Paul Simon on the Hazards of Boredom

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I am worried about Paul Simon. After 61 years of making music, he’s announced that retirement is imminent. With the litany of groundbreaking music he’s released, I acknowledge that Simon deserves to go out on his own terms. My concerns are centered on whether he has sufficient interests to fill his time, because as it turns out, boredom is dangerous.

New research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology has found that “boredom puts people on edge: It makes them seek engagements that are challenging, exciting, and that offer a sense of purpose.” Couple this with the research where boring activities generate a sense of meaninglessness, and you end up with a less-than-favorable company culture.

When we are bored, there is a subconscious need to re-infuse meaningfulness into our lives. This re-infusion is not necessarily beneficial or constructive. In studies of binge eating, boredom is one of the most frequent triggers, along with feelings of depression and anxiety. It can lead to driving accidents, illegal drug use, political extremism, and an increased risk of mistakes. There is even research showing that boredom accounts for 25% of student achievement, the same percentage attributed to innate intelligence.

Accordingly, boredom can have detrimental affects on your workplace. Bored people make more errors, have more accidents, are less proficient, and engage in unhealthy habits. They also try to re-infuse meaningfulness with such negative conduct as gossip, conspiracy theories, uncooperativeness, and subversive behavior.

Some amount of workplace boredom is expected. We all have tasks that are both unenjoyable and unavoidable. Some are monotonous, others may feel like they are beneath us. To elude boredom, there are managers who delegate away all tasks that they do not find to be enthralling. You may have an employee who is excited by the chores you find to be painful; however, in many cases you are pushing down the boredom to others. As I said, sometimes this cannot be helped, but as the leader, very often it can.

A leader’s primary responsibility is not to be an entertainment director, but aren’t we accountable to provide some degree of intellectually stimulating work for our staff? How can we expect the most from them when we consistently dole out the least desirable tasks?

To minimize (or at least mitigate) the boredom of those on your team, you must first grasp their current level of boredom. Learn what motivates them and how they foresee their career progressing. Assign duties that align with their interests and needs. Create succession plans and track growth. Instill a sense of urgency. Basically, make an effort to engage your staff.

Like a bridge over troubled water, the sound of silence can make you crazy after all these years. Bad puns aside, we cannot allow boredom to become our go-to culture, nor can we allow the retirement of Paul Simon to negatively impact our team’s morale. Like Simon, we must make efforts to balance the tedious with the engrossing. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this is Simon’s first of many retirements from making music.

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