“I prefer physical exhaustion over mental fatigue any day.”
“There is a construct in computer programming called ‘the infinite loop’ which enables a computer to do what no other physical machine can do – to operate in perpetuity without tiring.
In the same way it doesn’t know exhaustion, it doesn’t know when it’s wrong and it can keep doing the wrong thing over and over without tiring.”
Well. Employee engagement is the key to maximizing productivity potential. Period. We can gussy up engagement with respect, safety, collaboration, etc, but business is about business and engagement has to do with the business of doing business well.
To be clear. I think of engagement on three levels:
- first is vision. Employees engage better, & have more interest to do so, when they not only know where the business is going, but are engaged with the vision
- second is how you go about doing business. Employees engage better, and have more interest in doing so, when they are rested, when they feel ‘psychological safety’, when they believe they are contributing (meaning) and when they get to do what they do with dignity & integrity
- third is energy. Employees engage better, and have more interest to do so, when they aren’t exhausted (mentally or physically) and are fresh.
You will find an infinite number of articles on the first and second. Heck. Even I have written about them. To me, the third is one of the least discussed and most overlooked aspect of engagement.
What do I mean? We talk about business transformation and ‘agile’ and constant innovation and relentless focus on the customer and, well, it all sounds exhausting. Add in when experts suggest leading an organization is like running a race (its actually nothing like it) and, shit, even I start feeling exhausted. Let’s be clear. Exhaustion and business is bad.
So. That said. Leading a business is more like managing the health of a body in which you do want some exercise and you do want some healthy eating and you do want to insure proper amount of sleep. Suggesting you want to run a business like you are in some marathon is silly and misguided. It is just as misguided to think about an organization like a machine with gears and moving parts and keeping it well-oiled and full of gas and shit like that.
So let’s talk about organizational exhaustion.
If you stay away from silly metaphors about what an organization is, or is not, simplistically you are trying to insure your organization is putting forth a proper amount of effort against the efforts you want it, and need it, to be working against. This is a daily, weekly, monthly and annual leadership objective. Different leaders have different styles working against this objective, but, simplistically, that is the objective.
Now. HOW you meet this objective typically takes some experience.
What do I mean? I assume most leaders do not inherently know exactly how to pace an organization. Pacing an organization takes some experience and some practice, some mistakes and some successes and then you zero in on how to do it well <or just keep getting better at it>.
Using me as an example. I liked a hard charging group when I got to a team/group management level. And I, personally, would be ecstatic if I didn’t have to sleep and I could go 24/7. In the beginning, that was my vision for my groups.
By the way, in general, good intentions/bad idea.
But what that meant was that I probably learned this lesson, pacing and applying effort appropriately, too slowly <and I most likely will have a bunch of past team members chuckling painfully in agreement>. Going hard charging all the time is not sustainable — you just have a constantly exhausted group. Effective hard charging doesn’t mean 24/7 it means picking your moments and going hard.
That said, in desiring to have hard charging organizations there are certainly some lessons learned to limit needless organizational exhaustion. Here are a couple I learned along the way:
- I had to be consistent.
It doesn’t get discussed often enough, but expectations go both ways. As a leader setting clear expectations is certainly expected <and I will mention that in my second learning>, but it really helps an organization if you establish clearly what people can expect of you – behaviorally and attitudinally.
Words surely matter.
Setting expectations surely matter.
Actions surely matter.
But consistency matters above all.
No leader is perfect and no leader will make the perfect decisions, let alone good decisions, all the time. Therefore it becomes incredibly important to just be consistent. Your organization, and specifically people, will become better accustomed to where you will be really really good and where you may be slightly off <and they will naturally accommodate both>. In other words your consistency actually offers your employees some direction for what they should do. Your best people will assess situations and know where you are consistently most likely right on, know the things you consistently overlook and know where you consistently leave some spaces for them to ‘do their thing.’
- Keep some strong threads of consistency.
Threads of consistency permit an organization to not have to think about some things. There were some really simple tactical things that I could control.
- What do you mean <clarity in articulation>
- Where are we going <set a visible North Star>
- What do you want me to do <pragmatic expectations>
If you could keep these three things solid and not have people milling about talking amongst themselves on these three questions, you were staying ahead of the game. It permits your organization to progress and not be stagnant. It permits your organization to not invest unnecessary energy against those things and apply energy against doing shit.
Of course, a leader doesn’t have to do these things.
Of course, a leader doesn’t do these things at their own peril.
The peril? Exhaustion. frustration. Waste energy. Not doing these things has an expense to an organization and mostly that is defined by two things – time & energy. I would point out that both of those things are not infinite resources to an organization. I point it out because if they are finite than you better have them available to you when you actually need them. And that is why I chose to not use an organization as a race metaphor at the beginning, but rather an organization as a body metaphor.
As a leader of larger organization you can hide your misjudgments or poor decisions in a variety of creative ways; mostly by shifting resources from one group to another or have another department assume some different responsibilities or by shifting some people into the work gaps or to buttress the best people who are flagging with some support.
But that is also not sustainable.
The organization gets exhausted doing all that maneuvering, in addition, they get exhausted by you doing that.
I will admit that I got better at this as I moved up in responsibility. And, I will admit, I partially got better at it simply because I had more moving parts, departments and groups to manage. That is because I loved working 24/7 and I thrived with the energy of solving problems and, well, just energy. In a larger organization there is always something going on, some project or problem or initiative somewhere within an organization that needs attention or needs a little ‘push.’ This naturally permitted me to let one part of the organization ‘rest’ while another part of the organization ‘ran.’
Oh. Think about that a second or two if you will.
What I just suggested is an organization as a well-rounded circle, or the classical myth of a ‘well rounded person’, is simply a myth. In fact the idea of it creates a false, and sometimes dangerous in terms of expectations, narrative in our heads. As an organization learns and thinks and gains experience it does not expand smoothly but, rather, raggedly. Day after day, despite the fact it may feel like business is a grind or it may even feel too fast <or too slow> an organization is constantly running toward some thought and experience, or, leaping from danger or something disagreeable or some problem or some success and suffice it to say it is anything but balanced. And it is certainly not creating any smooth well rounded growth.
My main point?
There is no such thing as a well-rounded person and there is no such thing as a well rounded organization. A leader may certainly aspire to create a well-rounded organization but, even at your best, the organization at any given point in time is some shape other than a circle.
The good news is that this means organizations also naturally get excited to explore the edged forays into interesting things and, in parallel, get snagged on the ragged edges of unexplored thoughts or even second guesses with regard to the lack of smoothness in what is happening in departments, groups and efforts … as well as thoughts and growth.
I will point out that this is why an organization can feel slightly uncomfortable on occasion as employees, departments and groups wrestle with this discomfort, as well as dealing with the ragged edges constantly poking at everyone, but I will also point out that is why the things I mentioned earlier become even more important –the consistency, the clarity and the lack of chaos.
I will also point out that his kind of ‘uncomfortable’ is okay. To a leader it is actually a sign that things are going okay and the organization is not stagnant <and good leaders know how to point out good non-stagnancy to calm uncomfortable>.
All that said. I can unequivocally state that no organization is successful when needlessly exhausted. They can be tired at the end of the day, but exhaustion is a symptom not of ‘a good day’s work’, rather, unnecessary mental stress trying to get things going, understand what to do and what to say and kibitzing over why it is so hard to get what seems like normal shit done.
When an organization is running well, whether the 350 million, 350 or the 35 recognize it, there are many days when the 1, the leader, leaves the office exhausted. And the one is exhausted despite the fact that 349,999,900 people, 341 people or 34 people went to sleep that day feeling pretty good about their day and their needs & wants & hopes took one step forward that day and they are a good tired … not needlessly exhausted.
Oh. Despite the fact the one went to bed exhausted, that one will arise the next day fresh because the organization is ready to go again the next day and not organizationally exhausted (the one – leader – draws energy from a fresh organization).
I will end by pointing out that an exhausted group, an exhausted department or an exhausted organization is the sign of poor leadership. And, most importantly, it is a precursor to signs of inefficiencies and declines in measured productivity.