Digital EQ: A Leadership Essential in an Overwhelming World

How often do we fire off a one sentence work email while walking from one meeting to the next, paying no attention to the person on the other end who will actually be reading it?  Well, these short digital exchanges may have a significantly bigger impact on the recipient than we think.

Emotional intelligence is widely considered to be an indispensable factor for workplace success, and rightly so.  Our ability to empathize with others, be self-aware, and develop meaningful relationships are the qualities that allow us to effectively lead others, collaborate with our teams, and manage the stress that inevitably comes at work – and in life.

With more and more of our relationships and interactions taking place in digital settings – from email, to slack, to texting, and beyond – many of the interpersonal skills that contribute to emotional intelligence seem to no longer apply.  As the number of remote workers continues to rise, this is becoming a significant issue.  According to one study, 70% of people work remotely at least once a week.  Remote workers, and digital natives more generally, heavily rely on this type of communication to get work done and stay connected to their teams. 

They often do not have access to the dynamics of human interaction that breed authentic connection – tone, body language, and eye contact.  They are relying on the written word and their ability to accurately interpret those words as the foundation of the relationship.  When we fail to accurately interpret a digital message, or the person sending it puts no effort into how it makes the recipient feel, it can lead to an inordinate and unnecessary amount of anxiety and stress.   

One of the preeminent Organizational Psychologists of our time, Dr. Adam Grant, recently wrote a New York Times piece called, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email.  It’s Rude.”  He starts the article like this:

“I’m really sorry I didn’t say hi, make eye contact or acknowledge your presence in any way when you waved to me in the hallway the other day. It’s nothing personal. I just have too many people trying to greet me these days, and I can’t respond to everyone.

That sounds ridiculous, right? You would never snub a colleague trying to strike up a conversation. Yet when you ignore a personal email, that’s exactly what you’ve done: digital snubbery.”

In-person, we expect a foundational level of decency and respect from our interactions.  In digital communication, the expectations are far lower, as outlined in Grant’s example above.  Ignoring someone is within the normal realm of digital expectations.  When we do respond, it’s easy to forget how the recipient will actually receive our message.

This is especially salient when there is a power discrepancy in digital interactions.  Take a boss-direct report relationship, for example.  The direct report may have worked hard on a presentation and be quite proud of it, and then email it to her boss for feedback earlier than the agreed-upon deadline.  The boss, however, may be tremendously busy and have something she needs to deliver to a client, and therefore lacks the time to reply to her direct report in a timely manner.  The direct report may start to get anxious, wondering if her boss may not have liked the presentation, or worse, did not care. 

If the direct report submitted the presentation in person, this dynamic would probably be completely different.  Her boss would have likely said something like, “Thank you for getting this in early, I have something I need to get to our client so I can’t get to this right away, but I’m looking forward to reviewing it.” Over email, this type of response may seem like a waste of time, and it would be better to just wait and respond after she actually has time to sit down and review it. 

However, the nature of the digital relationship makes these exchanges of gratitude and acknowledgement even more imperative.  For the direct report, especially if she is working remotely, in-person interactions may be few and far between.  Therefore, these short exchanges can be the difference between a day where she feels productive and valued or a day where she feels overlooked and anxious. 

The same can apply for short, robotic digital responses.  For example, in the same situation laid out above, the direct report may submit the presentation and be proud of it.  Now, let’s say the boss responds later that day over email and says, “Needs more creativity.  When can I see a new version?”  A response like this can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and could cause even more angst than no response at all.  The direct report may be thinking, “Oh no, she hates it.  What did I do wrong?”  However, the boss may have been juggling a million different tasks and liked the presentation overall, but only had time to send over this short piece of feedback.  The lack of tone, eye contact, and body language leaves the interpretation of this message totally at the discretion of the recipient, even if the boss had positive intentions.

Referring to Daniel Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence, it includes the components of social awareness and social skills.  Within these components includes our ability to empathize, lead, develop, and collaborate.  EQ can no longer be thought of as a solely in-person endeavor.  To be effective leaders and teammates, we need to apply these components even more thoughtfully to our digital interactions since we cannot rely on non-verbal modes of connection that we naturally utilize in-person.  For leaders, this means going out of our way to acknowledge and appreciate someone’s hard work, even if we don’t have time to review it in-depth as soon as we’d like.  It means knowing who is on the receiving end of our message and adjusting our email accordingly to make sure it is being received as intended. 

As the responsibility of leadership becomes an increasingly digital endeavor, we need to be mindful of how the tasks of leadership can be transmitted in digital communications.  Emails can no longer only be seen as a transactional exchange of information, but a place where we can acknowledge, appreciate, develop, and connect with our team members. 

How Peak Performers Manage Stress and Anxiety

“Everyone is going through something.”  This was the title of an article written by NBA all-star and champion Kevin Love when describing a panic attack he had during half-time of a game.  As recently as ten years ago, these words being put on the page by a professional athlete of Love’s stature would have been unheard of.  Peak performance, in any field, was synonymous with optimal functioning at all times.  Admitting any sort of vulnerability or mental struggle would be perceived as some sort of character flaw.  However, individuals at all levels of functioning can suffer from anxiety and depression, which are both currently on the rise in the United States.  Earlier this year, a survey from the American Psychiatric Association found that 39% of individuals in the United States report feeling more anxious than they did a year ago and that, overall, the U.S. “national anxiety score” increased by 5 points.

Before his panic attack, Love says that dealing with and publicly addressing his mental health could be perceived as a “form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”  Another NBA all-star, DeMar Derozan, recently has opened up about his struggles with depression, saying, “It's one of the things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we're all human at the end of the day."  While peak performance and mental health struggles are often seen as antithetical concepts, this could not be further from the truth.  Peak performance depends on openly admitting and addressing these issues in an adaptive way, not pretending they don’t exist. 

Stress-induced anxiety affects individuals in two ways when trying to professionally perform – there is the anxiety they feel stemming from on-the-job stressors (e.g., Being overwhelmed, having a dysfunctional team, pressure to be perfect, etc.), and whatever issues are happening in their lives outside of work that can affect their performance (e.g., Mental health disorders, family issues, financial struggles, etc.).  

To learn more about how peak performers manage stress and anxiety that stem from both their professional and personal lives, I spoke with one current NFL player (Mitchell Schwartz:  NFL all-pro offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs who recently started his 100th consecutive game), and one former NFL Player (Dr. Damian Vaughn: Tight-end for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers who recently completed his Ph.D. in Positive Developmental Psychology).  Both of them are able to offer a unique perspective in sustaining peak performance in the face of constant pressure, having made it to the highest level of their field competing against some of the best athletes in the world.

Stress and Anxiety Caused On-the-Job

When speaking with Schwartz about his approach to managing mental health in order to achieve peak performance, he discussed the power of energy, “I was freaking out to go against Von Miller [Outside Linebacker for the Denver Broncos].  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a lot of nervous energy – take that and use it to focus your energy in…it’s just a form of energy at the end of the day.” 

According to Schwartz, being able to channel your energy to improve your level of focus requires an unwavering confidence in your technique and that “nervousness leads to poor technique.  If you had confidence to use the right technique you’d be fine.  The fear of failure inhibits performance.”  Acquiring confidence in one’s technique is a matter of diligent preparation.  At work, if one is preparing for a big presentation, the fear of public speaking can be managed by thoroughly understanding the content being presented. 

The right amount of preparation allows one to experience flow and be in the zone when the lights come on.  Flow occurs when the challenge of the situation in front of you does not exceed your level of skill, where you are able to completely focus your attention and achieve optimal performance, free of worry and distraction.  When in flow, one feels complete control over the situation and knows exactly what he or she is trying to accomplish. 

Dr. Vaughn, who is currently a Management Consultant and researched the flow experience among NFL players for his Ph.D. dissertation, echoes Schwartz’s point about preparation, “I would train so I could focus my attention for long periods.  Training requires a daily grind of repeating techniques you’ve done a thousand times and a focus on technical mastery.  Training often occurs when no one is watching and learning to manage your effort and energy.”  

For both Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn, learning to manage energy and attention is what allows them to mitigate the anxiety that can occur on the field in a high-stakes game against an elite opponent.  This can be done through the mastery of technique, where the right move essentially becomes automatic in the game because it’s been practiced so many times.

In other professional contexts, the path to achieving technical mastery may not be as clear.  While a quarterback may practice the technique of his throwing motion, it is more difficult to know what the equivalent would be in a job where we may be staring at a computer screen all day.  Technical mastery may be more intangible, such as gaining the confidence to speak up in meetings or, for leaders, giving clear feedback to our employees.  In these types of jobs, it is vital to think about the skills we want to improve to get to the next level, and think about realistic situations to practice them.  In the example laid out above about speaking up in meetings, one strategy could be to sit down before every team meeting and write down one point you want to express out loud during the meeting, and practice in real time.  For the leader seeking to give clear feedback, she could try role playing with a colleague before the actual encounter.  Whatever it is we seek to work on in our respective field, there are ways to practice our technique to achieve mastery.

Stress and Anxiety Caused Off-the-Job

As previously mentioned, on-the-job stressors are only one component of the mental health struggles one can face on a daily basis.  However, a stigma remains about openly admitting and addressing mental health struggles, especially in peak performance contexts.  Schwartz says that it’s becoming more accepted for players to see a therapist and that the stigma has decreased. 

Players can be weary of going to the team’s psychologist because of skepticism surrounding confidentiality of confiding to a team employee, and he encourages individuals to absolutely seek help independently and talk to someone they feel they can be completely transparent and honest with.  As Dr. Vaughn says, “Competition isn’t clean.  There is always risk of exposing vulnerability and fear of it being used against you, not just for retaining our job but also people exploiting it.”

Beyond seeking independent help, both Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn mention the influence that leaders have in opening up the conversation about mental health.   Dr. Vaughn mentions the culture that Pete Carroll (Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks) has set, where the relationships among players and coaches is a core value of the team’s philosophy.  Carroll’s Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014.  Competition is inherently emotional, and humans are emotional beings, and it’s far better “to embrace it than pretend [emotions] don’t exist.” 

From a leader’s standpoint, according to Schwartz, small gestures can be quite powerful.  If a player seems distracted, a coach can simply ask, “Hey, you don’t seem quite like yourself, is everything alright?”  These offerings help create a bridge between the leader and player and indicate that it is ok to talk about issues that don’t necessarily have to do with work and help create an environment that encourages open dialogue around mental health issues, therefore alleviating the emotional suppression that can have devastating long-term consequences.

Changing the Conversation

As Love, Derozan, Schwartz, and Dr. Vaughn are all doing, the conversation about the relationship between mental health issues and peak performance must change.  Stress and anxiety are felt by everyone at some point, regardless of their professional field or stage of life. 

Optimal functioning does not imply an absence of stress and anxiety – on the contrary, peak performance depends on stress and anxiety.  Humans are hard-wired to feel a stress and anxiety response when presented with incoming danger, allowing us to utilize the surge of adrenaline to physically respond to the threat. 

While humans no longer have the threat of being chased by large predators, modern life presents its own set of serious ‘threats’ – to our jobs, reputations, relationships, health, finances, etc.  The anxiety that is triggered is designed to help us adaptively deal with these situations, but oftentimes individuals can have a stress reaction that exceeds the severity of the original stressor.  Peak performance depends on channeling it into a focused energy – where we can enter a state of flow on the job. 

According to Schwartz and Dr. Vaughn, this requires both internal and external effort.  The internal effort is diligent preparation to achieve technical mastery, where individuals are confident enough in their ability to the point where on-the-job responses become automatic.  The external effort is seeking help when issues arise, whether from a professional, loved ones, colleagues, or leaders.

Mike Robbins, Organizational Consultant and author of the book “Bring Your Own Self to Work,” argues that achieving our optimal performance depends on being able to be our authentic selves at work, where being open about who we are and what we’re dealing with allows us to uncarry the burden of trying to be perfect and frees up the emotional and physical energy necessary to perform. 

This requires vulnerability.  As Dr. Brené Brown (research professor at the University of Houston and expert on vulnerability and courage) says, “When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding, and end the silence.”

Peak performers deal with stress and anxiety like anyone else, and establishing authentic connections to discuss it and strategies to manage it are what leads to true greatness.  It is time to end the silence once and for all.

The Key to Peak Engagement: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“Flow is about respect.”  These were the words a CEO of a successful tech start-up recently told me on how leaders can get employees into flow – the optimal experience of total engagement and peak productivity. In other words, the ability of leaders to get their people to experience flow more frequently comes down to one of the basic human values. 

For an individual to achieve a state of flow, it requires complete focus and an environment free of distraction.  In the modern workplace, where an ongoing stream of slack messages, emails, texts and calls have become just as ubiquitous as our morning coffee, achieving this state is increasingly elusive and, therefore, sacred. Leaders, however, often don’t pay much mind to what their direct reports are doing in any given moment, whether that means interrupting them at their desk or emailing them late into the night.  While this can be necessary at times, it should not be commonplace. 

When someone is deep into a project and is interrupted, it is not only irritating, but stifles their productivity.  Researchers from UC Irvine found that it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on the task.  It also can send the message that their time isn’t valued if it can be so easily interrupted.  Time is among our most valuable commodities, and if our time spent in a peak experience is needlessly diverted to complete a menial task for a boss that ultimately could have waited, this not only makes us less productive, but stifles our creativity and passion for our work. 

It is through deep flow experiences, when we find ourselves fully invested in a given activity, where we often develop an appetite to continue seeking these activities out.  A pianist will be far more likely to love playing the piano if she is able to grow her complexity by playing more sophisticated songs at a high level as she continues to practice.  If a pianist is constantly interrupted when sitting down to play, therefore having to continue to reteach herself the same section of a simple song, she may become frustrated and not understand what could have been had she been able to devote her full attention to it.

At work, one common tactic some teams have implemented is utilizing the calendar not only for meetings, but for uninterrupted “flow” time.   If someone has a high-priority project, they will block up several hours on the calendar to work on it.  This time is highly valued and respected, where people are considered unavailable whenever it’s blocked on their calendar.   When individuals are given the space to fully engross themselves in a project, they are not only more productive, they are able to develop their skills and improve at whatever it is their doing.  While honoring someone’s ‘flow’ time will take some getting used to from leaders who are used to having their people available to them 24/7, but it has long-term benefits for both sides.  Leaders will have more productive, engaged, and happier people, and these individuals will feel valued, respected, and ultimately develop their skills and grow.

Flow and Mindfulness:  How to be in the Moment Without Losing Sight of the Future

We are always thinking about what’s next.  The next project, the next deadline, the next email, the next meeting.  We are the only species that can ponder the future.  Throughout history, this has served us quite well:  A grand vision for the future is what enables us to take the necessary steps in the present to make such visions a reality.  When we think about it, almost all of our daily activities revolve around the future: We buy groceries so we can feed our future hungry selves, we make plans to get together with friends at a later date, we invest our money because we think it’ll have a future pay off.  As legendary psychologist Martin Seligman and journalist John Tierney write, we aren’t built to live in the moment.

However, while thinking about the future usually has a positive impact, “it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation.”  Imagining negative future outcomes can become crippling in the present.  What will become of us if we freeze during our next presentation in front of the whole company, or sleep through our alarm and miss that big meeting?  Allowing our minds to drift towards the future is what makes us human, for better and for worse.  So, how do we harness this uniquely human mechanism adaptively, where we can achieve our goals without falling into the abyss of worry and angst? 

The experience of flow may provide some answers.  While the practice of mindfulness has become hugely beneficial for helping individuals focus their attention on the present moment, thus minimizing concerns and worries about the future, it requires training our minds to fully accept whatever thoughts come to mind in that given moment and not ponder the future.  Flow, meanwhile, is the experience of being completely immersed in a challenging pursuit in the present moment while working towards a future goal. 

This is a key difference between mindfulness and flow.  While both experiences are about focusing our attention on the here and now, one of the key preconditions of experiencing flow is having a clear goal and losing our sense of self-consciousness, while mindfulness is about fully noticing and embracing our thoughts that are occurring in the moment.  For example, in flow, the painter will know exactly what she is trying to accomplish and what the finished painting should look like, and therefore she will be fully engaged in working towards that end goal.  Her attention will be fully in the present, but she knows exactly what she is trying to accomplish.  Flow allows us to work towards a desired future while fully immersing ourselves in the present.

For those of us (like me) who have trouble focusing on our attention on the moment at hand, remember: This makes us human!  Reaching our full potential is not about ignoring prospective thoughts, but figuring ways to work toward our ideal future that we can fully focus on in the present without being overridden by anxiety.  Of course, this will look different for everyone.  Personally, I focus on micro goals: Breaking down a long-term goal into smaller, achievable chunks so I feel like I’m making meaningful progress on a daily basis.  When I’m working on a two-hour long PowerPoint presentation, I break it down into 10 minute chunks and focus on creating the content for those 10 minutes.  That helps me enter flow, because instead of worrying about how I’m going to create content for a two-hour long presentation, I instead focus on only 10 minutes at a time, allowing me to fully focus on doing what needs to be done in the moment to reach that micro goal. 

Flow and mindfulness, when effectively used together, can help us center our minds on the present moment both internally on the self (mindfulness) and externally on a clear goal (flow).  When our minds gravitate towards the future, it does not need to be at the expense of the present.  In fact, it can be quite the opposite:  A clear vision for the future be the catalyst for focusing our attention on the present when we know exactly what needs to be done to get there.



Why Russell Westbrook Lost: A Lesson in Tribal Leadership

After watching the unheralded Utah Jazz dismantle the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the NBA playoffs, it got me thinking about one of my favorite books and organizational culture models: Tribal Leadership.  The book, originally released in 2008, was co-authored by three management consultants who studied 24,000 people in two-dozen organizations and discovered the success of a company is determined by the success of the tribes within.  They created the five stages of tribal culture that encompasses the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and the people they work with.  The stages are as follows:

1.      Stage 1: Life Sucks (2% of organizations):  Marked by despairing hostility and hopelessness, people in this stage think life is relentlessly unfair and violent, and nothing they can do will change this.  Street gangs often operate in this stage.

2.     Stage 2: “MY” Life Sucks (25% of organizations):  People in this stage are often antagonistic, feel undervalued, and tend to only associate with members of other dysfunctional tribes.  They are often sarcastic, judgmental, blame others for their plight, and will do the absolute minimum to get by.  However, there is some hope for those in stage 2, for they believe that if circumstances were changed enough, they could potentially thrive and be successful.

3.     Stage 3: I’m Great (and you’re not; 49% of organizations):  Almost half of modern organizations are operating in this stage.  This is the first stage where people are generally engaged in their work.  Stage 3 individuals believe they are personally great, smart, and successful, while others are not (a lone warrior mentality).  They will often complain that the people around them aren’t pulling their weight and feel they have all of the answers and hoard information.  It is important to them that they seem better than others.  Winning is a personal endeavor, not a collective one.

4.     Stage 4: We’re Great (22% of organizations):  At stage 4, people are focused on the team: It’s shared values and purpose.  Language is centered around the “we,” not “me.”  People in this stage are generally inspired, happy, and can be their authentic selves at work.  A stage 4, people are galvanized by defeating a common rival, whether it be another company (in business) or team (in sports).

5.     Stage 5: Life is Great (2% of organizations):  This stage is marked by a sense of innocent wonderment.  The group is no longer motivated by defeating a rival, but is motivated by making history and having a global impact.  Potential is limitless, with results transcending the norms of their industry.  They often leave a legacy that will be discussed for generations to come.

Phil Jackson talks about the stages of his championship teams in his book Eleven Rings.  He places 8 of his 11 championship teams (1991-1993 Bulls; 2000-2002 Lakers; 2009-2010 Lakers) in stage 4 (we’re great), and three of his championship teams (1996-1998 Bulls) in stage 5 (life is great).  For greatness and championship level performance to occur, a team needs to reach at least a stage 4.

Which leads me back to Russell Westbrook.  After his performance against the Utah Jazz, where he averaged 40.5 shot attempts in the last two games, he is clearly operating at a stage 3 (I’m great, and you’re not).  In game 5, the second to last game of the series when his team was down 3 games to 1, he showed how a stage 3 mentality can temporarily lift the team:  He led the Thunder back from a 25-point deficit in the third-quarter to a victory, scoring 45 of his team’s 107 points.  His unassailable belief in himself was mesmerizing to watch. 

Then came game 6.  He scored 46 of his team’s 91 points and took 43 shots (including 19 three-pointers).   The other two ‘stars’ on the Thunder, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, combined for 12 points on 5-23 shooting.  In this case, Westbrook’s “I’m great (and you’re not)” mentality severely hampered his team.  They clearly didn’t play with any sense of purpose, passion, or commitment to shared values.  No one played with a “we’re great” mentality.  There seemed to be no strategy beyond having Westbrook shoot on every other possession.

Not surprisingly, the Thunder lost.

Going into the season, the Thunder, with their newly minted “Big 3” of Westbrook, George, and Anthony, had high hopes that they would contend for a championship.  However, as we’ve seen time and time again, a collection of stars often does not translate to success.  Oftentimes, stars that are cobbled together are used to operating in stage 3 environments, where they have to carry the load and play with inferior teammates.  It perpetuates their belief that they are great, while their teammates are not.  All of a sudden, when they do find themselves playing with other talented teammates that are at their level, it is easier said than done to instantly adopt a stage 4 mentality.  Resentment can set in when they are no longer getting as many shots and attention as they were in their previous role, which is exemplified when the team encounters adversity. 

As the season went on and the Thunder never totally clicked, Westbrook tried to carry the team by himself.  He made it abundantly clear that he only fully trusted himself, and that winning was a personal endeavor, not a collective one.  While his passion was on full display and he played with an astonishing amount of effort, his teammates often looked disengaged, uninspired, and were not themselves on the court.  While Westbrook performed at a stage 3, many of them looked to be at stage 2: Apathetic and resigned to their fate.  

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are well on their way to their fourth straight NBA finals appearance.  When Kevin Durant left Westbrook and the Thunder to join the Warriors in 2016, it was clear he wanted to join a team operating at a stage 5 that seemed to be battling history more than any particular team and playing with a childlike joy for the game.

For Westbrook or any leader to reach their potential, they need to find a way to elevate their teams to a stage 4.  Westbrook did not take advantage of his teammates' strengths and skill-sets and did not inspire any sort of “we” focused mentality.  Once leaders have learned to get the most out of themselves, as Westbrook has done, hopefully they learn that their true legacy lies in what they are able to get out of others.  For Westbrook, who has averaged a triple-double in each of the past two seasons, hopefully the best is yet to come.

Go with the Flow

“Subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself.”

-Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow

Can you think of a time when you were completely absorbed in what you were doing?  A time where nothing else seemed to matter, you felt creative and fully in control, and all of your external worries slipped away.  You may have been doing a project at work, engaged in your favorite hobby, or having a conversation with a friend.  You commit yourself to the activity because you want to, not because you have to, and taking part in the activity is a reward in and of itself.

During these times, we are in flow.  Flow, developed by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, is the optimal subjective experience of being completely immersed in an activity.  Flow occurs when we have a clear goal, when we expand our skills to match the challenge of a given activity, and we receive immediate feedback about our progress.  In sports, the experience of flow is often referred to as being in the zone. 

Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal best-selling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, was released in 1991 and had a profound impact on some of the most influential figures of the time, from President Bill Clinton to former Super bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmie Johnson.  The research and application of flow has continued to flourish in a variety of domains, including work, relationships, the military, and sports.

It is through flow experiences that we develop as human-beings and pave the way towards reaching our full potential.  By seeking out and engaging in activities that stretch what we we’re capable of, and then devoting our full attention to them, we grow our complexity as individuals, eliminate the plethora of distractions that we face on a moment-to-moment basis, and create our best work.

However, in the modern world dominated by digital technology, flow is becoming a more elusive experience.  We are constantly inundated with distractions and information.  Our job descriptions are often ambiguous, or even non-existent, making it more difficult to know what we’re supposed to focus on and work towards.  Face-to-face interactions are increasingly being replaced by texting and social media, which can easily be accomplished while multi-tasking and hardly grow our connections with others.

Not coincidentally, the number of Americans with an anxiety disorder continues to rise in the United States.  Modern society does not set-us up to fully invest our attention on a single endeavor.  The ability to multitask has basically become a ubiquitous presence on job postings.  Even when we watch TV, we often have our laptops open and are scrolling on our phones. 

In our ability to do everything at once, we are doing nothing fully.  There is a feeling of fulfillment that we get when we lose ourselves in one thing and see it through from start to finish, especially when it wasn’t easy.  When we come out the other side, we’re not exactly the same person that we were before; we’ve developed in some way, either mentally, emotionally, and/or physically.  These flow experiences contribute mightily to our overall sense of happiness and purpose.

Reflect on your flow experiences in the different areas of your life – at work, at home, with friends and family, during hobbies, exercise, etc.  Deliberately seek these experiences out, and seek out new activities that have the capacity for flow as well.  When we experience flow purposefully and consistently, it can be an antidote for many of the anxieties that have become a natural part of daily life in a digital world.

Rethinking our Relationship with Work

For any relationship to succeed, it must be tended to, cared for, prioritized, and reexamined from time to time.  This takes effort and constant conversation.  With this in mind, It’s time for us to reexamine our relationship with work and rethink work-life balance.  The digital revolution has drastically changed the way work is accomplished, where work can be done from anywhere at any time, and we can instantly connect with anyone around the world.  Work can infiltrate our vacation time, and researching our upcoming vacation can be done while at work.  A work team can communicate completely virtually yet still function at a high level.  We are in an always on culture, and there’s no turning back.

We are also in the knowledge economy, where the output, or product of work relies on the capabilities of the mind.  This allows people to create an intangible service (knowledge that can be offered anywhere at any time).  There has been a substantial increase in the filing of United States patents in the last 20 years, indicating that the production of knowledge and intellectual capital is on the rise.  These massive shifts in the modern workplace have forever altered how work is done and our relationship with the very concept of work.

The End of Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is traditionally the term that is used to refer to the relationship between one’s life at work and their life outside of work, which includes time with friends, hobbies, and anything else that one considers to not be work.  This balance refers to a clear distinction between work and life, with an invisible boundary separating the two.  However, separating work and life has a faulty premise.  It implies that work is a detached entity from our lives, which sets a negative precedent for how people should view their relationship with work.  If work is something to simply get through in order to make time for ‘life,’ there is an inherent implication that work cannot play an essential role in the happiness, fulfillment, and meaning of one’s life.  If work and life are separated, then what do we call all of the hours we spend working?  Is this not considered life?  Language is powerful, and the term work-life balance sets a tone about what work’s role should be in the context of one’s broader life.

Integrating Work and Life: A Return to Our Roots

Interestingly, the balance, or separation, of work and life, was not always the case.  Before the industrial revolution, work and life blended together more seamlessly:  People worked in their communities, near their homes, as farmers, craftsmen, and other vocations. When civilization shifted from the agricultural to the industrial economy, the main priorities of work became productivity and efficiency.  Adam Smith envisioned work as large tasks being divided into a series of smaller ones, where each individual would be responsible for one step in the manufacturing process and endlessly repeat this step. Deriving meaning, happiness, or fulfillment from work was not of significance.

As the industrial economy now shifts to the knowledge economy and relies on the complexity of the human mind, with its capacity for intellectual thought, creativity, and imagination, peak performance and innovation cannot be divided into a series of small tasks.  It relies on people to see work as a source of engagement and meaning in their lives, where they feel challenged and have a sense of purpose.  For people to reach their full potential, work must be seen as an integral part of life.  Psychologists Hogan and Hogan wrote an article about work life integration in 2007, and explained it as the following:

“The goal of work-life integration is: to have a satisfying, healthy, and productive life that includes work, love, and play; that integrates a range of life activities with attention to personal and interpersonal development; that fosters the psychological skills necessary for an expansion of energy associated with multiple role engagement; and that permits the construction and experience of a meaningful life defined by reference to unique wishes, interests, and values.”

The concept of work-life integration has been gaining steam in recent years (you can read more about it here and here).  The main challenge we face moving forward is how to harness it correctly.  Our development as individuals depends on engaging with the different roles of our lives whole-heartedly, spiritually, and intellectually.  However, work-life integration gone awry can mean we are constantly working no matter what else we’re doing and constantly feeling burned out and stressed. 

Work-life integration done successfully means fully absorbing oneself in whatever role being engaged in, not constantly doing two things at once.  It can mean allowing ourselves to still be professionally creative outside of traditional working hours and setting aside an hour at the end of the night to work through our ideas.  It can mean not checking our work email when out to dinner with friends so we are authentically connecting with the people we care about.  It is up to each of us to figure out how to best integrate our work with the other aspects of our lives, but we should no longer think of them as separate.


1. Abramovitz, M., & David, P. A. (1996). Technological change and the rise of intangible investments. The U.S. economy’s growth-path in the twentieth century. In D. Foray & B. A. Lundvall (Eds.), Employment and Growth in the Knowledge-Based Economy (pp. 35–60). Paris: OECD.

2. Barber, L. K., Grawitch, M. J., & Maloney, P. W. (2016). Work-life balance: Contemporary perspectives. In M. J. Grawitch & D. W. Ballard (Eds.), The psychologically healthy workplace: Building a win-win environment for organizations and employees (pp. 111-133). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

3. Grindley P. C., & Teece D. J. (1997). Managing intellectual capital: Licensing and cross-licensing in semiconductors and electronics. California Management Review, 39, 8–41.

4. Hall, B. H, Jaffe, A. B, & Trajtenberg, M. (2001). The NBER patent citations data file: lessons, insights and methodological tools (Working Paper 8498). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

5. Hogan, M., & Hogan, V. (2007). Work-life integration. The Irish Psychologist, 22(10), 246-254.

6. Jaffe, A. B, Trajtenberg M. (2002). Patents, citations, and innovations: A window on the knowledge economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

7. Powell, W. W., & Snellman, K. (2004). The knowledge economy. Annual Review of Sociology, 30, 199-220.

8. Smith, A. (2014). The wealth of nations. Middletown, DE: Shine Classics.

Think like a Leader, not a Manager

This illuminating Forbes article opens with the advice, “Don’t even try to manage Millennials, the largest generation in the workforce. Lead them.”  Well, what does this mean?  What is the difference between leading and managing?  

According to the Harvard Business Review, the difference is that “Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.”  Millennials seek inspiration where they can make a difference that transcends a profit margin.  

Here are a few additional ways to shift from a management mindset to a leadership mindset to get the most of the Millennials on your team:

1.  Give Them the 'Why"

Millennials like to ask “why,” which has become a sensitive word for those leading them.  For Baby Boomers and Gen X, they wouldn’t dare ask “why” when their boss asked them to do something, they just did it.  Sure, it may be frustrating, but “why” is never a bad question.  Answering this question and articulating why a certain project may be beneficial to the team as a whole and will help bosses transition from managers to leaders.

2.  Give Frequent Feedback

Also, let Millennials know how they’re doing.  They need the constant feedback whether it’s positive or negative.  If it’s positive and they did a great job on a project, tell them what specifically made it great.  If it’s negative, keep it about the work and not the person, and let them know that this feedback is to help them with their long-term career development.  Take it as an opportunity to mentor and coach them.  If you think the work was sloppy, tell them how important proofreading is to achieve long-term career success.

3.  Play to Their Strengths

Lastly, focus on what they are naturally good at.   Leaders should know the key strengths of their people to enable them to reach their potential.  If someone’s key strength is their creativity and artistic ability, think of projects they should be working on that will leverage this.  And don’t be surprised if they get frustrated if they’re spending all day crunching numbers on excel spreadsheets.

When bosses make the transition from manager to leader, they will not only get more out of their Millennials, but themselves as well.

Following Your Passion...Sort of

“Follow your passion.” Many Millennials heard this cliché career advice so often growing up that it has become almost ingrained in the generation’s collective psyche.  Obviously, this advice came with a heaping pile of salt.  Follow your passion, as long as it’s realistic and can financially sustain you.  As Millennials have entered the workplace, the harsh reality has set in that their job may very well not align with their passion. 

This search for passion is the psychological foundation for the more tangible priorities that Millennials seek in their work.  They may not be passionate about what they’re doing, but maybe they can be passionate about other aspects of their work experience.  As this and many other articles indicate, flexible work hours, work-life balance, the ability to make a difference, and a collaborative culture are top priorities for what Millennials now seek in a workplace.  Mundane administrative tasks may not be so bad if the end product is helping people.  Another pointless meeting may be somewhat tolerable if colleagues enjoy being around each other.   Or maybe someone doesn’t believe in the product or like the people, but at least he or she has time to pursue interests outside of work.

Millennials have recalibrated how to find passion in their work, and it often has nothing to do with the work itself. For Millennials struggling to find their career passion, they should look beyond what they do at work.  Their passion may lie in where they work, with/for whom they work, how they work, and why they work.