In one of our Resilient Leadership workshops recently we were discussing the productivity research that supports taking regular recovery breaks at work rather than “pushing on through” fatigue or loss of concentration.
One of the participants described how she had been going to the gym most days around lunchtime and how much more productive she was in the afternoons following a workout. She also mentioned how this had been a difficult action for her to take; in fact, she had worried that her colleagues—other senior leaders—were disapproving of the time she was away from the office. Since her colleagues were in the workshop also, I asked them directly about their views of her gym sessions. Slightly embarrassed, several of them acknowledged that they had in fact been thinking, “How does she have time to do that?” and that perhaps the time away wasn’t a good example to her direct reports.
The embarrassment I think was a consequence of their awareness that on the one hand they know the benefits of daily exercise and time out of the office, for both well-being and productivity. On the other hand, however, this intellectual knowledge wasn’t enough to offset the thinking around being physically present and prioritising work tasks over recovery.
This discomfort is a nice example of a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”, the feeling of uncomfortable tension when we hold two apparently conflicting views at the same time. In this case, the view, “Taking time to exercise is good for my health and productivity” is in conflict with the mindset, “I should prioritise work tasks over recovery time” or “Taking long breaks at work looks like I’m not committed”.
Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways:
- Change one or more of the attitudes
- Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs
- Reduce the importance of the attitudes.
In this instance, discussing the productivity research and this leader’s personal example (new information) allowed this group to shift their collective mindset towards “Taking recovery breaks is beneficial for my productivity”. They also spent some time committing to new actions and behaviours to support this mindset, both for themselves and their teams.