Working Smarter in the Age of Distraction

We live in a world of constant distraction. The internet, text messaging and social media all play a part in this distraction and yet we willingly choose to let these interruptions keep us from fully engaging in our lives.

This is true not only in our free time, but in our workday as well. Employees are often getting sidetracked from the task at hand thereby undermining overall productivity.

According to a 2012 survey by Salary.com, one of the biggest culprits is internet surfing. The survey interviewed 3,200 people and found that more than two-thirds of employees regularly spend time surfing websites unrelated to work.

Specifically, 64 percent of employees say they visit non-work related websites every day. Of this group, 39 percent spend an hour or less per week, 29 percent two hours per week, 21 percent five hours per week, and three percent said they waste 10 or more hours each week doing activities online that are unrelated to their job.

Unsurprisingly, social media is the biggest destination for this distraction as the most off-task websites were Facebook (41 percent) and LinkedIn (37 percent). A full 25 percent admitted to shopping on Amazon during work hours.

While this is disturbing, it’s important to remember that not so long ago employees were mindlessly playing Solitaire as a way to escape and avoid working. Before that, personal calls, extended cigarette breaks, long lunches, and water cooler gossip kept employees from being optimally productive.

Respondents from the survey said the number one reason for this slacking at work was that they don’t feel challenged enough in their job. This was followed by they work too many hours, the company doesn’t give sufficient incentive to work harder, they are unsatisfied with their career (might explain why they are on LinkedIn), and they’re just bored.

Based on these justifications for internet surfing, it seems both employers and employees need to find ways to reduce this distraction and begin working smarter. So let’s take a look at each of the reasons individually.

  • Employees don’t feel challenged enough in their jobs. Underutilized resources are a problem that employers need to recognize and quickly correct. Granted some tasks are not very challenging and perhaps boring, but every job should also have opportunities for learning and developing new skills that can be stimulating and help raise employee engagement. Employees should make known where their interest and aptitude match an unmet need within the scope of their current position, and employers should provide opportunities for every employee to grow beyond the current position.
  • Employees are working too many hours. This seems like a lame excuse as if just being in the office means you are “working” too much. If employees can work smarter by being more productive during the workday and avoid distractions, it won’t be necessary to work too many hours. Employers need to own their part as well by implementing ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) as a way to measure productivity by results rather than simply the time employees are seated in their cubicles.
  • Company doesn’t provide enough incentive to work harder. The word “incentive’ may be code for an extrinsic reward in the form of compensation. While this could be the case, employees should take responsibility by demonstrating greater value in order to receive a promotion or raise. Employers should also find ways to incentivize employees with both intrinsic (corporate values, teamwork, etc.) and extrinsic (recognition, bonuses, etc.) forms of engagement.
  • Employees are unsatisfied with their career. The distraction of internet surfing during work hours should be a sign that you as an employee should take ownership of your situation and do something about it. If you are unsatisfied in your current position, you might consider applying for another opportunity either inside or outside of your organization. This may require further training or perhaps informational interviews about an entirely different career. Employers should also be on the lookout for dissatisfaction among employees by checking in regularly and providing them with the direction and support needed to keep them engaged.
  • Employees are bored. This also is about engagement as a fully engaged employee is not likely to be bored. Employees need to apply themselves and take ownership of what they can do within the scope of their job to make it interesting. Employers can also ensure that boring tasks are distributed among all employees so no one person is stuck doing something boring all day and every day.

The distractions are not going away and I suspect if the same survey were done today we would see an increase in all of these numbers. How we respond to these distractions is what matters.

Working smarter means employees take responsibility for optimizing their time at work and not wasting it being unproductive. Working smarter means employers provide the opportunities and support so their people feel appreciated, stimulated, and adequately incentivized to give their best.

While there will always be opportunities to escape from the task at hand, it is up to both employees and employers to find ways to encourage higher engagement so that distractions are less enticing to begin with.

The Value of Organizational Values

In personal relationships we tend to choose others who share our values—regardless of whether they are friends or romantic interests. This is because values help define who we are and what we stand for. When this is shared between yourself and another, it provides the foundation to maintain a solid relationship both can depend on.

In politics, Democrats and Republicans might make a lot more progress if they were to identify and build upon what values they share in common. Our representatives in congress should seek out and build upon what their constituents share in common with the constituents of other representatives in order to make progress. The process of differentiating oneself from one’s opponent may work well in campaigning, but it is detrimental to effective governing.

In any organization, values define what it stands for, how it makes decisions, conducts business and the type of people it seeks to attract—customers, partners and employees.

All too often I see an organization’s corporate values clearly displayed on a website, but not truly embraced in the way its people function. This is not only bad for the bottom line, it’s bad for attracting the right talent.

Core values should support the company’s vision and shape the culture. That’s because values are the very essence of a company’s identity, its principles and beliefs. These values should not be defined in haste nor should they be so generic or fluffy that they don’t really mean anything.

The best values are those that are unique and demonstrated so often that they are embodied rather than simply memorized.

Core values can be an important differentiator and build a more solid brand. They can:

  • Enable better decision-making with regard to partnerships, employee engagement, quality standards, customer satisfaction, etc. The more values are integrated into the decision-making process, the easier it is to make hard choices.
  • Educate partners and customers so they are able to invest in an organization that is aligned with their own values. Social media is building brand awareness like never before and, with so many options, today’s consumers will choose products and services from those companies who they can identify with most closely.
  • Help recruit the right employees because they can see that these corporate values are congruent with who they are as individuals. This alignment is becoming increasingly important as Millennials are seeking much more than a paycheck in their careers.

Placing an emphasis on core values will improve every aspect of business, but only if these values are meaningful, fully demonstrated and embraced by every employee. Make an effort to ensure your organization’s values are the right ones and that they are more than mere words on a website.

Leader as Listener

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Boilerplate copy on resumes typically include the phrase “excellent communication skills.” But how many people really have them?

Communication is so often thought of as speaking and writing well. While these are certainly important, it is not only the clear dissemination of thoughts and ideas, but also the receptivity and complete understanding of other people’s thoughts and ideas.

Excellent communication skills include the ability to listen really well, and leaders need to do this is order to be successful.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of connective listening. In their book Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, authors Mark Goulston and John Ullmen describe this as listening with the intention to fully understand the speaker and strengthen the connection. Connective listening is about listening from their there instead of your here.

Listening is a lot more than hearing the words that are spoken. Body language, tone of voice, inflection and other factors can either amplify, distract or totally contradict the words that are spoken and this needs to be incorporated into effective listening. To become an excellent listener means being able to go to different levels in order to fully understand.

In their book Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, authors Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins write that in order to improve the ability to listen and engage, a leader needs to master three levels of listening: surface, issues-based and emotions-based.

Level One: Surface Listening – This is listening to hear what is actually being said and taking the words at face value. You do this by making eye contact, nodding your head, and repeating back what you hear. The speaker is then confident that you are following along and engaged in a way that enables the effective transfer of thoughts and ideas.

Level Two: Issues-based Listening – This is the ability to focus intentionally on what really matters. Rather than listening only to the basic facts, you are looking for the underlying message. Reading between the lines, so to speak. This may require asking clarifying questions to get the speaker to expand his or her thinking and say more. The underlying issues are what you are seeking to fully understand.

Level Three: Emotions-based Listening
– This is the deepest level of listening that enables you to uncover the real agenda at play. Leaders who listen at this level are able to sense the underlying emotions and motivation behind the issues. They listen to the nonverbal cues, such as the speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and overall mood. You discover the assumptions the speaker is making. Once you understand what’s going on under the surface, you are then able to name and acknowledge it. You can paraphrase what you hear and perhaps add what you sense the speaker is feeling as well. This type of listening requires you to be objective, open and curious. It takes a great deal of effort to be this present. And it takes the courage to name and say aloud the emotions being felt.

Each of these levels is essential for leaders to be effective listeners. The important thing is to practice each so that you can deploy the appropriate level when the situation requires it.

With social media’s focus on “selfies,” “likes” and “followers,” your leadership will stand out if you are able to make the most of interpersonal one-on-one, real-time communications. This means truly engaging by listening more effectively using these three levels.

Magnetic Leadership

For companies to thrive they need great leadership. So how do we define great leadership and what are the behavioral traits of a great leader?

In his best-selling book Good to Great, author Jim Collins wrote about what he called Level 5 Executive leaders who build enduring greatness through the paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. He describes these Level 5 leaders as both modest and willful, humble and fearless.

“Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well,” writes Collins. “At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.”

What the business world needs more than ever now are Level 5 leaders. It needs men and women who understand how to attract and grow talented employees. Their focus should be on people before products and profits. Customers and shareholders will be satisfied only when employees are fully engaged and optimally performing.

In Roberta Chinsky Matuson’s book The Magnetic Leader: How Irresistible Leaders Attract Employees, Customers, and Profits, she defines seven irresistible traits of magnetic leaders. These are authenticity, selflessness, strong communication, charisma, transparency, vision and resilience. Matuson also provides important questions to ask yourself in order to strengthen these traits.

Authenticity requires admitting you don’t know everything, being truthful and sharing your backstory. To increase your authenticity, ask yourself:

  • Do I bring my whole self to work or do I leave parts at home?
  • What have I done within the last week to build trust?
  • How often do I share my backstory with employees and prospective candidates?

Selflessness requires the humility to focus on another’s success. Strive to be more of a servant leader and ask yourself:

  • Are people following me because of what I can do for them or are they doing so because of what I can do to them?
  • Do I take more than I give?
  • What have I done today to put others before myself?

Strong Communication means focusing as much on the way you say something as you do with the words you choose. Consistent communication is directly connected to higher employee engagement. And strive to become a better listener. Ask yourself:

  • Am I fully present when people speak?
  • Is my communication clear or is it a bit cloudy?
  • How often have I reached out to team members in person, on the phone or via e-mail or Skype this week?

Charisma means as a leader you are able to influence and inspire others. It is often defined by those who exude confidence and express positivity. Ask yourself:

  • Do I genuinely like being around people?
  • Do I express my ideas in a way that exudes confidence or do I radiate self-doubt?
  • Do I expect people will do their personal best or do I believe most people will merely look to get by?

Transparency is linked to candor and this requires trusting others as the only way to build and sustain relationships. To increase your transparency, ask yourself:

  • How often do I filter what I tell people?
  • How frequently do I shield information from others for my own benefit?
  • Am I being transparent or a bit murky?

Vision is about seeing the bigger picture and then painting it for others to see. In order to assess where you are on vision, ask yourself:

  • Am I focused on everyday tasks or long-term outcomes?
  • How often do I take time out of my day or week to think about the future?
  • Who in the organization has potential that is not being realized and what can I do to help unleash that potential?

Resilience is about the ability to carry on in spite of a hopeless situation. It is about the grit that enables one to get back up after falling down. To further build this resilience, ask yourself:

  • Do I take responsibility for my failures or do I place the blame elsewhere?
  • Do I pick myself up quickly after a failure and move forward?
  • Do I play it safe to avoid failure or do I take risks so I can grow?

Often it is the questions that matter most. The best questions can help us to understand and grow. Asking and answering honestly to the questions above can help determine how you measure up in order to assess your own magnetic leadership.

In the conclusion of her book, Matuson describes management as a destination while leadership as a journey. She writes that “the way you choose to lead matters more than your intentions, and that every day is a new opportunity to lead in a way that is memorable for the right reasons.”

Great leadership embraces the notion of continuous learning and growth. To be a magnetic leader, seek to become more of who you are and embrace these seven traits.

STEM Alone Won’t Be Enough

In education today there is a focus to deliver qualified graduates to take on careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Not only is this where the opportunities are today and likely in the future, but there is a tremendous shortage of qualified Americans to fill the number of STEM jobs currently available.

But a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a STEM field alone may not be enough. That’s because the ability to thrive in the workplace is more often dependent on interpersonal skills that have nothing to do with STEM. These soft skills may include things like cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy.

“Most good middle-class jobs today—the ones that cannot be outsourced, automated, roboticized, or digitized—are likely to be what I would call stempathy jobs,” writes Thomas L. Friedman in his book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in a World of Accelerations. “These are jobs that require and reward the ability to leverage technical and interpersonal skills—to blend calculus with human (or animal) psychology, to hold a conversation with Watson to make a cancer diagnosis and hold the hand of a patient to deliver it, to have a robot milk your cows but also to properly care for those cows in need of extra care with a gentle touch.”

These social skills may have been taught or modeled at home, yet are sorely missing in many workers with STEM careers. Whether people have forgotten these skills or simply choose to no longer demonstrate them in the workplace, it is a problem.

As a consultant and coach working with a variety of people in STEM organizations, I can attest that it is not technical competency or business aptitude that is often missing in many workers. In fact, it is the interpersonal skills that are often frustrating directs, coworkers and supervisors, and hampering the careers of these professionals.

According to a 2013 research study by Oxford’s Martin School, 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades.

“Nobody cares what you know, because the Google machine knows everything,” Friedman said. The future, he argues, is about what we can do with what we know. It is our humanity and our empathy that make us uniquely different from computers.

This humanity is something we should embrace and use to our advantage rather than downplay as insignificant. It is also the very best way to protect your livelihood from being shortcut by a computer taking over your job.

Showing up in the workplace not only with our technical expertise, but also with compassion for one another is important in order to thrive individually and collectively. This means actively demonstrating cooperation, collaboration, communication, flexibility and empathy. Only in this way can STEM professionals truly reach their full potential.