A colleague of mine was recently given feedback about their job performance and was informed that they “care too much”. Doesn’t really seem like much of a criticism; and if anything seems more like an indication of the low standards their workplace has for committment. Following this feedback my colleague went on a pre-planned long weekend and played with animals, visited good friends, ran a few road races and came back to work with a bit of perspective.
Is job involvement such a bad thing? Can there be such a thing as too much? A recentreview of the available information regarding job detachment- one’s ability to leave work at work and to mentally disengage with work while away from it- suggest that there are individual and institutional benefits for employees (and employers) who can successfully disengage from their work.
Individual benefits for the employee range from decreased psychological distress, less burnout, and greater job satisfaction once back at work. Institutional benefits for employers whose staff can become disengaged include increased worker proactive behavior – when a worker can forsee a challenge and preemptively engage in problem solving. Not surprisingly Sonnentag et al.’s review also highlights the u-shaped Yerkes-Dowdson phenomenon: too much disengagement and your likely to not care enough about work at all; too little and the benefits won’t translate.
A lot of disruptive companies will tout the 24/7 work ethic their employees have in their work. This ethic seems to translate into availability and commitment that other organizations can’t carry. Sonnentag’s findings suggest that not encouraging true breaks from work, wether it be overnight, over a weekend, or during a work day, will only hurt employee satisfaction, prodcutivity, and retention over the long haul. Is there anyway to have it both ways; an engaged and committed workforce that unplug fully so as to restore themselves in time for the next round?
Turns out there are some ways to cultivate this seemingly impossible contrast.
Not surprisingly culture matters; explicit messages about the expectations of employee off duty time and peer support for disconnection after hours can assist employees in setting more clear boundaries between work and play.
Absorbing activities can be fostered within the work enviroment or encouraged out of office. If you want to be sure your staff stops checking their emails or messages encourage them to engage in some physically or creatively demanding task on regular bases. A pick up game of basketball, a yoga class, an art collaborative can all be useful tools to signal the appropriateness of turning off periodically.
Once upon a time there was a debate about the burden vs. benefit of having workers who also juggled other roles (moonlighting, volunteer, parenting). Sonnentag’s review suggests that while work pressures can bleed over into other roles there is a value for the worker in assuming other roles as this may allow them to more clearly disconnect and return more engaged and effective.
If you are wondering how you might give yourself the psychological permission necessary to reap the benefits of job detachment for yourself you might try some strategies that have worked for others.
Disengage the smartphone. Putting it aside is not enough; find a space to place it far from view for at least an (awake) hour each day. Giving yourself the evening off is even better, as Sonnentag details in her review. And if you can’t disconnect every evening be sure to build in permissible off duty time slots into the week. Research shows your likely to be engaged and effective if you allow the downtime.
Immerse yourself in an engaging environment (Sonnentag calls it “fascination” inducing wherein effortless attention is possible). Wide open spaces or creatively rich environments facilitate detachment by drawing your attention to the present moment. It may be helpful to place cues in the areas where you are most likely to be drawn back into work mode that will help anchor your attention where you need it to be for a break.
A real trick? When you are feeling most pressured and overworked may be the most essential time to engage in these activities. If you are finding yourself over scheduled and drained it may pay unexpected dividends if you visit the museum or go for a hike in the midst of these times. The time away will recharge your focus in meaningful ways and may make it possible for you to execute priorities upon your return.
Seems like a good time to take my own advice and immerse myself into some long awaited Mad Men premier!
Sonnentag, S. (2012) Psychological detachment from work during leisure time: The benefits of mentally disengaging from work.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), p114-118.
A Long and Winding Road
I had breakfast yesterday with a woman that had been a neighbor when I was in high school. It was a particularly challenging time in my life and hers was one place that I could count on a friendly face, encouragement, and a break from the stress. Our lives went separate ways and we lost touch until she began searching for me online and tracked me down after a few email exchanges. There we were, enjoying each other in the present and sharing stories about the various paths our lives had taken. It got me thinking what it was about our earlier relationship that set the stage for such genuine enjoyment of each other even though our day to day contact had been limited when we were neighbors. And what of technology, and the role that played in allowing us to once again enjoy interactions with eachother? One theory, that of High Quality Connections, might explain the ways small relationship exchanges can yield such lasting and memorable connections.
High Quality Relationships (HQR, 2011) are connections we make with others that build us up, make us feel positively, and help us feel supported in our environments. There is an entire field of study devoted to understanding how to create organizational environments that facilitate such dyadic experiences. Stephens, Heaphy, and Dutton (2011) outline the various elements central to HQR. ”Other-awareness” is a term that refers to being aware of another person’s feelings, attitudes, and perceptions. Developing other awareness may allow an individual an advantage in their daily encounters; if you understand how others are feeling you are more likely to know when is the right time to offer support and when is the right time to seek support. The author’s offer new ways we might consider respect, support, and play as tools in enriching our daily interactions. The richer the interactions the more satisfied we are likely to be in multiple areas of our life. While the authors consider this in the context of in-person interactions, there remains uncertainty in what ways social media may be used for fostering HQR. Surely a DM from a close friend mid workday connects you to them and provides a sense of play. What might these tools do to office relationships, client interactions? What to make of the expanding tools in social media, and tools to focus our attention within social media information landscapes?
The newly launched ruustr allows you to set up search criteria that could be used to alert you when someone in your preferred network expresses a need. This in turn could be used to increase your “other awareness” and your knowledge of opportunities that present to engage in HQ interactions. At the end of the day social media tools don’t have to represent alienating factors in our relationships but could be used to heighten our engagement in the three factors that most influence HQR:
“The focus on respectful engagement, task enabling and playing shows us that small moves matter for building connection and that modes of interacting can transform people’s understandings of how they relate to others.” (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton., (2011), p17)
Respect, support, and playfulness create lasting and measurable impacts; we can use technology to deepen these connections. Doing so creates chances for even small exchanges to offer important and valuable connections. These simple but powerful ideas are worth cultivating for the chance they provide for us to share time and space with others. And the experience reminds me the powerful impact we can have when we just share a little of our time with others.
“The next sound I hear will result in you loosing your new toy.”
“That is it, your toy is mine for the rest of the day.”
And this was a great afternoon!
What might this exchange that is probably verbatim from a grownup (who shall remain nameless) in my home represent? How might we apply these lessons to managing people? Relationships matter. This might seem brainless but there is deeper and deeper neuroscience to support this conclusion, and what is true for a three year old is equally relevant for a 30 or 60 year old team member. Humans learn and grow only in relationship with others. The literature on attachment in children and learning outcomes is very clear, from early studies we know that learning occurs in the context of relationship. Not sure?
What was the last thing you learned completely outside the context of a relationship? Maybe you read something online and self tutored your way to a solution? Not so fast, reading ability eminates from a complex interaction that began when you learned to read. Whether it is phoneme recognition or a whole word approach you mastered your reading skills in connection with another person. You may have found the topic you recently read because of a friend’s recommendation (and sites like Social Reader are banking on this type of sharing) but the chances are very good that whatever you read recently you did because of relationships you value.
In the workplace there has been an approach to understanding this reciprocal interaction within relationships between a worker and a manager or peer: Relational Cultural Theory (RCT). This approach has been used to frame the interactions between individuals as opportunities for growth, not only of the subordinately positioned individual but also for the individual in the higher status position. RCT argues that benefits and learning occur for both parties when genuine relationship is experienced and nurtured. Genuine relationship requires authenticity by both parties. Without it, the real growth can not occur.
Consider a time when a close friend, in anger and frustration, has called you out for some disappointing behavior. Probably the experience was painful, and probably you became defensive. But if you compare this reaction on your part to how you felt when a near stranger, or a person who holds themselves aloof from you, critiqued your performance there is a strong likliehood that you were more able to take in the criticism from the close friend than you were the stranger. Authenticity is being honest about our feelings and vulnerable towards others. We tend to believe that this requires being nice or gentle but real relationship, and real learning, actually happens after a bump in the road. Smooth sailing in a relationship may seem like a goal but actual learning happens after interruptions in our relationships. These “ruptures”, as they are referred to in RCT, lead to opportunities to either abandon or repair a valued connection. If the relationship connection is repaired then the relationship will increase in relevance and importance to us. We will begin to internalize and consolidate information more quickly and deeply than we might otherwise do. In other words, when we seek to reconnect after a break in our relationship we are deepening not only the relationship but also our knowledge.
Doing this within work environments can benefit from reflective processes that support and equip leaders to recognize the value of relationship not only for what outputs it can leverage but for the processes it enables in and of itself. There have been a variety of ways in which RCT has been studied to examine mentorship, management, and performance improvement. If your leaders are showing genuine interest in others, spending time sharing stories about the weekend and using this to segue into ways in which follow ups might be executed more efficiently, chances are there are going to be tangible benefits for your organization. There might also be some fall out, as those being led feel slighted or cast aside in the rush of organizational growth. Use these tensions wisely, and authentically, and RCT argues it is possible to not only improve individual performance but to improve organizational functioning. Miss these cues and squander opportunities for repair and the investments into carefully nurtured relationship will never be recouped. Looking for advice on how to use the science of attachment and learning in your organization? I’d love to connect further, but first I have a toy I need to return.
Want to read more:
Dutton, J. (Ed.), & Ragins, B. (Ed.). (2007). Exploring positive relationships at work: Building a theoretical and research foundation. Mahwah, NJ US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014