Overworked and underpaid? How would Zen Leadership help? – Zen Leadership
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overworked and underpaid? how would zen leadership help?

In connection with a webinar we hosted last week around The Zen Leader, a premier coach in Singapore contacted me, wondering how a Zen perspective would address issues he typically hears from clients.  Here was his list:

1- How can I offer the highest quality product/service at the lowest price?

2- How do I accept “working more and living/enjoying life less?”

3- I am overworked and underpaid!

I repeat my colleague’s list verbatim, because I’m struck by how each item builds more tension.  Can you feel it, too?  We start with a typical business trade-off that is surely asked in companies all over, that leads to a more difficult personal calculus, and culminates in a coping reaction – exactly the sort of “barely managing” place that The Zen Leader starts from.  So let’s tease this apart, and explore which flips of The Zen Leader could help these struggling clients.

First there’s the business trade-off of quality and price.  This, like so many tensions, is a great example of paradox, which we treat in the flip from Or to And (flip #3).  With an understanding of paradox, we find seeming contradictions like this can be managed as a healthy tension.  What we know about paradox is that if you drive to extremes in either direction – for example, quality at all cost, or price-cutting no matter what it does to quality – you’ll get into serious trouble.  But if you map the paradox, measure value and concerns on both sides, and know when to shift, you can manage it to an optimal standard of excellence (you can download a free paradox management tool below).

If we don’t manage the paradox well, we may drive ourselves and our people to unsustainable extremes, which may give rise to next two complaints.  If I’m working more and enjoying life less, or feeling overworked and underpaid, these are signs of coping mode.  Acceptance is at the hinge point between coping with situations and being able to transform them.  But as the 2nd question asks, how do we accept unacceptable conditions?  Do we just give up, give in?  No, a different line of inquiry is much more productive, and that is to look inside.  In flip #4, from “out there” to “in here” we probe how situations that seem to be happening to us from “out there” have roots in what we fear “in here.”  Once we deal with the fears, we have much more freedom to act.

So, for example, if I’m working more and enjoying life less, I might ask, “Why am I choosing this for myself?  What am I afraid of?  What do I fear that I may I not be enough?”  The answers that come tumbling back may include: I’m not rich enough.  I need to support my family.  I need this job.  I’m afraid I’m not smart enough to get a better job.  If I cut back my hours, I won’t get ahead.  I’m afraid I’ll get overlooked for promotion.   These fears may have a basis in fact or only in our imagination, but at least now we see them.  At least now we see what’s holding our current set of choices in place.

Added insight comes when we see how our fears relate to our needs and that, when it comes to meeting our needs, we tend to overdo it.  For example, we all have physical needs to eat, but if food is plentiful, we tend to over eat (witness the growing rates of obesity in developed countries).  Similarly, we all have needs for security, affiliation, power, and achievement.  And similarly, the pleasure associated with getting a raise, having people like us, earning a promotion, or reaching an important goal can make us want these affirming jolts again and again. Just as with our need to eat, we can zoom past “just enough” and overdo it.  But if we apply the wisdom to eat “just enough” to satisfy any of our needs, we won’t drive ourselves to the equivalent of obese extremes that don’t truly serve us.

So now we’re ready to move into our fears and apply the “just enough” rule.  By “move into” I mean completely accept the fear, enter it, get so close to it that it can no longer operate on us, and discover what freedom of movement we find there if we don’t overdo it.  For example, moving into the fear that I’m afraid I’ll get overlooked for promotion, I’d start by accepting it’s a fear operating in me, and declare what I can do, regardless of the fear.  So, I might think, OK, I’m afraid I won’t get promoted.  But if the next role is right for me, my readiness for it will show, either here or I’ll interview elsewhere. And if it’s not right, better that I don’t get promoted.  I enjoy promotions, but I don’t need to over-indulge in them. Driving myself to exhaustion isn’t going to help either way.  Can you see how possibilities start opening up when fear isn’t running the show?

We can do this with any of our fears: move into them, get to know them so well, that they can’t operate on us.  To return to our struggling client’s final complaint, if ”I am overworked and underpaid,” rather than looking “out there” for causes to blame, I am much better off looking “in here” for freedom from the fears that are holding the current game in place.  In that way, we move toward leading fearlessly.

What advice would you add for the overworked and underpaid?

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