I think those feelings of dissatisfaction, discouragement, and frustration we all feel at work from time to time are momentary sensations of being lost.

Lost in the existential sense of questions about the moment: Where am I going? What am I doing? How am I going to get there? Is this the right job for me? Can I do this? Am I meeting expectations? What comes next?

When without definitive answers those types of questions bring about a professional lostness that can be difficult to navigate. How long any moment of being lost lasts is variable—and so the feeling, while important, is less important than the actions that come after it in an effort to stop being lost.

That makes the idea of not being lost an interesting one: Is it found? Or alive? Or seen? Aware? Valued? Respected? Or something else? A combination?

An answer to that question depends, I think, on what you’re after and I believe that knowing what you’re after is a key component of becoming unlost.

And that is the value of being lost: it’s at the times I’ve felt lost where I am especially reflective and aware and open to the lessons of the moment.

Getting professionally unlost is really about knowing yourself, knowing your situation, and knowing where you’re trying to go. Only with that knowledge can you appropriately find the best course of action for questions like Should I quit? Do I need a new job? How can I make this project happen? What comes next? What should I do?

Getting professionally unlost is really about knowing yourself, knowing your situation, and knowing where you’re trying to go.

Yet being lost is exceptionally unsettling (and often accompanied by sleepless nights, anxiety, hard conversations, major decisions, and other work-life ailments) and so it’s no wonder that we desire to become unlost as quickly as possible.

So I think we all need to give ourselves permission to be lost from time to time because I think being lost can help us figure things out about work. Those feelings of dissatisfaction, discouragement, and frustration are permission for personal discovery because getting through moments of our lostness in our own way and on our own terms is the only way to traverse the path to wherever it is you desire to go.

Like me, I believe you too should have an uncomfortable relationship with advice.

It’s sensible to seek guidance from someone we trust in scenarios where the advice-giver has experience with a similar situation, is empathetic toward our worldview, and understands the context of the matter at hand.

But it is also strange how routinely and effortlessly we rely on someone with limited experience or potentially questionable motives or an insufficient understanding of the situation to help guide our decision making for matters large and small.

The hard part about using bad advice is that it’s difficult to assess its damage retrospectively. We use advice to take action. Then it’s done. Would we have made a different decision if we hadn’t sought advice? Or if we had sought more advice? It’s hard to say and it’s impossible to determine what effect more or less advice may have had.

The hard part about using bad advice is that it’s often difficult to assess its damage retrospectively.

Advice is complicated. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it isn’t. But it always influences. And I know that the same back-and-forth scenario has played out throughout my career in situations large and small, personal and professional.

Like the time I was in a job I desperately wanted to quit. I was burned out. I was bummed out. I was being taken advantage of. I believed the leadership support necessary to actually find success in the role was nonexistent. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and didn’t want to do it anymore.
The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t quit a job until you have another one lined up. That’s usually pretty solid advice.

But I was done and I knew it. Staying in the job wasn’t something I was interested in doing. So I made my case and the advice-giver who had been supportively reminding me of conventional wisdom finally agreed it was in my best interest to submit notice. I had the permission I needed to quit.

Then I started sharing my plan with the people that needed to know. 

“Are you crazy?,” asked a senior leader I worked with, “You can’t quit. You have power in this situation. You can make it better for yourself and get out of this mess without quitting.”

Those words and the advice-heavy conversation that followed changed my perspective.

So I didn’t quit, moved to a new department, quickly felt frustrated again, stayed with the organization a while longer, and then accepted a new job with an organization I was excited to work for.

Which piece of advice was better? Would leaving have worked out too? Probably.

I think it’s important to remember that any piece of advice, even from the most experienced, well-meaning, empathetic person living on the planet, is still an opinion based upon their experience filtered through a worldview that isn’t exactly ours.

I even think it deserves a George Box-inspired adage for easy recall: All advice is wrong, some is useful. 

All advice is wrong, some is useful.

So when we seek advice, I find it important to consider two things before heeding it: first, advice is best used as a starting point in finding our own path through anything and second, we must be comfortable with the idea that any advice we take holds the potential to be bad advice.

That is, well, advice and as the conventional wisdom goes: your mileage may vary.

It’s a panic-striking emotional state: I’m not contributing! I’m not on the career trajectory I need to be on! I’m not learning the skills I need to be learning!

That “I’m not a contributing member of this organization” feeling can be vicious.

My first healthcare job was as an administrative fellow, a sort-of management training program intended to provide exposure to the breadth of administrative positions throughout an integrated delivery system. It was a terrific experience and the people I worked for and with get credit for creating the foundations of my management style.

But there was a point early on, maybe a month or two in, when I felt exceptionally useless. The program wasn’t particularly organized — which turned out to be a great thing over two years — and resulted in open days with little to do early in my tenure.

I was gripped by the feeling of uselessness for months and didn’t know what to do about it.

Somewhere, somehow the thought struck me to find projects to work on.

It didn’t come from my boss — the last thing I wanted to share was that I wasn’t busy enough.

It didn’t come from colleagues — I wasn’t close enough with anyone at the time.

It didn’t come from friends or family — “this new job is great!”

I just started finding projects: some were participation only, some allowed me to make small contributions, and some allowed me to explore my interests in the organization. But nothing was particularly useless.

There was no one breathing down my neck. No one looking over my shoulder. No one assumed the burden of becoming my task finder. I was just trusted to find work to do.

[A quick aside.]

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entirely possible that no one gave a shit about me as my status hovered around the level of “intern,” but I take solace in maintained professional relationships with the people in that organization.

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[Back to it.]

Trusted to find work. A novel concept.

By my second year I was finding projects to work on that were of strategic importance to the organization. More projects began to appear: from my boss, from the CEO, from managers throughout the system. The feeling of contribution! It’s a drug.

I’ve been coming back to that story lately because I recently started asking my employees to choose what they work on. Initially there was shock — a seemingly normal reaction to a different approach from any other previous school or job experience. After wading through initial resistance and a smidgeon of bewilderment, the experiment seems to have improved two persistent management problems left behind by industrial models of production.

The first is related to trust. We’ve been taught that employees must be managed. Create tasks. Fill their days. Ensure output. But management, in the traditional sense, left me with questions. What is an appropriate level of production in a workplace dominated by intangible things? How do you measure what someone should be producing when much of it is novel and creative thought? How do you trust that what employees do produce is the appropriate amount when no widgets are actually created? How much time should be spent in the office during the week?

The second is engagement. We’ve long abided by the idea that work must be cascaded down a hierarchy — that seems to be the secret to accountability: tell everyone what they work on and what the measure will be. Bosses know best. Do as I say. Why aren’t annual objectives being met? How do you rate an employee’s performance when the annual objectives set at the beginning of the year aren’t actually important any longer?

It turns out that everyone — me as a manager and they as an employee — benefits when employees get to choose what to work on. Here’s what we’ve found so far.

Employees choose work that interests them. We hire job candidates because of their experience and skills, which are manifested interests with documented results. The work that interests them is the work they are good at. It’s why they are working for the organization. It’s the work they want to get better at, too.

Employees choose work that helps the company. Employees deserve more credit for their instincts. They don’t need managers telling them what is the highest priority, although prioritization conversations can be helpful in figuring out what to work on first. Management, if anything, is creating the framework for knowing what is important and what isn’t. Employees know what needs to be created and improved because they work every day for the company. They see what the company needs.

Employees are engaged with the work. When employees lead the objective setting for the work they are demanding of themselves, highly accountable for results, and completely engaged in the work itself. Coaching becomes about helping each employee deliver the work. Reviews are about lessons learned and developed skills.

For managers it’s a win-win-win: trust comes easily, engagement happens naturally, and everyone is striving to move the company forward.

Engagement surveys continue to tell companies the same thing every year: employees aren’t. After years of failed engagement improvement initiatives, perhaps it’s time to point the finger at the organization’s structures and systems (i.e., how we do things around here…) as the culprit for low engagement. And perhaps it’s time to start experimenting with new structures and systems that create the workplaces we all desire. Maybe there are better ways.

Here’s to finding all of them.

Amazon delivered “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters last week. He’s long been influential in my thinking about work and organizations. I own several of his more recent books but have never read the original tome that kicked it all off.

The idea of pursuing excellence has been around for so long—it’s been nearly forty years since “In Search of Excellence” was published—it has lost gusto as a management fad in contemporary organizations.

But Seth Godin resurrected the idea for me when he talked about the book on Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast recently. Organizational excellence was a nascent idea before “In Search of Excellence” was published.

The thing is, somewhere between 1982 and today, the idea of excellence was conflated with the notion of efficiency in most organizations. It’s resulted in a questionable efficiency-at-all-costs-excellence-strategy throughout the industry.

There’s nothing wrong with efficiency as an organizational ideal. It’s just that a blind pursuit of efficiency in the name of excellence actually comes at the expense of excellence.

Because the problem with efficiency-as-excellence idea, as Seth relays on the podcast, lies in the definition of efficiency: meeting spec. 

And the definition of excellence is not meeting spec. 

Organizational excellence is actually an output of human caring. Human caring in organizations, according to Seth’s interpretation of “In Search of Excellence,” is the answer to this question: “How would you do the work if you actually cared about it?” 

This matters because, in my estimation, many of the problems in healthcare delivery organizations today are mislabeled as efficiency problems when they should be considered problems of excellence.

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I think healthcare delivery organizations are rather efficient operators.

What they lack, as I hear a muffled “bullshit” under your breath, is employees who ask themselves, “How would I do the work if I actually cared about it?,” when it comes to improving the operations of healthcare delivery. 

Conflating efficiency and excellence has resulted in a workplace cultural satisfaction that merely meeting spec is good enough when it comes to improving healthcare delivery operations.

It’s not. 

Because it ignores excellence.

And it is excellence that will emerge again as an organizational pursuit for competitive advantage as efficiency has merely become the expectation.

In a fantastical bit of communication irony, Alan Greenspan is credited with the tongue-twisting line “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

However, the earliest known print attribution of the quote comes from a 1984 TV Guideedition and is credited to Robert McCloskey, a U.S. State Department spokesman during the Vietnam era.

It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the George Bernard Shaw quip, “The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

That brings us to the process of communication.

To communicate: a sender (me!) encodes a message (the English language!) that is then sent using a channel (this blog post) and is decoded (language norms) by a receiver (you!).

It’s straightforward. 

But noise—the all-encompassing metaphor—inhibits the ability to communicate effectively. Communication noise is all the things—preconceived notions, biases, ineffective channels, language understanding, emotions, technical knowledge, etc., etc., etc.,—that influence the interpretation of conversations and prevent successful communication. 

And that brings us back to the McCloskey/Greenspan misattribution: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

This quote, I believe, gets to the root of innumerable organization problems—unsuccessful communication: ignored HR announcements, boss/employee expectation conversations, new (or old) policy diffusion, poor execution, work process breakdowns, and a long list of a lot of other things.

Communicating well is surprisingly difficult given how much we do of it.

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That brings us to the last component of the process I’ve yet to mention: feedback—the receiver’s response to a message indicating their level of understanding. It is in feedback—head nods, raised eyebrows, clarifying questions, statements of assurance, etc.—where we learn whether or not our intended message has been understood by the other party. 

I believe it is most often the absence of appropriate feedback mechanisms where otherwise successful workplace communication breaks down. It’s the result of full email inboxes, large group settings, rushed meetings, and the like.

So improving communication at work begins with recognizing communication as a process and ends by embracing the all-important (but often ignored) feedback element of the process.

Because as George Bernard Shaw reminds us, communication hasn’t happened until the sender has been assured the receiver has understood the message. 

Absent feedback, communication is an illusion.