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Over the past decade, it has become increasingly popular to substitute a one-word mantra for New Year’s resolutions, setting an operating motif for the year: “balance,” “prioritize,” “concede” and “equanimity,” for example.

Leadership coach Alli Polin calls New Year’s resolutions pressure, while the one-word mantra can be “a lighthouse in the dark.” Here are a few lighthouses to consider.

Subtract

The managerial instinct is to accomplish more. There are always new ventures and new vistas to conquer. New programs. New customers. New locations. More, more, more.

But the epidemic of burnout is a sign it’s not working all that well. We’re doing more and getting less. Machines sputter when the engine is flooded, and so do organizations. That’s why, after brainstorming, Apple executives would winnow their ideas down to 10 – and chief executive officer Steve Jobs would subtract seven of them.

Effective managers should be helping to manage the flow of work, developing priorities. That’s essential to the role, but too often forgotten.

Leidy Klotz, a professor in the schools of architecture, engineering and business at the University of Virginia, urges us in his book, Subtract, to try less before more. When you are contemplating changes, put subtraction first. Even when expansion seems required, think add and subtract.

You need to keep this firmly in mind, because at the many meetings you attend in this year, the focus will be adding. Suggest subtraction. Help your team by subtracting from their burden; less for them might lead to more effectiveness.

By the way, as we potentially head into an economic downturn, it’s worth stressing that I am not suggesting subtracting people. A study in 2010 looking at three previous recessions – 1980, 1990, and 2000 – found that companies that emerged from slumps in the strongest shape relied less on layoffs to cut costs and more on operational improvements.

Add

As we get busier, our communications get shorter. It’s not just the frenzy – it’s the technology and formats of communication, as we tap e-mails and texts on hand-held devices with screens that urge brevity. We pride ourselves on one-word answers. The result: Confusion, misunderstanding and wasteful requests for more information that could have been solved by a more complete message.

In the book, Information Anxiety, architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman wrote that if you are giving someone directions to your house, it is important to tell them when they will know they have gone too far. In a sense, that’s our goal for all communications: To provide helpful context about your thinking, not just the equivalent of a grunt of approval or disapproval.

As I have been thinking about the explosion of short, one-sentence work communications on intricate issues, I have come to the conclusion that most of our e-mails and texts should be about three sentences long. If you write less than that, consider what’s missing and whether it can be wisely left out.

Beyond written communication, I was taken when I asked a friend about newly-appointed Harvard University president Claudine Gay, and was told she is an excellent listener and is “additive,” always giving you something interesting to think about. So additive, in a different context, as a mantra for 2023?

Flexibility (or, better yet, autonomy)

Your team craves autonomy. Many organizations are sensing that reality and starting to offer more flexibility. That’s great. But your team actually wants more autonomy – something deeper than flexibility.

Autonomy is a classic motivator. Unfortunately, it’s scary for managers, who see their role as controllers, not traffic cops or crossing guards. Autonomy seems to suggest anarchy.

But surely there is a long way between your current method of choosing between options, assigning work or scheduling work hours … and anarchy. Surely you can loosen up, give up some control, and allow decisions to be made at a lower or even individual level, particularly on experimental initiatives, with you as the co-ordinator.

As you make decisions this year, ask if you should be making them. Which ones can be delegated to others? How can you build a tad more flexibility – or even autonomy – into your workplace?

The reward will be greater engagement.

Appreciate

You can also gain greater engagement by greater appreciation. Consider making that your guiding beacon for the year: You will appreciate what others do, and let them know.

This should be serendipitous and systematic.

Feedback is best when given immediately. So don’t hesitate; offer appreciation, when deserving, in the moment. It need not be over-the-top. You can appreciate just one facet of what someone has done, without necessarily praising all aspects of the effort.

But beyond such serendipitous appreciation, maybe give yourself a goal to send a few notes of appreciation to colleagues, employees, suppliers or customers every week or every day, as seems fitting. Force yourself to notice what needs to be appreciated. But do it regularly, not like one of my bosses who sent us all a note of appreciation on the articles we had written for that day’s newspaper and apparently never did that again.

At a deeper level, adopt the idea of appreciative inquiry. Focus less on what’s wrong in the organization and more on what’s right – and expanding that as much as you can.

I’m sure those suggestions – subtract, add, flexibility-autonomy, appreciate – spur ideas of other mantras you could adopt, which is wonderful. Pick one, and apply it faithfully and consistently in the coming year.

Cannonballs for a New Year

  • Our biggest strength, carried too far, can boomerang and become a significant weakness. What’s the strength you most need to temper in the coming year, and how will you do it?
  • Who should you put more emphasis into coaching this year?
  • Try this guided meditation: Imagine it’s 365 days from today. Where do you want to be in your career? Where do you want to be in your life?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.