As a parent, I sometimes see my child making a mistake and I have to work hard at doing nothing about it. Not intervening. Not correcting her. Not doing it for her.
In these instances doing nothing takes effort, but it's worthwhile. She has to learn things on her own time, and in her own way. And she's safe + loved, so my primary job is complete in that instance.
Doing nothing is an often overlooked yet powerful skill. We're taught to always be DOING something. It's ingrained in us that our worth is measured by how much we produce.
Professionals wear busy-ness as a badge of honor. As though one cannot be successful without being over-the-top busy. With back-to-back meetings all day, events in the evenings, working on their laptop til it's past mid-night only to wakeup at 5am and start all over again.
What's more, keeping busy feels more comfortable than the art of doing nothing.
"At least I'm doing something," is a phrase that often gets muttered when feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness creep in.
But doing something isn't the end-all be-all.
The power of doing nothing is that, eventually, it becomes more easeful and less stressful. Suddenly, there's less pressure to do all the things and more acceptance of the time things take to unfold. There's an allowance that where you're at is exactly where you should be. And a genuine embrace of good enough.
Doing nothing creates space. It makes room for new ideas and solutions to emerge. When our brains aren't occupied with conquering to-do lists, fixing problems, advising others, or completing tasks, we have more room to think creatively. As the clutter of doing more falls away, we tend to see things more clearly. And with that clarity, we see how pointless so much of the constant doing is. It's freeing to realize that what we are striving for, we can achieve with less.
Of course, this idea probably seems quite radical. It contradicts so much of what we were taught growing up. It goes against the very expectations of the 21st century workplace where professionals are continuously expected to do more with less. Not do less, enjoy more...
And yet, just like I need to work at doing nothing as a parent, leaders also need to step back and let people figure things out on their own. Wise leaders know when to do nothing.
I had a client who was having the same conversation over and over again with their employee. No matter what they said or how they said it, the employee continued to struggle with this problem. And my client was at a loss for what to do.
As they relayed the situation to me I asked, "What if, the next time your employee brings this problem to you, you say nothing? Instead you just listen. Perhaps you ask some open and honest questions. But what if you refrain from offering advice or saying what to do?"
"I hadn't ever thought about that. But I'll give it a try." They responded contemplatively.
The next time we met, I asked how everything was going.
"Great" they said enthusiastically, "I did nothing like you suggested and just listened. It worked miraculously, it's no longer a problem."
By doing nothing, my client allowed space for their employee to process the problem out loud. Unhindered by subtly articulated expectations or covert demands made in the form of unsolicited advice, the individual with the problem was able to find a workable solution. What's more, my client also created a more authentic connection with their employee, deepening their trust.
It turns out that doing nothing looks a lot like being human.