just bad but filled with futility; that working life is pointless and there's no escape. That may have been true of Mr. MacDonald's experience, but it is not true of mine. There are serious flaws in the way organizations operate, without doubt, but none are beyond cure. To present a viewpoint that decries honest people's efforts to improve themselves and their places of work seems to offer only fashionably resigned despair.

Here's how the article begins:
When I edited another weekly periodical for a living, this time of year often called for a "back to work" feature. This hardy perennial of the media garden could be reliably plucked during the usual news drought and rubbed in the faces of every poor wretch contemplating another 12 months of labour. The idea was to appeal to the worker/reader's aspirations for change or improvement. There was the "how to beat the back to work blues" version, the "how to get the job you really want" version, the "how to attain a better work-life balance" version, the "what are your chances of a pay rise this year?" version... all timed with sadistic precision for that moment when people step collectively and resignedly back through the door of the office.
Mr. MacDonald is obviously no fan of " … self-improvement manuals about working smarter, getting ahead, finding your inner entrepreneur—the fad diet books of the workplace…" Since this is high summer in the southern hemisphere, the return to work after Christmas and New Year coincides with the best weather for spending time at the beach. Those of us north of the equator are spared this added twist of irony. For Mr. MacDonald, it's the final straw in a long litany of complaints about the typical New Zealand workplace.

His view of the office environment is unreservedly negative. Referring to the British comedy series The Office (it later spawned a US version too), he says:
But what is it about the modern office that uninspires so? Ricky Gervais obviously had the answers when he satirised it in his transcendently funny series The Office: the torpor of memo-culture, the inane diversions people invent to make time die, the insanely finely-balanced and intense yet outwardly banal relationships, even the deadened acoustics of cheap carpet and ceiling tiles. Conceived as a mockumentary, it was closer to truth than any documentary could get. While Gervais relied on his own character, the knuckle-whiteningly gauche David Brent, to mine the big laughs, it was the desperately docile Tim who played the everyman—us—hideously conscious of the pointlessness of his work and his own paralysis in the headlights of a potentially wasted life. Ah, the cruel laughter of recognition.
All this may make a tempting approach for an article, but there's surely something missing. If office life—or maybe working life in general—is so bad, why doesn't he offer some suggestions to make it better?

The survey I launched recently has produced an amazing response—much greater than I anticipated. It seems the readers of this blog aren't giving up in the face of workplace craziness. They have plenty to say about facing the problems of today's frenetic environment. They're bright, intelligent people seeking practical ways to create a lifestyle with a sensible blend of work and play. What's becoming clear is that the major issues circle around having time to live a life that makes sense; not "the torpor of memo-culture," gauche superiors, or anything as literary as "paralysis in the headlights of a potentially wasted life." It's far too easy to poke fun at the workers—and their bosses—while ignoring the real causes of our stressful workplaces: the "audit culture" that reduces the heart-stopping complexities of human life to simple numbers on a balance sheet; methods of leadership that originated before the time of Julius Caesar (and haven't changed much since); and the stupendous greed of people already too rich to spend what they have.

Slow Leadership won't produce smart articles to rival Mr. MacDonald's offering, but we will try to offer practical advice—not clever essays on the supposed stupidity of other people. In that spirit, those of you who read my weekly guest posting on lifehack will have seen I've started a short series there called "Fight The Flab!" It's about dealing with the most immediate sources of workplace distraction: e-mails and Instant Messaging, cellphones and pointless meetings. If you haven't read Part 1, you might find it useful to take a look.

Mr. MacDonald's article eventually reaches this conclusion:
There really is no solution to the great work-life balance conundrum other than to tip the balance firmly in favour of life.
Hurrah for that, anyway. Maybe his heart is in the right place after all.

There's still time to add your voice to our survey. Just use this link.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2020


Thanks to Leon at lifehack.org, I discovered an article in The Herald, a Scottish newspaper. The article is written by Brian Donnelly and called "Why modern offices only let you work for 11 minutes."

Donnelly's article is based on a report, The Cost of Not Paying Attention, written by a research team headed by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez, of the University of California. They found the average worker spends just over two hours per day (28% of their time) dealing directly with interruptions of one kind or another, working for around 11 minutes between interruptions. But here's the real issue: on average, people take around 30 minutes to return to full concentration on their original work after being interrupted. On that basis, one interruption could be enough to provide a chain-reaction of lost concentration for the rest of the day. No wonder so many people find themselves finishing work each day without having achieved much of what they intended.

As Donnelly says:
It has reached such an extent that workers are becoming locked in what was described as a mire of multi-tasking, and one expert said there had been a tenfold rise in the number of people suffering from what he called work-induced attention-deficit disorder…Workers in the study were juggling an average of 12 projects each, a situation one subject described as "constant, multi-tasking craziness".
Multi-tasking is a silly myth that destroys people. You only ever have 100% of your attention available (often not even that, given other common distractions like working out how long until lunchtime, or wondering if your latest infatuation will call, or if the cat has been sick on the kitchen floor again). Split your attention between only two simultaneous tasks and you'll be forced to deal with each with around 50% of your attention. (If you boost attention to one of them, the other must lose a corresponding amount: 60:40, 70:30, or whatever).

Now imagine trying to juggle 12 tasks simultaneously. By my arithmetic, that gives each task an average of 8.33% of your attention. What do you think should correctly get around eight percent of your attention? Musing on what to have for dinner? Too little. Thinking about tomorrow's weather? Possibly. Doing a serious piece of work? Are you crazy?

Yes, you are if you rely on multitasking to see you through. It's useless as a serious tool to help deal with overwork. In fact, it often makes things far worse.

What should you do instead? Donnelly offers advice from an unexpected source:
Donald Trump, the entrepreneur who once negotiated a book deal in 15 minutes, believes in slowing down and focusing when the office gets too frenetic. He said: "I will literally take a breath and allow things to settle a bit. I also set aside quiet time each morning and evening for reading and assessing."
Now there's a person you wouldn't expect to be practicing some of the ideas of Slow Leadership.

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Think Big?

The British Centre for Economic Performance has seemingly found that, by and large, big, well-managed companies with a global reach provide a happier work/life balance for their employees.

The survey of more than 700 companies in France, Germany, the UK and U.S. found that good people management practices, such as fostering talent, rewarding and retaining well performing staff, and offering training, were also likely to be found alongside good work/life practices.

And here's an interesting point: no relationship was found between tougher competition and work/life balance, or between productivity and work/life balance.

It seems the worst offenders in the work/life balance arena were smaller companies with poor management. No surprises there! It shouldn't have needed a survey to show badly run businesses are the ones most likely to chain their people to their desks and ignore the human aspects of work in favor of a quick buck.

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Sunday, January 15, 2020

Productivity with Humanity

Businesses constantly seek greater profit and hope achieve it through increasing productivity. That's how life is. Fine words won't change the process. But must it be as unfriendly to employees? Recent research from ISR, an international employee research and consulting firm, shows:
US companies are perceived as being responsible for an increasingly poor work-life balance for employees, putting their workers at risk of burnout, even while a stronger economy enables greater corporate growth levels. These perceptions are supported by ISR survey findings from 2002 through 2005 which reveal a significant decrease in the percentage of employees reporting that they are able to balance their work and personal demands.
I don't believe business leaders intend to create workplaces that are filled with harassed, overworked people. They don't wake up one morning and think: "Let's make all our executives work a 90-hour week." The pressures and tensions that crush the pleasure out of jobs are a by-product of that central search for productivity and profit. Christina Maskach, writing on Sep 1, 2020 in Psychology Today reported:
Statistical analysis of [our] surveys [taken over 20 years] led us to conclude that burnout is not a problem of people but mostly of the places in which they work. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work or demands superhuman efforts, people feel overloaded, frustrated and well, burned out. Self-improvement alone will not beat it.
Here's Jack Welch, former head of GE, writing in Newsweek on April 4th, 2005:
And over the past three years, I've heard from many people—bosses and employees—about the complex issue of work-life balance. I have a sense of how bosses think about the issue, whether they tell you or not. You may not like their perspective, but you have to face it. There's lip service about work-life balance, and then there's reality. To make the choices and take the actions that ultimately make sense for you, you need to understand that reality: your boss's top priority is competitiveness. Of course he wants you to be happy, but only inasmuch as it helps the company win.
Slow Leadership aims to be different. Practicing a Slow Leadership approach will, I believe, increase productivity, even as it provides a more humane and satisfying way to work. Here's why:
  • Rushed, harassed and overwhelmed people are less productive. They make more mistakes and miss more opportunities. The result is waste—the enemy of productivity and quality.

  • Busyness should not be confused with effectiveness. People are often busy working on activities that produce no value. The result is lost time and actions with no profit potential.

  • Time spent on planning ahead, checking important details or applying creative thinking means jobs are done faster and more effectively.

  • Overwhelmed people are liable to overreact when facing unexpected difficulties. Sometimes they rush into ill-considered choices; sometimes they give up and wait for instructions. Either action reduces effectiveness.

  • Too many distractions ruin concentration and destroy clear thinking. That means more mistakes, more reworking and more wasted time and money, all of which undermine productivity.

  • Under pressure, people choose the most obvious, immediate course of action and hurry on to something else. They sacrifice long-term gains for short-term relief. That's like selling your house to the first person who makes an offer, no matter how low, to avoid the hassle of showing it to others.
Slow Leaders practice more humane, less pressured ways of running their operations. The result is to increase productivity, not lower it. They aim to eliminate waste of every kind, not just costs: wasted time, wasted effort, wasted attention, wasted energy and wasted resources. By slowing down, they have time to see what needs doing, and cut out most of the reworking and time spent going down dead-end roads. The by-product of this approach is an organization that encourages more humane and satisfying approaches to work. People enjoy their work more. They're happier and more creative. Their health improves and less time is lost to sicknesses caused by stress.

The result is … greater productivity.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be exploring what I call the Five Pillars of Slow Leadership. All offer essential, practical ways to boost productivity, lessen waste and, at the same time, create a more humane environment:
  • Calmness: Slowing down and avoiding rushed, emotional mistakes.

  • Clarity: Taking the time to work out specific answers to your problems.

  • Concentration: Focusing on what matters most and avoiding distractions.

  • Patience: Allowing events time to unfold fully.

  • Respect: Giving people the time and attention they need to do their jobs effectively.
Slow Leadership produces work that's inherently more interesting, more satisfying and better for everyone concerned. Productivity will increase too.

Why would you choose any other way?

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Friday, January 13, 2020

A Chance to Have Your Say

Slow Leadership has created a brief, on-line questionnaire to collect information on the problems people are facing in their work and non-work lives: problems like trying to deal with too many demands in insufficient time; problems with work/life balance; or health difficulties linked to overwork or excessive job pressure.

I would love to hear from YOU and include your input. Tell me your personal story of coping with current working conditions. I'll feature the most interesting stories (plus the most harrowing and the funniest) on the Slow Leadership blog. I'm not collecting names, so nothing you say can be traced back to you.

What's in it for you? Aside from making a personal contribution to knowledge in this area, I'll be analyzing the results and making them available in summary form on this site. It's your chance to let others know what you think and what's most important to you.

Please add your thoughts by using this link. And thank you.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2020

Lifestyle Managers?

Recently, I received a press release from a business in Canada who describe their service as "lifestyle management." Now you may know what such a service entails, but I did not. Fortunately, their helpful message began by explaining the problems they can deal with:

"In what area of your life do you experience insanity?" it asked. "Is it in your marriage, or your journey towards finding your life mate? Do you buy gym memberships each January only to stop working out by March? Have you been passed over for promotions because your skills need upgrading? Are you often exhausted and frustrated at the end of the day because you have
had no down-time and know that tomorrow will be more of the same?"

None of these seemed to match my particular version of insanity, but I could imagine others nodding their heads emphatically by now. It seems the PR writer had an identical mental image. "As you nod your head in recognition of your insanity," he or she continued, "don't feel bad. You are not alone. So what are you doing wrong? Nothing. You are just a victim of the work/life balance phenomenon."

How comforting it must be to know you are neither alone nor to blame for living a life the writer has labeled insane. I suppose the users of this service have no say in how their lives progress. They are exhausted and frustrated because they work long hours without ever understanding what they're doing. They're victims of a phenomenon, not people making poor choices. Help, however, is at their elbow.

Lifestyle managers, it appears, are "a new breed of professionals who assist busy individuals in regaining valuable time." They provide "practical help in the daily demands of life that vie for your time." They will run errands, do your shopping and prepare your meals, clean house, plan parties and deal with your pets. This sounded like a far earlier service to me, one called "having servants," but these modern versions of Jeeves go much further. They will "coordinate moves to new homes, help aging parents to maintain active living, or...handle just about any request as long as it is legal."

That, of course, puts lifestyle management into a fresh category: that of essential services for the busy executive household. Surely no up-and-coming rat in the great organizational race should lack such support. I could see the potential at once.


The scene is a new house in an exclusive executive suburb. Our soon-to-be head honcho has just come home—it is around ten in the evening—and finds his wife in the kitchen.

"Honey. I'm home."

"Had a good day, dear?"

"About average. Made another fifty grand in bonus on the Frobisher deal. I'll just check in with the office—couldn't do so while I was parking the Jaguar—then I need to run through any emails that have arrived in the last four minutes. After that, I'm heading upstairs to grab a power nap. The taxi is due at 3.00 a.m. to take me to the airport. How was dinner?"

"Superb. The lifestyle management people sent Harry again. He so enjoys your food. It was a treat to see him eat every scrap and ask for seconds. He even told me my cooking is better than your mother's. And your conversation is so much better since we started the LM service. Harry…I mean Harry being you…is so well-read and articulate."

"I'm glad I enjoyed it. Got to go now."

"Before you do, there was a message from your mother. She says you haven't spoken to her in eighteen months."

"What on earth is going on? Didn't the LM people do that? They're supposed to help my aged parents maintain active living."

"That's why she called, dear. She says Jeremy from LM is a better son to them than you ever knew how to be. So she and your father have changed their wills and are leaving their house and all their money to him instead."

"Rats! Oh well, I'll make so much bonus on the Chinese outsourcing contracts it won't matter either way."

"Aren't you going to make love to me tonight? You do remember I promised to wear those extremely personal gifts your LM person bought me from the Ann Summers shop."

"Right. Of course. I'll just get my LM contact on the cellphone. Shall we ask for Alphonso? I think I recall you saying I'm dynamite in bed whenever Alphonso is standing in for me."

"Absolutely, darling. With Alphonso, you're almost insatiable. We do such wonderfully naughty things. You…I mean Alphonso being you…are such an animal! Last time, we did it twice before we ever got to the bed. Oh, did I mention Alphonso is going to take me for two weeks of sun, sand and sex in Acapulco?"

"Good idea, darling. You've been telling me we need a holiday. Now I really must get to my computer."

"Oh, I nearly forgot. Your boss called. He says to be in his office the minute you get back from Beijing. He was so impressed with what you said about the lifestyle management service, he's arranged for them to supply someone to fire you. He said he was sorry he couldn't do it personally, but was sure you would understand the insanity of his life."

"Fire me? Why?"

"The firm has rented someone from LM who's going to do your job for you, he said, so they won't need you any more in person. There's the doorbell. It must be Alphonso. I thought the last message might change your mind about Acapulco, so I ordered him earlier. We're going to the airport right away and I'm not coming back. Got to rush. Goodnight."

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Monday, January 09, 2020

To Seek the Grail

I owe you, my readers, some hint of where we will be going, if you stay with me as this year progresses. Otherwise, you may justifiably decide to look elsewhere for whatever you have been finding on this site.

I am going on a quest: a quest to discover how leaders can combine productivity with humanity. I want to understand how corporate executives can practice civilized behavior, follow ethical values and develop greater wisdom, without ignoring those insistent demands of business: profit, efficiency and competitive success.

I refuse to believe it isn't possible. Mankind has already achieved so much—socially, politically and technologically—and this seems a small requirement in comparison. Nor can I accept it as unimportant. How we live; how we invest our limited capital of time, energy, interest and capabilities, is surely more important than how we invest our money; and look how much time, activity and newsprint is spent on that. Money can be replaced. Once spent, our lives can not.

Unless you are willing to accept a shoddy material abundance as all the future has to offer—and I refuse to do that—it is your duty to yourself and to others to find a better way. That will be the goal of my quest, and I invite you to join me. You can come to lend a hand; or simply for the entertainment of watching me lose myself in blind alleys, and fall into manure-filled ditches. Either seems a good enough reason, so long as you enjoy the ride.

Starting The Quest

Where shall we start? Not, I think, with one of the many worn-out concepts that delight business and management writers—though why they should is beyond my comprehension. They call to mind beginning a gourmet meal with an appetizer made from fish so old and fragrant even feral cats won't touch it. Perhaps mousse of hundred-year-old red herring, well laced with the arsenic of buzzwords and condescension.

I want to start instead with leaders themselves. I want to find what they think about and worry about. What concerns them most as leaders, and so what may drive them to find better ways of doing it. I also want to consider our common humanity, which is violated by treating employees like animals to be exploited, then kicked out when they are of no further use. The audit mentality that permeates today's organizations like toxic mold lavishes greater care on machines, which are classed as assets, than it does on people, whom it labels as costs.

It does not have to be like this. We can have efficient, profitable enterprises that also treat the people who work there in appropriate ways for a civilized nation. All it takes is the willpower to make that a goal; and the courage to face down the demons of greed, convention and fear that come out to block the path.

That is my quest, and I repeat my invitation: join me as I set out to find the grail I am seeking—how Slow Leadership can restore the craft of the leader to an honorable place and a worthwhile expression of human values. I'll be glad of your help and will try to be humble at your laughter when things go wrong. Like all quests, it's the journey that matters as much (or more) than the goal.

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Thursday, January 05, 2020

Notes from the Press

Here is some more interesting press coverage relevant to Slow Leadership:

The Los Angeles Times has an article on Seattle-based Take Back Your Time, an education and public policy nonprofit organization that aims to "challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and our relationships, our communities and our environment."

John de Graaf, President of Take Back Your Time, is quoted as saying that society prides itself on massive productivity and a luxurious standard of living without realizing it has made a devil's bargain:
"If you want to judge standard of living on who has the most toys or stuff, then we win. But if you look at health, mental illness, strength of families, divorce, general equality or levels of education, we aren't No. 1. We pay a huge price for the phenomenal amount of overwork we do."
TMCnet reports a study from Tokyo that claims most bosses at offices failed to notice any trouble with their staff before those staff killed themselves due to overwork or stress. The study was based on 37 cases of overwork and stress-related suicides over a two-year period from April 2002. The Pioneer Press in Minnesota, however, reports younger Japanese people are "slacking off" from the ferocious work ethic of earlier generations. The Japanese government has labeled these people NEETs, or "not in education, employment or training" — a term first used in the U.K. in the late 1990s. Japan uses the term specifically for young people who have given up looking for a job and often get financial support from their parents. They aren't considered unemployed since they aren't actively looking for a job. It seems Japanese lawmakers view such people as a threat to future prosperity, which says something about popular views of what constitutes a sound society.

Even the cows are blamed for people's hectic lives. In Great Britain, Farmer's Weekly ran an article called: "Long dairy hours hit quality of life." It suggests British dairy farmers risk destroying their quality of life for little return by striving too hard for increased output. (Where have I heard that same idea before?) The results of a survey showed three-quarters of the farmers questioned would be happy to work a 50 to 60-hour week, but up to 85% worked 70-80 hours. "The industry is perpetuating a long-hours culture," the researchers said.

Join the club. It seems you can't escape the modern mania for working dawn to dusk even on a pleasant walk in the green pastures of England.

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