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August 28, 2019

Our 6 best workplace ‘hacks,’ according to Advisory Board experts

Daily Briefing

    Ready to hit the ground running after your Labor Day vacation? Advisory Board experts reveal their tried-and-true workplace secrets for how to ward off burnout, give better advice, get better feedback, and win over your coworkers. 

    Your guide to a healthier, happier workplace

    Secret #1: Don't give advice before asking at least one question

    Jenn Stewart

    By Jennifer Stewart, Executive Director, Research

    My (hard won) workplace secret is: especially if you are a leader, always ask at least one question before you offer advice. 

    I'm always fighting the temptation to try to solve problems as soon as I hear them. While my intentions to jump right in are good, I've learned over time that they don't serve me as well. Rather, I've found that if I don't ask at least one question, I end up making incorrect assumptions about someone's intentions or offer the wrong kind of advice.

    A mentor shared that the secret is to slow down and learn more. You can ask something as simple as:

    • "What was your reason for doing X?"
    • "How do you think X worked?"
    • "What do you think the best answer is?"
    • "What kind of help are you looking for?"
    • "How confident are you in your proposed solution?"

    Bottom line: We all know leaders who state the obvious, or give the wrong kind of feedback; my hope is that asking just one question can save me from doing so. 

    Infographic: 7 must-have conversations between managers and employees

    Secret #2: Want to do it? Block time for it. 

    Matt Cornner

    By Matt Cornner, Managing Director, Talent Development

    Time is the scarcest resource there is. In my experience, burnout is less often a result of sheer workload and more often a result of the misalignment of time with one's priorities— both personal and professional. To ensure my time is aligned with my priorities, I block everything on my calendar, from travel time, to thinking time, exercise time, and time with family.

    While my daughter was in elementary school, she got on the school bus every morning at 8:15 a.m. and got off every afternoon at 3:15 p.m. I had standing, recurring appointments on my calendar to drop her off at the bus and pick her up from it every day that I worked from home. That time probably meant more to me than to my daughter. But by blocking it on my calendar and consistently protecting it (not allowing it to be scheduled over), I was able to serve the most important priority in my life.

    Professionally, I likewise block time for critical priorities. Rarely do I have big empty spaces on my calendar. One significant priority I block is "heads-down time." I use that time for everything from focused preparation for an upcoming client presentation, to time with trusted colleagues with whom I engage in free, unbounded thinking about the future of our business. This allows me to practice the discipline of working "on" the business as opposed to simply working "in" the business, where the urgency of the now often crowds out this important time. 

    By being intentional about budgeting time with the same care and precision I might budget dollars, I feel a sense of balance and integrity with respect to the things that matter most—personally and professionally.

    Infographic: How to become an inbox ninja

    Secret #3: Harness the unpolished product

    Matt Cornner

    By Anne Terry, Managing Director

    I come from a product management background, and am constantly experimenting how to bring the iterative process approach Agile into my non-technical work. One of the most powerful for me is using the concept of a "minimum viable product" as a way to invite and enrich collaboration.

    What does that mean? I've switched from spending a ton of time and effort putting together polished drafts for the work I want feedback on, to building the roughest possible sketch, draft, or prototype. I use a lot of sticky notes, pen and paper, tape, etc. as well as intentionally minimal PowerPoint slides. What I've found is that when I bring someone a highly polished version of something, I often get tepid feedback either because the person is afraid of undoing all my hard work or because it looks like all the decisions have been made. However, when I sketch rough ideas and share those, it’s an invitation for people to ask questions, brainstorm with me, and push my thinking.  I not only get better feedback (and often make major changes without undoing tons of work), but can harness the vulnerability of imperfection to create a sense of trust and shared ownership over the end result.

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    Secret #4: A phone call can save 100 emails (or texts or IMs)

    Matt Cornner

    By Brandi Greenberg, Managing Director, Life Sciences

    As a remote worker and manager, I'm very conscious about how I communicate with people. I try to be very deliberate about not only what I say and how I say it, but the channel I use to communicate. Email, instant messaging, and texts can be very efficient channels for quick questions or confirmations, but I find that, all too often, my teammates and I rely on them too much. In many instances, I find I can get to a faster, better decision—with greater stakeholder buy-in—when I go "old school" and just pick up the phone.

    Therefore, I've adopted a general rule that, if my teammates and I have gone back and forth more than two times via written dialogue, a quick phone conversation is likely a better use of everyone's time. I try to be sensitive to the fact that the introverts and extroverts on my team aren't equally comfortable with email, phone, or in-person meetings. But, in general, I continue to find that my productivity, problem-solving, and engagement go up when I'm balancing today's email or text traffic with a healthy dose of phone (and video-chat) conversations.

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    Secret #5: Embrace the magic power of the donut

    Thomas Seay

    By Thomas Seay, Executive Editor, Daily Briefing

    Here's a deceptively simple "hack" I've learned repeatedly in my professional life: People really love donuts.

    I first learned the power of the donut when I was in my early 20s, working in one of my first jobs, trying to make friends and earn credibility with my colleagues. One summer afternoon, an otherwise-normal team meeting took a turn for the disastrous. I've forgotten the details, but suffice it to say that some coworkers accused others of deliberately undermining the team's work. It was clearly a toxic conversation, and I had no success whatsoever in de-escalating it in the moment.

    At a loss for next steps, I turned to the smartest person I knew at improving relationships in the workplace: my mom, who was a small business owner and accomplished manager.

    Her advice was simple: "Just bring in donuts tomorrow morning." Why donuts, I asked? "Well, they're partly a peace offering," she told me, "but also, it's hard to dislike anyone who's feeding you a donut."

    Sure enough, 12 Krispy Kreme donuts worked wonders. They didn't magically fix everything, but they rebooted the conversation. They gave us a chance to reconnect as human beings.

    Since then, I've seen again and again the power of donuts to reset relationships that have turned sour. (Cookies, bagels, and brownies work too!) And of course, you don't have to wait for a breakdown in trust to unleash the power of donuts. Just bringing in a few treats on occasion can do a remarkable amount to build team spirit.

    The catch is that the offer of the donut must be heartfelt. If people feel like you're trying to buy their goodwill with a pastry, they'll be rightly offended. But if you're able to give someone a donut with a genuine (if implicit) message of, "Hey, I like you and want everything to be all right between us," it can help close nearly any rift.

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    Secret #6: Find something that 'fills your cup'

    Craig Pirner

    By Craig Pirner, Managing Director, Talent Development

    Try to find something about your job that "fills your cup"—i.e., serves to replenish your motivation and soul. And then, see if the tasks you certainly perceive as mundane or annoying are, in fact, hidden opportunities to fill your cup.

    For example, it fills my cup to teach others and help them think differently about a situation. If I feel overwhelmed or irritated by my inbox, I find that it helps me to find the teaching opportunities that exist within it. Where can my response help someone discover how to think through an issue more constructively? Suddenly, something that seemed overwhelming becomes an opportunity to do something that brings me happiness and inspiration.

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