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.



Empathy is one of those traits we think of as a gift – you have empathy, just as you have your father’s eyes and your mother’s wit. Empathy is a noun, a thing, a trait, or an emotion you feel deep in your gut. This can be true for people to whom empathy comes naturally, or in situations where empathy is easy. But often empathy is hard or distasteful – who wants to empathize with a bully, an abuser, or a self-centered jerk?  In difficult situations, or with difficult people, sometimes empathy fails.

The thing is that empathy isn’t as fixed as eye color. It is mutable, changeable, and malleable. It can be treated as a skill, and grown. We can practice empathy, approaching it like a verb rather than a noun. Treat empathy as an action and you will have recourse to practice, growth, and improvement when empathy fails you.

Why would you even bother to build empathy for difficult people, especially in the workplace? Empathy helps us understand other people’s desires and motivations. It isn’t necessarily about feeling someone’s pain, or even feeling sympathy, but about insight: if you understand someone’s emotions you can manage them and get what you need out of your interactions, which is the key importance of empathy in leadership.

There are two major ways I think empathy comes into my work, at least. The first is in managing my relationships with colleagues at all levels. The second is in my technical work in health communication.

Empathy as a Management Skill: Understanding most of our colleagues most of the time is our standard setting for empathy. It gets us through most of our daily interactions with meetings, emails, and hallway conversations. It is the difficult situations – like the power struggles I wrote about earlier – where empathy could get us through if we were able to access it. But the kinds of emotions we feel in difficult situations often slam the door shut to empathy. Anger and contempt are both destroyers of empathy. It is hard to hold both anger and empathy for someone in our head at the same time. Try it: imagine the last time you were furious at someone, and how it felt to you. Did you feel much empathy? Try, in your mind, dispassionately dropping the anger and clinically imagining what that other person felt. It’s should be easier. Here are some other thoughts on how to access and practice empathy at work.

Make believe. Empathy and imagination are connected – while we experience empathy as an emotion, and imagination as conscious ideas, we can use imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. First, do your best to consciously drop your anger or contempt. It may be justified, but it isn’t helpful for this exercise. Then imagine what the other person might be thinking and feeling. You don’t have to agree, validate, or enjoy it. Just imagine it. Identify what you think they might think or feel, and you can use that knowledge in management, negotiation, or feedback.

Mirror. If you find yourself sitting in your office after a difficult meeting going “what the hell just happened,” but you can’t identify what the other person was doing and feeling, you can try to understand by using your body. Our faces and bodies are connected to our emotion centers in our brains, and the connection goes both ways: what you feel shows in your face, but you can also make yourself fleetingly feel something by making a face. This is partly how empathy works in person. You can see it with little kids: if you scrunch up your face as if you are crying, a toddler will sometimes mirror you and truly cry. When you smile, they smile back. The mirroring and facial expression triggers the emotion. After a difficult interaction, try recreating the other person’s body language or facial expression – you may actually, for a moment, feel what they were feeling.

Ask. Pretty simple, really. Try not to sound too touchy-feely about it, but just ask: “That was a pretty difficult meeting yesterday. How did you feel about it? I didn’t understand how everyone at the table was feeling.”

Empathy in Technical Work: The programs I manage are health communication programs, largely. Good health communication programming requires deeply understanding people and communities that are radically different from you. You can’t make good decisions without understanding those people, and you can’t understand them with empathy alone, because you can’t know or imagine how someone in a different culture or context feels and understands things all the time – their responses to events and information might be very different than yours. So we replace personal empathy with science to understand other people’s emotions, desires, and motivations through research like surveys, focus groups, interviews, and structured observation. It’s kind of like AI for empathy.

Once we have used science (i.e. our intellect) to understand how other people see, understand, know, and feel, we can use our empathy again for the art of designing interventions. Once you know enough to envision someone else’s shoes, really understand the fit and feel and shape of those shoes, you can use your empathy to try them on.


Bulldogs don’t always play nice. My bulldog is especially bad; he has been indulged, the behaviorist tells us, and believes he is king. My son is working particularly hard to make the dog a better citizen. Together they try to play ball, the baseball-crazy boy and the chew-toy-crazy dog. The problem is that when my son throws the ball he wants the dog to chase the ball then drop it so it can be thrown again. The dog wants to seek out and dominate the ball, crushing it in his bulldoggy jaws. If my son tries to tug the ball out of the dog’s mouth the dog clamps down harder, and nothing is getting a ball out of a determined bulldog’s jaws. Stalemate.

They’ve made progress, boy and dog, by ceasing the tug of war. My son started carrying treats in his pocket, and handing one over every time he asked for the ball. He then started swapping in some lavish praise instead of a treat. There are times when the dog seems to feel that the game of fetch itself is reward enough, and he drops the ball simply so it can be thrown again. And then there are times when his bulldog nature overwhelms his training and he runs off with the ball to gnaw it gleefully in a corner. He’s a work in progress.

Surely you see where I am going with this. Many of us have a bulldog nature, and all of us have at least a bit of the bulldog in us. When someone tries to take a ball from us, we tug back. Doesn’t matter if the ball is worth the struggle; it is impulse to resist giving in. The problem is that usually the ball isn’t worth the struggle, or the ball gets torn up in the process, or (most often) at the end of the tug of war, no matter who ended up with the ball, we have created an atmosphere of power and dominance rather than one of cooperation and play.

This tug of war dynamic plays out as a power struggle in the workplace all the time. The key to understanding when a conflict is a tug of war is understanding whether it is, at its heart, about power and control, and a person’s fear of losing those things. When we get to tugging over control everything else falls away, and the actual thing we are trying to control (the ball, the decision, the data, the product) becomes beside the point. If you find that you are tugging, and the harder you tug the more resistance you feel, consider that you are not engaged in a struggle for all things good and just, but in a struggle to be right. Let us assume that you are, in fact, right. Doesn’t matter. In that moment, when you realize you are in a tug of war, drop the ball.

Alright. So you’ve dropped the ball and you are no longer tussling over which budget should pay for the trip to Timbuktu. No, you aren’t tussling, because you dropped the ball and now your colleague is gleefully in the corner gnawing on his win. Even if you didn’t agree that your budget should pay for the trip to Timbuktu, you’ve tabled the issue for the time being, and that feels like a win for him and a loss for you. That feels pretty rotten. Resist the urge to go after that slobbery ball, and try something else instead.

The best antidote I know of for bulldog behavior is to understand what someone really wants most, and give it to them if you can (sometimes that “someone” is you. Sometimes you are the boy, and sometimes you are the bulldog). Some people want recognition, or applause, or even domination. Most people also want their projects to work well. Understanding what is going to motivate someone else to drop the ball is an act of pretty radical empathy. Putting yourself in the headspace of someone you are wrestling with isn’t fun or easy, but it pays enormous rewards if you can do it. Ask yourself: what does she really want? What really drives her? (Or, alternatively, what really drives me?) When you have an answer, you need to figure out how to get her that thing, because then she’ll drop the ball and you can get back to work. Some things you can try to end the tug of war:

  • Treats: People will often stop tugging when there is a reward for doing so. If you know your tug-of-war partner is motivated by recognition, hand them some. Appreciation? Dish it out. Maybe he really will pay for that trip to Timbuktu out of his budget if he is recognized publicly for doing it. Find something the other person loves, and offer it if you can. Or agree to pay for the trip out of your own budget (give up the ball) and take pleasure in your colleague’s appreciation.
  • Distraction: You can get someone to drop a ball when you offer another thing to chew on: replace the ball with something of equal value. “Gosh, Bulldog, I’m not sure whether I can manage the Tashkent budget when I’m so focused on Timbuktu, and Tashkent is really hot these days. Could you take it over?” If Timbuktu and Tashkent really are both interesting and important, simply identifying that there are TWO balls of equal value in play can diffuse the tugging on both sides.
  • Control: Some people are so motivated by being in control, or being right, that nothing else will do for them. It’s galling, but its reality. You can allow someone like this to be in control while still feeling confident in your ability to get the outcome you need: this is influence, and it is powerful. You could suggest to someone like this that they be in control of implementing a process to make a decision (or whatever) but offer to write up the process for them. And if you design the process well, you can ensure your voice will be heard.
  • Structure: Sometimes controlling behavior is a response to a vacuum of leadership or clear process on a team, and so bringing those things can help. Chaos is uncomfortable, and many people will understandably react to chaos by trying to take control of it. You can ignore the power play and focus instead on bringing structure, processes, and predictability to the problem. With everyone feeling secure the need for control may abate.

Giving up the ball, working so hard to find ways to get someone else to also drop the ball, can be exhausting and demoralizing if you let it. There are a couple of redeeming ways to consider this, though:

One, the greater good. You can remind yourself that you do all of this because you care about the work, and the work matters. If the work is going well, and you are facilitating it, you can trust that somewhere, somehow, the issues of control and credit will sort themselves out.

Two, if you are of a more cynical nature, you can take pleasure in knowing you have outsmarted a bulldog, gotten him to exchange a slobbery ball for a liver treat, and he still thinks he got the better end of the bargain. There is, indeed, some pleasure in that. Play on.


Last night I dreamed I was standing in my kitchen in bare feet surrounded by broken glass, calling rather pathetically for my husband to come help me. The dream also featured a swiftly rising river and an old man who lived in a hobbit house. It was a dream, okay? This morning, standing in my mercifully glass-free kitchen waiting for my coffee to brew I decided the dream wasn’t about my marriage or old men in hobbit houses, but about work.  That broken glass represents all the ways I can mess up some pretty fantastic processes and relationships in my attempt to fix some rather glaring challenges. The hobbit house was just for atmosphere.

This is the challenge of managing teams and programs well: they are complex, and we risk stepping on broken glass when we make changes, doing damage we didn’t intend while simply trying to move forward through a challenging environment. The complexity comes primarily from the fact that teams and programs are made up of people, and people are dynamic things. You cannot always predict how a change here will impact a relationship there, or how a process introduced today will impact an output next month. You try to predict these things, but the reality of complexity is that you can’t fully understand the system well enough to play-out all the results – desired and undesired – of your actions.

It is tempting to think of our projects and the teams that run them as machines. Projects have tasks and processes and outputs, things machines handle pretty well. But I’m not sure in the history of people we have ever benefitted from thinking of people as machines, so I am going to resist that temptation. I think we should instead envision teams and projects as ecosystems, and ourselves as ecologists who try to manage them. NPR was reporting this morning on Zika prevention in Florida, and the proposed release of two different kinds of mosquitos: one, genetically modified Aedes aegypti males whose offspring die; and two, normal male mosquitos infected with a naturally occurring (harmful to insects) bacteria whose offspring also die. The people of Florida seem more comfortable with the second option, and I can understand why: there is less mucking about with things we don’t understand, and thus the potential for deep and unanticipated blowback is lessened. They hope.

My particular environmental challenge is less dire than the introduction of genetically modified mosquitos, but it does involve two continents, over a dozen people, and at least twice that number of interacting, valid priorities. And opinions. There is no shortage of opinions. Like the ecologists, entomologists, and epidemiologists looking at Zika in Florida, I have to consider how my actions will impact not just the one thing I touch, but the things that thing touches, and the things those things touch, today and next week. And I should act fast, because our work matters. But I should be patient, because one shouldn’t act until one understands the environment and the problem. Sometimes that waiting, that observation of the problem (the local flora and fauna, I suppose) is the hardest and most important part: doing nothing but watch while your people struggle with complexity. Thankfully this is just management, not the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Keys. And if I do it wrong, and make decisions that have unanticipated impacts, I can probably call for my team and they’ll help me sweep up the broken glass.


Not long ago I wrote a polemic against criticism. One might therefore think that I am a fan of criticism’s opposite, praise. But I am not. Praise, in my mind, is as damaging as criticism in the long run, even if it is more pleasant in the moment. That is because praise and criticism arise from the same root: they are both judgements passed on a person’s worth based on what they do. I’ve got no interest in being in the people-judging business.

Praise isn’t the same as encouragement, recognition, or appreciation. Those are actions that spring from a simple desire to communicate positive regard, often by describing how your actions have positively impacted me. They are commentary, or feedback. Praise is more akin to actions like adulation and flattery, which spring from my desire to shape your behavior toward me by communicating my approval of your actions. Praise, in the end, is usually more about the needs of the praise-er than the praised. Because praise feeds our sense that people like us, admire us, or approve of us, it can be addictive, and it can send us on a hopeless quest to find enough of it to validate our sense of self-worth.

So what, practically, is praise? Praise comments on someone’s characteristics and sounds like this:

“You are so smart.”

“You always do that so well.”

“You are a super performer.”

Praise doesn’t leave any room for failure. If I have been praised as smart, or a good writer, or strong, there is no option for me but to be those things or risk losing my essential being. You have told me I am smart. What becomes of me when I am not? What will you think of me? But if I can’t risk being silly, inarticulate, or weak, I will not be able to try things that are now beyond me. Just as with criticism, praise inhibits risk taking in order to protect one’s sense of self.

Encouragement or appreciation sound different because they comment not on your inner self, your essential nature, but on your effort or actions or products. In other words, encouragement and appreciation comment on things that you can modify, whereas praise comments on things that are inherent.

Encouragement sounds like this:

“That analysis was very insightful.”

“That report was well written and clear.”

“That workshop went really well because of all the hours you put into it.”

“Thank you.”

I am not arguing that we should purge praise from our repertoire of reactions and interactions. When you see someone excel at something hard, and spontaneously give them a high five and say “You were awesome up on that stage!” there is a sincerity that blunts the negative elements of praise. The next time the person takes the stage, though, perhaps your response afterwards is a big smile and “your delivery was very clear. I totally understand quantum field theory now.”

A Leaky Boat

At my Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony I gave a speech in Russian in front of the ambassador. I had written the speech, painfully, at the end of two months of language immersion. It was one sheet of paper long, written out phonetically in Roman script because I couldn’t yet read in Cyrillic. When I got up to stand at the podium in front of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, the trainers, and the ambassador, I looked down at my carefully written words and found they were gone, the paper made transparent by the light embedded in the podium shining up from below.

Blind panic. I tilted the paper, held it up close to my face, and found I could make out most of the words. I made my way through the speech haltingly, trying to understand or remember what I had intended to say. My Russian wasn’t solid enough to improvise. I made it to the end alive (though I wanted to die) and went back to my seat. After the ceremony the Ambassador came and shook my hand and said, “If I had been you, Lisa, I would have made them give me an easier speech.”

So I don’t like public speaking. I do not like it in the rain. I do not like it in a train. I do not like it here or there. I do not like it anywhere.

It seems, given my antipathy toward public speaking, that this is an area for me to grow. This is how we often define areas of growth for ourselves and our colleagues and maybe even our kids and others we love: identify the weakest point, the most tender spot, and mark it for improvement. So, I should become a better (less anxious) public speaker and challenge myself to do it more often because then I will be more complete as a professional.

This, people, is weakness-based approach to human growth: to grow you have to find your weaknesses, your fears, your gaps. It is like we are leaky boats, and we must find and plug our holes. Yeah, maybe, if the boat is going down. But if your boat is moving well, skimming the surface at a decent clip, and the bit of water you take on is easily bailed…should you really be taking your focus from getting the oars in and out of the water cleanly in order to patch the leaks? Let me clarify here that you hate patching leaks, and you like hauling on the oars.

We may be leaky boats, all of us. But rather than focusing on that, we could instead use a strengths-based approach to human growth (or making our boat go). What goes right in our boat? What makes it move, what brings us joy? We are good at the things we are good at for a reason. We grow faster and higher in skills we already are excel at and enjoy than we do in skills we dislike and for which we have no natural affinity.

To stretch the metaphor, a weakness-based approach to growth can turn you into a service-able rowboat with no leaks. But a strengths-based approach can make you a sleek racing boat with some manageable leaks. Which would you rather be?

Maybe more importantly, I think a strengths-based approach to growth leads us to make better career choices. Say I had decided, after my debacle in front of the ambassador, that I was going to do everything I could to become a better speaker: join the Toastmasters Club, say yes to every speaking opportunity, take positions where public speaking was a frequent part of the job. I would be a better public speaker today, no doubt. But perhaps I would have ended up doing work that wasn’t a comfortable fit for my personality, skills, and character, and I think I would be less happy. I’d take less joy in my work (and make less headway) because I’d be fighting against my natural tide.

Over the years I have gradually pushed back against the well-meaning advice to “get out of my comfort zone” in order to grow. It’s not that it is always bad advice – it can be exactly what we need when there is an uncomfortable place standing between where we are and where we want to go. But there is no point in getting out of your comfort zone just for the sake of it, for patching leaks just because they are there. Sometimes it is more productive to dig deep into your comfort zone and see what good and productive things you can find there. Essentially, I think we grow most when we grow in the direction of our strengths, rather than of our weaknesses.

It has been 20 years since I stood at that podium and my speech disappeared. I now always carry my notes in a notebook for my presentations, in case the light in the podium shines from below. But mostly I don’t worry that I am not a great public speaker. I do it anyway, when I should.  I know that my voice will begin to shake at the 2 minute mark, and that it will stop by the 8 minute mark. Knowing I’ll be nervous and my voice will shake doesn’t bother me too much anymore, because I try only to talk about the things that I feel strongly about, and then it doesn’t matter if I have my notes or not – I’ll get through it. I never did patch those leaks, but I do okay by hauling on the oars.

Working Offsite

If a woman works in a forest, and no one sees her work, is she really working? Okay, silly question, but it gets at why many of us hesitate to take or approve offsite work. To understand whether that woman in the forest is really working, it helps to have common understanding of the word “working.”

How can there even be a question about what “working” means? Well, I can think of two ways to define it.

You Know It When You See It: Or, the Pornography Test. This is the approach I think most of use to determine whether someone is working at the office. Basically, the definition of work is engaging in tasks that are related to your job description. Under this definition, you are working if you are doing stuff that appears in a daily task list or calendar: going to meetings, writing things, and reading things. There are also actions that look like work, but may or may not be work: walking around the halls, talking at the coffee machine, staring pensively out the window. We all acknowledge that those actions may or may not be actual work, or further actual work, but that if done at the office are reasonable ways to spend some time every day.

Work is Defined by Outcomes: Or, the Show Me the Money Test. This is not a common definition of “working” in most traditional offices, including mine. With this definition, I know you have been working not because I saw you working, but because I saw the result of your work. The definition might read something like delivering things (goods, services, ideas) that are in your job description. If you deliver the goods, you are working. Time, and whether I saw you put in the time, has nothing to do with it. Spend your day in your PJs with your bunny slippers, do five loads of laundry, cook dinner for an army, and it’s all good as long as your stuff gets done.

These two ways of defining “working” each have their strengths and weaknesses. The strength of the “You Know It When You See It” approach is that it is simple. Did you show up and put in your hours? Check. You are working. You might not be working well, of course, but at least you are present and accounted for. The drawback is that you might be spending your time doing stuff that is not actually useful work. You may have a tendency to fall down rabbit holes and, like Alice, wake up to find you’ve taken a very long trip through some not very practical places.

The strength of the “Work is Defined by Outcomes” approach is that it is pretty clear if a deliverable is delivered. Yes? You are working. No? You aren’t. The drawback is two-fold: one, sometimes work isn’t delivered because of reasons other than lack of work, and two, you have to be able to identify concrete deliverables in order to say you have delivered them, and we don’t always do that. Another thing to think about when it comes to the “Work is Defined by Outcomes” approach is fairness. There are tasks that take me an awfully long time, just because of the way I am wired, that take other people no time at all, and vice versa. One of the beauties of defining work by outcome is that, presumably, when you have delivered your outcomes you can stop working without guilt. But if it takes me a day to do something that takes you half a day to do, is it fair to then let you stop working for the remainder of the day while I keep slogging away? I don’t know.

When it comes to working offsite, the “You Know It When You See It” approach isn’t practical. Yes, we can tell if someone is available by whether they are signed into Skype, answer emails, and dial into the conference call. But really, we have very little ability to see if someone is working, so we should have a way for people to show they are working. That leaves the “Show Me The Money” approach. The hardest part is defining deliverables, and agreeing upon what should constitute a good day’s work. I’ve given an example of turning a task into a concrete deliverable below. It’s hard. We should wrestle with it.

A side note here: The issue of defining work, and measuring work, isn’t the only one that determines whether offsite work is a good idea. While there are lots of technological gizmos that make working offsite possible, time together in the flesh, face to face, still has benefits. We are social animals, and we haven’t yet figured out how to use avatars to have meaningful interactions in virtual work worlds. Until then, we need to spend time together to build relationships. And there are tasks that must be done in person still, and we do a disservice to the work if we try to make offsite work fit work that is most efficiently done in a central office.

So, given all this, here are some thoughts on planning productively for offsite work. I don’t mean for being offsite more or less full time – that is an issue for another day. But for those of us who want to work offsite a day here and there, or a day or two a week, in a job that is otherwise on-site, we can make it work better if we keep in mind the definitions of “working.” I usually try to do a few things with my offsite time:

  • Consolidate work that is best done offsite, and take a day. Work that is best done offsite differs between people. I like to write offsite, because I can have long chunks of time without interruptions, and a day without my hated commute is a happy day, and I’m more productive when I’m feeling happy and grateful. The end result is that I am better able to produce long or complicated documents when I am out of my office. I will sometimes plan my week by finding a day when I don’t have any in-person meetings to attend and blocking it out to write offsite, and then I’ll save my long writing or editing projects for that day.
  • Define the work and its deliverables. This is useful whether you are working onsite or off, but I think it is essential when offsite. Make a list: what are you going to produce today? Say you are going to be offsite because the bulk of your day will be spent participating in a webinar. That isn’t a deliverable, but if you can’t define what will come out of that webinar, maybe you shouldn’t be spending your time on it. The discipline of turning something like a webinar into a deliverable can help you figure out whether it is worth your time. The deliverable may be something like notes to share what you learned with your team, or passing a certification quiz, or making a certain point during the online discussion. Make a list of deliverables for the day you’ll be offsite, and share it with your boss when you ask for approval to work from home (or from the forest. We can’t see you, remember?).
  • Banish temptations. The allure of offsite work is getting your work done on your own time and in your own way. But it can be dangerous when “in your own way” means you get less done offsite than you would have onsite, despite your carefully crafted to-do list with clearly defined deliverables, because you give into whatever temptation there is at home: taking a nap, walking the dog, binge-watching the Great British Baking Show. Name your temptations, and then forbid them. Make some rules for yourself, and if you can’t follow them, offsite work probably isn’t wise. Save yourself from yourself, and head to the office.


Giving Work Away

Delegation wears two faces. There is the face everyone likes, where good and challenging work is delegated from more senior staff to more junior staff, and junior staff are mentored through the difficult bits. But there is also delegation where boring mindless tasks are shifted from more senior staff to more junior staff, and junior staff suffer through work their supervisors could have done themselves.

Have I set it up enough to make you feel what “good” and “bad” delegation looks like? I hope not. Because both of those faces of delegation are necessary and right. We need them both. Let me illustrate why.

The first, happy face of delegation serves two purposes: it gets work done, and it builds the skills of the person to whom the work is delegated. It also makes the delegate-ee feel happy and engaged. It can make the delegator feel that they are doing their job well, mentoring more junior staff, and building capacity and range on their team. Good feelings all around. So what is the drawback to this kind of delegation?

Time, and the allocation of people’s time to its best possible use.

Imagine “The Work We Have to Do” as a Venn diagram:

delegation Venn diagram

Black box: The Work, as a whole, that a team (or two people here for simplicity) are responsible for.

Red circle: A more senior person, here just called “Senior,” who by dint of years and training and trial-by-fire has a pretty large skill set that covers most of The Work.

Blue circle: A more junior person (“Junior”) whose skill set is smaller, but still significant. Junior also has some skills that Senior does not.

How to get the work done? The sections of The Work that are covered only by Junior must be done by Junior (“Must Delegate”). The sections that are covered only by Senior must be done by Senior (“Can’t Delegate”). That leaves the central, overlapping section (“May Delegate”) as the entire possible world of tasks to consider delegating. What is in this overlapping section? In addition to overlapping technical or managerial tasks that either staff member could do, this section also includes tasks most people consider unpleasant: finding stuff, following up on stuff, filing stuff. They are no one’s idea of a good time, and we can tend to dismiss these tasks as undignified. No one minds when their supervisor delegates a challenging piece of work that shows trust in their technical prowess. Most of us do mind when our supervisor delegates a piece of work that the supervisor could easily have done themselves and that neither of us like doing.

Imagine that Junior and Senior are working together on a proposal for a new grant. Junior has been asked to write the first draft, and is doing a fabulous job. Every day, though, Senior will ask Junior to do something administrative like find her the phone number of a contact, chase down a lost citation, or send out the call-in codes for the conference call. These requests are baffling to Junior: why doesn’t Senior respect her enough to do those things herself, since they are so quick and simple? It takes time to even explain the tasks to Junior, time Junior thinks could be better spent simply getting the frigging task done. And hasn’t she been proving her worth by her good work on the first draft?

What Senior is doing, though, is shedding the work that she can shed so that she can do the work that no one else can. If you look at the diagram of The Work, you can see that Senior covers a goodly portion of it that Junior can’t. There are only so many hours in the day, and so anything that Senior cannot delegate and does not have time to do herself doesn’t get done. If Junior has any time in her schedule, Senior should delegate all delegate-able tasks to free up time for Senior to do what only she can do. It isn’t a question of respect, or trust, or even power.

This is a very utilitarian approach to delegation and work, and while it is useful from the perspective of getting work done, it isn’t enough. A team where all work is delegated in a purely utilitarian way will be an unhappy one, where junior staff aren’t given a chance to grow and senior staff can begin to feel that delegation is a perk they are entitled to. If that happens, the team will be in trouble when delegation doesn’t flow from junior to senior when needed – there are times when the junior staff is the one who is more overloaded, in which case the senior staff should take from junior staff tasks that fall into the “May Delegate” zone of the Venn diagram, regardless of their desirableness.

On the flip side, a team where delegation is done only to grow the skill set of junior staff, and senior staff hesitate to delegate less-desirable tasks for fear of making their staff unhappy, or risk looking like they are making jerky power moves, won’t get as much work done as they could. The (presumably) higher-paid and higher-skilled senior staff is using time doing delegate-able tasks that they should be using to do non-delegate-able tasks, and that is wasteful.

So where is the balance? Search me. I think the best we can do is acknowledge there is a balance and a trade-off and make decisions about delegation with full consciousness of those trade-offs. Today, when I have a little more time, I may send out my own call-in codes and spend some time thinking big thoughts with a curious and ambitious younger colleague. Tomorrow, though, when all hell breaks loose on that proposal, that same colleague may be finding flip chart paper and buying new markers. I hope she’ll understand why.