Bored & Plateaud

Posted by jlubans on December 21, 2015

Caption: Avoid plateaus; stay OFF the trails.

Boredom; I’d guess it hits all of us from time to time. It may be inevitable, but when it becomes a daily enervating event – the office turned into Dante’s purgatorium - it’s probably time to do something.
Let’s be clear. I am not talking about the casual boredom born of too much time on my hands – like the boredom of waiting for the bus or doctor.
On-the-job-boredom, the heavy-duty kind, comes from busyness (working at not working), the ritualized daily routine, and too little challenge and change. Think standing committee meetings. Think performance appraisal. Think of a low risk, low innovation and reactive organization.
Un-boring work is different. A secretary I’d met while writing about the Richard Petty (auto) Racing team told me she loved her job so much, “I don’t need an alarm clock to get to work.” Boredom’s on the flip side of that.
Another point for clarity, not all boredom is bad; it depends on what you choose to counter it with. If recognized and acted upon, boredom can trigger much needed change, individual and organizational.
The first step to doing something about boredom is to consider causes. Ask yourself these questions.
Is it you or where you work?
If your colleagues have neither the resources nor the inclination nor the desire to undo the boring parts, well, what are you going to do?
If you derive little joy from your work or if there is little joy to be derived, what will you do?
If the organization is prone to dither, content within its contentment, what will you do?
If at one time your job was challenging and something you looked forward to, like the Petty Racing secretary, what can you do to reclaim that “old time feeling”?
“Flow” is something I alluded to in a 2011 essay, “A Dog and His Bone”.
The notion of “flow” helps explain when and why work feels good or not. When challenge and skills are near equal, then we can experience something similar to the relish and full engagement of man’s best friend gnawing on a bone. But, when challenge and skills are clearly out of sync, (for example, high challenge with low skills or low challenge with high skills) then we can experience frustration, boredom and apathy.
There’s another word for on-the-job boredom: plateau. A recent article from the Wall Street Journal, “How Your Job Can Make You Smarter” is relevant.
The article discusses brain lab research on learning at work and what conditions are most conducive to learning, to sharpening one’s skills. It’s unstated, but learning keeps one fresh, and for me, learning is challenge based, something to understand and to master.
The author, Sue Shellenbarger, describes several of the conditions under which you become “smarter” (I’d add that you also become engaged and un-bored) in the job.
“You work at tasks that are difficult enough that you make some mistakes.”
“You have a job that is continually challenging.”
“Improving your skills is rewarding enough that you want to keep trying to do better.”
“Your work lets you progress to higher skill levels but never lets you master it.”
(BTW, I believe there is an implicit leaderly role in making each of these happen.)
According to research, those conditions stimulate and change the brain for the better – and, one hopes, dissipates boredom. While citing the research on activities that “increased density or activation of regions of the brain related to core job skills”, the author has the good sense to qualify these stated claims of “brain plasticity”: “The impact of such physical changes in the brain on workers’ overall cognitive ability isn’t clear.”
Avoiding ruts
The bored, the plateaud or otherwise beleaguered followers represent challenges for leaders. Pay attention to what is happening with your followers. Help them overcome challenges. And, once overcome, pat them on the back and up the ante.
All but one or two of my bosses supported my research, writing and teaching along with doing the “job”. I suppose, unconsciously, I always went beyond the job to stave off the boredom that is never far away in a traditional job, with its predictable ebbs and flows each day, week and year. It was a way for me to journey on unmarked paths and avoid the plateau.
Other paths:
Career experimentation.
If I had it to do over again, I’d question the rationale for staying in the same job, on a linear track for 40 years. Talk about stultifying! But, it’s pretty much what I did.
Why not change your career a few times? Longevity and economic policy is extending our working years (now into age 70 and up); if there’s ever been a time for multiple career tracks, now’s the time.
A good friend started in one field, left it for another and then another. She did well at each position however brief her tenure. She was, at career’s end, regarded as one of the best in her field. If she was bored, I never observed it. And, leader after leader realized just how her diverse experience augmented and benefited what his or her organization was trying to do.
Another friend, a NYC gourmet food store manager, was well paid and successful in his field. One day he told his boss he was leaving. He and his wife left Manhattan for a farm in the hinterlands of Maine. As sometimes happens, their back-to-nature adventure did not work out and they decided to return to the big city. When my friend asked for his job back, did the leader of the gourmet store reject him for leaving or suggest that he was no longer au courant with the food business? No. Without hesitation, he hired him back, knowing full well that what he learned and experienced in Maine would help him do his NYC job even better.
Job exchanges (within an organization or with another organization on another continent!) just might add some zest to someone in need of a fresh challenge. While some jobs may be too specialized for an exchange, I think most administrative jobs with professional staff are amenable to job swapping. When I experimented with job swaps – domestic and international - I saw improved attitudes, personal growth and idea generation on both sides.
Sabbaticals or paid leaves are another way for the plateaud manager to break out. It’s best if you truly get away and do something different, so do not indulge in a busman’s holiday, instead literally “let go”. Trek somewhere, drive a truck, live in the woods, or travel/volunteer in foreign cultures – you get the idea. There’s risk here; one sabbatical leave taker, whom I supervised, discovered his inner artist and left the field to become a successful and happy artist. A failure for the program? Not at all if you consider a leader’s role in adding value to human existence.
Honest talk. If you are plateaud, it’s time to talk with someone you trust and respect about the long term. Put away the wristwatches, leave the premises and talk about how you are feeling and ask for help. A good boss, a good listener, will hear you and offer insights and ideas to take on fresh challenges and endeavors. If it is time to leave, or to hand in your lunch pail, then that should be on the table, like it was for my artist friend. As I said above, this conversation is leader’s work; it’s the service side.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

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