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    Taking the Long View

    Recently, I was working with a senior leader to identify some things he could do to help his high-potential direct reports develop some specific leadership competencies.  During our conversation, he made a comment that really stopped me in my tracks.  Referring to his leadership team, he said, with a great deal of obvious satisfaction, “I’ve really got a great group.  They’re all so loyal and committed to their jobs that not one of them has taken any vacation in the last two years.”

    “No one has taken any vacation in two years?” I asked incredulously.

    “Nope,” he repeated proudly.

    “Have you asked them why not?”

    “No,” he said, “why would I?”

    And that, I think, is a question we all might ponder.  Why should he ask?  Are there really any pressing reasons?  Especially since, in many cases, we really don’t want the answer because we’d much prefer to believe what this leader believes:  people are choosing to forego time off because they’re so “committed” to the projects that we’ve given them.

    That may, of course, be true, but I wonder.  I wonder, for instance, whether people are committed, or rather terrified of losing their jobs?  Committed, or worried that they won’t get promoted?  Committed, or simply too anxious to risk taking vacation and appearing to be the only person on the staff who’s not committed?  And it’s true that we’ll never know the truth about this particular pattern unless people are willing to speak candidly, which in most cases is unlikely.  But we can wonder, what if . . . ?

    And the conversation with the leader continued.

    “Well,” I said, “there may be other reasons that could explain why they chose not to go.  Have you encouraged them to use their vacation time?”

    “No,” he said for the second time, “why would I?”

    Another stop-you-in-your-tracks question.    From this perspective, if the people working for us are adults, and we assume that they’re clearly responsible for their own choices about whether or when to take advantage of a job benefit, why would we need to encourage them to use it?  Especially if having people take time off from doing their jobs certainly doesn’t benefit us, as their bosses?

    This is where things get tricky, because this is where a boss has to shift from short-term to long-view thinking, and to some bosses, the risks may seem greater than the potential payoffs.  The assumption that we’re asked to test here is whether the indirect costs of an employee’s time off the job—to relax, refresh, renew—will ultimately be more than compensated for through increased focus and productivity when that employee returns to work.  It doesn’t matter what the research says, because under the pressure of the moment, with deadlines looming and customers calling, most of us would ignore or disregard those results anyway.

    Shifting to a long view seems justifiable only if we’re able to imagine the dark side of overwork, sustained levels of stress, and diminishing resources:  sickness, exhaustion, or burnout.  When employees take vacation, their resilience and stamina are renewed.  When employees take time off because of illness, everyone loses, especially customers.  So there’s a business case to be made for the value of vacations, but to believe it, a boss has to be able and willing to take the long view.  Fortunately, at LifeLine we know that it’s a viewpoint with payoff.

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    How Anxiety Loses You Business (w/Video) . . .

    I almost always know when I’m feeling anxious, and you may, too.  Even more importantly, though, do you know when your own, personal anxiety may be eroding your business success in today’s pressure-cooker, take-no-prisoners, competitive marketplace?

    Anxiety is often defined as a fear of a possibility, of something that might happen, rather than a fear of something that is happening.  Anxiety swirls around inside of us, whipped up by our vivid imaginations, and triggered by words such as, “what if . . .?”  And unfortunately, coping with an anxious mind is much trickier than reacting to actual, tangible danger of some kind that threatens our physical or emotional well-being.  If I’m being threatened by something actual out there, my biology, having evolved over the millennia, typically presents me with two, crystal clear choices:  fight or flight.


    Through the same millennia, cultural complexities that also evolved through the development of human civilization have given us many subtle, nuanced ways of fighting or fleeing, but running away or standing our ground are still the predominant ways of dealing with immediate, visible danger.  The options seem much less definite when I’ve frightened myself by something that might—or might not—turn out to be a real danger.

    Most of us, I think, develop familiar strategies for responding to our anxiety, and I’ve become pretty familiar with mine.  However, while I can recognize and name these anxiety “signals” consciously if I’m asked, most of the time, because I use them unconsciously, I’m often unaware that I’m expressing my anxiety when I’m with other people.  Unfortunately, it’s this lack of conscious awareness that puts me at some risk in my personal transactions with everyone at work—my boss, my colleagues, the folks I manage, but most dangerously—my customers.

    And what’s the risk?   Well, the sad fact is that what I do to mute or manage my anxiety usually sends exactly the wrong message to the folks around me, especially when I’m trying to take care of a customer, trying to make a sale, give an important presentation, or influence a key person or project.  Here’s what typically happens.

    I’ve noticed that when I’m anxious, I tend to express that worry, that concern, in one of three ways:  distraction, irritation, or confusion.  Because my fear of the unknown tends to keep my innards churning, this anxiety creates a competing, internal force, and as this force caroms around my brain, I find that it’s difficult to focus my attention, that it’s easy to become edgy or angry, and that it’s difficult to maintain a calm, clear perspective in a particular situation.  Such reactivity typically has a ripple effect, and when I’m around other people, if I’m not careful, I run the risk of pushing them to react negatively themselves to my behavior without really understanding why they are.

    While this is dangerous in personal relationships, it’s the kiss of death in business, because customers will maintain a relationship with us only as long as it’s clear that their satisfaction is our sole focus.  If our attention wanders, or if we snap at them, or if we argue about who’s “right” in a troubled transaction, they have a clear choice—tolerate the apparent disrespect . . . or leave, often for good.  Serving others doesn’t generate the same social capital as friendship, and customers aren’t paying to watch us manage our anxiety.

    That’s our job, and it can sometimes be a tough one, especially when business is slow or uncertain.  But expecting customers to hang around and suffer poor service because we’re trapped in our worries is just plain unrealistic.  That’s why it’s so useful to learn how we telegraph our own patterns of anxiety so that they don’t compromise our most important business relationships.

    And that’s why LifeLine Consulting exists—to help our clients build the personal awareness they need to influence customers, colleagues, or employees positively—and to keep their anxiety under control.


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    The Workplace HAS Reached the Breaking Point

    “Pieces of my teeth fell out last week.  I haven’t had time to go to the dentist.” When a CEO told me that, this blog idea was born.

    Tipping point!  His teeth are falling out, and he can’t get that fixed because he’s too busy?  Wonder how lunch was in that state.  Have you been wondering, as I have: When does workplace expectation and pressure simply become too much? (See accompanying video.)

    Continue reading

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