Take Away Line
While the word challenge frequently came to mind during the Olympics and Paralympics, the word boredom did not. Yet, all jobs have a mixture of challenge and repetition. What’s our stance in relation to work challenge? How do we bore through boredom, if it’s a feature, or become a champion of challenge? Perhaps the easy way out is to avoid both? The spiritual advice is that challenge at work (or anywhere else) has to be faced if future satisfaction is to be derived. Of course, there are times when the challenge is of a kind that resistance or exit are to be considered, but in many cases, facing the hardship that a challenge poses is the route to future job satisfaction and, there-from, happiness at work.
Challenge and Boredom: a false polarity?
One word that frequently comes to mind when reflecting on the Olympics and Paralympics is challenge: the challenge of the competition itself, the challenge of keeping going, of sustaining the effort beyond one’s limits and the challenge of all the training for years beforehand. A word that does not easily come to one’s lips when thinking about the Olympians is boredom. Yet, boredom is bound to be a feature: athletes know that marginal gains are made by sustained practice and increased fitness levels, but getting up early every morning for practice runs or other training, winter and summer, must include many days when a sense of tedium was present.
There is perhaps something somewhat pious about always seeking challenge and avoiding boredom. Surely a good, satisfying job, contains both the right level of challenge and repetition – it’s not for nothing that a professional firm is often called ‘a practice’ – while avoiding too much stress or boredom. So the question then is how do I manage myself when things are insufficiently challenging and perhaps boring or, on the other hand, when circumstances demand too much of me and I feel overwhelmed, and I am challenged too much.
While it is true that many people have boring jobs and, worse, the anxiety of losing their jobs, it is the spectre of having to do too much with ever declining resources in an ever more insecure economic environment that taxes the emotional resources of many of the clients I meet. ‘We have to do more, better and for less, which in practice means doing more for less and quietly forgetting the better part’ is the cry I often hear in the public and civil society sector settings where I usually work.
Faced with such realities, how, on a personal level, should we respond to challenge and also to boredom?
Boring through Boredom
A family member spent most of his working life being bored. A dignified man without doubt, but that was the reality he experienced at work. He worked hard at the manual tasks of the job, driving a vast truck short distances for much of his working life. I often asked myself how he did it. How could he get up each morning and cycle or drive into work to do something that he found inherently dull? It appalled me so much, I had to dismiss the thought and refuse to reflect on it. But when I did reflect on it from time to time, I realised how he coped. First of all, the job wasn’t completely boring: he liked trucks and he liked some of his work mates. Second, it provided him with a living and, better still, reasonable security with a pension, something that was important to him. And thirdly, most crucially, the job sat well within a life that was in the round meaningful, and helped sustain him in that life, which contained a number of elements: family, sport, locality, responsibility and friendships. This family member died last year after a long retirement. While boredom was an element of his life, no one at his funeral would have suggested his was a life without meaning, least of all him, were to have been in a position to contribute to this debate.
The Dalai Lama suggests that this is what one should do with boredom, or the dull aspects of any job: transmute them by placing them in a wider context. Why am I doing this? What will it lead to – for me or in terms of its broader purpose? In this way, he suggests, we can derive more satisfaction from our work settings during the dull times.
Don’t entitle this Section: ‘Embracing Challenge’! Please!
The fact is that there are always challenges in a work setting. We shouldn’t really go looking for them because sooner or later they will find us. With challenge inevitably comes hardship if, that is, we attempt to face the challenge. After all, if there weren’t any hardships associated with challenge, it wouldn’t be a challenge. Writing these articles is a challenge for me. I enjoy the process and often find I achieve short periods of ‘flow’, but frequently I faff about and avoid facing the hardship and, in short, meeting the challenge I face.
So, the tips for work challenges are firstly, drawing directly from the Dalai Lama’s views, to face the hardship that a challenge brings because it leads to greater satisfaction later. Indeed, it is essential that we remember that point: on the grounds that challenges can lead to satisfaction later, they should be welcomed, not feared!
The second tip is to share the challenge with others. By exposing your thoughts to discussion and debate you allow them to be themselves challenged and, in turn, to be sharpened up a little, perhaps even abandoned if they were not up to scratch in the first place. Better yet, by putting your ideas out there, others may join in and support you meet the challenge. What was a burden, a hardship, becomes now, little by little, a route to future satisfaction.
There is no argument her that satisfaction – or happiness – requires challenge. Many of the things that make us happy are effortless, part of who we are and what we do. The point at issue here is how to turn a challenge, via a hardship, into an achievement from which satisfaction i.e. happiness can be derived.
From a specific challenge to challenge at work more generally
Thus far, we have spoken about challenge as a specific and one-off event: a challenge comes ‘at’ you, so how do you respond to maximise the chance of creating satisfaction from it?
But challenge at work doesn’t often come in neat packages, post-marked ‘challenge’ and addressed just to you. Challenge can be inherent in the work situation for a variety of reasons that can include pay, workplace conditions, the quality of the leadership, how agreeable the work colleagues are, the level of autonomy you have, etc. All of these can cause dissatisfaction and, typically, often do.
One client of mine, a very large international development organisation, working across the global ‘south’, takes its duty with regard to its staff seriously. Wanting to be an excellent employer, it carries out pretty rigorous employee satisfaction and engagement surveys. In one of its programmes, with about 300 staff, the staff metrics had taken a dive and part of my brief was to examine this, interview staff and propose changes. What was quickly evident was that during a period of rapid growth, many of the staff support functions – HR, IT, finance, procurement, etc – had not been able to keep up with the pace of growth and their shortfalls were showing up in terms of things like out-of-date pay systems, weak approaches to appraisal, recognition and support, a (realistic) feeling of overstretch and under-capacity, leadership skill issues and so on. Addressing these challenges systematically will make a great difference to the working environment and, eventually, to the staff metrics.
But as an individual staff member, how do you cope with this in the meantime? If it’s the working environment that is inherently challenging, how do you manage that, stay sane and even derive some satisfaction from it? In other words, what do you call upon to create satisfaction within circumstances over which you may have little control and which need fundamental renewal?
Certainly, all subtle opportunities for creating a greater sense of freedom should be maximised, be that in terms of improving work-based relationships or greater job autonomy. But the Dalai Lama warns against ‘misplaced tolerance’. For him, the Tibetans must not, for example, tolerate what has happened to their country. They must, he insists, resist it and work (in a peaceful way) towards change. This follows in a work setting too.
Unpacking work overload
A significant source of work dissatisfaction, especially at present, is work overload. In our development agency example above overload was common. Such a common circumstance unfortunately puts a heavy burden our each person in work to understand their limits and to work to them and negotiate around them. This is a particularly heavy burden because it is hard to work out what our limits are, yet harder to negotiate around them, but ultimately this is our responsibility, since going beyond our limits is damaging to us and to those around us.
Managing negative emotions
All this can lead to frustration. So, unsurprisingly, such challenges place a heavy burden too in terms of the negative emotions they can generate. How do we manage these feelings? The Dalai Lama’s advice is again to try to reflect deeply and to place them into context: no situation is 100% good or 100% bad – there’s usually a mixture of both. Once we get away from the black and the white, we can weigh things up better, see different angles, perhaps take new perspectives. The work towards contentment does not pass by complacency, he asserts!
I recall a promotion I really wanted and didn’t get. I was very disappointed and, at the time, blamed everyone, sank into a morass of horrible feelings and refused to come out. Working these things out takes time and turning one’s typical responses round takes time too. My response wasn’t in my best interest, but I didn’t see that then. Indeed, my bad behaviour was rewarded with sympathy and a very good side-move! Not proud, but true. I hope I do better than this now.
- What are your strategies for managing challenges at work?
- When was the last time you successfully turned a challenge at work into new satisfaction?
- Do you know where your non-negotiable limits are?
- How do you build time into your routine to ensure you can reflect and learn, process difficult moments to help engender personal growth?