Pulling an all-nighter, doing 80-hour weeks, burning the midnight oil.
There are countless cultural references and expressions of overwork, most of them talk about the number of hours we work.
The 8-hour workday can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and was introduced as a way to give workers enough time to rest from heavy manual labor. In a knowledge based society, where many of us mainly work with our brains, what would be the equivalent rule? How should our workdays be structured to optimize and protect our cognitive muscles?
We have all experienced days or meetings that left us completely spent, barely able to hold a conversation with our family at the dinner table. Some tasks are just more cognitively demanding than others. A 30-minute disorganized Teams meeting with conflicts can leave us mentally drained while a whole week of working on a passion project can even add to our energy depot. These insights are particularly important when you’re in a billable hour practice or run your own business.
Or as George Orwell might have put it, had he been writing LinkedIn articles in 2023:
‘All hours are equal, but some hours are more equal than others.’
I find human capacity and performance management fascinating and I’m not surprised that it’s a well researched topic. There are numerous behavioral science studies and psychology papers exploring human endurance and how we maximize performance. From looking at what world record holding athletes have in common to analyzing iconic chess games.
I recently came across Samuele Mancona’s study about how mental and physical fatigue are linked. It was described in Alex Hutchingson’s book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, which I can really recommend. In the study, Manconaasked volunteers to be part of two time-to-exhaustion tests on a stationary bike. Basically, the participants were asked to cycle until they were too exhausted to continue. Ahead of the first test, the volunteers were asked to spend 90 minutes on a mentally draining computer game that required their full attention. Ahead of the second test, the participants were instead asked to watch a bland and emotionally neutral documentary.
After the mentally draining computer game the volunteers gave up 15,1% earlier on the bike test.
There were no physiological explanations to the time difference – their heart rates, lactate levels etc. were the same. They were similarly motivated in both the tests as the best performance was rewarded with a $50 prize. The difference was that when the participants were mentally fatigued, they reached their perceived point of physical exhaustion quicker.
In the study, they used the Borg scale, after Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg, to measure perceived exertion. In his view perceived exertion is the best measurement of physical strain since it’s based on signals not only from muscles, joints and the cardiovascular system but from the central nervous system as well.
Here’s more from Orwell:
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
The results of the study might make sense to us instinctively even if I for one can’t explain it. But it does make me wonder why so many workplaces are still organizing work based on hours, as if all hours were indeed created equally. Surprisingly often I meet managers who expect their team to clock 40, 60 or 80 hours per week, regardless of the kind of work the employees have done or the results generated.
Our jobs are more cognitively demanding today than ever before. The value we add, as simpler tasks are AI’ed out, is often about solving complex problems, managing change or generating ideas – mentally expensive work. Add to that all the distractions we expose our brains to every day.
I believe managing our cognitive resources will be a critical skill going forward, both for achieving meaningful work goals and for important social interactions.
So how would we organize and measure work if LinkedIn-Orwell had a say in it?
USE COGNITIVE RESOURCES WISELY. Since attention is a scarce resources, be mindful what you spend or waste it on. Do a cost benefit analysis for the things you spend a lot of time on, like meetings and emails. A study published in MIT Sloan Management Review 2022 found that by implementing just one meeting free day per week companies improved autonomy by 62%, cooperation with 15% and engagement with 28%. Avoid powering through when you feel exhausted, it’s counterproductive.
AUTOMATE. We make thousands of decisions every day and each decision uses a part of our cognitive capacity. To focus your decision-making energy on the things that really matter we need to automate as many decisions as possible. Barack Obama allegedly only had one type of suits to eliminate that decision every morning.
HAVE STRIPED DAYS. Mix more challenging tasks with easier throughout day. Balance physical and cognitive tasks. Take frequent breaks and longer breaks. Change the environment you’re in – go work in the office canteen for an hour. Avoid de-prioritizing rest, exercise or sleep. Avoid back-to-back meetings and tasks.
LEAD THE WAY. As leaders, you need to role model this way of viewing work. Be open about what you need to do your best work and what boundaries you have. As organizations we need to start rewarding and promoting responsible energy management. In business planning or when resourcing projects, make sure you are crystal on the cognitive capacity you have and how to prioritize it. Call out ways of working that misuse people’s energy.
Over to you:
How can you organize your work to get the highest ‘ROCI – return on cognitive investment’ or ‘bang for the mental energy buck?’
First up in my series of blog posts on psychological safety is the dimension of open conversations and dialogue.
‘the degree to which difficult and sensitive topics can be discussed openly’ –
open conversations help your team take advantage of opportunities. It gives you invaluable insights into each other and can help you move past challenges. Quality dialogue is necessary for the team to learn and stay engaged.
In contrast, if the quality of the conversation is low it can stop you from speaking up about risks or challenges. As an organization you might lose out on business-critical information and miss opportunities. One of the symptoms can be that your meetings are very short or often rescheduled.
“The quality of your conversations will determine the quality of your outcomes” – Amy C. Edmondson
Here are some tips for encouraging open conversations:
Share your learnings or take-aways from conversations
Ask twice as many questions as you tell. Replace “I think” statements with “what if” statements to invite voice and limit self-promotion
Make yourself available and listen with curiosity & empathy
What meetings do you reschedule regularly? What is causing that change and what is the impact on the team?
Next up: Attitude Towards Risk & Failure
Photo: Janine Laag
colleagues went the extra mile for each other, and
you capitalized on everyone’s differences?
Then you’ve probably experiences the potency of psychological safety.
Defined by Amy C. Edmondson as “a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking – that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued”, Psychological safety is a critical ingredient for groups to be engaged, to learn and to succeed.
Why psych. safety matters more than ever
Today the work many of us do is highly cognitive. It requires us to solve complex problems and find creative solutions to new challenges. Collaboration and the ability to get the best out of a diverse group is one of the biggest leadership challenges we face. In this uncertain and fast paced world, everyone’s voice could be business critical. Leaders who fail to create a climate where that voice can be raised freely, without fear of the consequences, risk missing out on opportunities and disengage the organization’s best people.
Employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report. That’s equal to 11% of global GDP.
On this flipside companies that report high psychological safety experience:
76% more engagement
50% more productivity
74% less stress
57% workers more likely to collaborate
“No one comes up with a good idea when being chased by a tiger”
How to build Psychological Safety in a team
Psychological Safety is gained over time through intentional actions. It is something that is built in drops but lost in buckets.
I work with vastly different teams who want to improve their collaboration – from leadership teams to startups and global HR teams. In my experience, teams can significantly improve their level of psychological safety in just a few months by making it a priority.
I’m certified in the Fearless Organization tool – a method for measuring and developing psychological safety, based on over 30 years of research.
The work I do with teams usually follows these 4 steps:
1. 1-1 meeting with the team leader
2. Team completes the online Fearless Organization Scan
3. Debrief workshop when we look at specific areas for improvement and develop an action plan. The team then works intentionally with the identified behaviors.
4. A follow up online scan after 2-4 months followed by a new workshop to discuss and learn. Regular measurement, support and dialog.
“Start with the common goal. Then make psychological safety a common project.” Amy C. Edmondson
In the coming weeks I’ll post about the 4 dimensionsof psychological safety, highlighted in the Fearless Organization book by Amy Edmondson, and tools to improve them:
Attitude Towards Risk & Failure
Willingness to Help
Inclusion & Diversity
I hope you’ll join me in discussing ways we can build open, engaged and effective teams.
Mairi is the Head of Leadership Development at the Karolinska University Hospital and has recently completed the Executive Coaching Program. It’s a six-month intensive coaching program for leaders based around the EQ-i 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Framework. The coaching sessions took place on Zoom, and we met approximately every third week.
I sat down with Mairi to ask her a couple of questions about her experience working with me as a coach.
Emma: Hi Mairi, what made you apply for the Executive Coaching Program?
Mairi: I had been recently appointed as the Head of Leadership Development at the Karolinska University Hospital. Given the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on staff and managers and the unique culture of our organization, a coaching program that builds on Emotional Intelligence resonated well with my perceived needs for personal and professional development.
Emma: What has the coaching given you?
Mairi: The coaching has primarily given me two things – increased self-awareness and space for self-reflection. While these two things are the essence of what I work with to create for others, the gift of time and support from Emma to have that space for myself, has been invaluable.
Emma: What did you learn during the coaching program?
Mairi: The EQ assessment was very comprehensive and shed light on capabilities that I need to get better at in order to become a more effective leader and leadership developer. I also learned how the different components are interdependent and realized how some of my strengths actually become a hinder for my performance when overused. Last but not least, it was an important reminder that regardless of one’s level of experience or stage of development, it is hugely beneficial to have periods in one’s life that are supported by a coach.
Emma: What elements of the program had the greatest impact on you?
Mairi: The greatest impact came from the combination of the EQ assessment and the coaching. The EQ assessment was eye opening and combined with coaching, its effects will be long lasting. Improved self-awareness means that I pay close attention in every situation where my capabilities are challenged. Attention is really what changes a mere experience into deliberate practice and can thus contribute to continual learning. The assessment alone would be simply information in form of a report. The coaching without the assessment would risk lacking intentionality and direction. So it’s the combination that makes it a winning concept.
Emma: Who do you think would benefit from Executive Coaching?
Mairi: Anyone with a growth mindset, i.e. anyone with a will, curiosity, openness and vulnerability to become better versions of themselves.
Emma: How would you describe me as a coach?
Mairi: Emma has a great ability to listen, to really listen. To pay close attention to what her client needs the moment they start their session. She masters the art of asking great questions and doesn’t hesitate to challenge the deeply held beliefs her client might hold about their situation, performance and learning. I’m deeply grateful for her generosity to support me in my growth and help me lead from my purpose.
Thank you Mairi for taking the time to reflect on this. As a coach I always learn something new with each client. It was an honor to work with Mairi and to follow her progress. I learned a great deal from her deep understanding of leadership and her willingness to challenge her perceptions.
If you or your organization are interested in Executive Coaching, please get in touch and I’m happy to tell you more.
Motto: ‘Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing’.
This achievement strategy is about doing everything to perfection, keeping your promise and never ever handing anything in half-baked. Perfectionists often respond to emails immediately so no one has to wait and tend to compensate for the shortcomings of others.
These overachievers scan the reactions of others to pick up any signs of irritation or disappointment so they can figure out a way to correct it. They have a clear view of what life should be like and how we should behave as individuals.
Just like their overachiever cousins – the Comparison Junkies – the Perfectionists keep track of everyone on social media and compare themselves all the time. On a bad day they can spend 60 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email. Chronic procrastination could be the result of perfectionism.
Drivers and Fears:
Fear of failure
Fear others upsetting others
If I make a mistake, it will lead to a catastrophe
I am the reason others feel bad
If I do everything right I am accepted/loved
How to overcome it?
Practice realistic thinking. Because perfectionists are often very critical of themselves, one of the most effective ways to overcome perfectionism is to replace self-critical thoughts with more realistic and helpful statements. Some examples of positive realistic statements: Everyone makes mistakes! Nobody is perfect!, All I can do is my best!
Changing perspective: Perfectionists tend to have a hard time seeing things from another person’s point of view. Start by asking yourself: How might someone else (e.g. a close friend) view this situation? What might I tell a close friend who was having similar thoughts?
Exposure: Having a problem with perfectionism is a lot like having a “phobia” of making mistakes or being imperfect – you get paralyzed by the thought of making mistakes. Exposure is an effective method to overcome your perfectionism, here are some examples of simple exposure practice:
Show up for an appointment 15 minutes late.
Tell people when you are tired (or other feelings that you consider a weakness).
Wear a piece of clothing that has a visible stain on it.
Lose your train of thought during a presentation.
Try a new restaurant without first researching how good it is.
If your perfectionism or other overachiever strategies hold you back and you would like to develop heathier behaviors and strategies – book a free consultation with me and we’ll take it from there.
PS: My own exposure practice while writing this post was to only read through once before publishing 🙂
Next up on the series of overachiever archetypes: The Controller.
Motto: ‘If you want a thing done well, do it yourself’
Achievement by control is about keeping a close eye on everything and everyone around you. If you identify with the Controller archetype you probably know exactly what will happen on Tuesday in 3 weeks and love writing lists and plans.
You prefer to take care of most things yourself and delegation and collaboration could be a challenge for you. The Controller can have a hard time dealing with unexpected events.
Due to their challenge with collaboration and delegation, Controllers risk losing valuable input and inspiration from people around them. In extreme cases they could end up alienating colleagues and friends.
Drivers and Fears:
Fear of losing control
Fear of uncertainty
Will to succeed
How to overcome:
Educate yourself about anxiety and control. Rather than falling back on control as a defense against uncertainty, learn all you can about the fear that is driving you to micromanage. Read books or see a therapist.
2. Ask yourself how effective controlling really is. For example, is asking your teenage son whether he’s brushed his teeth every morning an effective way to make him take responsibility for his dental care? If not, stop and rethink your approach.
3. Ban control-oriented language from your vocabulary. For example, unsolicited advice or criticizing someone’s perspective. Altering your language takes courage, and you must commend yourself for learning how to let go of control.
What advise would you give a Controller? If you identify as one, how do you overcome your need to control?
Overachievers can accomplish great things but always need to do more. As they constantly raise the bar, the cost for reaching their goals eventually outweigh the rewards. Although overachievers tend to do well early on in their careers, at some point they start questioning the value of their constant hustle. In addition, research shows that achievement-orientation significantly increases the risk of burnout*.
Learning how to achieve sustainably is not only critical to our performance and well-being but affects the people we work with as well.
In a series of posts, I will discuss six achievement archetypes or patterns, identified through years of coaching high achievers and from my own ‘achievement detox’.
Which archetype (if any) do you most identify with?
THE COMPARISON JUNKIE. Lives by the motto: ‘Grass is always greener…’
THE CONTROLLER. ‘If you want a thing done well, do it yourself’
THE PERFECTIONST. ‘Anything in life worth doing is worth overdoing’
THE COMPETITOR. ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’
THE CONTANT ACHIEVER. ‘I will rest when I’m dead’
THE WORRYING PROBLEMSOLVER. ‘Spend 55 min worrying about the problem and 5 min thinking about solutions’
I will share the drivers and fears behind each archetypes and would love to discuss what strategies you use to balancing them out.
I would love to have your input and hear your reflections on this topic!
Importantly, it’s NOT about giving up on being a high achiever, it’s about developing a dimmer to your superpower so that you can achieve sustainably, on your terms.
I use this framework a lot in my Achievement Detox Coaching Program and when coaching business leaders. I find it very useful for identifying underlying fears and drivers and changing negative behaviors.
*Canadian Journal of Nursing 2019, Vulnerability and Stressors for Burnout
Do you want to become a more resilient, self-aware, and effective leader?
Or do you work with a super talent who would flourish with dedicated personal development support?
I’m offering up one spot on my Executive Coaching Program for free
The program includes an EQ-i 2.0® assessment and report + individual coaching. Apply in the link below. (Value € 1,950)
As an ICF-certified coach and certified EQ-i 2.0 practitioner I help leaders around the world develop a sharp vision, lead with authenticity, and create sustainable teams. With my 15+ years of corporate-and NGO leadership experience I support AND challenge leaders to raise their game.
Why is EQ critical to the success of today’s leaders?
Emotional intelligence skills are critical for problem solving, leading yourself and others as well as for building resilience.
And a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The EI Advantage,” states: “Corporate cultures that lack EI are becoming a major liability as business environments change.”
This year has certainly shown us the importance of adapting the change. Reflecting on my own 2020 there have definitely been a few big ones – starting my own business, leaving the corporate world, launching my Achievement Detox Program and going all digital with webinars and workshops.
Take this opportunity to nominate yourself of someone who wants to raise their game in 2021.
Best of luck!
Program start Jan 2021. Winner announced by 15th Jan 2021. All coaching via Microsoft Teams. Appointments booked on firstname.lastname@example.org, 24 hour cancellation policy.