We once had time at work for social graces — smiling hello, asking about each other's kids, or the lunchtime game of bridge. Maybe someday we will again, after we re-learn how important the social graces are. Until then we'll probably keep trying to do too much, putting our relationships at risk.
But we can manage the risk if we know where the danger lies. Here are some structures and situations that are frequently problematic.
- More than seven
- We're especially vulnerable when we supervise more than seven or so, or when we lead or belong to a team of more than seven, or when we're dealing with more than seven ongoing issues. Seven seems to be the magic number [Miller 1956].
- High interruption rates
- For me, interruptions when I'm still making progress are very frustrating. I usually make progress for up to 20 or 30 minutes before I get stale. Learn what your sustainable interruption rate is.
- Intervals of chaos
- Immediately after receiving bad news, or immediately after recognizing trouble, we're vulnerable. This is the interval of chaos — we don't yet see the way through it, and generally, our reserves are low.
Certainly there are more of these situations, which are almost perfectly designed to deplete our emotional reserves. They leave little to spare for absorbing incidental "bumps" from others, or for taking care to avoid incidentally bumping others.
Make a catalog of your own "danger zones." When you notice that you're in a danger zone — which takes some practice — take three steps:
- Focusing on breathing slows you down. Speed is usually the enemy in the danger zone.
- Let others know they count
- Let people know that they're important. Make a special effort to be warm and open. We're all different — you might not be as warm as the next person. But be warm for you, whatever that is. Say hello, ask how people are, and make conversation.
- Lighten the load
- Immediately after receiving
bad news, or immediately
after recognizing trouble,
- Do what you can to lighten your load and the load you place on others. Defer some efforts if you can, or avoid taking on new ones. Build up a social safety margin.
We probably got into this fix — too much to do and not enough time — because of a shortcoming in our accounting systems, which are very good at measuring the cost of salaries, benefits, and so on. And they aren't so good at measuring the organizational costs of broken relationships, delayed projects, anger, or turnover. To decision makers, the accounting system clearly shows that high workloads are more productive. The reality is much less clear.
Lasting change probably requires that decision makers have tools that measure the true costs of high workloads. Until then, what we do about this is a choice: we can treat each other with care and respect, or we can do something else. Top Next Issue
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