The importance of patience at work

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Here’s a topic we don’t discuss enough (i.e. at all): being patient at work, and why it might be relevant — or even a value-add. ROI! KPIs! CAGR! Targets! Metrics!

Could being patient at work fit into those categories? Probably not. It’s not quite something you can easily track on a spreadsheet. But it’s a crucial work skill, especially in the managerial ranks. Let’s spend a little time extolling the virtues of patience at work, then discuss pathways to being patient on a more frequent basis. This article might clear 1,000 words — I’m good like that — so there’s going to be a degree of being patient you’ll need to exhibit if you choose to read this train wreck.

Being patient at work: The problems

Despite all these thought leaders giving speeches about “the future of work,” you gotta understand it from a place of reality. An average person — i.e. not a thought leader — tends to want these general things out of work:

  • Good salary

As a result of this list, hierarchy is very powerful. Your boss — or your two+ bosses! — can often make your life either (a) very good or (b) absolutely miserable, and often both in the same week. We forcibly respect hierarchy a good deal at most jobs.

Now here’s the problem. Most business is short-term. Quarters, right? Hit those numbers and move on. Long-term vision — “strategy” — is a farce at most companies. You’ll see stats saying 70% or more of companies can’t hit strategic goals. Why? Because they’re focused on the minute-to-minute. Management 101 is all about hair on fire.

Managers manage people. (Duh.) Managers are also beholden to these short-term targets. As a result, almost every manager I’ve ever seen or worked for deems absolutely everything “urgent.” Gotta hit those targets! Deliver for the brass!

See how this would create a problem with being patient?

Being patient at work: Reaction vs. response

Short section here. When something happens to you, you can pretty much do two things. React — which is quicker and tied to our old reptile brains — or respond, which is more thoughtful. Reaction vs. response dies in the flood at most jobs. Because of the short-term focus and the way we predominantly “do our work” — email, meetings — reaction is valued, and response is not. This is another problem with people being patient at work.

Being patient at work: Why would this be valuable?

Let’s start with a little research. Most companies are terrible at priority-setting. That’s been proven time and time again, including here and here. Priority vacuums often pop up because of (a) terrible communication, but also (b) unclear roles and finally © no thoughtfulness on projects.

Here’s a quick example.

I worked with a client once on a writing gig. The main client was a big company. Like a huge, multi-faceted enterprise company. I was going through a digital marketing agency to do this. A lot of different communication blunders resulted — and basically, I ended up writing the same thing about 17 different times for 15 different people because everyone “needed it now.”

Why did they need it now? Why couldn’t they have practiced the art of being patient?

Simple. They had reporting structures (hierarchy) they needed to follow. So consider this. Person A has to read my thing before it can get to Person B. But Person B is calling and emailing me saying “My boss, Person C, needs this now! No time to let the grass grow under our feet!” So now I’m sending to Person B, who’s editing it. I’m sending the edited version to Person A, who’s saying “No, this isn’t right.” Then I’m fixing it and sending it back to A, but meanwhile Person C has the first version and is moving that to Person D. I realize this just got complicated, so here’s the point:

No one is being patient because everyone believes their shit is the most important and must be done now.

I just summarized work in one sentence, I think.

Being patient at work: How can we get better?

Here’s a good article from Art Markman on this topic. By the way, funny “being patient” story with regards to Art Markman. He teaches at UT-Austin. I’ve emailed with him maybe twice. He barely knows me. But still, one of my friends was applying there — to his program — and I offered to do a quick hook-up. It probably would have meant nothing, but my friend blew right through that stop sign. “No time, gotta get the application in!” He didn’t get in. So much for being patient.

Anyway, Markman suggests a few things to train your brain into being patient:

  • Get distance

Those are all good suggestions. They actually aren’t that hard to do at work — work is a massive series of distractions anyway, which is maybe part of the underlying problem here. I’m a big fan of the “15-minute pocket rocket” (not a sex thing, sadly) or the 52–17 ratio, which are both ways to manage your time more effectively. If you distract yourself in a — wait for it — “strategic” way, maybe you can also work on being patient a bit more.

If you’re reading this post and think you can relate to some of the ways I think about work and marketing and management and productivity, subscribe to this newsletter I do every Thursday. It’s fun. I promise.

As for “phone a friend,” I’m not sure anyone uses the phone that consistently anymore. (Seen these stats about the growth of work email?) The millennials, work martyrs oh they shall be, are already the largest generation in the workforce and I doubt they’re ring-a-dinging everyone. But …

Being patient: “We’re a social species”

We all know this, and yet very rarely design elements of work around it. (Consider: cubicles are quite literally walls. They are meant to divide people.)

As for the phone-a-friend deal on the last section, here’s what Markman says:

It can be hard to disengage the go system all by yourself. Your natural cycle of thoughts will often bring you back to the desirable aspects of whatever you’re struggling to stay patient about. Your mind creates its own vicious cycle that strengthens the go system’s grip on the goal, making it harder and harder for you to avoid acting on it.

(“The go system” here is basically reaction as opposed to response.)


When this happens, you quite literally need help — from someone else. Humans are a social species. We’re wired to give our attention to the people around us and to share their goals. When you find another person (a friend, family member, or colleague) who doesn’t share your obsession, your interactions with them will lead your go system to pick up on what they want, which creates an opening for your brain’s stop system to pump the brakes.

In short: interact with people. We’re social beings and as a result, there’s a power behind having friends at work. It could even help you with being patient!

Being patient: The general overview

Being patient goes in a big old slop bucket of work concepts that “should matter, but cannot in the current structure of most jobs.” The biggest slice of that slop bucket is communication. We all want managers who communicate better, but year-after-year on every employee study all over the world, communication at work is always a top 2-or-3 complaint. Why? Again, pretty simple. Most workplaces are inherently a reflection of the top brass, because the top brass is who the middle is chasing and the rank-and-files are chasing the middle. The top brass at most white-collar jobs makes more from bonus than base, and no one in history has ever gotten a bonus off “being a good communicator.” You gotta get out there and maul those targets. That’s the bonus. And honestly, most people want it.

Same deal with being patient. We’d all like managers who were thoughtful, strategic, and responded in logical ways to things. Instead, we get hair-on-fire ass clowns screeching that 44 different things are urgent. For completing those 44 things? You will receive an annual raise of $2,562.87 — but hey, can we dock you for that seafood dinner you went to? You’re not high enough to be billing the clients, Rachel.

Being patient would be an awesome work trait to take to scale, but we’re probably pretty far away still. At least there are some strategies to consider, though!

What else you got on being patient, especially in the managerial ranks?

My name is Ted Bauer. Engagement and trust at work are in the toilet. So is respect. Isn’t it about time we made this stuff better, given how much time we spend there? That’s what I’m chasing.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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