Brain on Strike

The other day a colleague busted me shoe shopping online at work. The sad thing is that I hate shoe shopping, so I wasn’t even indulging secretly in an illicit joy – I was mindlessly looking at shoes because nothing better occurred to me. My brain was blank and empty, with nothing feeling urgent enough to focus my attention. So I looked at shoes.

Some days are like that. I think of these as gray days, or flat days. They are days when I can’t dredge up enough passion to care about the mundane tasks that make up most of my work – the document reviewing, email answering, invoice signing, and phone calling that adds up to program management. I suppose you could call that procrastinating (and it is) but it feels more akin to work blindness than work avoidance – on the days when I lose my bearings I simply don’t see the little bits of my work, just as certain someones in my household simply don’t see the crumbs on the dinner table after the plates are cleared. They aren’t salient, and so they don’t exist.

Let me assume I am not the only one who has days like this. If I am, and if all of you dig into each and every day with a passion and productivity that knows no peaks and valleys, well, I suppose I have now outed myself. But I doubt it. I imagine I am simply normal and human. And if we all have days like this, we all need to manage them – and come out of them – as best we can. Here are some of my self-management tricks:

Acceptance. In a month, in a year, in a career, days like this don’t matter. There is some certain allowable number of days lost to shoe shopping, internet browsing, or socializing. I don’t know what that number is, but if your boss is sincerely happy with your productivity and you feel like you generally work hard, forgive yourself the occasional bad day. Just let it go.

Distraction. Even if bad days are normal and forgivable, sometimes you don’t want to wallow in them, you want them to get better. If I am stuck in a day when everything is gray and flat and I can’t make myself do what I should, I can unstick myself, sometimes, by doing something I don’t need to do but is productive none the less. Like writing this blog. Yeah, it doesn’t get my projects managed, but it is better than shoe shopping. After doing something productive I often find I feel better about doing the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to do earlier.

Confession. It’s good for the soul, right? Simply confiding in a colleague – even your boss – that you are having trouble getting moving today can be helpful. They might offer sympathy and let you know they have those days, too, or they might offer something even more helpful like a walk to get a cup of coffee, after which you might feel more able to tackle your work.

Rest. Maybe your brain is telling you something when it goes on strike. While online shoe shopping may get you through till quitting time, it isn’t that much fun. If your brain has walked off the job, maybe you should, too. Take a vacation day. I find that if, on a bad day, I ask for a vacation day the coming Friday the rest of my week perks up in anticipation of a day to myself. On which, I promise you, I will not be shoe shopping.

Not Zero Sum

Winning and losing, and who does how much of which, is in the news a lot. I’m pretty fond of winning, myself – through college I set my alarm for 4:50am every week day to get to crew practice on time, and to this day nothing makes my heart race like the count-down sequence before rowing shells surge off the starting line. Of course winning, almost by definition, means someone else is losing. This is a zero-sum game, and there can be a deep satisfaction to it, to being victorious and triumphant and better-than.

And yet I don’t believe rowing races, or chess matches, or winning and losing in general, are the right metaphors to make sense of the world. Winning and losing can be a great game, a way we to act out conflict and competition without damaging relationships. But I’m doubtful whether win/lose is a useful way to understand our relationships to our world, our communities, or our workplaces. I am reading a book called The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, by Alison Gopnik, that argues that humans are a deeply cooperative species, and that the need for cooperation is driven by our unusually long, vulnerable period of childhood – we need others to help us get those fragile creatures through childhood alive. Deeply, biologically, it takes a village, she argues. Cooperative child rearing and cooperative, altruistic behavior allows for that long period of vulnerability and growth, and we could not be human without it.

As an aside, the reason she says we need this long childhood is to grow brains that are adaptable and creative, because as a species we don’t stick around the place we were born and do exactly what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did to survive. Instead, we are a roaming, restless species where the new generation encounters challenges un-imagined by the generation before, and so simply passing on what has always worked for us is unlikely to equip our progeny adequately. I appreciate that point of view as the mother of a child whose world will be vastly different from the one I was born into. I’m looking at you, Internet.

Work, of course, can be seen as either a playing field for the zero-sum game or the village where we collaborate with each other. Which view we chose determines how we interact with our colleagues, and ultimately determines our workplace culture. Whether you agree with Gopnik that cooperation and solidarity are deeply human motivators, or with the currently ascendant Ayn Randian view that self-interest trumps all, we can take a pragmatic look at what either cooperation or competition does to a workplace and decide which we want.

On a practical level, when the workplace is an areana for competition you can expect that:

  • Knowledge becomes currency, and power. You don’t share information, you hoard it, so that you always have more than other people.
  • People are ranked one above the other: “Sue is okay, but Pete is better,” rather than “Sue is a really good writer, and Pete is a really flexible thinker. I’ll get them to collaborate on that proposal.”
  • Approval becomes a zero-sum commodity to be fought for; if my boss thinks well of my colleague, there is less approval to go around for me, because if this is a zero sum game, someone must lose if my colleague wins. And so, of course, I am going to sabotage her work (oh so subtly) to get ahead. I did warn you I like to win, didn’t I?

Seeing work as an area for collaboration, on the other hand, leads to different outcomes, where what is best for you can be best for me, and where there is enough approval and knowledge and good work to go around. I’ll be the first to admit that workplace policies and practices can undermine those good vibes – there often isn’t enough approval communicated in any direction, and sometimes resources are unfairly allocated, and what is good for me is bad for you – but that shouldn’t be an excuse for us to give up and wallow in our baser nature. We can aim for better.

Regardless of what I want for my workplace, I’m not giving up on competitive sports. I believe there is a place for ferocious competition. Yet when I think back on my years of rowing competitively, and the races won and lost, in my mind’s eye I never do see the people I won or lost to. Instead I see the image of my coach, a bear of a man, biking up the course alongside us, waving his arms and hollering in delight as we crossed the finish line. I feel the hands of the woman in the seat behind me, patting my back in shared sadness after a loss. I didn’t get out of bed at 4:50 in order to win, I realize – I got up at 4:50 in order to do something hard in a community I loved.

I still do, only I get up a wee bit later these days, and I get to pull alongside of all of you.

That Time of the Year

Waiting for your annual employee performance review can be like waiting for a phone call from a cagey love interest: what does he think of me? He likes me, he likes me not…he likes me, he likes me not. Around APR time we spend a lot of energy wondering does my boss like me (appreciate me, think highly of me, respect me) and very little time wondering do I like how this year went? Of course we want our boss to think highly of us and rate us well, but if that is what we worry about at APR time we miss the best-use of an APR, which is to help us do our jobs better.

When you think of the performance appraisal process as an opportunity for your boss to rate you, and pass judgement on your work, the focus becomes the boss, and the boss’s opinion. You wait anxiously to see what your boss will hand down to you, like some grown-up version of a child’s report card with its numbers and letters and threat of summer school. This is a passive approach to performance evaluation, but it can be very comfortable because the responsibility for analyzing, measuring, and evaluating falls on the supervisor, not the person being evaluated. When the news is good, this sort of APR can be received as a gift, and when the news is bad it can be rejected as untrue.

So what’s the alternative? Treating your APR like you would any other meeting or presentation where you are the subject matter expert. You need to prepare to present at your APR, not just receive. Before your APR, set aside some time, pull out a pad of paper (or however you think best) and write down what worked well and what didn’t this year. This isn’t some argument with proof points about how you are a spectacular employee and deserve a promotion (I’m sure you are, and you do, but save that for just a moment). This is an honest assessment, just for you, about how you’ve done. What are you proud of? What are you ashamed of? What do you want to get better at? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to never have to do again? The goal here is just to understand yourself and your work.

Take these raw notes and sit with them for a bit. What story, what concern, what theme is coming out of your notes? You can have that be the “topic” of your APR. When your boss asks you “So how do you think the year went,” you will have your answer: “This year was really challenging for me with the new project starting up, and all the travel. It stretched me, and that was pretty uncomfortable.” You have made the overarching assessment of your year, and whatever information your boss provides about skills and strengths and weaknesses has a frame to fit into. You have made sense of your own performance, and the data and suggestions your boss is going to give you now have a context you embrace.

It’s true that not every boss is going to ask you to comment on your performance before launching into her own assessment, and it is also true that sometimes your boss’s assessment is going to be so wildly different from your own understanding that you can’t reconcile the two. But going through the process of honestly making sense of your own performance beforehand will at least take the sting out of some of the negative stuff and give you a way to take it in. If you have already heard it from yourself, you will be prepared, and what is more, you might be able to move into problem solving together rather than just trying to hold it together during the meeting. And sometimes bosses are less hard on us than we are on ourselves.

Finally, think about what you want out of your supervisor in the coming year. Sometimes during an APR the supervisor will ask “what can I do to help you,” or “do you have any feedback for me?” This is not the time to say “I can’t think of anything” or “you’re awesome,” but to provide some well-thought out suggestions. Maybe you want a regularly scheduled check-in, or permission to take a course, or more frequent feedback on your performance. Ask for it. And if your boss doesn’t ask for feedback, you can still provide it. You can frame this as the help you need in order to address the performance opportunities and challenges raised in the APR. For example, you could say “It would help me manage my workload and prioritize if you could meet with me for a few minutes at the start of every week to discuss my tasks.”

And about you being a spectacular employee who deserves a promotion? That can certainly be part of the conversation, and fits into a discussion of where you want to go in the coming year, and how to get there (and what help you need from your boss on the way). Just don’t let the box-checking, gold-star-seeking, all-A’s-on-the-report-card side of yourself (the side that is anxious for other’s approval) prevent you from seeking your own appraisal, first.

Looking for Friends in all the Wrong Places

One of my dearest friends interviewed me for a job I didn’t take. She was a stranger to me then, and I was applying for a job as an entry-level program administrator in her department. She was to test out my Russian and see if I would be a good fit for the job. We were about the same age, had similar interests, went to similar colleges, and grew up not far from each other. We instantly knew we should be friends. I forget how it all happened, but I guess I needed a friend more than I needed a job, because after coffee together the next day I had one and not the other. It worked out fine.

It’s probably good that position didn’t work out, because an instant connection is a poor way to decide on a new co-worker. We do it all the time anyway. Sometimes we do it on purpose, thinking about “fit,” and how someone will mesh with an established team. Sometimes we aren’t aware of doing it, thinking we are making decisions on the merits of someone’s skills and knowledge. The New York Times had a piece recently titled The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews describing how interviews actually negatively impact one’s ability to pick the objectively best candidate. Instead of using data, people made assumptions about candidates based on what they thought they knew about them after an interview. People chose the best candidate with their gut, not their brain. The article describes how, when confronted with this information, people still preferred to do interviews despite evidence that it produced worse results. And I understand: it is hard to imagine picking someone to work with day in and day out without ever having looked them in the eye.

A key bit of information in that article that gives me hope for our ability to use interviews effectively is that the authors assumed companies are using free-form, get-to-know-you interviews, not structured, skills-based discussions with a standard question list for all candidates. Using the same questions for all candidates and comparing their responses is a good way to be sure you are using your brain, and not your gut, to make staffing decisions.

Most of us value diversity in the workplace intellectually, knowing that it makes our teams and our organizations smarter and wiser. That is knowledge housed in the brain. The gut has a different way of judging people, and generally the gut likes people like ourselves. Our gut can be suspicious of people who make us feel out of our comfort zone, out of our depth, out of ourselves. And yet, when I am looking at bringing someone onto my team, do I really want another me? Another person who knows what I know, feels what I feel, understands what I understand? Not really. I need someone who knows things I don’t, feels in ways I can’t, and understands the things that are beyond me. Those people are unlikely to be similar to me, and so my gut may not immediately warm to them. It may be harder for me to find commonalities, to build rapport, to have empathy, and so I may shy away from bringing them onto my team. That is my gut. My brain knows, though, that when I am looking for co-workers I would do better to look for someone who doesn’t feel quite so familiar, who doesn’t look at the world from the exact same vantage point. How my quaking, comfort-seeking gut feels about that is entirely beside the point.

Harassment

This year’s newspapers have been full of stories of sexual assault, harassment, and general bad behavior from the presidential campaign to Fox news to New England private schools. What has struck me as I shake open the paper in the morning, or scroll through my Facebook feed, or talk with other women over tea, is the ubiquity of the experience of sexual harassment and misconduct. Yeah, we’ve all been there. That should be a shocking thing to say.

What shocks me most, when I look back on the years during which harassment was a regular part of my life (age and a mane of gray hair seem to have protective benefits) is how often it happened at work, rather than at bars or on dates. By “at work” I don’t mean in an office – though that happens to others, it has never happened to me. Harassment is a real challenge for many of us in development and service work precisely because we are out in the world, on the street, on the bus, on display. How regular is harassment? Well, a quick scan of my memory brings up this litany:

The supervisor at my job cleaning the snack-bar floors of my high school (one of those New England private schools, it so happens) who leered, put his hands on me to “help” me mop, and watched me work, saying I’d make some man a good wife someday.

The frail, broken down old men who were my clients and their wandering hands when I was a social worker for self-neglecting elders.

The boys and men who followed me daily, throwing rocks and cat calling, when I walked around my small town in Turkmenistan in Peace Corps.

The uncountable men on uncountable trains, planes, and automobiles who used the excuse of dim lights and proximity to touch, and deny the touch. I remember one man on a long-haul bus ride across Uzbekistan who sat in the seat behind me, reaching through the gap between seats to grope me. His wife sat stone faced beside him. And I remember the drunken oil worker in the seat next to me on the plane home from Nigeria who leaned in too far, put his hands too close, and talked of inappropriate things until he downed another scotch and fell into a stupor. That was recent; maybe the hair isn’t always protection.

These incidents were all in my “workplace”, and they were all repeated, a chronic, toxic experience of being treated as an object, a thing to be touched. When I close my eyes and remember those times, what I remember most is the anger, the boiling feeling of outrage that this was so ordinary, so normal, and so seemingly unavoidable. And then I remember the feeling of utter boredom with it all, just another dirty man with his dirty wandering hands. I am shocked, thinking of it from a distance now, that daily harassment was part and parcel of work life for me for many years, and that I never considered that remarkable: literally, I did not consider it meaningful enough to remark upon.

I feel compelled, with the daily titillation of stories of high-powered people misbehaving sexually (often at work, it must be said), to remark now. To say how unremarkable it has been, how ordinary and boring and ubiquitous. How did it take us so long to notice? To finally take umbrage?

When I was in high school, I did a semester abroad in the Dominican Republic. I was regularly harassed there, as I was told all teen-aged girls were. When I came home I wrote an essay about the experience for English class in which I basically said that objectification was a cultural norm, and that I had no right as a foreigner to question it, but rather should understand it as an anthropologist might when doing field work. My English teacher wrote in the margin: “Lisa: do not grow so open minded that your brain falls out.”

Over the years I have been guilty of letting my brain fall out, of saying nothing as I accepted what I do not want my young colleagues to accept. This ugly side of our work is not inevitable. It is not unspeakable. On planes, trains, or automobiles, we should be talking about it, and those of us who have come through the experience (and those of us, women and men, who have been lucky enough to avoid it) should be ready to put our brains back in and lend a helping hand.

Gossip

Just the word “gossip” sets my teeth on edge. It brings back memories of middle school, where gossip was currency and weapon and social glue embodied in a language I didn’t understand, just as I didn’t understand which kind of Guess jeans or Swatch watch was the right kind. I always had the wrong kind. It was as if middle school was a separate country, and I was definitely a foreigner. In this other land gossip was the lingua franca, the way people connected, fought, and understood their place in the world. The problem with gossip back then, and now in the workplace, isn’t necessarily the underlying social purpose of gossip, but the unintended consequences.

Do we gossip at work? Certainly. I hope we are kinder and more subtle now than we were at age 12, but we do it still. Every time we start a sentence with “did you hear…?” we are probably gossiping. Merriam Webster defines gossip as “rumor or report of an intimate nature” or “chatty talk.” It is this second description that we engage in most at work, and that serves a real work purpose: to connect us to each other in personal, meaningful ways. Merriam Webster goes on to say that the word comes from the ancient word godsib (a person spiritually related to another), which gets at the role of gossip in social connection. When we share stories and news with our colleagues we are strengthening the bonds between us.

But. Gossip forges connections between the sharers of gossip, but it can weaken the connections between those people and the person they are speaking about. Gossip isn’t about you and me, talking together about our broken hearts and new haircuts – it’s about you and me talking about our colleague’s broken heart and new haircut. The effects of gossip in the workplace can be hurtful, just they were in middle school.

There is another kind of work gossip that we engage in that is harder to see as unhelpful, or even to see as gossip. That is talk about other people’s work performance or work style. Let me give you an example:

A colleague and I are sitting in my office, talking about a task we are working on together. And one of us says to the other: “colleague Z really should hear this information. She has been telling everyone to do this the old way, and she doesn’t listen when anyone tells her to do it the new way. She is so abrasive that no one will tell her she is wrong, because she’ll bite their head off.”

Neither of us is Z’s supervisor, and neither of us is Z. What is the purpose of sharing this piece of information? On the surface the purpose is to fix the problem: what should we do? But really, we both know that isn’t so. Our discussion won’t fix the problem. Our real purpose is connection, to share and commiserate and build rapport.  Another charitable way to look at the conversation is to assume that you and I are aiming to get advice on what to do, or that the more junior of us is raising it to the more senior of us in the hope that the more senior colleague will somehow take it up the line to someone who will fix it. In other words, we feel as if we are engaging in feedback, when we are really engaging in gossip.

Ideally, if you have something to say about someone’s work performance, you should say it to them. Clearly, directly, and kindly. If that thought fills you with horror, consider why. Maybe you simply aren’t used to providing people direct feedback, in which case you just need to practice. Or, maybe the thought of providing direct feedback (instead of “indirect feedback,” i.e. gossip), is uncomfortable because the things you would say are not important enough to be said directly. In that case, let them go unsaid. It may be that you are using discussion about colleagues’ work as a way to bond with other colleagues, or raise your own experience without exposing yourself too much. Knowing why you have the urge to talk about a colleague can help you decide when to talk, and when to let things go.

There are times you can and should talk about other people’s performance, of course. If someone else’s behavior impacts you, and you have already spoken to that person directly, or if you have reason to believe that would be harmful, you should talk to someone. You could talk to your own supervisor, or the person who manages your troublesome colleague’s work. You could ask HR for advice on how to proceed. Maybe you have a mentor or coach at work who you could talk to. The important thing here, though, is that your problem is not a hot potato; it should not be casually dropped into someone else’s lap to deal with. You have feedback for someone, and it might get uncomfortable to provide.

None of us wants to go back to middle school and its gossip. I don’t know that any of us spoke the language there, really. We were all foreigners. We can have a different lingua franca at work, though, one that relies not on gossip about each other, but on trust that we will tell each other hard truths. After the Guess jeans and Swatch watch-fueled debacle of 7th grade, I am hopeful that now, as grown-ups, someone would tell me directly if my Talbots pants were just so wrong, rather than talking about my fashion flubs with office mates. And if I was doing my expense report incorrectly, or being a jerk when I was tired and stressed, I hope for the same: that I would get that news directly, from a colleague anywhere on the ladder, who held that hot potato and provided feedback, even when gossip would have felt a whole lot better.

Throwing It All Away

Today’s blog post is in the trash. I wrote it earlier in the week, but it didn’t work. Then I edited it, and it still didn’t work. Finally I pulled it apart and put it back together, but it crumbled, probably from being snipped and cut and pasted so much, poor thing. So I trashed it, and started something new.

I did it reluctantly. Throwing away work hurts. I get attached to my ideas and words, and letting them go feels like admitting that those ideas and words were wrong, or at least not quite right, and therefore that I was wrong, or at least not quite right. It isn’t just that I am fond of my documents, but also that documents are proof of work, of concrete action, and trashing that work tears at my sense of being a productive useful person.

And the wasted effort! All that labor. Throwing away work and starting over feels like such a waste of time and brain power, and when I am pressed for time that seems profligate. It seems so much smarter to keep working on a document that isn’t working out, to keep revising and editing until it hangs together. But I’ve found, in thinking of how to edit your own writing, that we can edit too much, and a document edited into submission will never hang together. It will always seem a little long in the tooth, bearing the bumps and scars of the editing process in a way that a fresh new document won’t. There is a point of no return in the creative process – technical writing, poetry, cooking – where anything further you do to make things better will just make things worse. You have to recognize that you’ve passed that moment, throw up your hands, and start again.

When you do start again, realize that time spent on the trashed piece wasn’t wasted as long as you believe that thinking itself is a productive action. It is easier to see that tossing your work is productive when you consider how often you mindlessly toss pieces that were intended to be unfinished – doodles, outlines, bulleted lists, sticky notes of ideas. You throw them out easily because their purpose was to get something down on paper, to clarify things, to catch an idea before it ran away. A list wasn’t wasted just because it didn’t make it into a final document. That was never its purpose in life. Its purpose was to give birth to the thing itself. When you find yourself hours (or days) into a “final” document that gets worse by the keystroke, though, it takes some determination to decide to start over. It shouldn’t hurt so much, because all the work you did on the battered old document is still there in your brain. The work was the idea, the thought, the organization, the research: the writing was just a way of making it visible.

Another comfort in throwing things out is that the thing that comes after, the new piece, will be faster and easier to produce because the thinking has already been done. When I need to edit a document, whether one of my own or someone else’s, I try to start with an assessment of whether it has passed that point of no return: is this a document that is basically clear and straight, but needs a little TLC to shine? Or is it opaque and muddy, without a clear argument or story line? If the first, I go ahead and edit. But if it is the second, I start by opening a new blank document. I put the first document up on my screen as source material, but I write from scratch. Especially when a document has many authors and contributors, starting with a new document for the final version allows one voice to come through, and it allows the mistakes to stay behind.

Next time you find yourself lost in a document full of track changes, red squiggles, and comments in the margins, stop for a moment and consider: maybe the old girl has been tortured enough. Maybe she has served her purpose, and can be laid to rest, happy in the knowledge that she’s given birth to a bright new thing. The labor won’t last too much longer.

Structure

Gotta think outside the box. Every time I hear that phrase I squirm, because who, really, is trying to think inside a box? To be boring, unoriginal, square? No, we want to be free-form, unbound, curvilinear. We want to think thoughts no one has thought before. The thing is, a box can be awfully useful when you use it correctly. What that box can be, rather than a boundary, is a scaffold. A scaffold gives shape to something that isn’t yet built, or that doesn’t yet have enough strength to stand on its own. At work we’d call this scaffold a structure, or a process. The genius of a good structure is that it allows us to make only new mistakes, rather than the ones we (or someone else) have made before.

We have a set of processes we use to give structure to our work, to make sure that we all understand what steps are necessary for good outcomes. Glancing around my office at the posters, papers, and piles, I am reminded of three of them I’ve used: the venerable P-Process , The GATHER guide to contraceptive counseling, and this 9-step guide to pretesting. The strength in all of these products isn’t their brilliance (though they may indeed be brilliant) but in their reliability. If you follow these processes you can be sure you have covered your bases, laid your foundation, crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s…or whatever other cliché you can think of to mean doing things the right way. With a solid process you are free to rest on someone else’s experience and thinking for how you do something, and that frees your own thinking up to explore what you are going to do. It offers a box for you to stand on, rather than a box to shut you in.

It isn’t just formal processes with names and hyperlinks that offer scaffolding and structure. Examples and templates do the same thing. When I am looking to develop a new creative brief or a scope of work for radio spots I don’t start with an empty page: I ask around to find an example of one that my colleagues say is great, and I use it as a template. I may change the template, and I sometimes do ditch the structure entirely and create a one new if I think it would be useful. But I don’t start with a blank slate. I start with the box, then build.

I’ve always thought of my work world (communication, social science, development) as creative, flexible, and a little loose at the seams, while assuming that hard sciences were filled with admirable rigor, structure, and straight lines. My bedtime reading lately has been Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Create Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, where he first lays out the pressures in biomedicine that lead to sloppy science, and then describes a movement to have sets of processes to prevent shortcuts, detrimental practices, and mistakes. There is even an entire chapter on p-value, for the nerdily-inclined. (Here is a short NPR article about revamping standards for biomedical research, if you don’t want to read a whole book.)  It was somehow reassuring to see that other fields struggle with developing structures and following them, too.

I don’t know about biomedical researchers, but for us in the health communication world, our challenge isn’t a lack of structures and processes (there are a ton, all with names and colorful visuals) but that we resist them, preferring instead to think outside the box. We might try, instead, to use the box to give us a boost.

On Coffee

There are days when I go to bed dreaming of the first cup of coffee the next morning. It isn’t so much that I am addicted (which I certainly am) but that the ritual of coffee, the warm cup in my hand, the bitterness on my tongue, and the rustle of the morning newspaper in my ear all comfort me. As a Peace Corps Volunteer long ago I clung to my coffee ritual, carrying pounds of ground beans in my suitcase every time I traveled out of and back into the country because you couldn’t get coffee grounds in Turkmenistan. I made my coffee in a small stove-top espresso maker, added milk still warm from the milk lady’s pail, and listened to the BBC on a shortwave radio on my front stoop under the grape vines. These days, when I travel, I get up as early as I must to have an hour alone with a cup of coffee and the day’s news.

Coffee can ease and comfort our lives at work, too. There is the coffee machine where you bump into colleagues from across the organization, all seeking the same thing for the moment. You are all in the same boat when the creamer runs out, and there is something lovely about sharing that moment with your boss’ boss, or the intern whose name you didn’t know till now. There is the lure of coffee (and fruit and pastries, too) to sweeten the prospect of a meeting that might be a hard sell otherwise. You can get people to show up for many unpleasant or boring or necessary things if you put a cup of coffee in their hands. There is the excuse of a place to go, to walk to, when you’d like to have a talk with someone without the formality of the office: want to walk over to the coffee shop with me? And there is the kind gesture, the simple way of making someone else’s day a little better by checking to see if they would like a cup of coffee when they are in the midst of a proposal or paper or a thousand pages of collating.

I do realize that one could substitute tea or even soda for coffee, and that in the Mad Men days alcohol probably served some of these social lubrication functions. As usual, I suppose the key is knowing your audience and what they like. Regardless of what you drink, though, appreciate the power of the small gesture, and use it consciously to make connection. Next time you walk by the coffee machine, and you see someone you don’t know very well standing there waiting for their brew, maybe decide you’d really like a cup, too. And if the creamer is out maybe invite them to take a walk across the street to the coffee shop, instead. Oh, and while you are out, bring a cup back for the dad who was up all night with his sick kid. You’ll all feel better, and comforted, by the warmth in the cup.

What’s On Your Plate?

A couple of months ago I started to change my standard first-thing-in-the-morning question to my team from some variation of “how are you?” to “what are you working on today?” I do still ask how people are and see if they did anything fun over the weekend or whether their daughter is feeling better after that fever, of course, but I now add a specific question about what is on their to-do list for the day. I used to think that was a rude or prying question to ask my team, even those I directly supervise, as if I was implying they weren’t working hard enough.  I figured by checking in with folks in a general way I was giving them the opportunity to tell me what was going on, and if they had conflicts they wanted my help in resolving.

I was wrong. I’ve learned that by asking general questions about how someone is, or even about one specific project we are working on together, I set a course for the conversation that may steer it away from where it needs to go. We start at “how are you,” and end up ten minutes later never having made the pivot from talking about weekend happenings to work. While a daily check in with staff is about honest human connection (which may include talk of weekends, baby poop, and what’s on Hulu) it can be an effective management technique. But as opinionated as I am, I know that no one seeks me out for my parental or cultural insights: being helpful to my team means understanding what work someone is doing, and offering support and guidance. I will share my wisdom about baby poop only when asked.

I’ve been learning more and hearing more since I started asking “what are you working on today?” For example, I’ve found out that something I thought was finished was still lingering on someone’s plate, and that I was the one who was holding it up. I’ve found that someone I thought was overwhelmed with work was actually chomping on the bit for more to do. I’ve found that some folks can benefit from being asked that question because it forces them to slow down and say “yeah, what AM I doing today?” and make plans, rather than just reacting to what their email throws at them.

Who knew? “What are you working on today” is a useful tool in the management toolbox.

Well, apparently, the Harvard Business Review knew, and maybe I would have known it long ago had I bothered to read more management literature. I now get the HBR Management Tip of the Day by email, and I read today’s after taking a walk around the office to check in with staff. The tip is about asking the right questions, and Right Question #1 is “What are you doing today?” The next one is “Why are you doing the work you’re doing?” Hopefully it won’t take me another decade of management to work up to asking that one.