Going with the “Flow“
With some frequency I get so absorbed in an activity that I lose my sense of time and place. All of my critical faculties are focused on the activity. I look up after what I think is a moment only to discovery several hours have passed and I was all the while completely oblivious to the passage of time, hunger, fatigue and the like.
Positive psychologists describe this phenomenon as “flow,” or the state of being completely immersed in activity for its own sake. The concept of flow comes to us from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that 10 times quickly and you are in the flow!)
The quality of flow is that it makes an activity, including workplace activity, seem… well, a lot less like work! Flow not only makes work more enjoyable; flow increases personal performance and engenders further learning and personal development. Why? Because the ability to experience flow indicates mastery. Mastery, in turn, requires we seek out new and different challenges to recapture the experience of flow.
Thus, one aspect of being in the “flow” is that I am completely “engaged” in what I am doing. The notion of “engagement” has become a popular expression among business consultants and like many such terms is amenable to numerous definitions, rendering meaningful knowledge about employee engagement difficult to come by. At least one distinction lies between “Work engagement”— which signifies my relationship to my work itself– and “employee engagement”— which include my relationship with my professional or occupational role and firm. The importance of this distinction, at least for me, is that the former focuses me on what I bring to the table, while the latter focuses me on the environment in which I am operating. While I have control over what I personally bring into my work and workplace, my working environment is controlled to a large extent by managerial decisions occurring outside my domain of influence, as well as by the behavioral dynamics of my co-workers and colleagues.
A literature review suggests perceptions of meaning strongly influence levels of engagement and performance. We tend to look for meaning more often in our day to day work than in our personal or non-work lives. The literature also suggests engagement is on the decline and there is an active disengagement among workers today. Some studies indicate less than 20% of employees fit into the “fully engaged” category. These are the folks that are consistently productive and task-effective, psychologically bonded to their work and loyal to their organization, and are intrinsically motivated by the work itself. Let’s suppose that 20% figure represents one end of a continuum.
On the opposite end of the continuum are those who are actively disengaged in their work, sometimes referred to as the “Quit and Stays.” Quit and Stay folks are those who, for many different reasons, no longer meaningfully identify with their work or workplace, but continue to show up and occupy space. They have quit participating mentally but stay in place physically. They are usually negative, uncooperative, or even hostile— quick to tell you everything that is wrong with the status quo in your organization.
Sandwiched between these two poles are the non-engaged. We might say they, like their actively disengaged cohorts, are outside the flow. They contribute just enough time and effort to meet the minimum needs of their position or occupation, but they are no longer psychologically bonded to the organization. They are extrinsically motivated and likely to respond to recruitment efforts, job vacancies or other external inducements. They are also likely to turn a deaf ear to appeals of fidelity to loyalty to the firm or mission. Approximately 2/3 of workers today are understood to be non-engaged in their work and work settings.
In your firm or organization, you are probably familiar with some of these folks. Fortunately, important connections are being drawn between the varied demands of the legal profession and the resulting emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced sense of personal accomplishment many of us experience. Understanding these connections may help you avoid the personal and collateral damage resulting from entrenchment in our profession’s most destructive tendency– the workaholism that ultimately leads to career burnout.
The Long Road to Nowhere
Burnout is a progressive, all-encompassing process that builds momentum over time and destroys meaning, fulfillment, relationships and ultimately productivity and profits. Its early warnings signs include sustained malaise, generalized frustration, unresolved anger, and dissatisfaction. Its physical symptoms can include low energy, chronic fatigue, sleep difficulties, headaches, physical illness and weakness. Cognitive symptoms of professional burnout may include categorizing and depersonalizing clients and their dilemmas, as well as generalized cynicism directed toward ourselves and our accomplishments. Emotionally, we may experience prolonged feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, guilt, anxiety or the feeling we are trapped on the hamster-wheel.
Contributing to these varied pitfalls are the ever increasing levels of stress and insecurity, the absence of an objective metric for determining whether we are performing well, the absence of job security in an age of reconfiguration, mergers and acquisitions, redundancy and similar externalities.
In our legal and other professional careers, the workaholic’s constellation of symptoms yields increased absenteeism, aggression, job shifting, unemployment, underemployment and ultimately— either voluntary, or in many cases involuntary– departure from our professional milieu. In our personal and social lives, we may experience fractured or broken relationships, substance abuse, divorce … even suicide. In the spiritual dimension of our lives, the casualties of burnout include loss of faith and purpose, feelings of alienation and estrangement, despair, and debilitating changes in our spiritual values, beliefs and affiliations.
Bridging the Gap Between Burnout & Engagement
Without discounting the psychological, material and social rewards of our profession, the personal costs outlined above should move us to confront and address the obstacles that prevent us from living what we believe to be successful, passionate and meaningful lives. Surprisingly, recent research suggests lawyer-burnout is not a result of heavy job demands, specialization, or the intense pressures. Rather, the manner in which lawyers are trained to think and reason is the primary source of susceptibility to stress and burnout. The claim is that legal education, in stressing precedent and doctrine above all, underestimates emotion, interpersonal relations, and social context— all factors from which we generally derive some sense of deeper meaning to our efforts.
One consequence of this claim is that while lawyers as a group may not be as dissatisfied with their careers as many believe, strengthening our emotional capacities and interpersonal skills, managing occupational stress, and adopting or redeveloping positive dispositions should facilitate a greater number of fully-engaged practitioners. In fact, the cluster of emotional competencies labeled “Emotional Intelligence” has emerged as a predictor of both occupational satisfaction and performance among lawyers, just as it has in industry.
Emerging research shows burnout, engagement and workaholism to be distinct concepts, rather than 3 ways of viewing the general concept of well-being. Workaholism is understood as an uncontrollable need to work incessantly. Like the alcoholic, the workaholic is literally obsessed with work and perform beyond all reasonable measures of what is expected to meet organizational and financial needs. While there are positive aspects to such an orientation, its harmful consequences generally derive from the workaholic’s neglect of other aspects of her personal life, including health or marital consequences, for example.
Engagement includes the dimensions of energy, involvement and efficacy, while the dimensions of burnout include exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Thus, the workaholic may or may not eventually burn out. The critical factor in distinguishing the workaholic from the burned out colleague is the latter displays demonstrably higher degrees of exhaustion and cynicism, coupled with lower degrees of perceived professional efficacy. Also, while burnout and engagement act as opposites to one another, workaholism shares features of both.
The implications of these claims, of which I’ve admittedly only scratched the surface, are meaningful for managing partners, supervisors, HR professionals, and rank file folks alike. Firm and organizational managers have a real stake in promoting work environments that foster engagement– including engagement among workaholic staff– while reducing the dangers of burnout and the inefficiencies that result from a cadre of Quit and Stays who are no longer emotionally committed and, therefore, unproductive or grossly underproductive.
Ideas for Further Consideration
For firms and organizations seeking the blue sky of increased individual performance, and organizational productivity and profits, here are a few ideas to discuss at the next round table or weekend retreat:
1. Promote & Foster Individual Engagement & Take the Construct Seriously
Managing engagement focuses on career development, leadership, empowerment and organizational image. Employees give their all and do so willingly and over the long haul when they are provided with opportunities to develop and utilize their abilities and potential, acquire and learn new skills and exercise significant discretion and autonomy in the performance of their tasks. The construct should be taken seriously because engaged employees foster loyal customers, business growth and profitability. Also, higher workplace engagement correlates positively with higher earnings per share in publicly trades companies. Thus, while engagement is an individual level construct, it has critical implications for business-level outcomes.
2. Manage Workaholism to Achieve Sustained Outcomes
“Burned-out” colleagues are generally recognized by their poor health, impaired social functioning, poor performance and task effectiveness, absence from the workplace and heightened cynicism. They are too tired to work hard and too cynical to any longer commit to their work, organization or mission. However, the workaholic, while sharing some of these negative features with his burned out cohort manages to work hard whole at the same time remaining committed to his organization and his work. In short, the workaholic demonstrates a drive, commitment and excess of performance that can be identified and, with appropriate interventions, managed toward outcomes that promote the long-term health of the individual while capturing the benefits of his excessive drive.
3. Lead By Example
Engaged workers across professions and industries surveyed are a function of engaged managers. When managers view their primary function as supporting and serving those in their management spheres, the work environment become highly engaged. Thus, managers must themselves be in the engaged or highly engaged categories if employees are expected to respond to engagement efforts. Simply put, you can’t transmit something you haven’t got. The origin of employee disengagement often lies in management’s disengagement with its workforce. Behavior linked to engagement include: belief in the organization, desire to work and improve conditions, an understanding of the big picture, a willingness to work with and support other and stay current on relevant developments and trends. Links were also found between engagement levels and employees’ sense of how they are valued in an organization. Drivers of these characteristics include: effective leadership, open communication, emphasis on employee development and well-being, and clear and well defined polices and practices.
4. Look Into Programs Tailored To Your Specific Needs & Circumstances
Be mindful that individual and organizational differences means there is no “one size fits all” approach to the implementation of engagement efforts. On the macro level of the organization, the absence of a standard measure means what has worked for one company may not be right for your company. On the micro level of the individual, studies show, not surprisingly, personal variances in psychology, perception, emotion and how we process our experiences all strongly influence individual levels of engagement. At the macro level, before implementing new engagement programs it may be prudent to determine what is already working in your organization, what model of “engagement” you are operating on and what results you are achieving and expect to improve upon. At both the macro and micro levels, individual personality differences coupled with our fast-paced global footprints force us to accept there is no single “silver bullet” approach. Any engagement effort must be flexible enough to account for variations among individual personalities, must have a long term focus emphasizing on-going interactions over time. Such processes should at minimum aim to create mutual obligations of trust, value and reciprocal interdependence.
I.D.E.A.L. Coaching partners with individuals and organizations wishing to explore and implement engagement strategies responsive to identified needs. When we recapture personal and organizational values, or clarify the values we act upon when we are at choice, we live with and project integrity and authenticity. We gain the trust and loyalty of our colleagues, clients, and stakeholders; and, we distinguish the momentary and ultimately fleeting satisfactions of individual jobs well done, from the lasting and sustained fulfillment of individual lives well lived.
I.D.E.A.L. Coaching provides a means for each of us to examine individual and organizational states of being and, where we deem it necessary, to make appropriate adjustments toward the achievement of sustained well-being in ourselves and our work environments.
WHAT DO YOU VALUE?
How do you experience value? How does your experience of value unfold in your daily life? Many dilemmas arise from conflicting values as well as from conflicting perceptions of value. Such conflicts are subtle because the differences in what we value and the reasons we value what we do are subtle. These subtleties may escape our notice. But the conflicts themselves invariably command our attention. The common interface between home-life and work-life provides a nice and simple illustration.
When I miss my daughter’s soccer game or my son’s weekend hike with the Scouts so that I can complete a work project, I send my kids, perhaps my wife as well, a message concerning how I value each of them. The message received may not be an accurate message. It may not be the message I intended to convey and it may not be received well.
Also, I may be conditioned to think the message received is not something for which I am exclusively responsible. Passing as such things do from my verbal activity though the filtering processes of my children’s mental machinery, I may say: “I can’t help that you took what I said the way you did.”
Whatever the cognitive mechanics, perceptions of my role and responsibility as a loving, nurturing and involved father have run headlong into perceptions of my role and responsibility to my firm and our clients. I may be more inclined to place my “reputational” interests before my interest in being a “good parent” and unwittingly sacrifice my children’s emotional needs. The reasons I actually give for doing what I do may or may not bring me to an awareness of what I am valuing in the exchange.
For example, I may say: “I have to earn a living,” or “I need to demonstrate my dedication to the firm,” even when my dedication is not at issue and my ability to earn and provide is not in jeopardy. I may say “my client is depending on me for the success of this summary judgment motion” when taking time with my kids will do nothing to upset the trust upon which my client’s dependence rests.
In truth, I may simply desire to do something else with the time because the soccer game or a weekend hike doesn’t strike my fancy at the moment the opportunity is presented. While I value each moment spent with my children, I may value the intellectual challenge presented by resolving a pressing issue. The choice is not truly one of deciding between being a reliable professional and a good parent. Rather, what is at work is the conflict between how I value time spent in one manner versus time spent in another at the moment of choice.
Regardless, my children do not process my absence as a dislike for soccer or hiking. They see it as my preferring my work over spending time in their lives. They see me valuing work over participation in events of importance to them. This message is certainly not one any thoughtful parent would intentionally send to their child.
This simple illustration is especially helpful in showing how perceptions of “role” can add to conflicts arising from competing values. Clearly, perceptions of the duties and obligations arising within our professional roles can butt heads with those arising within our parental roles.
This isn’t Earth-shattering news by any means. However, penetrating the various layers of such conflicts invites a deeper examination of what we value, why we value what we do, and whether the results we seek in our various life domains are congruent with the values we hold.
As time goes by, my children may devise other means of commanding my attention. My daughter may act out in progressively disconcerting ways or my son may become increasingly detached so that I am required to engage with each of them. However, an amazing cognitive phenomenon occurs: I interpret their behavior as something for which they are exclusively responsible and view my task as one of correction. I do not make the connection between their behavior and the messages I have sent them concerning how I value my time. I don’t view the situation as an opportunity for self-reflection or transactional dialogue with my kids. I instead interpret the situation as one requiring parental intervention to correct troubling teen-aged behavior.
While I’ve shared a small detail of a “role” and “value” driven dilemma arising in the life-work context, intertwined role/value conflicts arise across all our life domains, at home, in the workplace, and in our social relationships.
INTRINSIC & EXTRINSIC VALUES
Values can be loosely thought of as “intrinsic” and “extrinsic.” Intrinsic values are those values that are not dependent on any other thing because the are complete in and of themselves; Extrinsic values either depend or are dependent upon some other end for their vitality. They are typically a means to achieving that other end. For example, the quest for money may be viewed as an “extrinsic” value because money is viewed as a means to accomplishing some other end– perhaps the security of our family or the ability to act in a charitable way in our communities. Security or charity, on the other hand, may be viewed as “intrinsic” because they are ends in and of themselves, independent of other considerations.
When we act upon, or are driven by, extrinsic values, we may be unaware of the underlying intrinsic mechanisms that are really at work in motivating our actions and behavior. Below is an easy exercise for uncovering values at work in your daily life and reflecting upon whether the values that motivate your behavior align with your self-image and how you would like to be perceived and understood by others.
Step One– Laying Your Values Bare
Ask yourself, “what do I value the most?” Write your answers down. Remember, values are intangible and unconscious. Listing your values is an opportunity to bring them into your consciousness. Don’t think about or rank your answers. Just write down a short list of 10-20 words or phrases that occur to you when you ask yourself “what do I value?”
Focus on specific areas of your life: marriage, workplace, Family, Community. Here’s an example of what your list might look like:
Marriage Work Family Community
Equality Security Togetherness Reputation
Sharing Achievement Unity Equality
Friendship Loyalty Cooperation Justice & fairness
Trust Respect Compassion
Step Two– Find Your Values in Operation
For each value you have listed, think about how this value is expressed in each of the areas of your life you have categorized. Write down a few brief examples. Does one area of your life require you to exercise a particular value in manner different than you would exercise that same value in another area of your life? If so, ask yourself why the difference? Then, ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the difference?
Step Three- Connect the Dots
When you encounter differences in how your values motivate your behavior in your respective domains of influence, you have likely uncovered differences between deeply held “intrinsic” values that derive from your identity as a person, and often equally compelling “extrinsic” values that derive from the role(s) you have adopted in one or more areas of your personal or professional life. Circle those values that seem to you to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Notice how often your actions and behavior are motivated by extrinsic rather than intrinsic values.
Step Four– Acting from Depth
Because intrinsic values are those values that uniquely define us as individuals– are constitutive of our special character and personality– we should expect to experience greater sustained personal satisfaction when we act authentically from our deeply held values. When we are motivated instead by extrinsic values only, we may anticipate the opportunities for value driven conflicts and dilemmas to arise with some frequency because of the transitory nature of extrinsic values and their involvement in our behavior.
Coaching can help YOU clarify the values that motivate role-driven behaviors, can help YOU identify YOUR authentic values and motivations so that YOU can avoid debilitating conflicts and inefficiencies and act with intentionality, purpose and precision. Coaching can help YOU create strong, intimate and nurturing relationships in each of your domains of influence by allowing you to connect with and act from a place of authenticity and integrity.
The Enemy Within
As an attorney or similar professional, you know the importance of identifying and addressing hurdles to peak performance. Like many of us, you may already function at maximum capacity but still fall far short of delivering your highest and best sustained potential.
Perhaps more than any other, the highly secularized Legal profession imposes this sustained demand on each of us. A typical benefit/burden summary may look something like this:
- Tremendous Altruistic Outlets
- Superior Incomes & Perks
- Local/Global Recognition & Prestige
- Intellectual Challenges
- Vertical as well as Horizontal Mobility
- Wide diversity of practice & environment
- Obscenely long hours
- Crushing Educational Costs & Debt
- Endless Tedium, Conflict & Incivility
- Diminishing Autonomy
- Personal & Professional Disenchantment/Burnout
- Spiritual Bankruptcy & Amoral or Relativistic Thinking
- Increased potential for substance abuse, reliance & dependence
Many of us have become slaves to our occupations– at the cost of an equal and committed emphasis on our own enjoyment of life and living. Consciously or unconsciously, many of us have traded our long term dreams of personal fulfillment, growth and development for a future security that never materializes. In the early years, our hard work and long hours, may seemingly pay off with bonuses, raises, awards and advancement within our organizations. However, in the struggle to “achieve,” we may also distance ourselves from those closest to us: our spouses, children, extended family, neighbors and friends.
Laboring under today’s “New Workaholism”— working harder, working longer, expending your energies so that little is left for yourself and your family– you may feel emotionally disengaged not only from your work, but from those people, dreams and values that once sustained and inspired your efforts. Have you noticed, the higher up the ladder you ascend, in the Firm or the Board Room, the less likely your colleagues care whether you are genuinely fulfilled?
Personal fulfillment– that enduring internal sense that what you do has greater meaning beyond the effort that goes into it— is rarely a benefit for which employment bargains are struck, partnerships established, or mergers and acquisitions completed. Only recently, in a minority of firms and organizations, are people-managers beginning to comprehend the inherent value of work-life balance.
Whether you are a Managing Partner or a C-Suite Executive, an Associate with partnership or other executive aspirations, or the newest member of the professional support or operational staff, you know we each must perform to the fullest of our abilities consistently throughout our careers.
Compounding the relentless, full-court press of the new workaholism is the dehumanizing objectivity our profession and those closely aligned with it demands. If we are people of faith, our professional objectivity is usually at odds with or simply deaf to the deeper moral mandates of our individual faith traditions.
The scriptural mandates to which we once subscribed are now subordinated to the secularized objectivity the “zealous” advocacy of our clients’ interests’ demands. And our “legal personalities” — those qualities that make us effective or highly regarded in our respective specialties– often fail to translate well into our personal lives and relationships. Paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, how is it we consistently fail to accomplish the good we wish to accomplish but succeed in repeatedly accomplishing the bad we seek to avoid?
In addition to adapting ourselves to our ever changing professional landscapes, we must also identify, nurture and develop the raw talent of those hoping to succeed to higher positions within our organizations. Often called “succession planning,” this is how we sustain our organizational visions– and by extension, our continuing livelihoods– over time.
Coaching is a demonstrated means of surmounting the pitfalls of the new workaholism. Coaching produces invaluable insights into our own hidden attitudes, beliefs and emotions — what I call the “silent motivators” — that create the foundations for workaholism and career burnout to occur. In the absence of clarity and awareness, our own silent motivators rob us of a meaningful compass and a plan for regaining our direction. In response to your own silent motivators, Coaching can help to:
- determine whether you’re a victim of the new workaholism & understand its effects on your long term happiness, performance, productivity and profitability;
- clarify the signals– the silent motivators– that are often symptomatic of the new workaholism and decide whether these motivators reflect your true values and authentic self;
- identify those habitual behaviors– mental or physical– that influence your actions but which are not products of your thoughtful and deliberate choices.
- define or refine those deeply held values that are constitutive of your true identity and character;
- develop an action plan to regain the high ground of sustained personal and professional fulfillment by achieving the life balance that is right for you across all your active domains.
ARE YOU A WORKAHOLIC? HEADING TOWARD CAREER BURNOUT?
Ours is a culture that worships the work ethic, overachievement and material success. However, workaholism and burnout are the too-frequently ignored byproducts of our cultural preoccupation with these characteristics.
Thinking about workaholism, we should be mindful that even the God of Scripture rested on the seventh day. Whatever else this may have meant to its writer and his intended audience, rest, balance and relaxation are necessary ingredients for a joyful and purposeful existence.
When we work to the point of excluding our family, friends, social connections and other relationships, our life is off balance and we court disaster.
Some signs of workaholism include:
A) trouble delegating;
B) neglecting or ignoring non-work-related connections;
C) joining non-work-related tasks with your occupation or profession;
D) linking your self worth exclusively to occupational accomplishments;
E) an inability to treat non work related time as non work related time.
These characteristics create concerns for one’s life quality because, like the alcoholic or addict, the workaholic can be either blind or in denial toward the signs and signals that differential unhealthy workaholism from diligence and hard work. Failing to take needed rest periods– mental-health days or well earned vacations– continually taking on more than you can effectively manage instead of simply delegating tasks appropriately, ultimately yields poor performance, disorganization and an array of cognitive and health related issues.
Coaching is a demonstrated intervention strategy for unearthing signs of workaholism in your life and addressing the onset of its peculiar influence in each of your active domains of influence. If you think you might be a workaholic, having a Coach may be of value in development a self-care plan. Reflecting on the quality and value you assign yourself, your life’s work and your workplace, your recreational pursuits, your relationships with family and friends and your spirituality, Coaching may yield valuable insights concerning the deeper connections between your preoccupation with work and your ultimate experience of deep meaning and sustained personal fulfillment.