Archive | 2006

Take A Break Or Break Down

I’m feeling kinda rowdy today.

At issue is the fact that most American corporations, consulting and law firms, and even non-profit organizations practice a modern type of indentured servitude. And most of us American employees just settle for it thinking this is the only way to make a better living.

Are you taking a vacation this summer or at another point this year? If you’re roughly one out of three American employees, you’re making a decision to forfeit your vacation time. That’s according to a survey conducted by I used to work with a woman who was allowed to rack up 225 hours of vacation time (for those of you scoring at home, that’s nearly a month). When she transferred into the department I managed, I was strongly encouraged by my own director to get her to take leave. Thinking it would be easy to get her to take two or three weeks in the slow summer months, it was more like pulling teeth. She was a support specialist and felt she was needed too much to be away even for a couple of days. She was concerned that something would fall apart and she wouldn’t be there to handle it. She felt responsible for the working group. Sound familiar? She was also so burnt out of her job that she was constantly on edge, always a whisker away from a good cry.

What she failed to realize is that her “dedication” was slowly killing her or at least robbing her of joy in life. And you could also make some arguments that there was more going on here than just wanting to be a great support staff. Make no mistake…workaholism is just as addictive, damaging, and soul-consuming as some of the other “-olisms” like alcoholism.

Here’s a challenge to you if you’re a manager or an exec…tell your people to get lost at some point this summer. If the summer is a particularly busy time of year for your organization, then make it known that each person is going to need to take some time off when it slows down. If they don’t know how to take a vacation, block their access to email and voicemail. Call it “tough love” because it’s an act of love to help another person reconnect with their full life.

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The Perils Of Psychic Claustrophobia

I tend to have some interesting phobias, but they’re probably not uncommon to those experienced by other folks. For most of my life, I’ve been afraid of spiders. Here’s where it gets interesting…not all spiders. For instance, I really like tarantulas. I guess its because they’re kind of like giant fuzzy caterpillars (you know, the brown and black kind that you commonly find crawling up trees and along porch rails) only with eight big legs. And I love Spider-Man. On the other hand, I can’t stand the ones with long spindly legs like black widows and argiopes. I find them fascinating, but the thought of having one touch me sends a cold shiver running through my body.

Another phobia that I seem to have is linked to small, tight spaces. I remember my one time doing some cave exploration in high school, I found myself in a confined area trying to squeeze through and all I could think was “what if I get through, but can’t get back out?” Well, that was my last spelunking adventure.

[An aside…as I get older, I realize that many of my fears are irrational and the quickest (but definitely not easiest) way to overcome them is to confront them head on. Perhaps there’s more there for me to consider. Okay, back to the original point]

This weekend is a holiday and my wife decided to take the girls to visit her parents. This left me alone in my home for the first time in quite a while, and it has been a wonderful time. It’s not so much the quiet as it is the isolation that has been rewarding. The past two days have allowed me the chance to review all that has been going on in my life the past few months, to realize that the critical problems I’ve been facing at work are not insurmountable, to reorient myself back toward my north star – the very philosophy that defines how I choose to bring myself to my work and my life.

I realize now that I had been suffering a type of psychic claustrophobia where problems at work and home had closed in on me leaving me constricted and struggling for breath. I desperately sought an exit. Little did I know how simple the solution could be. For me, it was some temporary freedom from many of my other roles: father, husband, manager.

This is what works for me. If you’re finding that nothing seems to be fitting into place like it once did, perhaps its time for a retreat of your own. We each have a different breaking point and a different idea for retreat. And it won’t permanently solve the problem. In retreat, there’s work that must still be done. It might not be isolation that’s needed, but time with a good friend. Whatever it is, be good to yourself and find what your mind, body, and soul need.

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After The Thrill Is Gone

The Harvard Business Review’s issue for January 2006 is devoted wholly to decision-making. I’m about one-quarter of the way through the magazine where there is an article called Decisions and Desire by Gardiner Morse. It focuses on the neuroscience behind our decision-making capacity and the growing proof that "we have dog brains, basically, with a human cortex stuck on top, a veneer of civilization."

Now, before you get excited about the fact that scientists compare your brains to those of your faithful pooch, consider this: without that mammalian part of the brain, we couldn’t laugh, cry, or find contentment. We also wouldn’t be able to make a decision since this is an ability that takes some combination of emotion along with logic.

Later in the article, Morse addresses some of the why behind our attitudes toward money in our careers. Whereas an economist might argue that people work because they place value on the things that money can buy, a neuroscientist could argue that "chasing money is its own reward." Apparently, we have a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens which is where our desires originate. In an experiment, scientists observed the reactions of test subjects who were presented with the prospect of receiving money. The higher the potential monetary reward, the more active the accumbens became. However, once the money was received, activity in this area of the brain ceased which led researchers to conclude that it was the anticipation rather than the actual monetary reward which aroused the subjects.

All of this seems to explain why we might decide to chase another job for better pay, but often find the same old problems in the new environment. And that’s not to say that better pay isn’t a reason to leave one organization for another. What it does mean is that it’s absolutely essential to be honest with ourselves and develop a good decision-making model. After the chase for a new organization is over, what then? Will it fulfill those other needs that might not be as sexy as money (like fulfillment and learning)?

In other words…can we live with the results after the thrill is gone?

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