This event was in the series: “Promoting workplace wellbeing” and followed on from the talk given by Tom Heron in October 2011.
The Business Matters Trust is very grateful to Anderson Strathern for hosting the Panel lunchtime talk and providing a buffet lunch.
In Madeleine Allen and David Fraser we had two high-powered movers and shakers and thinkers with a wealth of business experience behind them, e.g.:
Madeleine: a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Master Practitioner and Trainer who works at board level focussing on leadership and communication skills. Previously a Director with PricewaterhouseCoopers. A change management specialist.
David: Author of “Relationship Mastery: a Business Professional’s Guide”. Three degrees (though he’ll not thank me for mentioning this). Chartered Engineer. Qualified commercial mediator. NLP Master Practitioner. A rich and varied corporate career. Now runs programmes on business relationship skills.
Neither person was comfortable being termed an expert. When introducing them, I was at such pains to avoid that word that I completely understated their credentials.
In the time available, Madeleine and David wanted to be brief and to the point, to give us maximum value in our short lunch hour. We were impressed by their frankness, honesty and “straight-talking” as one would say in America – this was much appreciated by all. They spoke from a lot of experience and with authority.
Unfortunately, my technical skills are all too modest and I failed properly to record the session. I apologise for that. Here at least is a flavour of the Panel event – some of what I personally came away with, what I for my own part “heard”.
My 5 “takeaways” were:
Message 1: control
We have more control over our information overload problem than we think. We can and must take responsibility for our end of the information flow, for in one sense we invite, we elicit what comes to us, if only by being passive and as it were putting up a sign saying “open”. Think of the e-zines we’ve subscribed to, the interest groups we’ve elected to get feeds from. We have control over more than we think.
Message 2: focus
It is not only helpful but imperative to go back to basics – to what Tom Heron advocated in the first Handling Information Overload lunchtime:
- Revisit your job description and goals
Message 3: be assertive
We can put down markers with our bosses and colleagues, yes even with our clients – we can set boundaries. We can push back against an unreasonable onslaught of emails, e.g. from a boss who issues us with dozens of these in a morning, especially if they are contradictory or confusing.
Message 4: communicate effectively
To receive or send information is not necessarily to communicate. We shouldn’t assume that because we’ve sent an e-mail the message has been delivered. True communication is a two-way process. To communicate effectively, you may need to pick up the phone or see a person face to face. Even then, you have to actively listen. Don’t be a victim of sending and receiving mere information: relate in person! Focus on building the relationship / rapport.
Message 5: take courage and think positively
It takes courage to push back at an over-demanding boss or a manipulative colleague. But you should go for it. We can push back, and do so respectfully. Yes, much of the time we may experience stress, but instead of saying to ourselves: “I’m getting stressed out of my mind by this!” say rather: “I can regain calmness and I will stay calm.”
Now, here verbatim are the 5 questions that attendees sent us in advance, passed to our panellists completely anon of course. I’ve covered above a lot of what the panellists conveyed in their answers, but below I add some further comments against the various questions:
Q 1: It would be useful if the panel could comment on overload from social networking sites. As well as LinkedIn, there are various [here the person stated the name of their company] social networking sites I belong to, and each of them act as forums for exchange of ideas and information. They each have a number of different groups within them that I need to belong to, and from which I get e-mail updates. It’s difficult trying to keep on top of them (and making an effort to contribute to them) – as well as keeping on top of ordinary e-mail.
Part of the answer:
One panellist had counted the number of pieces of information received at 11:17 the previous day: x number of emails, y of tweets, z instant messages, m Facebook notifications and n text messages. Impossible in reality to take all those communications in – that in itself would be a day’s work. So what do we do? How do we manage? Work smart. Be focused. Be selective – you have to be. It’s okay not to read all the communications. You can’t give them all your full attention. Don’t feel guilty about this. Sometimes the cause of info overload is the way we ourselves operate. We spread ourselves too thinly. If a particular piece of info doesn’t help you get the result you want, ignore it.
Change your mind-set. If you are struggling to constantly keep up, it’s exhausting – like running on a treadmill all day without having time to rest or recover. Not sustainable.
About being selective: How to conquer the problem of having to constantly answer every email/message? One solution, and this might sound flippant at first, is to sign up to as many groups as you can so that it’s just not physically possible to keep up with them all. That way you’ll get used to the problem and the new way we need to be working in the modern world.
The stock market was used as an analogy for information overload: it’s not possible to earn every pound on the entire stock market. You can for sure earn money, but you need to be selective with your trades. It’s the same with information. Be selective. Focus your attention on the areas that give you the best return.
Work – life balance is a major issue: this should be called life balance. Do a serious review. Make conscious decisions. Is the work I’m doing what I signed up for? Does it match the job spec? Am I spending more time earning money, rather than being with my family? Make conscious decisions and stick to them. Nobody wants on their gravestone: “I wish I’d written more email”.
Q 2: An issue that I struggle with is: I have a constant in-flow of emails from one of my bosses (130 one day) about multiple different matters. However, I never get all the information I need or I have extremely unclear / contradictory instruction which leaves me running in circles and not able to make the best use of my time and in turn their time. When I email back asking for more information, I sometimes get sarcastic and condescending replies. I’ve made it clear that I need more information to be more helpful but nothing has changed.
Q 3: Any tactics for dealing with the ‘Sir Humphreys’ would be useful. I would never do it to anyone, but there are those who might try to do it to me. (Sir Humphrey – from “Yes, Minister”: a red box full of boring irrelevant documents, with the crucial sentence (with devastating effects) hidden somewhere near the bottom!)
Part of the answer to the above two questions:
Email is the passing of information; it is not communication. All too easy to hide behind email.
Info flow needs to be seen in the context of relationships and building and maintaining relationships. Therefore it is important to focus on building better relationships, especially by building up trust. Are you communicating effectively? If you don’t hear back from someone, follow up with a phone call or face to face meeting. Face up to the issues. Print out emails if necessary and have that difficult conversation with the boss to address the underlying issue. Important to set boundaries.
Example of the secretary a couple of decades back managing her boss’s intray while he was away on holiday for two weeks. On his return he told the secretary to bin everything. She kept some things which she thought were important. The boss threw them in the bin. He said if anything was really important, people would phone him or contact him again. Not necessarily to be imitated with inboxes, but you get the point…
Q 4: My main areas of interest are about handling information overload when working on multiple projects at a time, as well as work / life balance. And just generally trying to manage anxiety / stress.
Part of the answer:
Managing time depends to a large extent on your personality type:
Micro management: planning out your day in discreet segments and deciding to do 1 hour doing activity A, 0.5 hours doing activity B, etc. Example provided of the Prime Minister – his staff set up a very detailed daily diary, e.g. sign documents between 11:00 and 11:05; make decision on x between 11:05 and 11:10, etc.
This approach works for many people but not for everyone.
Macro management: taking the big overview approach, e.g. setting two main goals a month.
Tailor your approach – find out what best suits you. It may be a combination of the two – as suggested by a member of the audience who looked at his diary on a day-to-view and a week-to-view basis to monitor his short-term and long-term objectives.
Q 5: In a general sense, my interest lies in the ‘effective communications’ aspect of the topic. More specifically, both my colleague’s and my interest lies in the use of communication as an effective change agent. The views and recommendations of the panel?
Part of the answer:
It’s a mistake to think of communication as an add-on to effective change management, as if having a “Communications” work stream will make all the difference. In essence, you are constantly communicating, whether or not you intend to. In change management, it is important for the change agents to think hard about what response or reaction they want from the audience(s), and to focus on testing whether or not the message has been “heard” the way it was intended. All actions and interactions during a change process will have the effect of communicating a message to the audience, and any formal communications will have a lesser impact (or be less trusted) than the messages emitted by the day-to-day actions of those initiating the change.
One panellist talked about the “ART” of communications – the A being your audience. Although it’s tempting to think of it as being made up of groups, your audience is in fact made up of individuals, with individual needs and expectations. R is the response you want to elicit. Plan your communications with the response in mind, and take responsibility for changing the communication if you don’t get the response you expected. Don’t blame the audience for mishearing you! Only then consider T – tactics and techniques / tools. Don’t fall into the trap of starting with tools. A weekly newsletter might look good, but if no-one reads it then it was the wrong tool for the job. Choose the tactics with the highest chance of getting your message across and eliciting the response that you want.
A final thought:
In the midst of the current pressures we face we really must retain our common decency and humanity and help others around us do the same. Here is a recent case in point that we would surely want to push back against: a certain person had to fly out of Scotland for a funeral, but his colleagues somehow still expected him on the funeral day to make himself available for a conference call in the late afternoon. This should not be! Let’s play our part in influencing the culture of our offices and ensuring our organisations don’t lose common decency and humanity. In this regard, I was able to quote from the last page David Fraser’s book:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.
Many of us in business matters are the local successors of 12 men who most certainly did change the world. May we in some modest way do so again, if only by holding the line on some issues in the workplaces of our city, information overload or no information overload.
Iain Archibald for business matters