Is It Okay to Play Solitaire at Work?

Much has been made about the amount of time people engage in non-work activities on the job. I’ve seen estimates that range from 30 minutes to more than three hours per day. The reality is that no one can remain focused for eight hours at a time. As a result, they look for other distractions. These days, digital technology and the on-line world stands at the ready to take your mind off of the tasks at hand for hours at a time. This is true for everyone, not just the person punching the clock. We all need periods throughout the day to recharge our batteries. If we don’t, decision fatigue sets in and we make careless errors because we’ve lost focus.

So, how to you step away from the current project without losing more time than you had planned? My solution? Solitaire. No, not the type you can find on your smart phone. But the kind you play with actual cards. Why? Because there are no distractions built into the process. When you play solitaire on-line, the screen is filled with other pop-ups, messages, gifs and emojis designed to steal your attention away from the game at hand. If you decide to watch “just one” video on YouTube, you can end up squandering 30 minutes or more because of the algorithms designed to keep you fixated. It’s like Lays potato chips. You can never eat just one.

When you take a break with something offline, you are much more likely to draw line after a shorter period of time. Solitaire with playing cards takes about five minute, two minutes if you deal yourself a really bad hand. I keep a deck of cards close by so they’re easily within reach. I might play two hands if the first one is short. Sometimes I deal two bad hands. Then I know the universe telling me I should get back to work. Whether its Solitaire, reading an article, going for a short walk, or anything else, these short breaks are essential to conserving your energy. Just don’t do them on-line.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll take a break and play a game of solitaire. Who knows? I might even win!

Managing a Boss Who Makes YOUR Decisions

Casey, a young colleague of mine, complained recently that her supervisor continually makes decisions about issues he has delegated to her. This is includes such things as spending her budget and forgetting to tell her and making commitments on her time and letting her know after it’s already be scheduled.

Since this supervisor held her position immediately before being promoted, he knows it inside and out. As a result, it is second nature for him to simply act, rather than taking the time to nurture her development. Besides, many colleagues still think of him as being in that role. So, they still go to him with their issues. Being a new professional, she reasonably assumed that he would act in a logical manner. If he delegated a task, shouldn’t he let her complete it? Unfortunately, that is not happening in this case.

Casey is getting an uncomfortable dose of reality about one of the vagaries of management – the boss who doesn’t let go. This type of scenario is not confined to entry-level jobs, of course. It can happen at all levels. It just gets more nuanced further up within the organization.

Sadly, I’ve heard this story too many times. The incidence of less-than-consistent supervision pervades lots of organizations. As a result, we sometimes break the spirit of enthusiastic newcomers. If this happens enough, these emerging contributors develop a jaded sense about supervision in general. Over time, this becomes very costly if not addressed through effective management training and coaching.

Like you, I feel for Casey. We have all had to navigate at least one manager and their inconsistent ways. So, here’s what I suggested. See if you agree.

Begin by taking a breath. Casey needs to be careful not to let her frustration overtake her perspective. No one likes to have their authority undercut or circumvented, especially when it comes to scheduling and budget. That said, this is an evolving relationship. Since her supervisor held her position just prior to being promoted, she needs to accept that there will be difficulties like this until they reach an understanding about boundaries.

Have some empathy. Since he was recently promoted from her position, this makes him a new supervisor. As much as she is stretching to learn her position, he is stretching to learn how to be a boss. Those new to supervision sometimes lapse back into doing the job they were comfortable with. Why? Because it provides a sense of comfort and security. Unfortunately, it also gets in the way of establishing the parameters necessary for a healthy supervisory relationship. If Casey is patient, much of this issue will probably subside as her boss gets busy with his new responsibilities.

Define the specific issues needing to be resolved. Casey will need to prioritize her concerns. She’s not going to be able to “fix” her supervisor. These issues are best handled one at a time. If she marches into his office with a list of concerns, it won’t go well. She needs to choose her battles. Which is more important right now, for instance, control over her personal schedule or control over her budget? If she is observant, by the way, she can learn about how to manipulate the budget, something she probably has little experience with.

Develop an approach that is supervisor-centered. While Casey is the one with the issues, she is asking her supervisor to change his ways. This is not something easily accomplished. We are all a product of our habits and routines. She’s going to have to convince him that these changes will be for his own good. It will save him time. It will reduce his heartburn. It will provide opportunities for him to establish better relationships with the other people he supervises. It will also make him look good when his boss sees that Casey is thriving in her job independently.

Keep your eye on the bigger picture. This is the first of what will be many supervisory relationships Casey will experience. Each one is a learning experience. Patience can be in short supply among new professionals anxious to make a difference. The best leaders and decision-makers discover that preparing well, anticipating others moves, and supporting their bosses priorities is the best way to navigate organizational culture and advance their own careers. Casey can either embrace this or resist it. Hopefully, she will embrace it.

What do you think? Is my advice on target? What would you add? What would you modify? I, and she, would like to know. Comment on the post or e-mail me at

Do Beliefs Inform Behavior?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend reminded me of the old saying “beliefs inform behavior.” Everyone reading this post has heard this adage, or something similar. While we mostly invoke it when considering our outlook and perspective, it is critical for supervisors to consider it as well.

In managing people in a variety of settings over the past 35 years, I’ve always found it fascinating how different people respond differently to identical instructions. Some just put in their time and the absolute minimum effort. Others put everything they’ve got into the task, regardless of what’s involved. Then there’s the bunch that fall somewhere in between.

If you’re a seasoned manager, you’re probably thinking, “All of this is common sense.” Maybe, but how much do you use these insights to inform the way you supervise people?  Here are a few suggestions, based on my experience and those of others I’ve observed over the past three decades.

First, find ways to assess work ethic. The longer I study management and supervision, the more I am convinced that everything starts with selection. If you are not placing candidates in a situation where they are compelled to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, and creativity you’re only getting half the picture. You can’t change someone else’s work ethic. So if they don’t have it to begin with, don’t hire them, no matter how much you’re tempted. If you already have an existing team, consider what seems to motivate each individual. Even those who count the minutes on Friday afternoons are engaged by certain things. You just have to find out what they are.

Second, ask people what they think. I read Jon Huntsman’s autobiography recently. Over the past 40 years, he and his team have built the second largest chemicals and plastics producer in the world. Time and again, he mentions that the key to acquiring and turning around failing chemical plants has been to ask the people working there how to improve the company’s functions. When was the last time you asked your employees how to improve things and incorporated those suggestions?

Third, offer opportunities your people will find engaging. Once a skill or routine has been mastered it becomes repetitive, regardless of its complexity. Even the most devoted employee will grow bored with day-to-day tasks. The formula is sadly familiar: Boredom informs belief. Belief informs behavior. Whether you provide cross-training, release time for new research, industry association involvement, or some other activity, consider what can you do to reinvigorate solid performers who feel locked into a dead-end routine?

With the turnover of each employee costing tens of thousands of dollars these days, paying attention to belief and outlook is an essential element of supervision.

Knowledge is Not Power If You Don’t Share It

The phrase, “knowledge is power” is commonly attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600’s. Regardless of its origin, some people interpret this statement as an entreatment to collect information for the purposes of building control and influence. After all, if you know it and someone else doesn’t, you have the power.

The best decision-makers recognize, however, that there is a critical corollary to this principle; You cannot leverage this knowledge if you do not share it. Leaders who keep secrets unreasonably, make those they lead suspicious of their motives. Managers who refuse to empower others with reasonable authority, engender resentment, distrust and employee turnover. The same thing is true of researchers, policymakers, and anyone else who trades in the currency of knowledge. Those who openly share their knowledge, with proper discretion of course, enjoy the trust and support of those around them. When challenging times arise, it is these people who rush to aid the decision-makers making tough choices.

Granted, the journey to this philosophy can be uncomfortable. First, there is our natural tendency to want to hold on to something once you’ve got it, whether this is property or influence over others. Then there’s the issue of trust. Will those with whom you share the knowledge use it appropriately and help you achieve your goals and objectives?  Finally, there is the discomfort fostered by the establishment of a new habit or practice. It’s just so much easier to remain in your comfort zone and do what you’ve always done. This is true, by the way, whether you’re a front-line supervisor or senior executive.

But no has one ever achieved the levels of success and influence society applauds by hoarding knowledge. So, how do you go about making this transition?

Observe and learn from those who do so. Consider the best decision-makers you know. How do they disseminate their knowledge and information? With whom do they share it? On what basis do they make these choices? If you don’t know, ask them. The best thinkers are usually happy to share their strategies. That’s how they developed their skills and insights. To open the conversation, you might say something like, “I’ve admired how you seem to use your knowledge to lead others. Might I buy you a cup of coffee sometime to find out how you do it?”

Decide what will be most helpful to share. Consider the knowledge you use to do your job. Who might benefit from knowing it as well? Sharing your knowledge allows you to delegate tasks, thereby saving you time and allowing you opportunity to learn new things and make new connections. It’s been said many times that the only way one moves up within an organization is to find a suitable replacement for your present position. The only way you can do this is by sharing your knowledge. Besides, if you covet information, people will eventually find ways to work around you. You don’t have to be an open book, by the way. In fact, oversharing can send the wrong message.

Begin incrementally. As I mentioned above, adopting this approach can be uncomfortable. You might be nagged by the thought that you’re giving your power away to others. Start by assigning the little tasks you should not be doing anyway. Train the appropriate person on how to perform the task. Then empower them by saying something like, “This task is yours now. Make your own decisions. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but I am expecting you to make it your own.” If it is a considerable task, they might be uncomfortable at first. But if you persist in empowering them, they will embrace the authority.

Leveraging knowledge is how the best decision-makers empower others, leverage their time, enhance their personal power and achieve their goals. What can you do to implement the three strategies above to leverage your knowledge?

Making Decisions When the Boss Won’t Share

I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”

I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?

Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.

Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.

If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.

Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”

No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.

Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.

Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.

Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at I’d be happy to help.




The Four Word Phrase that Improves Decisions

At one point or another, a store clerk or customer service representative has probably said it. You thought you had asked a simple question. Maybe it was about getting the discount one day past the sale. Perhaps you were returning an item you discovered was damaged. Maybe you just wanted to switch colors. In all of these cases, the person across the counter responded with, “Let me check with my manager.” You probably thought, “Why can’t this person just make a decision?”

This kind of response is not limited to customer-facing situations. In any workplace, there are individuals who seem to check with the manager anytime there is even the slightest possibility of a mistake or misinterpretation. They distract us from our own work, engender a sense of paranoia, and drag down productivity.

In most cases, these people know what decision to make. It’s just that they fear something that nags more and more of us these days – blame. In other words, they don’t want to get in trouble if something goes wrong. Chances are, they’ve witnessed someone else getting reamed for an understandable mistake. Perhaps that person followed the procedure exactly and something unforeseen happened. But rather than taking time to examine the situation, the supervisor descended on them with “What did you do wrong?” They not only felt bad, they felt humiliated.

When everyone else saw what happened, they said to themselves. “I’m not taking any chances. I’ll ask every single time if there’s a possibility of something going wrong. I don’t want to get chewed out for an innocent mistake.” When this happens enough, the entire culture becomes overly cautious.

So, if you’re a manager who has to overcome this kind of cultural apprehension, what do you do? Use one four-word sentence — “I’ve got your back.” This simple phrase accomplishes three objectives. First, it assures everyone that they’re not going to be blamed for good decisions if things go wrong. Second, telling people, “I’ve got your back,” reinforces a sense of trust in the workplace. Third, when you tell people, “I’ve got your back,” it provides you with the opportunity to compel them to start making those decisions about which they are hesitant. We need more independent thinkers. This is a good place to begin.

Not everyone will buy into this approach at first, especially those who have been burned by a “what-did-you-do-wrong” supervisor. But if you are patient, persistent, and supportive, the cultural paranoia will begin to recede. Granted, this will not work with everyone. There will always be a holdout or two. But this may be more because they are lazy decision-makers than concerned about the risk of blame. How do you address that? I’ll save those insights for another post.

Improving Performance Does Not Have to be Rocket Science

Sometimes it’s the basics that produce the best results. A while back, I met Bob a manager for the Hot Topic retail chain. You’ve probably seen one of their stores in the mall. They advertise themselves as Pop Culture and Music Inspired Fashion. Target market? Well, just visit one and you’ll get the idea. Most of their patrons are ages 18-30, as are their employees. But in a world where the average retail employee leaves within four months of being hired, Bob has been able to retain his people for three times as long. How? Three simple strategies – He teaches them the business. He compels them to make decisions and he makes it fun. Allow me to explain.

First, he teaches them the business. Most retailers show their people how to fold the tee-shirts, work the register, and locate inventory. Bob takes time to explain how the store makes money. “Know that special that we’re running on jeans?” he’ll say for instance. “That’s called a loss leader. We don’t make any money when we sell them. But it draws customers into the store where they’ll buy items where we do make money. By the way, if you sell them at the sale price after sale is over, we’ll lose money. So please don’t do that.” When the store is slow, he’ll show whoever’s around how that $30 piece of jewelry nets the store about $3 after cost-of-goods, rent, wages, advertising and so on.

Second, Bob compels his people to make decisions. His typical response to questions requiring judgment is, “What do you think?” No one gets a pass. In a world where young people have learned to look on a screen for most answers, Bob believes it is his responsibility to compel the development of critical thinking. Those working for him long enough learn that lazy questions will be met with this response every time and that they had better start thinking for themselves. Even if they resist at first, deep down most understand his motivation and work up to his expectations.

Finally, he makes it fun. One strategy is to run point-of-sale competitions between his employees. Every so often, he will spend a bit of time teaching those working the marketing principles behind point of sale. You know, that’s the area around the registers where customers make impulsive buying decisions and where most stores earn a good portion of their profit. (“Let me grab a couple of candy bars while I think of it.”) Then he’ll divide the team in two and assign each one the left of right side of the register and give them the opportunity to merchandise it. After a week or so, he’ll tally up the sales from each side and buy the winning team a pizza.

Bob will be the first person to admit that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for all this. He knows that few of his employees will follow him into a career in retail. But he takes comfort that he’s teaching basic life skills and educating those who work for him a bit about how business works. Besides, his store earns a healthy profit simply because his employee turnover saves thousands of dollar per year in training, overtime and hiring. You’re probably not in retail. But how can you adapt Bob’s strategies to your organization? I guarantee you it will pay off.


Does Your Workplace Suffer from Brittle Decisions Making?

Not long ago, I went to return a tool I hadn’t used to the hardware store from which I had purchased it. Unfortunately, I could not locate the receipt. “I’m sorry,” the clerk said, but unless you have the receipt, I can’t issue the refund.”

“It’s unopened and it’s the store brand,” I responded.

“Yes,” he replied, “But you could have purchased it from another store that’s not part of our company. Then we’d have no way of recovering our money.”

“So, you don’t trust that I bought it here,” I said, testing the young man’s resolve.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he responded.” We just have a very strict policy about returns.”

Now, in truth, two things had probably happened prior to this encounter: 1) Other people had returned items they had not purchased at this store and 2) Someone had hammered into this clerk NEVER to accept a return without a receipt as a result.

Concluding that I was not going to get any further with this individual, I asked to see the manager. At first, the manager started with same line about not having a receipt. But then he realized that what he was saying seemed a little extreme. After all, it was a $10 tool. Did he really want to chase me away as a customer over something this small? After a couple of seconds, he apologized for the inconvenience and issued the refund.

As I left the store, I thought, “This is an example of brittle decision making.” What is brittle decision making? It’s becoming so focused on the policies dictating how to handle every situation, that there is no room for reason. Chances are, you’ve been through an experience like the one I described. Most of us, like the store clerk, have learned to take rules at face value, regardless of whether they apply in a particular situation. As a result, we get trapped in the dilemma of whether or not to “break a rule” when the best resolution seems to fall outside of what is allowed.

Over the past generation, we have become more of a society of rules than reason. We’ve seen it in our legislation, our laws and our enforcement of those laws. We’ve also seen in business.  What large corporation does not have policy manuals that run thousands of pages? This focus on rule thwarts the impetus of those with responsibility for making decisions. Even if I am told to use my judgment, I may very well hesitate simply because I don’t want to get in trouble. This is especially true if I have been corrected in the past over what seems to be a nonsensical policy.

Those who have matured in their thinking, such as the people reading this post, have developed the confidence to “defy” the rules occasionally simply because they recognize that the policy forbidding a particular decision doesn’t really apply. But what about those on the front line, who lack the background and confidence to throw caution to the wind and act in a way that seems reasonable?

One on hand, many of us complain that people don’t think for themselves. On the other hand, we institute a new rule every time a mistake is made or something doesn’t go exactly as planned. Ironically, we then deal with the law of unintended consequences, where every exception to the new rule seems to appear the minute the new rule has been promulgated.

So, what to do? First, resist the urge to make rules for every conceivable situation. Second, tell the people who report to you that they should use their best judgment and that you will support them when honest mistakes are made. Third, when errors in judgment occur, process what happened and ask “what can be learned.” But don’t instantly institute a rule to prevent it from ever happening again. Bottom line, trust your people to think and compel them to do so. Over time, the quality of daily decision making will improve along with productivity, customer relations, and overall outcomes.

Just because you can measure something . . .

One of the blessings of digital technology is the access it provides to so much information. But that’s also one of its curses. As we all battle daily decision fatigue, the exponential growth of accessible data has begun to overwhelm us.

A colleague of mine serves as dean of education for a university. Part of her job is responding to the myriad reports mandated by various federal and state accrediting agencies. Over the past ten years, she has watched the data demanded by these organizations explode in volume. Sadly, much of this information is never reviewed once submitted. She knows this because of conversations she’s had with regulators who give her blank stare when she asks about certain data they’ve requested. One even said, “I didn’t know we asked that.”

Like many people, I fly regularly. At the end of every flight, I receive an email survey asking me to review the flight. Two hundred flights – two hundred surveys. I’ve begun to delete them all. Everyone endures the endless website pop-ups asking us to review items we’ve purchased or services provided. With few exceptions, the data is meaningless because no one completes them unless something went wrong. If we want to make an informed decision about anything, we now have to sort through reams of statistics, reviews and mostly meaningless information on a quest to find the half-dozen relevant insights.

But enough ranting about the problem. What’s the solution? There are two – If you are dealing with this headache, install a pop-up blocker on your computer. Look for patterns of where the meaningless surveys come from and unsubscribe or block their emails. Take a minute to think about the best description for what you need before searching on-line. Then type in specific keyword phrases. Use quotations around specific descriptions to limit suggested links. Have a second e-mail address you can give when a site demands one for access to a free report. To some, this may sound like common sense. But how proactive are you in employing these strategies?

Now, if you are creating this headache by asking for information simply because you think it might be helpful at some point for some reason. STOP IT! All you’re doing is irritating your customers, clients or constituents. Just because you can measure something, doesn’t mean you should.

Don’t Take Stats at Face Value

I was listening to Colorado Public Radio the other day. In a story about the challenges facing today’s high school students, the host said, “Twenty percent of Denver Public School students deal with some sort of mental illness.”

My first thought was “Wow! One in five students. That’s terrible!” But being part social researcher, my mind then went to: “Says who? How large was the sample? How are they defining mental illness? Was this a study based on student self-reporting or observation of student behavior? This is a story about high school students. How much of the sample was elementary and middle school students? What hypothesis did the researchers begin with? Who conducted the study? How qualified were the researchers? Might there be research bias because of who paid for the study?” and on and on.

Now, before you accuse me of being anal about all this, remember that the results of this study, and others like it, are using taxpayer dollars to fund programs related to this issue. Likewise, we use statistics to persuade others to make all sorts of decisions every day – “Four out of five doctors prefer . . . Nine out of ten customers recommend . . . Raising the sales tax by one tenth of one percent will lift 270,000 children out of poverty.

Does all this sound familiar? We tend to play fast and loose with statistics of all kinds and that can get us in real trouble. Chances are, you do it yourself. There is a natural human desire to be the authority in the room and quoting statistics helps us fulfill that role. But how many times do any of us ask about the veracity of the statistics we hear? Even if they are well researched, are they appropriate for the particular argument? A statistic that tugs at my heartstrings will not help me make a rational decision. Yet that is a common tactic for many attempting to raise money or pass legislation.

Surprisingly, very few scientific or social studies are replicated by others to check their veracity. As a result, we are left to trust that those conducting the research have collected accurate data, employed the correct analysis, and reported their findings without bias. Sadly, we are seeing more and more evidence that research is being conducted with a particular outcome in mind. The discredited blood sampling research conducted by Theranos Corporation comes to mind. Or perhaps the “hockey stick” controversy that resulted from manipulated climate change data. Additionally, the media, political parties, activists, corporations and others commission research that feeds a particular agenda. The result is that more and more of us take quoted statistics with a grain of salt because we’ve seen evidence of manipulation in the past.

Statistics, used with appropriate context and clarity can be extremely powerful in helping us make informed decisions. But without proper effort to verify their accuracy, we can be easily misled intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes we want to believe something so much, we look for evidence (statistics) that support our desired outcome. That’s a form of confirmation bias.

When we rely on the research and reporting of others to make significant decisions, we should kick our “crap detectors” into high gear whenever statistics come into play. We all have a responsibility to look at quoted statistics with a skeptical eye, whether we’re news reporters, politicians, corporate leaders or citizens in the voting booth. After all, our outcomes, large and small, depend upon it.