It’s the ultimate life-dream: To be taken under the wing of a benevolent, all-knowing, paternal mentor, who will surface your strengths and open the doors for you into success. While mentors are a real thing, the rest of life doesn’t always work that way. Mentors have their own lives to tend outside of their protégés; their own separate goals, motivations, and perspectives. In a new piece up by Robert Sutton at the Harvard Business Review, even Sheryl Sandberg warned against taking mentor’s advice without a strong dose of salt.
Here’s a few of the points Sutton says you need to keep in mind:
Are you straying from the path that your mentor has taken? Piles of research on “social similarity” or “similarity-attraction” effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices. So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don’t be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake. . .
Do your peers — and those you lead or mentor — know more about you than your mentor does? There is a structural problem with many mentor-mentee relationships that I have implied in past writings: A large body of research shows that, in pecking orders of any kind, the people (and in, fact, animals) who have less power attended more closely to and understand those with more power than the other way around (see here and here). This so called “asymmetry of attention” means that you probably know a lot more about your mentor (who is likely more powerful than you) than your mentor knows about you. Consider some implications. You may be overestimating how well your mentor knows and understands you as a result (and thus putting too much faith in his or her advice). Such asymmetry also suggests that your peers, our better yet, the people who you lead and mentor, may give you the best advice.
Ed Catmull, Cofounder of Pixar, shared with Harvard Business Review how to create a work environment that encourages creativity in everyone. The interview is long, and well worth the read, but his three main takeaways are:
Anyone can talk to anyone: Individuals from every department should have the ability to speak with each other without having to ask for permission. Keep the communication lines open so people can learn and be inspired by each other.
Everyone has ideas: Learn to give and receive feedback in a positive way on unfinished work. Early criticism provides the freedom to try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. Ensure that every department, regardless of discipline, has the opportunity to comment.
Build subcultures: Break up formal departments by creating new ones. Pixar University offers classes for people to try a new discipline or something unrelated (like pilates or yoga). You never know what may come from a chance encounter with another department.
Barriers between people can easily spring up in any industry. Catmull warns that, “in a creative business like ours, these barriers are impediments to producing great work, and therefore we must do everything we can to tear them down.”
On photographer Chase Jarvis’ blog we get a look at how to best schedule our days in order to utilize what Tony Schwartz calls “strategic renewal.” It’s the concept of participating in short activities throughout the day in order to energize us both physically and mentally:
The theory boils down to the fact that we can’t increase the hours in the day, but we can increase the energy with which we make the most of those hours. Taking short, scheduled breaks throughout the day rejuvenates and restores us physically and mentally, helping us plow through those assignments and to-do lists in a third of the time.
Inspired by Schwarz and the studies he cited, I created a Daily Schedule that broke up my day into 90-minute Work Blocks, separated by 30 minute Breaks and, in the middle of my day, a 2-hour lunch. I know some of you just spit your coffee out. But you read that right.
While your Daily Schedule blocks may be different from what is set in the article, the concept remains the same: break your day into 90 minute blocks (which research has shown is the ideal length of time for any focused activity), then sprinkle in a few short chunks of restorative activities. Activities can include everything from walking, working out, a short nap, or anything that gets you away from the work for a short while.
For more information on how to schedule your ideal day to achieve strategic renewal, read the full write-up on the concept over on Chase Jarvis’ blog.
Related: How to Accomplish More By Doing Less
Work conflicts are inevitable regardless of the size of the team. At your office, perhaps the marketers and developers can’t agree on a launch date. Or as a freelancer, perhaps an irate client is strong-arming you into another round of design revisions. But before we try to deal with a conflict, Mark Gerzon, the author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences Into Opportunities, asks us to stop and consider the following question:
Is the conflict hot or cold?
Hot conflict is when one or more parties are highly emotional and doing one or more of the following: speaking loudly or shouting; being physically aggressive, wild or threatening; using language that is incendiary; appearing out of control and potentially explosive.
Cold conflict is when one or more parties seem to be suppressing emotions, or actually appear “unemotional,” and are doing one or more of the following: muttering under their breath or pursing their lips; being physically withdrawn or controlled; turning away or otherwise deflecting contact; remaining silent or speaking in a tone that is passively aggressive; appearing shut down or somehow frozen.
Gauging the temperature of the conflict allows us to deal with the particular situation’s needs. Gerzon suggests that cold conflicts need to be warmed up and that hot conflicts need to be cooled down:
If the conflict is hot: You don’t want to bring participants in a hot conflict together in the same room without settings ground rules that are strong enough to contain the potentially explosive energy. For example, if you are dealing with a conflict between two board members who have already attacked each other verbally, you would set clear ground rules — and obtain agreement to them — at the outset of your board meeting before anyone has a chance to speak.
If the conflict is cold: You can usually go ahead and bring the participants or stakeholders in the conflict together, engaging them in constructive communication. That dialogue, if properly facilitated, should “warm up” the conflict enough so that it can begin to thaw out and start the process of transformation. But you will still need to be vigilant and prepared. Conflict is often cold precisely because so much feeling is being repressed. So you need to skillfully know how to warm it up without the temperature unexpectedly skyrocketing.
As our teams grow, so do the opportunities for conflict. “Conflict resolution, like cooking, works best at the optimal temperatures,” Gerzon says. “You want to bring conflict into a temperature zone where it can become useful and productive.”
For an innovative company like 3M, who invented masking tape, Thinsulate, and the Post-it note, stifling creativity was a major concern after a series of “efficiency boosting” techniques were implemented. On BusinessWeek, Brian Hindo discusses how they’ve struggled since with balancing creativity and productivity. As 3M’s past CEO George Buckley elaborates:
Invention is by its very nature a disorderly process. You can’t put a Six Sigma process into that area and say, well, I’m getting behind on invention, so I’m going to schedule myself for three good ideas on Wednesday and two on Friday. That’s not how creativity works.
Ideas need room to breathe. Researcher Steven Boyd found innovation hard to find when asked to analyze everything from commercial application to manufacturing concerns on his projects. This was a huge departure from 3M’s traditional method of allowing the research department to pursue a wide avenue of topics, engage in long testing periods and provide funding for personal projects. Remember to standardize your process, not your innovation.
Instead of just going through the motions on your next project, look for the hidden opportunities you already have. On The Creative Influence, graphic designer Michael Bierut challenges us to look for opportunities in even the most dull assignments. He speaks about his mentor, designer Massimo Vignelli, when he was asked to sort through the chaos of the New York subway signage during the 1960s. He remembers thinking:
Does that sound like an exciting job to you? I wanted to design record covers for rock bands and this is signs for the subway, what the heck? But Massimo understood that every assignment like that had within it the opportunity to do something of consequence. So imagine that, for many people when you sort of say, “what is New York to you?” Sometimes what they picture is standing on a subway platform under a sign that says ‘Uptown 456.’
As Bierut learned, “every single opportunity has the potential to be something that might have some impact on peoples’ daily lives for years to come.”
At Entrepreneur, social behavior expert James Clear states that in any creative endeavor you have to give yourself permission to “create junk.” Don’t fall under the impression that great minds are able to produce compelling work on their first attempt. As Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, affirms:
It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was so epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.
The catch? You have to finish it. Even if it is the worst thing you have ever created – get it done. Once you have a finished product, you can go back and find what needs revising. Producing something to completion will provide you with the confidence to continue creating — and eventually, something just might stick.