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Why Boredom is a Dangerous Thing

Why Boredom is a Dangerous Thing

Boredom
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If it were fun, they wouldn’t call it work. At least that’s what a friend of mine likes to say. Perhaps it conveys what many people feel — their jobs are fairly boring.

If you’re a leader, this sentiment should really, really scare you.

From my perch as a coach, I see boredom as an insidious, undermining influence in companies. When people are bored they produce mediocre, uninspired work. Boredom camouflages passive resistance. Bored workers find all kinds of nonproductive outlets to keep themselves amused. After all, the human mind doesn’t deal well with soul-crushing boredom.

I recently ran across a New York Times article that discussed how much time people waste at work. The author cites a study by Microsoft stating that people work an average of 45 hours per week, but of those, 16 hours are unproductive. Another study by AOL and Salary.com states that American workers actually work only 3 days per week, with a good portion of the non-work time used surfing the Internet.

Hmm, think boredom is playing a role here?

Of course we all get bored from time to time. We certainly can’t expect to be fully engaged every second of our day, and boredom can come and go depending on work demands. Personal stages of life certainly play a role. (Full disclosure: I happen to be sitting in the age group where existential crises rain down as fast as new sports cars.)

That said, when boredom creeps in for you — or you can sense it in your team — be on guard. If it doesn’t pass in a few weeks, you need a plan. Boredom is contagious, and leads to performance and retention problems galore. You should eradicate it like a bad case of bed bugs.

As a leader, can you fight it? Can you make other people less bored? Is that your job? Yes, yes and yes.

It’s called motivational leadership. And tackling boredom is the most common reason it’s needed.

Here are four options if you want to reinvigorate your team, and yourself.

1. Stir the pot.

Seasoned leaders will tell you that at times you need to change things up. We become energized when we stretch ourselves and solve problems in new ways. Consider the idea of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, which you can watch him discuss in this TED talk or read about in Dan Pink’s Drive. People are at their most energized and alive when they can push their capabilities enough to reach, but not so much as to be overwhelmed.

You can encourage flow by changing work groups or project teams. Assemble a special team and give the members 24 hours to solve a pressing work problem. Introduce a concept such as Google’s 20% time, where each employee can spend one day a week working on any issue of their choosing (from which many innovative ideas have emerged). Put team members on rotations in other functional areas like GE does.

There are more ideas than room to list them. The point is to do something thoughtful and strategic, yet invigoratingly different.

2. Make powerful declarations.

Declarations are the most underutilized tools leaders have — the simple act of saying “We will do X.” Making bold statements helps to align organizations, put a stake in the ground and galvanize action. Let’s be clear though. For declarations to work you must be capable of hitting them, though it should take effort to get there. They are a leap into a shared future.

Be careful not to water them down with “I hope” and “We might” statements. Make them, be confident, and have a plan.

3. Infuse new blood.

I’ve learned the lesson repeatedly that new people change an organizational dynamic immediately. If they’re good, they raise the bar for everyone else. Take a look around your organization. Is everyone pulling their weight? Would new people add skills you desperately need?

Sit down and consider how you would staff your team, taking your current employees out of the equation. If it’s drastically different than how you’re structured now, you may need to rethink your team. It doesn’t need to be an overhaul. If you can’t add people now, consider consolidating positions to make room. I’ve cut my own salary to bring on a new person. If you need the new energy and expertise, it ends up being a decision that pays off quickly.

4. Find a new you.

It could be a scenario where you are the one who’s most bored. If you’re a leader, chances are everyone else already knows it. Another person’s energy is something we quickly calibrate, with extra attention directed upward to those who control our fate.

Regardless of whether or not you’re the one in ultimate charge, when you’re bored, you need to address it. For some it’s realizing when it’s time to move on. As I wrote about before though, bad economies tend to create boredom havens for people who don’t feel it’s safe to leave. When that’s the case, your best bet is to take the initiative. Change your job around, tackle a pet project, have a strategic off-site with yourself, work with a coach. Do what it takes.

Boredom quickly turns into complacency, which has brought more than one mighty company down. If you want to motivate others, first make sure to motivate yourself.

Have some interesting ways to tackle boredom in your company? Share them here or on Twitter @kristihedges.

 This post also appears on Forbes.com.

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