Do Bureaucracies Create Burnout?

I have been a fan of economist Thomas Sowell’s writings for years. He has an amazing ability to condense the complex into the concise. Years ago, he observed, “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” This is not a shot at individual bureaucrats, but the systems they create or were created before them.

I’ll be the first person to agree that bureaucracies are essential to the function of any organization or society. Without process, we would be reinventing the wheel over and over. That said, bureaucracies also foster complexity, caution, and a tremendous amount of “cover-your-butt behavior.” The classic division of motor vehicles scene from the movie Zootopia proves the point. Otherwise, why would it have received 2.6 million views on YouTube?

One of consequences of today’s bureaucracies is burnout. Humans work to earn a living. But they also work to acquire meaning. If you don’t believe me, ask the next random person you meet, “What do you do?” Chances are they will respond with a job title. Since most of us spend eight or more hours a day on the job five days a week, we tend to tie a good portion of our identity to our work.

Unfortunately, our zeal to be creative and productive can be thwarted by endless rules and regulations that drain our energy and defeat our aspirations to contribute. Chances are, you, at one point, have begun a new job eager to make a difference, only to run head-long into processes and procedures, some of which may have seemed unnecessary or even nonsensical. While you may have tried to change the system, chances are you were defeated by the response, “What you’re suggesting makes sense. But this is the way we do it.”

Is it possible to feel burned out by being forced to do less than you’re capable of? Yes! In fact, it can be downright depressing. As much as most people complain about having too much to do these days, you can also feel burned out by having too little to do. Why, because it lacks meaning. And meaning is what drives our psyche. Remember, burnout is a collection of emotions. One of these emotions is the sense of meaning that we derive from what we do.

Is there a solution to feeling burnout out if you’re working in a bureaucracy that seems to drain you of meaning? There’s no magic bullet. It is a rare occasion that someone beats the system. That leaves you with a choice. You can accept the confines placed on your efforts and find your meaning elsewhere. Or you can leave that bureaucracy and find meaning within another organization. Just make sure you do your homework so you don’t end up in a similar situation.


The Only Way to Accurately Screen Applicants is to Watch Them

I have been hiring people, writing about hiring people and teaching people how to hire people for more than 30 years. Every year, I become more convinced that the only way to accurately screen people is to watch them in action. In other words, create simulations and run your most promising applicants through them before making the final decision.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this, ranging from the very simple to the very complex. Here are three that come to mind:

First, Southwest airlines used to conduct group interviews with prospective flight attendants. (I’m not sure if they still do this.) They would sit everyone in a circle and ask each person to stand up and talk about themselves and their background for a minute or two. What the applicants did not realize was that the evaluators were not judging each person on their speaking skills. They were watching to see how well the others in the circle attended to the speaker.

What they would observe would be everything from the applicant who demonstrated genuine interest in whomever was speaking to the applicant who spent all their time preening and perhaps showing impatience about having to go through this. Their reasoning for this exercise was simple. Which would you rather have on your flights; The attendants who were paying attention to customers or those who were self-absorbed when not serving meals or performing safety demonstrations?

Second, prior to the age of factory robotics, Toyota Motors would gather groups of applicants into a room. The evaluators would explain that in the corner were large boxes containing the components for 500 flashlights. The group’s job would be to assemble all the flashlights as quickly and efficiently as possible. Then they would simply say, “Go,” and watch what happened.

By observing individual and group dynamics, the evaluators could gain insights into the natural leaders, those with organizational skills, those with a detail orientation and so on. They could also ascertain those who lacked patience, those who followed others, those who talked more than they worked, and a host of other insights you would not pick up in an interview.

As a result, the evaluators could accomplish two tasks at the same time. First, they could determine who they wished to hire. Second, they could use these insights to determine which applicants would best fit which roles in the assembly process.

Third, the owner of a machine shop in Denver once showed me an aluminum puzzle he had designed. It consisted of about a dozen pieces. It wasn’t too hard to assemble, but it wasn’t too easy either. He would place the puzzle in front of applicants and ask them to assemble it while he watched.

What he was looking for, he told me, were several factors: How was their hand/eye coordination? How well could they see spatial relationships? How perseverant were they when they got stuck? How much patience did they display? How did they approach the exercise in general? Did they look at it with curiosity or as more of a chore? (This would indicate how they might approach projects day in and day out?) Time invested to create this simulation? Just what it took to design and machine the puzzle parts.

You may not own a machine shop, work for an airline, or oversee auto assembly. But the principles behind each of these exercises is adaptable. Including simulations in your screening process, even when there are few applicants to be had, is still a heck of a lot more accurate than three interviews and a resume review.

Are You Thinking Like Larry the Tree Guy?

Larry Meyer trims my trees. He takes care of the maples, cottonwoods and oaks on the properties I own. Whenever one needs to be taken down, I watch with fascination as he climbs 50 feet or more into the upper reaches of a dead tree. He methodically ties off each branch and removes it with the chainsaw hanging from his belt. Then he gently lowers it to the ground without damaging the surrounding landscaping or structures.

Periodically, he stops to assess the situation, planning his next four or five moves. If he cuts a branch prematurely, after all, he can’t use it for positioning, safety, or as a fulcrum to lower other branches to the ground. Occasionally, I will watch him swing from one branch to another in order to reposition himself for the next move. It’s like a one-man ballet in the air.

To me, Larry’s work is the perfect metaphor for how the best decision-makers accomplish so much. I’ve seen Larry stand at the base of a tree for five minutes or more, studying how the branches have grown from each other and how they can be removed in sort of a reverse order. Most of us would get our saws and begin hacking away. For Larry, it’s like studying a chess board. In fact, Larry has told me he spends a great deal of time playing chess.

As I have interviewed thousands of decision-makers over the years, patterns have emerged about how they accomplish tasks and objectives that seem to elude others. Some of these individuals have been corporate chieftains. Others, like Larry, run small thriving businesses that keep millions employed.

There’s Tom, who produces a food industry magazine. Tom told me he is always thinking three and four steps ahead. Because he is both editor and publisher, he has to write the articles, but also sell the ad space. This requires a balance of interviewing company owners for feature articles and getting them to part with several thousand dollars of advertising budget at the same time.

Then there’s Marty, who spent years managing restaurants. On one hand, he had to think several steps ahead to ensure that potential staffing, inventory and food production hiccups were anticipated and addressed. On the other, he had to be the charming host to hundreds of patrons, all while dealing with the occasional complaint or mistake.

Finally, there’s Sarah who oversees the adult division of a university. With an enrollment of more than 8000 online students across the US, she is tugged between the strategy required to lead the institution and the day-to-day challenges of delivering its services. All of this is managed under the ever-present oversight of accrediting organizations and government agencies.

While reading all this, you might be tempted to think, “I think strategically. This is nothing new.” But the bigger question is how often and how well. Unless we take the time to consider the downstream consequences of the actions we’re taking right now, we can end up dealing with the unintended obstacles created by our impulsive, and perhaps impatient, decisions. When it comes to the big projects, we are generally predisposed to planning our work. But how about when dealing with that spur-of-the-moment decision that catches us off guard? Isn’t it worth that extra 60s seconds to step away and think three or four steps ahead?

Larry’s, and Tom’s, and Marty’s and Sarah’s discipline and methodologies have been honed over the years through trial and error. But even now, they are always discovering nuances to improve their process. How about you?

P.S. If you live in the Denver metro area, I recommend Larry Meyer with Northern Lights Tree Service if you need your trees trimmed. 720-203-3186.

The Most Expensive Kind of Question Ever Asked

If you have ever supervised people, you have been on the receiving end of these questions. If you have ever been supervised, you have asked these kinds of questions. If you’ve had to answer these questions, it’s cost you time and focus, sometimes for hours every week. If you’ve asked these questions, you knew you were doing it, but it was so much easier than thinking.

What kind of questions? Lazy ones. They come in many forms. Some start out with, “Can you help me?” or maybe “I don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they end with, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” or “I looked it up on the Internet and there wasn’t any information.”

These questions can become the bane of a supervisor’s existence. Just when you have regained your concentration on the project at hand, someone leans in your door and says, “Got a second?” When you figure out that the question being asked should have been handled by the asker, your impulse might be to yell, “THINK FOR YOURSELF!” But then you conclude that it’s just easier to answer the question than dealing with the blank stare that comes with your demand for independent thinking. But that’s where you’re wrong!

There are three consequences to answering lazy questions: 1) Enablement – It is human nature to learn by observation. If employees observe you answering all their lazy questions, they will conclude that it is okay to keep asking.

2) Cost – Time is money and lazy questions drain your time and attention like nothing else. Answering ten lazy questions a day can run into thousands of dollars per month.

3) Turnover – Asking lazy questions demonstrates the lack of investment the person has in their job. If they don’t care enough to think, why would they care enough do good work or even stick around?

Now, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The issue is what to do about it. In my experience, it comes down to the word “compel.” Compel is defined as having a powerful or irresistible effect. In other words, the person feels like they have no choice except to comply. Notice I used the word “feel.” There is an emotional element to this. You’re not forcing them to do anything. You are convincing them that it is in their best interest to think rather than take the easy way out.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to an educational technique called a “think-aloud.” Imagine a student approaching a teacher to ask for help on something he’s already been shown before. Rather than showing him a second or even third time, the teacher says, “Let’s think this through together. How should we begin?” Then the teacher waits for a response.

The student may be hesitant or even say, “I don’t know how to begin.” In response, the teacher says, “Suppose I was not here and you had to solve this yourself. What’s the first step?” Then he or she remains quiet again.

After a few seconds, the student will suggest a first step and the teacher encourages him by saying, “That’s great. Now, where do we go from here?” This process continues until the student catches on. All the while, the teacher provides a mix of encouragement and guidance, but not answers.  At the end of this exchange, three positive things have happened.

First, the student has developed an understanding of how to solve the problem. Second, the teacher has observed how the student thinks. This informs how he or she should teach and coach the student in the future. Third, in learning this new skill or technique, the student develops additional confidence in his ability to think critically and independently.

The cool thing is that you can take this technique and transfer it directly into the workplace and use it to compel employees to think creatively and independently. Does it take some time and energy to employ this approach? Yes. Will it work every time? Not at first. But after a while employees will begin to understand that you will take them through this process whenever they ask questions they should be able to resolve themselves. This will compel them to think for themselves rather endure this kind of conversation each time. Once you have this practice in place, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the number of lazy questions diminishes and everyone’s productivity rises. I know, I’ve tried it with the people who have worked for me.

So, here’s the bottom line. Unless you try this technique, you are not allowed to complain any more about people who ask lazy questions. I’m just sayin’.

Will Bo Be Ready When He Gets to You?

My daughter works for a university. This summer, she hired a student intern named Bo. Bo is a rising senior and graphic design major. He will be working twenty hours per week, creating video promotions and brochures for this year’s student events.

Erin is looking forward to seeing what he produces. But she’s concerned that he seems afraid to act without explicit instructions. Since she will be in and out of the office quite a bit this summer, she’s relying on him to take the topics and concepts they agree on and turn them into promotions that students will find engaging.

The day before Erin left for a few days of vacation last week, Bo was in her office five times in four hours. Each time, it was for a question he should really have been able to deal with himself. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, Erin told him to use his best judgment. “Okay,” he said, “If I need you, I’ll just text you while you’re traveling.”

Now Erin faces a dilemma. If she responds to his texts, will she be encouraging his behavior? If she does not, will Bo get the work done or wait until she responds to each question? What would you do? After all, Bo could be working for you when he graduates next year.

I sometimes face pushback from young people when I mention this kind of behavior. But Erin’s dilemma another real-life example of the challenge so many managers face. So, what’s a supervisor to do to manage this issue successfully? Here are the three strategies I recommend:

Employ the use of simulations during selection – Let’s face it, interviews do not reveal the decision skills of most applicants. You need to observe them in action. These exercises do not have to be elaborate, but should be based on typical situations made in your workplace daily.

Take a few minutes to jot down five or so of these decisions. Then create a simulation that compels applicants to demonstrate their skills and confidence at handling those dilemmas. You shouldn’t be looking for correct answers. You should be watching to see how they think through each challenge. (In my next post, I’ll provide five illustrations that I’ve seen work.)

Meet new employees where they are – In these times of tight labor supply, I have managers saying to me, “I’m hiring every warm body I can find.” I get that. You can still hire people lacking decision skills. But if you do, you need to be prepared to coach them on decision making from day one.

One manager I know has a simple strategy. When hiring someone who’s lacking in certain skills, he says, “I’d like to bring you on. But I do have some concerns about how well you think on your feet. So, I’m going to put you through some decision skills training first thing. If we can have that agreement, I’d like to have you as a part of our team.” In this way, he establishes a bit of buy-in before the person starts. If the person responds negatively to this condition, he doesn’t want that person on the team, no matter how tight the labor market.

Place parameters around your access – In today’s digital environment, there has emerged an expectation that everyone needs to be available at all times for all questions. This is simply not necessary, but you need to set and enforce practical parameters.

Early in my career, I worked for a director named Don. Don had a tremendous amount on his plate. When I waltzed into his office to ask a question I could have resolved myself, it did not go well. After a few weeks of this, Don said to me, “Why don’t you wait until you’ve got a few of these questions you really need my help on. Then we’ll spend a few minutes resolving them all at once. This compelled me to re-prioritize what I was doing, solve the problems I could, and be well organized when I did approach him.

Over time, we got so in synch that he would hold up his index finger and say “one” when he saw me in his doorway. After we had resolved the first issue, he would hold up two fingers and say, “two,” and so on. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but you get the idea. What will work for you?

So, those are my three recommendations. What are yours? I’d love to know. Respond to this post or shoot me an email at

Is Having Too Many Choices Exhausting You?

My wife and I decided to repaint our dining room last week. On Saturday morning, we drove over to the local home center to select a color. How hard could that be? We wanted something creamsicle-like. You know, like those ice cream bars you buy from the guy playing that repetitive song as he drives his truck through your neighborhood. (Can you hear that song in your head?)

We arrived at the paint-selection wall, and it truly is a wall, to find that the paint manufacturers have created not a few, but close to 30 variations on “creamsicle” paint. After 20 minutes trying to decide which shade we liked best, I felt like I had been through another of those nuisance exercises such as choosing from 100 toothpaste varieties or 50 kinds of salad dressing.  You’ve probably had the same experience.

In the past two decades, the number of choices we have for pretty much everything has exploded. The irony of this is that the brain dislikes choices. Why? Because the brain dislikes uncertainty and uncertainty produces discomfort.

Having too many choices has three negative impacts: 1) This uncertainty prompts the release of the stressor hormones adrenaline and cortisol; 2) We exhaust our supply of blood glucose (sugar energy) as we consider each of these choices and then say to ourselves, “No that’s not it. No, that’s not it. No, that’s not it,” over and over and over. 3) We have to manage the fear of giving up options as a part of sorting through these selections.

Our resistance to giving up options is one of the main causes of indecision. Sales research has even indicated that if you present customers with too many choices, they will abandon the shopping process. With the advent of digital technology, this overwhelming phenomenon has become even more intense.

So how can we effectively manage these endless choice dilemmas? Here are my five top suggestions:

Get clear on your desired outcome. The more parameters you can add to your expectation of a successful choice, the easier it will be to eliminate the many options that may initially cloud your consideration when confronted with having to make the decision.

Determine how important this choice is in the bigger picture. Have you ever found yourself spending WAY too much time making a decision of little consequence? This is probably because you got swept up in all the options. Be proactive about recognizing this phenomenon and work to ignore it. Getting clear on your desired outcome helps with this.

Accept that you will never make the perfect choice, no matter how options you have. The more significant the decision, the more pressure you will feel, especially if others are watching or depending on what you do. The best decision makers make a best faith effort and then act. You’ll never completely please everyone, including yourself.

Jot down the reasons for your decision. Buyer’s remorse is alive and well, whether it’s selecting a new car or hiring an employee. After you make a significant decision, make a list of your reasons for acting the way you did. When having second-thoughts or being challenged by others, you can reference these notes to assure yourself that you made a good faith effort.

Learn from the choices you make. Take time to reflect on both the outcome and the process you used. Author Michael Mauboussin, says “When evaluating other people’s decisions, you are better served by looking at their decision making process than their outcomes.” Try this on yourself.

Life is a series of choices. Don’t waste your energy on the ones that don’t matter. Pick a toothpaste, pick a paint, pick a salad dressing and move on.

The Wisdom of Tim Allen

I have admired comedian and actor Tim Allen’s work over the years. But it would not have occurred to me to include his name and the word “wisdom” in the same sentence, that is until a few days ago. This past week, Tim was invited to give the commencement address at Hillsdale College. In addition to being both inspirational and filled with practical advice, he said something I found very reaffirming, “If you want to be the smartest person in the room, question the smartest person in the room.”

I have spent the past thirty-plus years interviewing and observing top decision makers in all walks of life, more than 3000 of them. Although I didn’t begin my career planning to do so, I can attribute most of my success to what I have learned from these people.

One of the most important insights I gained early on came not from someone I connected with, but from someone I did not. At a conference in the mid 1980s I attended a session presented by Dr. Charles Garfield, author of the book, Peak Performance. Garfield had been a computer analyst and team leader for the Apollo program which landed the first men on the moon. I found his presentation mesmerizing.

At a reception later in the evening, however, I saw him standing by himself, drink in hand looking very lonely. I was tempted to walk over, introduce myself and engage him in conversation. But I was young and new to my job. Unfortunately, my self-talk took over. Who was I to approach the man who had just presented an amazing keynote? What would I have in common with him? Why would he talk with me? Instead of approaching him, I continued to chat with a couple of friends.

This failure to grasp an opportunity haunted me for a quite while, before I finally had a heart-to-heart talk with myself and decided I would never shy away from strangers like that again. Tim Allen is right. If you want to be the smartest person in the room, get to know the smartest person in the room.

Everyone of the top decision makers I have interviewed has been . . . a person. In other words, they’re just like the rest of us. If I have found some of them intimidating at first, I’ve reminded myself that they all started someplace and made something or did something because of what they learned and how they leveraged it. It’s been my job to ask the questions other people would want to ask about how they did so.

Some have been more outgoing than others. Some have been more forthcoming than others. Some have had more patience than others. But all have shared great information. So, here’s a bit of what I have learned about getting the most from these top thinkers when you have contact with them.

Find immediate common ground. I always spend a few minutes before the conversation thinking about a way to open with a topic on which they will be able to comment. Their Linked In profile is a great place to start. If you find the right button, even those who “don’t have time to talk” will go on forever.

Do your homework. If you’re connecting with someone for help on a topic or issue, research the context ahead of time. If that person has to spend their time explaining the basics, the terminology and other information you should already know, you will not have the time to drill down for the most valuable insights. Besides, you will appear unprepared.

Match their cadence. Like many, I talk at 200 words per minute with gusts up to 350. This will shut down the person whose speed of communication is considerably slower. I have learned some amazing things from people who speak in a more deliberate way. But that means I need to adjust my cadence to theirs and let them set the pace of the conversation.

Sometimes you have to draw them out. Some decision makers I have interviewed have been very guarded in their responses. Perhaps they’ve been misquoted in the past. Maybe they’re hesitant around people they don’t know or trust. Whatever the reason, you have to be ready to gently ask for clarification or expansion on what they said. Two of my favorite phrases are, “Can you tell me a little bit more about . . .” and “Would you give me a quick illustration?” Resist the temptation, however, to summarize what they say. Chances are you’ll add details they didn’t include in their clipped responses. Then they’ll say, “No, that’s not what I said,” and you will have created an awkward disconnect.

Listen. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s harder to do than say. It is human nature to interrupt someone with your own illustration or example. Sometimes we do this looking for commonality. Sometimes it’s out of a desire to impress. But here’s the thing: They don’t really need to hear your story. They have been kind enough to grant you some time. Disrupting their train of thought may very well cost you additional insights. Other than asking the questions I have prepared, I try to talk as little as possible.

Bottom line? Top thinkers can share some great insights. But we have to take the initiative to ask and then to listen.

Conquering the Trash Can in the Garage

We have a trash can in our garage, just outside the entry door to the house. I don’t know who placed it there originally, but it sure does come in handy. Trouble is, I miss it about 50% of the time. This happens even when I’m just a couple of feet away. The trash sticks to my finger. A breeze blows through the garage. I overshoot. I undershoot. I’ve even watched whatever I was tossing land right in the center of the can and then bounce out because it ricocheted off something else. This doesn’t happen with any other trash can. Just this one.

Have you faced a dilemma like this? It doesn’t have to be a trash can. Maybe it’s the co-worker with the demanding manner. Perhaps it’s the traffic signal that always turns yellow just as you approach it. Maybe it’s the boss who never arrives on time for meetings he calls. Have these challenges become self-fulfilling prophesies over time? Have you let them consume your thinking? Do you waste time trying to resolve them, even though there’s no solution?

One morning, after I had missed the can four times in a row, I started concentrating on why this could be happening. I thought about moving the can. I thought about a larger can. I thought about slowing down and really taking aim. I even considered eliminating the trash can itself.

Then I thought, “Why am I wasting energy on this?” In reality, it’s a brain game. The brain is always seeking resolution. That’s why we feel uncomfortable during times of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen. The same is true with completion. The brain is looking for closure. If the trash hits the floor instead of the can, my brain will remind me endlessly to pick it up until I do.

These same kinds of triggers occur with the demanding co-worker, the irritating traffic signal or the consistently tardy boss. But we have a choice. We can allow these irritants to consume our focus or we can reframe them. How? Here are a few ideas.

First, look for the humor – From the outside, this entire trash can thing is absurd. So why not laugh at it. Yes, the traffic signal is annoying, so why not imagine the dimwit that should know better than to program it to stop you every time?

Second, distract yourself with a mantra – My favorite mantra is, “Life’s too short,” because it is. We can’t control most of what happens to us. But we can control how we respond. “Life’s too short” alters our perspective.

Third, change the circumstance – Can you alter your route to avoid that traffic light? Can you time your arrival to coincide with your consistently tardy boss? Can you reduce your contact with the demanding co-worker? One small change can make all the difference.

Will this take a bit of time? Probably, but only as long it takes for you to replace this irritation with some other thinking. So, how have I managed my trash can dilemma? Every time it happens, I laugh. Then I say, “Life’s too short,” and I move on to issues to deserve my focus. How about you?

How to Make Decisions When You Have Too Many Options

You know what it’s like. You stand in the toothpaste section trying to decide between ultra-white, super-white, or optic-white. Perhaps you need to choose between the 354 shades of white paint at the home center. Or maybe you’re stuck behind a person in the coffee shop who is overwhelmed by the difference between the upside-down caramel macchiato and the cookie mocha crumble macchiato with whip.

The world has too many choices. The other day, I needed to send someone a very large digital file. I Googled my options. On the first page alone, I found five alternatives, all free. They just wanted my email address. It can be exhausting to navigate through the average day when you’re bombarded by thousands of options.

So, how do you make well-considered decisions when you’re faced with too many choices? Allow me to share a few strategies from the top thinkers I’ve interviewed and observed over the past three decades.

Make fewer decisions – Every decision you make, large or small, consumes some of the blood glucose (sugar energy) your body needs to function. This is the reason you feel tired having battled traffic on the way to work. The same is true if you spend the first 30 minutes of the day clearing emails, Slack messages, texts, and Linked In notifications. The best decision-makers take stock of all the decisions they make during the typical day and work to eliminate, delegate or automate as many as they can. This leaves them with more energy to focus on the issues that count.

Focus your criteria – When was the last time you made a significant decision based on impulse? The options overwhelmed you. You might have simply surrendered because you were tired of thinking. You might have said, “Fine, I’ll just go with that option,” just to get the issue off your plate. The most effective decision makers take time to think through the elements and options before going to the meeting, entering the store, or meeting with the vendor. They also prioritize these elements to reduce the chance of getting sucked in by the “bright shiny object” rather than the critical consideration.

Ask for advice – Effective decision makers proactively ask for the input of others. Where others hesitate for fear of rejection or appearing dumb, these individuals approach anyone they think might be able to share helpful information or insights. That said, they are careful to examine the context within which the input is provided. In an unfamiliar restaurant, they will ask a nearby patron for menu recommendations rather than the waiter who wants to upsell them. In choosing a vendor, they will listen to other customers rather than the team member who keeps pushing for a particular option. Don’t be afraid to ask for input. Just keep it all in perspective.

One of the main reasons people have a hard time making decisions is that they are afraid of losing options. As a result, it can be easy to get stuck out of a desire to keep your options open. This phenomenon has been magnified in recent years by the endless choices on the internet. The best thinkers recognize how easy it is to be overcome by the fear of making a mistake. In response, they work hard to make fewer decisions, focus on their priorities and ask for trustworthy advice. In concert, these three practices enable them to act with confidence and without fear of failure or regret. You should too.

How Many Exclamation Points Does It Take?

I was spending some time with a colleague in her home office. As we chatted, an email popped up on her screen with an exclamation point in the subject line. She glanced at it and then went back to talking with me.

“Aren’t you going to pay attention to that?” I asked. “It looks important. It’s got an exclamation point.”

“Oh,” she said. “I don’t take messages seriously until they get up around three or more exclamation points.”

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “It’s like a priority system. One is normal communication. Two is probably something you should respond to. Three is, ‘Hey, this is important.’ Four and five are critical. Drop what you’re doing. And six or more is usually someone just pissed off about something.”

“How did this get started?” I asked.

“You see,” she said,” we had a manager who seemed to think that everything she sent was critical because she was the boss. So, everything she sent had one or more exclamation points. But after a while we all figured that out most of what she sent out wasn’t all that critical or timely. A few people started mocking her by sending out emails with exclamation points as well. It became kind of a joke and we all adapted.”

“Is she still in charge?” I asked. “Did she ever catch on?”

“Oh, no!” my colleague said. “She’s long gone and no, she never figured it out.”

“So why still do it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s because we all think it’s a bit of fun. You just have to learn that if you come to work with us, you shouldn’t take anything seriously unless it has at least three exclamation points.”

So, what are the take-ways from all this? In a way, it’s like the boy who cried “wolf” so much that nobody took him seriously when there was a wolf. Or maybe the person who yelled “fire” in a crowded theater as a joke and scared the crap out of people. Neither is a good thing to do. The same thing can happen in the workplace. Sadly, the lack of professional maturity on the part of this previous leader unknowingly incited this practice and impaired the communication of the unit until people adapted to her beliefs and practices.

At the same time, this example demonstrates people’s ability to adapt to and read others. When everything is promoted as critical, nothing will be taken as critical. But this team took a step back and adjusted to this leader’s behavior. As a result, they rebalanced communication on their own. On top of this, they also found a bit of humor and perspective in what happened.

What can you learn from this example that will help you lead your team?