There is an inexhaustible supply of business gurus telling us how we can and should do more. Sheryl Sandberg urges women to "lean in" if they want to get ahead. John Bernard offers non-stop advice on doing "business at the speed of now". Michael Port tells salespeople to "book hard". And in case you think you can get a few moments to yourself,Keith Ferrazzi warns that you "should not eat alone".
The Dutch seem to believe that too many meetings are the biggest time eater: they speak of vergaderziekte, "finding the disease." However, a study conducted last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is emails that are the biggest villains: it was found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each workday writing andby answering them.
Which of these problems of modern business life is worse? That remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of useless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate emails because they require little effort and don't think. An entire management industry exists to "turn the treadmillfaster and faster."
All of this "leaning in" is producing an epidemic of overwork, especially in the U.S. Americans now work eight and a half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey last year estimated that nearly a third of working adults get only six hours or less of sleep at night. Another survey conducted in the yearconducted by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80 percent of respondents continue working after leaving the office, 69 percent can't go to bed without checking their inbox, and 38 percent routinely check their work email at the dinner table.
This activity is making it difficult to really focus on work. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days, when they are faced with a flurry of unpredictable demands. In 2012, Gloria Mark of the University ofCalifornia, Irvine, and two colleagues deprived 13 people in the IT business of accessing e-mail for five days and studied them intensively. They found that without it people concentrated on tasks longer and experienced less stress.
It's about time we tried a different strategy, not "leaning in" but "leaning back. "There is a distinct history of leadership thinking in the lean-back tradition.Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister, extolled the virtues of "masterful inactivity. "Herbert Asquith adopted a "wait and see" policy when he had the job.Ronald Reagan also believed in noexaggerate: "It's hard, real work that never killed anyone," he said, "but I guess, why risk it?" That tradition has been buried in a swamp of meetings and messages. We need to revive it before we program ourselves for death.
The most obvious beneficiaries of lean-back would be creative workers - the very people who should be at the center of the modern economy. In the early 1990s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third didn't bother to answer, and another third refusedparticipate. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summarized the mood of the refuseniks : "One of the great secrets of productivity is having a really big trash can to throw the invitations you get in it." One of the great secrets of productive people is time - particularly large spaces of uninterrupted time - and their greatest enemies are those who try to gobble it up with emails or meetings. In fact, creative people can be most productive when they're not under the eyetrained manager.
Managers themselves could benefit.Those at the top are far busier thinking about strategy than operations - about whether the company is doing the right thing or not sticking to its plans.When he was head of General Electric, Jack Welch used to spend an hour a day on what he called "looking out the window. "When he was at the helm of Microsoft, Bill Gatesused to do a ritual called "thinking weeks" every year when he locked himself away in an isolated house. Jim Collins of "Good to Great" advises all bosses to keep a "stop doing" list. Is there a meeting you can cancel? Or a dinner party you can avoid?
Less is more - more or less that.
Junior managers would do well to follow the same advice. In "Do Nothing," one of the few business books to tackle the problem of overmanagement, Keith Murnighan of the Kellogg School of Management argues that the best managers focus their attention on establishing the right rules - recruiting the right people and setting the right incentives - and then get out of the way.He cites a story about Eastman Kodak in its glory days. A corporate reorganization left a small division blind-without a leader or a reporting line to headquarters. Headquarters only rediscovered the division when it received a note from a customer congratulating the unit on its work.
"Doing nothing" may be going too far. Managers play an important role in coordinating complicated activities and disciplining slackers. And some creative people would never finish anything if they were left on their own devices. But there are certainly reasons to do a lot less - to ration emails, cut meetings, and get rid of some bossesoverzealous. "Leaning in" has been producing negative returns for some time. It's time to try the much more radical strategy of pulling back."[The Economist]