When your preference becomes someone else’s problem

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 6th July 2021

In a recent online presentation, one participant challenged me on the need to separate their filing system from their Inbox. You see, their preference was to just leave every email they received in their Inbox, and they just worked from that. They felt fine about having many thousands of emails in their Inbox, and strongly believed this strategy was simple, efficient and caused them no problems or stress. When I came along and suggested that the most effective workers try to get their Inbox to zero at least once per week, he just could not see the point.

Faced with this I could have talked about the research that suggests that overfull Inboxes lead to heightened stress levels. Or I could have laid out the reasons why I believe that keeping your Inbox clear gives you more clarity and focus. But I felt that these arguments would have set us up for a battle of opposing philosophies that would not have served him or the group.

So, I asked him a few simple questions. I said ‘I get that your preference is to leave everything in your Inbox, and that suits your workstyle. But does it suit those around you? Do you become the person that regularly has to be chased for responses because the original email got lost in the clutter of your Inbox? Do you let things slip through the cracks because it is hard to see the outstanding actions in the piles of emails in your Inbox?’

I do not know whether these questions changed his mind or his behaviour, but I know that they made him stop and think. I know that they cut through his focus on what was good for him and got him thinking about what was good for the team around him.

You see, we all have preferences for how we work. And we will tell ourselves stories about how these workstyles are good for us. But we don’t always stop to think about the impact of our behaviours on others. How our preferences can become other people’s problems.

When I work with teams on creating more productive cultures, I talk about the mindset that we should adopt to always try to work in a way that is productive for ourselves and the group at the same time. This is what I call Game Theory Productivity (Hat tip to Dr John Nash, made Hollywood famous in A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe). It is all about win-win.

So, have a think about your preferences and habits. Do they work for you? Do they work for the people around you? Or do your preferences become problems?

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