In this episode, Maura Thomas, shares her experience and observations on how to improve productivity in an organization. Maura is a speaker corporate trainer, author of three books and a contributor to Forbes and the Harvard business and productivity consultant that creates predictable business success by empowering individuals to make the most of their moments and by empowering organizations to unleash the genius of their people.
Some topics we discussed include:
- Why distraction is an underappreciated problem in most organizations
- The role culture plays in organizations to aid productivity or the lack of it
- How to improve productivity in an organization by understanding how culture and leadership are fundamentally intertwined
- How does culture influence the leadership styles that “work” or fail to “work” in an organization?
- Do productivity tools really help
- The four quadrants of attention management
- How to improve productivity in an organization starting with job descriptions
- How leaders should view, training in relation to attention management and productivity
- What strategies can be used to build awareness of productivity issues and to empower the organization to make a change that furthers productivity
- and much more
00:00 Maura Nevel Thomas: You're listening to the Predictable B2B Success Podcast. I'm Maura Nevel Thomas, a speaker, corporate trainer, author of three books, and a contributor to Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. I help create predictable business success by empowering individuals to make the most of their moments, and by empowering organizations to unleash the genius of their people.
00:23 Vinay Koshy: Maura, thanks so much for taking time out to join us on the podcast.
00:28 Maura Nevel Thomas: I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
00:30 Vinay Koshy: Pleasure. Maura, you've had quite a journey in this space of productivity. But I'm curious, was there a defining moment, or perhaps moments that set you on this particular trajectory?
00:46 Maura Nevel Thomas: On a trajectory of being a speaker? On a trajectory of attention management?
00:51 Vinay Koshy: Attention management and productivity, and helping individuals with that, in particular.
00:57 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yes. My first job out of college was in the productivity industry. And I worked for a company that sold paper-based planners back in the day, now everybody knows how old I really am. [chuckle] And I worked there for a long time before starting my business, which had a couple of different iterations before I landed on the fact that the expertise that I gained in my 10 years in the productivity industry before I started my business, was really the most saleable skill, most unique skill that I had, helping make people be more productive.
01:37 Maura Nevel Thomas: And about a decade ago, I started to really dive into the fact that the whole concept of time management is impeding our pursuit of productivity. Because time management implies number one, that we can manage time in some way, which assumes that we have some control over it, which we don't. Time marches on no matter what we do. It also assumes that not having enough time is the primary reason that we aren't being as productive as we could be.
02:10 Maura Nevel Thomas: And since every person who has ever walked the face of the planet, has the same amount of time, not having enough time can't be the reason. I think in the 21st century, our base problem is distraction, too many distractions. And if distraction is the problem, then attention management is the... Attention is the antidote to distraction, attention management is a better solution than time management.
02:36 Maura Nevel Thomas: So I started shifting my business, helping people be more productive through managing their attention, and bringing them around to the idea that they... That time management is an outdated idea.
02:49 Vinay Koshy: I'm also curious, what would you say is your personal area of strength?
02:54 Maura Nevel Thomas: It is helping people understand that they have control, that they are empowered. We often behave as if we are at the mercy of our technology, at the mercy of our crazy, distracted environment. And in fact, we can create boundaries around our attention. And if we create those boundaries and enforce those boundaries, other people will honor them. And so while we can't make anyone do anything, we can influence their decisions. And so empowering people in that way is a message that really resonates with people. And I think it is part of what makes me good at my job.
03:31 Vinay Koshy: Okay. And in that area of strength, is there something that businesses should know but don't?
03:39 Maura Nevel Thomas: Absolutely. Distraction is a really underappreciated problem in organizations. The most unique competitive advantage that businesses have is their... Is the brain power of their employees. No other company has your employees with their brain power. And collectively, those employees are also a company's largest expense.
04:10 Maura Nevel Thomas: And they are not maximizing that brainpower, because we hire these people for their brainpower and we look at their resume and we interview them to determine the level of their brainpower. [chuckle] And not just their knowledge and their experience and their wisdom, but also how they apply it, right?
04:29 Maura Nevel Thomas: There are... And there are other qualities that also come out of their brain, like their compassion, and their empathy and their understanding and their humor, and their kindness and their generosity and all of those things that also come out of your brain. So we hire them for these things, and then we put them into an environment that daily sabotages, minute by minute, sabotages their ability to really unleash that brainpower in the service of the organization. And most business leaders don't recognize that.
05:02 Vinay Koshy: Would you say that it is perhaps more of a culture issue in organizations, and perhaps even the leadership?
05:10 Maura Nevel Thomas: Absolutely. But how is culture formed? Culture is the result of the behaviors of the employees, and especially the behaviors of the leaders. So when leaders behave in ways that create a challenging environment for people to really unleash their brainpower, I call it brainpower momentum, right? When they sabotage employees' ability to build up that brainpower momentum in the service of the organization's success, then their... It is their behaviors that are sort of undermining their team's ability to do their best work.
05:48 Vinay Koshy: Now that can seem like a bit of a big issue, but perhaps more fundamentally, in today's day and age where even my phone's spitting out recommendations about the latest productivity tools that I could be using. From what I'm hearing you say, it is more about skills rather than tools. Would that be correct?
06:09 Maura Nevel Thomas: Absolutely. It is a... This, the tools are important, but the tools alone don't help, right? That would be like saying that if you wanna be a pro golfer, just go out and get whatever tools, whatever golf clubs a pro golfer uses. And then that's all you need to be a pro golfer. We...
06:32 Maura Nevel Thomas: That sounds ridiculous when it comes to golf, and yet we behave that way in business, because an organization will say, "Well, we need to track our projects, so we need some sort of project management tool. Now, here's the project management tool, so now, all of our project tracking problems will be solved," right?
06:49 Maura Nevel Thomas: "Oh, we have a productivity issue. Here's a productivity suite of tools, so now you shouldn't have any issues with your productivity, here you go." And it is the collection of behaviors and habits that you use to work, and how you apply those behaviors and habits to your tools that actually determine your success.
07:13 Vinay Koshy: And how would you recommend that organizations, or even individuals in the workplace become more aware of their habits and behaviors in order to give their... In order to manage their attention appropriately?
07:28 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah. There... My second book, Work Without Walls, is all about how to create a productive culture. But some of the biggest problems in organizations that I can pull from that book have... Are also some of the ones that can be easy to fix. So one example of how an organization...
07:51 Maura Nevel Thomas: How leaders' behaviors is undermining their team's ability to do their best work into marshal that brainpower momentum, is the way that we treat communication tools, like email, and other team collaboration tools like Slack, or Teams, or those types of tools. We have confused the availability of synchronous communication with the expectation of synchronous communication.
08:23 Maura Nevel Thomas: Just because we can communicate in real time, it doesn't mean we always need to. And so leaders, for example, will convey the message to their team that the team needs to be responsive, and they just leave it at that, and there's no real definition of what does responsive mean. And responsive to whom?
08:48 Maura Nevel Thomas: And is responsive different for the CEO, or the VP of Marketing than it is for the customer service person, or the office manager, or the account rep? And so... So they just say "responsive". And so the team defines responsive as fast. Well, by responsive, he or she must mean fast.
09:14 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so if a fast response time is good, then an immediate response time must be best, right? And so if an immediate response time is best, then I always have to have all my communication channels open at all times, so that I can see every message as it arrives and determine what needs in an immediate response and one can wait until later, which means that I am distracted virtually every 30-60 seconds.
09:41 Maura Nevel Thomas: And can't get no other work done, and can't apply myself in that meaningful way to the work that really requires the brain power that you hired me for to begin with. So there's one example.
09:54 Vinay Koshy: You talk about the four quadrants of attention management. Would that be another useful tool of being personally aware of where your attention's being skewed?
10:07 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah, the four quadrants is a contextual model that I came up with to help people determine how to manage their brain states and manage their attention, and to use it in the way that best serves the moment. So, it's a four-quadrant model, and the two axis that determine the quadrants are how much control you are exerting over your attention, and how much attention you get as a result.
10:40 Maura Nevel Thomas: And the combination of those factors create the four quadrants, which are, reactive and distracted, which is when we are... We have all kinds of plates spinning, many computer windows open at one time, trying to work on this email and then answer the phone, and then somebody drops in at the office and then back, "Now, where was I on this email?" And then, "Oh, but I gotta do that proposal. Let me open that." That is the way most of us spend our days, and that's not useful for thoughtful work.
11:16 Maura Nevel Thomas: So the other three quadrants are; focused and mindful, day dreaming or mind wandering, and flow. And if you can get our understanding of each of the quadrants and ask yourself which brain state, which quadrant is going to best serve me for the task at hand, or the thing that I'm doing right at this moment and make a conscious shift, "Wait, I need to get out of this reactive and distracted mode and allow my mind to wonder a little bit because I have to ponder this problem."
11:46 Maura Nevel Thomas: Or, "I need to get focused on this report that I have to do." Or, "I really need to apply myself. Let me see if I can, if I can marshal some flow to that I can really do my best work." So if you can recognize in the moment the state you're in and consciously shift to the one that will serve you the best, then you will achieve more of your significant results every day, which is my definition of productivity.
12:11 Vinay Koshy: So, in order to bring about a shift in the thinking of a team or with an organization, would it help to run through these four quadrants as well as an exercise where people are more aware of the multitasking habits that they're engaged in?
12:32 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah, there's an article on my website that would serve this. I would say maybe not in this moment, but go to maurathomas.com, search for "four quadrants" in the search field, bring up the article, "understand the quadrants". And then what I would suggest, the exercise, which comes from my book, is to ask yourself, "If I were hiring to replace myself," whatever your role is, but if it was your job to replace yourself because you got promoted, let's say.
13:05 Maura Nevel Thomas: How much... What percentage of your time in each quadrant do you think ideally would produce the best results? If you were to hire someone to replace you and you wanted to tell them, "Here's how I suggest you spend... You split your time." Find out what those optimal... Or make a guess as to what that optimal split is, and write that down, and then ask yourself, "Now what's accurate? How do I actually spend my time?"
13:37 Maura Nevel Thomas: And see where the delta is, and then you can make some conscious decisions about how to move more toward that ideal state, than the state that you just find yourself in every day when you're not intentional about it.
13:52 Vinay Koshy: Would you say that mapping that out is a good way to recruit someone for a potential role in conjunction with a culture fit?
14:08 Maura Nevel Thomas: We have to be careful when we're recruiting. I am surprised at how many job descriptions still read something about multitasking. "Multitasking is required," or "Multitasking is beneficial," or "You have to be able to multitask to work here." My question for them would be, "Do you really want people to be doing multiple things at once? Because studies show that that's really not successful."
14:37 Maura Nevel Thomas: When we are trying to do multiple things at a time, the quality goes down, sometimes as much as 44% more mistakes. And the time expands. It might feel like you're getting more done when you're multitasking, but the truth is the exact opposite. And so I would ask recruiters, leaders who are looking to bring on more staff, really be careful about the skills that you are looking for. And I think maybe you don't mean "multitasking", you might mean "multi-skilled", which is fine, but not multitasking.
15:11 Maura Nevel Thomas: So that would be my first suggestion when recruiting. And then think about, again, for some roles, for maybe like an office manager role, you might want somebody who can keep a lot of plates spinning in the air, but for a programmer, you're gonna want somebody who is pretty good at managing their attention and can stay focused for those extended periods of time.
15:36 Maura Nevel Thomas: And other creative roles as well, not just technical roles, but for marketing roles and for positions where innovation and creativity is important, use of our brain, marshalling those resources in more than two minutes at a time is really important for those roles. So that's some advice I would offer for...
16:00 Vinay Koshy: Okay. I can...
16:00 Maura Nevel Thomas: Consider attention management when you're hiring.
16:03 Vinay Koshy: I can see how attention management would be important, given that, as you said, a lot of people seem to be asking for multitasking in their job descriptions. Does it make sense, given that... Given the times that we live in, that a lot of companies seem to be moving towards things like sprints on a weekly or even monthly basis, where they've got a number of items that need to be picked off on their to-do list, and there is a lot of pressure to get those things done.
16:41 Vinay Koshy: Because on one hand you've got reporting to managers and leadership within the organization to ensure things get done and are moving along, but there's also perhaps an element of micromanaging. If as the right term to use. So what would be the best way to balance this up in order to make sure that there is an actual sense of productivity? Is it just deciding as an organization that we choose one metric to go after and focusing on that? Or is there a better way of approaching this?
17:13 Maura Nevel Thomas: Well, I think results outcome based metrics are always the most useful, especially when it comes to knowledge work, because it is very hard. Knowledge work metrics are difficult because they're intangible. The industrial age metrics are a lot easy to quantify, because you produce more widgets today than you did yesterday, your productivity went up.
17:39 Maura Nevel Thomas: But when in a knowledge work environment where the outcomes of knowledge work are things that are difficult to quantify, and even sometimes difficult to qualify, it is much harder to recognize those metrics. But to answer your micromanaging question, one of the things I hear from leaders a lot is that they can't get their own work done because their people are always interrupting them.
18:07 Maura Nevel Thomas: And they feel like it's their job to be available to their people, and so it becomes a quandary of, "I can't get any of my work done because my people are interrupting me all day, but part of my job is to be available to my people. So how do I deal with this?" And really what I would say is that when... If your team is always coming to you with questions and issues and they want your help with these issues and you always grant them that help, "Sure. Come on in, let's talk about it. Tell me what you have going on, I'll see how I can help."
18:37 Maura Nevel Thomas: That's great from a mentoring perspective, but you might actually be inadvertently disempowering the team and giving them the impression that, "Yeah, every time you run into a problem in your job, bring it to me, and I'll help you work it out." And so you're either disempowering them, or it might be a sign that you don't have a safe environment to make mistakes, and so you're creating this need for your team to really CYA all the time, cover your mm-mm, right?
19:07 Maura Nevel Thomas: Is that, "Well, don't get mad at me because I talked to Vinay about it and he said it was cool. So it's not my fault, it is his fault," right? "So I can't get in trouble because I got approval before I did this." And that's not a culture that's going to be agile and adaptable and able to survive the, just major disruptions that we're all living through right now.
19:31 Vinay Koshy: What about training? Because sometimes, there's potentially the fact that certain employees aren't very familiar with a new approach or a new project that they might... Or the details of a new project that they might be dealing with. And so need to spend a lot of that time trying to gain an understanding or learn some aspects of it, which takes them away from their real focus within a sprint or whatever system an organization might be using. How should leaders view training in relation with attention management and productivity?
20:16 Maura Nevel Thomas: I would say that if your organization, if the schedule of your people is such that it feels like learning is a luxury that we don't have time for, [chuckle] then you've got a dire culture problem on your hands. I understand that we're all moving at a fast pace, but part of a team's challenge is when they're trying to understand, wrap their arms around a project, is that the leader wasn't clear from the beginning.
20:51 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so I'll give you an example. I had a client, I trained her whole team, and then she asked me if we can have a follow-up call. And so we did. And she told me, "Alright, so I'm incorporating this project into what you taught me into your workflow management process. And here's a project that I have and I'm not sure what to do with it."
21:10 Maura Nevel Thomas: "The project is that my boss manages 10 divisions and I'm the head of one division and I have nine other peers. And the project that my boss has tasked me with, is to create better relationships with those nine other peers so that we can work together more closely. So can you help me move forward on this project?" And I said, "How will you know when it's done?"
21:38 Maura Nevel Thomas: And she said, "I have no idea." And I said, "What does it mean to have a 'better relationship'?" And she said, "I have no idea." So you can't do a project that is that vague and unclear and oftentimes... There is that balance between making sure the outcome is clear, but not micromanaging them for how they get it done.
22:03 Vinay Koshy: So that would imply that communication is a key part in all of this, especially within organizations. How should a leader go about facilitating communication so that everyone's on the same page, and understands how best to be productive?
22:22 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah, well, one of the biggest impediments to people's productivity is that they don't really have a good handle on their workload. So one of the... So I teach a workflow management system, it's called Empowered Productivity. Attention management is one component. But another component is what I call, "action management".
22:40 Maura Nevel Thomas: Most people manage their actions, their responsibilities, their tasks, their projects, through some combination. Both personally and professionally, because we can't pretend that people don't have anything going on in their personal lives. They do, right? And so they come to... They report to work every day, whether that's in their home office or at the office, with their head already full of, "Oh my gosh, we're outta milk and the kids need soccer cleats, and I gotta pick up the dog at the groomer at 4 o'clock."
23:06 Maura Nevel Thomas: So they come to work with their head full of all of their personal stuff, in addition to their professional stuff. And when I ask people, "How do you really keep track of all that?" They tell me, "Well, it's in my head. It's also on some sticky notes. It's also on these lists on legal pads that I have scattered on my desk."
23:24 Maura Nevel Thomas: "And I've got some things that are flagged in email that I have to get back to. I've got some saved voicemails, and I can take this notebook to meetings with me everywhere I go. Oh, and I have that app that we have to use 'cause the company makes us, and so there's some stuff I need to do in there."
23:37 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so that's like trying to do a puzzle when all of your pieces are scattered all over the house. You can't. And so having a way to corral all of those responsibilities and understand, "Really how many pieces are in this puzzle? What's the best way to tackle this puzzle? What's the best use of my time in the moment? How do I prioritize putting the puzzle together? What's most important?" And you can't know that if you don't really have a good handle on your workload.
24:10 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so, to answer your question about communication, when people have a good workflow management system, they have all of their projects centralized and organized and prioritized. Really, it could be on a list, but the point is that it's all together. And so then when the boss comes to the team member and says, "Hey, we want you to take on this new project," instead of... A lot of people these days, in their head, are screaming, "No, I've got... I'm too busy and I can't take one more thing."
24:40 Maura Nevel Thomas: But that's not a good response to your boss. If you had a good handle on your workload, the response instead could be, "I'm happy to do that. Did you also realize, though, that I already have these 14 projects on my plate right now? Can you help me to prioritize these? Which one should I bump to fit this one in?" Or, "How can I make this work in a way that works for you?"
25:04 Maura Nevel Thomas: So if the boss is using a workflow management system, and the team is using a workflow management system, when they communicate, they can say... They can use the same language and say, "This is what I'm working on. And the order in which I am working on it is... Do you agree that this is true and this is right, and are we on the same page?" That's a big communication breakdown inside organizations that I see.
25:24 Vinay Koshy: Okay. We are working in different times where a lot of us are, as you said, working from home. Is there anything we need to be aware of as we deal with remote work? Managing by objectives is one, communication is obviously critical piece, is there anything else that we should be looking at?
25:43 Maura Nevel Thomas: Absolutely. I published an article recently for Harvard Business Review called, The Downside of Flex Time. When we are working from home, and especially when school is starting and people have homeschooling that they have to sort of fit into their responsibilities, or taking responsibility for the children and also getting work done in a variety of home situations that we have.
26:11 Maura Nevel Thomas: When people work from home, by default they are going to work whatever hours they can. So this idea of "flex time", the company has no control of that anymore. When people are reporting to an office, you can control it, somebody can say, "Can I work 10:00 to 7:00 instead of 8:00 to 5:00?", and the boss can say yes or no.
26:34 Maura Nevel Thomas: When everybody's at home, flex time is a given, and the boss has no control over it. And so because everybody's working different hours, people are gonna start communicating at all different... I'm working, and that means sending emails and sending Slack chats and doing all this stuff.
26:50 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so if 11 o'clock at night happens to be the time when I get the best work done, now other people might start to feel like, "Well, if people are communicating at all hours of the day and night, I clearly have to be responsive at all hours of the day and night." And so flex time becomes always on around-the-clock working.
27:13 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so my suggestion to solve this problem is to identify inside the company, when we're in the office we call it work hours. We agree that business hours are 8:00 to 6:00 or whatever. For distributed teams, I recommend what I call "communication hours", and that might be, the company communication hours are 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM, Pacific Standard Time.
27:40 Maura Nevel Thomas: If you need to work outside those hours, that's fine, just don't impose your work schedule on everybody else. Use things like the scheduled send feature in Outlook or Gmail, for example. So compose the emails all you want, but just schedule them to go out during communication hours. Also if you're on those team collaboration tools, you can have global settings that say at 6:00 PM everybody automatically goes into do not disturb mode.
28:07 Maura Nevel Thomas: So people can be working and posting, but you're not gonna interrupt any other people. So that's one way to deal with that and to prevent that from becoming a real burnout challenge.
28:21 Vinay Koshy: Certainly. I wonder if that will work though, with people scattered across different locations, as some SaaS companies are these days is. But as you... We would need to pick a particular timeframe or time zone to go by and implement those same procedures. Would that be correct?
28:38 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah. It is a little bit more challenging when you're dealing with a global workforce, but it's not like because I work with a team in Thailand, I either have to go on to Thailand hours, which, I live in the US but I work on their hours. That's one way to do it. Or you have to realize, "Well, when you're awake, I'm asleep, and so we're just gonna have to figure it out how that's gonna go. And if you email me, I'm not gonna respond to you until 8:00 AM my time. And you're gonna have to understand that."
29:13 Maura Nevel Thomas: So it is more challenging in that case, but it's still possible. And it's still necessary, because as much as communication continues around the clock, can continue around the clock, human beings cannot.
29:26 Vinay Koshy: Yeah. Which also raise an interesting point in my mind, that of self-care, especially given the times that we're living in. Obviously, I think it should make sense to most people that we ought to take care of ourselves first in order to be productive and be able to contribute to others. What would you say needs to be done in that space for organizations?
29:50 Maura Nevel Thomas: I think people really don't understand the necessity of downtime. Even if your work energizes you, you will still be more creative and motivated and invigorated in the long run if your brain does other things besides work. So when you have a more varied existence, like you read books and you see movies and you go to museums and you travel, and you have disconnected time to really make a break from that work-type thinking, then you're going to be better at your job when you come back.
30:29 Maura Nevel Thomas: Also because for knowledge workers, your brain is the most important tool that you bring to work every day, you have to recognize that your brain works optimally when your body gets enough sleep and proper nutrition and exercise and hydration. All of those things make your brain operate optimally. So the thing is, in order to be our most productive, in order to be our most efficient, we have to make the best use of the resources that we have available to us.
31:03 Maura Nevel Thomas: And everybody is a big fan of efficiency, "I definitely wanna make the best use of the resources that I have available to me." But what they forget is that your most important resources are not your time or your money or even your attention. Your most important resources are your body and your mind. And so if your pursuit of productivity comes at the expense of your physical or your emotional well-being, it is destined to fail.
31:32 Vinay Koshy: Okay. Employee satisfaction is obviously important. Would perks that encourage downtime and self-care be a good way to engage your employees and increase their satisfaction levels?
31:50 Maura Nevel Thomas: I think perks that encourage downtime and self-care absolutely would. I think the problem is that a lot of companies implement perks, so-called perks, that make their employees' lives more convenient. And that's a different kind of perk. Really, what they're doing is that they're making it more convenient for their employees to spend more time working. [chuckle]
32:19 Maura Nevel Thomas: And that really defeats the purpose. So I would say if the perk nearly prioritizes the employee's well-being, then it's truly a perk. If the perk prioritizes the needs of the organization, then it's not really an employee perk.
32:37 Vinay Koshy: Okay. Another topic of debate especially around productivity is that of social media at work. Would you recommend that social media be locked down? Or it's... Is it something that you would encourage given that we're all social beings, and communicating with people, family and friends is very much part of the course of daily activities?
33:03 Maura Nevel Thomas: So that's not really the question I would ask. Should we allow social media or should we not allow social media at the organization. The question I would ask would be outcomes based. "Are there people for whom their excessive use of social media is damaging their performance?" And if so, then we need to address the performance and not try to solve for the behaviors. It's, "Your performance are not up to standards and so you need to spend more time off of social media."
33:39 Maura Nevel Thomas: Maybe that's not really why their performance is suffering. So would you keep the focus on outcomes and you solve problems based on outcomes. And also, don't... We have a tendency to make rules for the worst offender, one person spends too much time on Facebook so now we have to outlaw Facebook in the company, for example.
34:00 Maura Nevel Thomas: Although, that might be a good idea in some cases. But the point is that, address the issues individually when you can, rather than making global blanket statements that apply to everybody that might have unintended consequences that aren't beneficial.
34:24 Vinay Koshy: Okay. So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're not really encouraging measuring productivity through things like time tracking apps and things of that nature. Or necessarily doing an audit of what activities you've covered during the week, but rather looking at outcomes that need to be achieved. Would that be correct?
34:47 Maura Nevel Thomas: In a distributed team, I think it's really important for performance to be outcome-based, because we tend to still use industrial age metrics such as how much face time in the office. So, managers might think, "Well, they're very dedicated, and I know they're dedicated its because they're in early every day and they leave late every day, and I always see them sitting at their desks. And so, clearly they're very dedicated." Okay, maybe. Maybe, maybe not.
35:23 Maura Nevel Thomas: And when you can't see them sitting at their desk, that is also contributing to this kind of responsive culture, because it's sort of proof. If you email me or if you text me and I respond right away, then clearly I'm obviously working, and now I'm proving to you that I'm working. And that's just a real downward spiral if that's the way that you're measuring success in an organization.
35:52 Vinay Koshy: So that would dampen morale, so to speak. Are there ways in which the leadership and culture could foster a bit of morale within the organization?
36:04 Maura Nevel Thomas: There are many ways to foster morale in an organization. When you ask experts what motivates people... I think we make assumptions about what motivates people. And of course, there's a long list of what motivates people, and when I ask people, "What do you think motivates your team?" They say things like recognition and money.
36:22 Maura Nevel Thomas: Some people say fear, promotion, advancement. And those are probably all true. But the top two things according to research that motivate people, are progress and meaning. And so when people feel at the end of their day like they got a lot of important stuff done, that's the best thing you can do for morale.
36:47 Maura Nevel Thomas: And if they are feeling like they... If they don't feel that way at the end of the day, I think that's where productivity training and training on workflow management and the kind of skills I teach, really comes in handy. Because, is it because they really have too much to do, that's overwhelming them? Or is it just that they're overwhelmed because they don't have a good way to manage a reasonable amount of work?
37:14 Maura Nevel Thomas: That's just a skills gap that you need to fill, and when people feel that they've accomplished more important things at the end of their day, they're gonna feel better about their job, they're gonna feel... That's gonna make them motivated and more engaged.
37:31 Vinay Koshy: Sorry. I lost that last, perhaps couple of sentences. It just dropped down.
37:36 Maura Nevel Thomas: When people feel more accomplished, when they get more of their most important work done on a daily basis, they're gonna feel more satisfied and more accomplished at the end of their day, which is gonna make you feel better about their jobs and therefore makes them more engaged, and therefore make them happier and more productive. So it's a positive cycle that is created.
37:58 Vinay Koshy: I'm just thinking of an organization, let's say a financial institution that's been around for 100 years where the culture has evolved over that period of time. Do you know of examples where leaders have been able to come into similar types of organizations and being able to effectively reinforce helpful aspects of the culture and dilute the more harmful aspects?
38:26 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yeah. A culture change requires a big commitment at the top. A culture will never change if it's not embraced by the leadership at the highest levels of the organization. And actually, a culture effort that isn't really embraced by the higher levels of the organization will actually damage culture even more.
38:51 Maura Nevel Thomas: Because then you create an environment where, "Here's what we say is how we operate, but here's actually what we do." And so then new people come in and they... Or existing staff feels like, "Well, we say this all the time, but this is really how things get done here." And so that just further erodes the culture.
39:12 Maura Nevel Thomas: So it absolutely needs to start at the top, and it needs to examine issues, many, many issues. But some of the things that I brought up, like, "What are your... What are our expectations for our team? Do we really expect them to be available around the clock really?" Because sometimes it's like, "I know it's not good for them, and really I don't really want them to, but we need it. It's just the pace of business. It's what has to happen."
39:42 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so that means things are never gonna change, so it has to be both... It has to be an intellectual understanding but also a real commitment to the beliefs.
39:56 Vinay Koshy: Sure. Would you recommend that we follow the models of certain leaders who've been able to do a similar thing successfully?
40:08 Maura Nevel Thomas: I think that there is a concern... There can be a challenge to looking at what other people have done and trying to model them. You just can't do that in a vacuum. You have to examine your own circumstances, your own beliefs, and look at a policy and help modify it to your own situation.
40:33 Maura Nevel Thomas: And that's really where I believe outside help from consultants and trainers and other subject-matter experts can really objectively tell you where your problems lie and how to fix them, but you have to be willing to hear things that you might not wanna hear. And so if you're really hiring some outside expertise but you don't actually wanna hear what they have to say, then that's gonna be not a good use of corporate resources.
41:05 Vinay Koshy: Would bringing awareness be a good first step before we actually start addressing the issues around productivity?
41:15 Maura Nevel Thomas: When clients come to me, I ask them, "What prompted you to reach out to me?" And they'll say, "Well, it just seems like everybody's stressed." And so then I'll say, "Well, what makes you think that everybody's stressed? How is that manifesting inside the organization?"
41:35 Maura Nevel Thomas: And then we get to the real issues. "Well, people are working around the clock." "Well, why are they working around the clock? Do they feel like they have... Do they have to work around the clock? Are you creating the expectation that they work around the clock?" So it's really, I think any good consultant is going to do that.
41:55 Maura Nevel Thomas: It's just questioning, questioning, questioning, and going deeper and deeper until you wanna cover, "Aha, there. There's the root of it." Now, if we're really gonna solve this problem, we have to solve it at the root.
42:08 Vinay Koshy: Certainly. But in terms of bringing this into an organization, would you say that there needs to be certain ways that will make people aware so that they will be receptive to information and instruction around productivity?
42:24 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yes, you... I always recommend that the leaders who reach out to me engage the team in choosing the solutions. Because no training on any topic is ever going to be successful if the people being trained are thinking some version of, "I don't understand why we need this. This doesn't make any sense. Why do I have to sit here? I don't have time for this." So employee buy-in is a really critical piece of making any sort of initiatives, training, professional development initiatives, successful.
43:05 Vinay Koshy: Terrific. Is there any other aspect of improving productivity in the organization, whether it be for a leadership or even culture perspective, that we should look at but haven't as yet?
43:20 Maura Nevel Thomas: Well, have you got a couple more days, Vinay?
43:25 Maura Nevel Thomas: I think we've given people a good start, certainly a good start. Like I said, Work Without Walls is the book that I wrote that is dedicated to helping leaders create a productive culture. But again, a productive culture starts with teams who are... It starts with the well-being of the people on the team.
43:49 Maura Nevel Thomas: And so, for those leaders who have a real, honest, sincere vested interest in the well-being of their employees, I think that they'll get a lot out of the advice in the book, and that might be a great place to start.
44:04 Vinay Koshy: And if you were listening to this episode, what would you say would be your top takeaway?
44:13 Maura Nevel Thomas: Well, it depends on if I'm a leader listening or if I'm a team member listening. So I will just tell you that the most important message that I try to convey to people is that, yes, we live in a fast-paced world. Yes, technology is actively working to steal our attention. Yes, it's a very demanding environment.
44:41 Maura Nevel Thomas: And despite all that, you still have the ability to control your own attention, to create your own boundaries, to enforce those boundaries, to really determine whether or not you are going to live a life of reaction and distraction, or a life of intention and choice. You have the power.
45:03 Vinay Koshy: Certainly. Thank you, Maura. Just curious, where would you recommend that listeners head to if they wanted to find out more or connect with you?
45:14 Maura Nevel Thomas: Yes, a great place to start is my Attention Management Assessment, which they can find at maurathomas.com/assessment, so they can assess their own attention management skills and get advice from their results about some first steps that they can take in in the process. That's if they're looking for help with their own attention management, for help to create a productive culture rooted in attention management in their organization, maurathomas.com/work-without-walls.
45:53 Vinay Koshy: And any social media platforms that you're most active on? Or would you say the website is?
46:00 Maura Nevel Thomas: They can follow me on Twitter @mnthomas. Or they can also follow me on the Forbes Leadership Channel, I have a column there.
46:07 Vinay Koshy: Oh, I'll include links to that in the show notes as well. Maura, thank you so much for doing this.
46:12 Maura Nevel Thomas: Thanks for having me.
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Links and resources mentioned
- Get a copy of Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity – Every Day
- Get a copy of Work Without Walls: An Executive’s Guide to Attention Management, Productivity, and the Future of Work
- Four Quadrants of Attention Management: A Model to Maximize Productivity
- The Downside of Flex Time
- Check out Maura’s site
Connect with Maura
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