Are you sleepwalking your way into professional prostitution?

I was part horrified and part fascinated. We were in a workshop entitled Transforming the Self and the System. Our facilitator had just shared a story of his dilemma when a coachee cancelled at short notice.  Should he charge a cancellation fee or not? What were his boundaries and how would he hold them? Neil said “are we all sleepwalking our way into professional prostitution?”

I’ve been turning this phrase over in my mind for the last few weeks. By turns savouring it and by turns repelled by it.  And it got me thinking about the many leaders I meet who are struggling to make tough calls.

They talk of being overwhelmed by competing priorities and goals, hundreds of emails. There’s a constant pressure to reply speedily in our 24/7 connected world.  Saying no, stopping doing things or making tough calls on priorities gets more difficult. And it’s at the cost of their loved ones and their own well being.  Time for sleep, relaxation and exercise is pared down to a minimum. In our hearts, we know this doesn’t work – for us or the organisation.  So I wonder how we collude in the pattern. When do we say stop? How much is enough?

It seems to me that there are (at least) 2 factors.  Firstly systemic pressures and secondly our own individual drivers, assumptions and habits.  The western way of thinking favours an individualistic way of thinking.  We have choice and are the masters of our behaviours and destiny.  It’s not that simple.

My experience of working with many leaders and teams has lead me to believe that these capable, successful and determined individuals simply can’t do it alone.  In a wider context peppered with phrases such as “we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous) world where change is a constant”; “we need to be more agile, accelerate the pace of change to grow and succeed” we can be hooked into a relentless cycle. These may be true. And does that mean we need to be busier?  I don’t think so.

I’ve noticed how common it is for people to greet you with “How are you?  Keeping busy?” It brings out the grumpy old woman in me. As if keeping busy is a measure of success.  Are we hinting that the aim is to ‘do’ 24/7 without rest, relaxation or space for reflection? If we’re not careful we get hooked into the unconscious assumption that being busy is what counts.  Maybe that’s where my horror came from – recognising the truth of that powerful question for me.

Sir Robert Holden memorably said “Busy, busy, busy, busy…. dead”.  It was refreshing to hear the DUP say that they couldn’t come to an agreement with the Conservative party over a weekend because they don’t work on Saturday and Sunday (OK, it was for religious beliefs). It was an unambiguous signal, a strong cultural statement which set boundaries.

Only we can decide on and hold our boundaries. Impressive leaders I have met know that they create the conditions for others to thrive.  They do the counterintuitive thing and slow down to speed up.  They focus on what really matters and have the courage to take time to reflect, pause and recharge. And by letting others know, they give permission for them to do the same.

Thankfully, we see this movement emerging in organisations. For example seeing the benefits of using mindfulness practices at work.  Also, it is becoming more acceptable to openly say I can’t make that because (of a family event/ personal commitment/ holiday).

And organisations are setting the tone. A colleague shared that the Foreign Office has a space set aside for reflection.  It is open and airy with beautiful art and a guest book. And it’s strictly not for meetings. And I can only guess how much that might be needed when you’re the person dealing with complex, sensitive, volatile and potentially deadly international issues.

It’s also evident in leading thinking. Otto Scharmer’s Theory U encapsulates this with slowing down to sense into a situation, gather perspectives and reflect before moving into prototyping solutions and then acting at speed. And it’s hard – I’ve experienced the sensation of holding the reins of a chariot as the thoroughbred leaders in the room impatiently paw at the ground wanting to get into action. What if we don’t?

We end up in a cycle that one organisation I once worked with called “Do, review, plan” – moving speedily into action without reflection and thought can feel satisfying (a bit like ticking something off your to do list when you press send on an email!) – And you end up redoing things.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we should stop striving for great results or working hard. I’ve recently asked people from India and Singapore to share how people in their culture view Europeans.  The one word reply was the same “lazy!”  It doesn’t feel like that to me.  So I wonder are we working thoughtfully and mindfully with a clear sense of purpose and direction?

Albert Einstein had a point when he said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Are you wondering what the quick fix is – the top 5 tips I’m going to offer that will be the magic wand? Funnily enough I think this is a problem worth pondering.  So, I’ll leave you with a few questions that seem significant to me and invite you to create your own:

  • How do we create a movement so that our organisations value high quality thinking as much as doing?
  • What are the key things that really matter (in service of our shared purpose and goals)?
  • How can we jointly support and challenge each other to hold boundaries?
  • How can we each model and make visible our own choices to pause and recharge?
  • What might I/we be assuming that causes us to add more without stopping or delaying anything?
  • How am I colluding in breaching boundaries that will give me a healthy life blend?

For our well being and sustainable success, surely these are enquiries worthy of dialogue?

Alyse Ashton is an Associate of Future Considerations and brings a straight talking, commercially astute and systemic approach to working with senior executives, boards, teams and talented individuals. She is a renowned, accredited coach and flexible, creative facilitator who has enabled leadership talent across the world to create step changes for over 25 years.

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