Interestingly, there is this multinational company whose training explicitly explores boredom. They start with the scenario: “You are at work. You have had no break. What you are doing seems meaningless to you. You notice an unpleasant feeling slowly rise within.Your mind wanders. You fidget. You reach for a sweet, crave a cigarette. You want to escape, to be anywhere but here. There is only one word for it. You are bored”.
It may feel familiar to many of you.
The leader goes on, talking from their own experience and says “ we want to do all we can to help reduce the likelihood of you being bored here, through the tasks we give you, embracing personal differences, caring about the environment we create for you and matching the right people with the right job. But you also have to take responsibility. And we are going to help you learn to do that. To listen to your boredom when it does arise – because there are benefits to be had”.
Well I don’t know if this company exists (it was a daydream), but I do believe it should happen.
Boredom. Described as one of the plagues of modern society* it affects our work and our lives generally. Probably because we neglect it as an emotion ourselves, it has been considered the neglected emotion in research. Or perhaps it is because it’s propping up a few industries.
Mum wouldn’t let us say we were bored. How can you be bored in this beautiful world she would say? She has a point. But it is common. It may be inevitable. And it exists for a reason. It can manifest itself in disengagement, dissatisfaction, disruption, destruction...and curiosity, creativity and change. If we can learn to manage it, we can reduce its negative impacts. If we learn to listen to it, we can embrace its gifts. As leaders who create the environment in which people perform, we have a particular responsibility to address it in our own lives and of the organisations we lead.
Drawing on some of the research out there, we can...
Too little, too much, are you getting the task level right? Fisher (1993) distinguishes 3 ways tasks can create boredom. We can actually not have enough work (quantitative underload). It can be repetitive and not utilise our skills (qualitative underload). In the words of organisational poet David Whyte*, “work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow part we bring to the door”. On the other side of the spectrum, our tasks can also be so difficult and confusing we can’t hold our attention (qualitative overload). I do wonder how many UN meetings suffer because the issues at hand are so complex, our leaders switch off, overloaded.
Care for the environment
We know from running leadership programmes that learning and performance is maximised when there is both high support and challenge. This is true also of the organisational environment. What are you doing to ensure this, in practical, intellectual and emotional terms? Furthermore, whether it is in the board meeting or on the factory floor, providing variation and opportunities for interaction, ensuring breaks and reducing red tape all serve to help. And knowing the impact of social influence on perceptions, how are you and your peers talking about the work?
Embrace people difference
Boredom isn’t an attitude – it is transient, in that we can feel bored one moment and not the next. We all have different boredom thresholds. People likely to get bored more often may be amongst the most interesting; they can be sensation seeking extroverts or be so fearful that they shut themselves off*.There are even those who take pleasure out of boredom*. How does your recruitment cater for differences? Being aware of our thresholds influences the work we choose. Research done on medical and psychology practitioners, for example, distinguish between those higher sensation seekers who choose to work in crisis intervention situations (such as emergency rooms and rape crisis centres) and those peers who work in nonemergency settings*.
Max the match
It goes without saying boredom is less likely to happen when there is a good fit between the task and person. Asking the psychologist used to working in emergency conditions, to go and work in the court probably isn’t the best fit. However, it is also about the match between the situation on offer and what the person wants. If the psychologist sees what’s in it for them, that will help significantly. What are you doing to help people understand the value of the work, to them?
Notwithstanding the importance of the above to reduce the likelihood of boredom, the challenge for ourselves is to actually hold our nerve to let the boredom exist and speak its wisdom. Kiechell (1984)* noted bored executives often “start to bug people” by attempting to micromanage subordinates, or may be tempted to acquire another company just for the excitement. So rather than channel our boredom in potentially unhelpful ways – if we can train ourselves to look at it mindfully, there are fruits to be had.
Mindfully, we learn to notice those feelings inside us when they arise. We observe them with openness and non judgement, without reacting in our automatic familiar ways. Rather we sit with them, accepting their transient nature. And we listen to what they are trying to tell us to do. This is because boredom is often a sign that we need to get curious. Something needs to change.
Listening to it from this mindful state, we have a greater chance of responding in a constructive way. It could be that we need to:
· change activity...take a break, engage with others, go and do that more urgent task occupying our minds
· ask for more or less support/ challenge and understand what’s ‘in it for me’
· change our thinking - engage our ‘beginner's mind’ to come into the situation afresh, think positively (for it is a beautiful world after all) about what we are grateful for in this moment, offer empathy and compassion to ourselves and others
· change how we view the job to make it more interesting through new goal-setting
· have the courage to speak our truth and challenge the status quo with new ideas
· commit to choosing a path that fulfils our own deepest needs and desires.
Interesting how many options there are in being bored.
Penelope Mavor is a Consultant at Impact Italia.
Fisher, C. D. (1993). Boredom at work: A neglected concept. Human Relations, 46, 395-417.
Pekr, R; Goetz, T; Daniels, L. M.; Stupnisky, R. H.; Perry, Raymond P. (2010) Boredom in achievement settings: Exploring control – value antecedents and performance outcomes of a neglected emotion,
Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 531-549
1. Klapp, O. (1986). Overload and boredom. New York: Greenwood Press. And Spacks, P. M. ( 1995). Boredom: The literary history of a state of mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Quoted in Pekr, R. et al (2010)
2 Whyte David, The Heart Aroused, Audio Book
5. Best C.L & Kirkpatrick, D.G. (1971) Psychological profiles of rape crisis counsellors, Psychological reports, 40, 1127-1134 AND Irey, P.A. (1974), Personality dimensions of crisis interveners vs academic psychologists, traditional clinicians, and paraprofessionals, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southern llinois University. Quoted in Fisher (1993)
6. Kiechell,W. (1984) Chairman of the bored, Fortune, March, 175-176. Quoted in Fisher (1993)