I’ve always had a complex relationship with reading at work.
In previous roles, I felt uncomfortable reading books in front of my colleagues, concerned they would think I wasn’t really working.
Logically I knew that the research was necessary and that reading a physical book was no different than reading online, a practice everyone on my teams incorporated into their days.
Yet I found myself regularly apologizing to my team members — ones who didn’t care and weren’t paying attention to my work because they were preoccupied with their own. Finally, I took my books home and started reading in the evenings, “off the clock.”
I’ve recently thought about this decision because so much of my work at Ethos necessitates reading and research. To get to the best solutions for my clients, I have to explore more fields, philosophies, methodologies, and ideas than ever before. However, I usually don’t log the hours I spend reading and researching in my time tracker, unless I have a very specific reason why.
In both situations, the same thing is happening: since I’m focused on learning, I feel I’m making myself less available to other people. This induces guilt no matter how many times I hear from team members and clients alike that the critical thinking and research I bring to the table is a huge part of why they value me.
I’m not alone in this experience. In my work supporting the leaders of some the fastest growing companies in tech, I notice an extreme action bias… that only applies to other people.
We’re often not afraid as leaders to become stuck in our own initiatives if it means getting through our inboxes and being hyper-responsive to customers, employees, investors, and board members. That might be because we’re afraid of coming off as less hardworking, more selfish, or simply out-of-touch.
Here’s the paradox.
We need time and space to sit with problems and allow for them to open themselves up to us in new ways: that’s what gives us the vision that makes us leaders in the first place.
Otherwise, we end up buried in tactics and never rise to the level of insight and strategy. We need to be hyper-responsive to ourselves when it comes to making time for thought and inquiry.
“Inquiry doesn’t mean looking for answers, especially quick answers which come out of superficial thinking. It means asking without expecting answers, just pondering the question, carrying the wondering with you.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
When we’re stuck in available, responsive mode, we don’t give ourselves the time and space to come up with the ideas that makes people want our input in the first place.
Our biggest value as leaders is the insight we can bring to our companies and teams.
In the brain, insight is literally the process of maps in your brain recombining in a whole new way, leading to an “a-ha” moment.
To have the insight, we need to have access to information and the conditions in place to process that information differently.
David Rock designed the ARIA model to generate insights consistently and more often. It breaks down into four stages.
Here’s the thing. It’s really hard to use ARIA or generate insights if you’re always tuned into other people. You have to tune into yourself to get there.
Are you making enough time for yourself at work to do this?
Similarly, inquiry, which also generates insights and new approaches, requires the space to sit in a state of contemplation and wondering free from distraction. It’s not just that being “on” increases your distraction level; it also creates an environment where you feel you have to come up with answers right away.
Our problem-solving default often carries too much of an action bias to allow for measured consideration and inquiry-based exploration. To get to problem-solving mode in a more interactive setting, we need to do the independent inquiry work first.
The biggest recurring challenge I watch leaders face across my companies is that they don’t give themselves enough time to process feedback they receive.
In my case, I struggle with jumping into solution mode too quickly. Almost as soon as I’ve received feedback, I’m already launching into a laundry list of possible strategies for fixing the problem.
But here’s the thing — sometimes there really isn’t a problem. I shouldn’t take the feedback. Or, because I am so focused on reducing conflict or alleviating tension, I try to solve for the wrong problem. I haven’t taken time to digest the information, identify its root cause, reflect on what it means outside of the isolated example, and then find solutions.
When receiving feedback, an action bias can limit you in determining the best outcomes and the processes that lead to them.
This isn’t the only challenge when receiving feedback without taking time to reflect before responding. Our brains process feedback as dangerous, often generating a threat response.
As David Rock shows in Your Brain at Work:
“Exclusion and rejection is physiologically painful. A feeling of being less than activates the same brain regions as physical pain.”
Unfortunately, feedback often feels like exclusion or rejection, especially when delivered unexpectedly or during a time of transition when everyone feels less sure of themselves and less trusting of others. Consequently, leaders receiving feedback may be more inclined to shut it down, lash out, or ignore it completely, diminishing trust in their relationships and missing an opportunity for growth.
It’s important for leaders to take the feedback as data and then separate themselves from the social situation to privately reflect on what they’ve heard. This allows for a deeper understanding of the forces at play and how to address them than reacting in the moment.
In other words, the brain often believes it has all the answers right away, even when it doesn’t. Cultivating an awareness of this phenomenon helps up get to better outcomes.
The world’s best athletes, musicians, and thinkers all dedicate time to recovery after periods of peak performance. But as leaders, we can feel pressure not to take the rest we need believing that if we do, everything will fall apart, the people who work with us will believe in us less, or we will disappoint ourselves.
Yet, being a strong leader requires engagement in every conversation and every decision we make.
Burnout is real, and it leads to mistakes, conflicts, and unnecessary failure.
“Optimal engagement comes from alternating between moments of intense focus and moments of rest and renewal,” write Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp in Start Here.
As we’ve seen in insight and inquiry, one of the major assets we bring to our teams is insights, which require tremendous energy to produce. When we don’t take time from sprints and keep going — usually to give time to others– we hurt them and ourselves.
Recovery looks different for every leader. One of my clients encourages his leaders to leave work after a major victory, even if that means leaving at 1:00 pm on a Tuesday.
Personally, I cap the hours I allow myself to work, and I structure rest or “alone” periods into my day.
The main questions to ask to make sure you’re getting that rest and renewal necessary for peak performance are:
Dedicating time in your schedule to recovery — not through mindless emailing or administrative to-do’s, but actual logging off and checking out — is necessary to strengthen your abilities as a leader.
About a year ago, SimplyBe Agency — an innovative personal branding agency (that later became an Ethos client) — set out to understand who I was by talking to other people about me. In the process, they interviewed those closest to me, including my direct reports.
I was shocked to hear what came back. The people in my life cited how engaged I was in conversation and how much time I spent on learning as what made me special.
They didn’t mention my productivity or speed in finishing projects. They didn’t even mention how many times I’d helped them complete an initiative or fix a bug. Instead, they focused on the presence I gave and the knowledge I shared.
And so now, as I uncomfortably log the time I spent reading and researching for a new offering, I remind myself that sometimes the people you give the most time to value you more when you give that time to yourself.