Bosses, learn the zen power of doing nothing

Jon Goulding
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Doing nothing can achieve more than doing something (Source: Getty)

Chief executives feel compelled to be constantly “doing”. There’s an underlying urgent mantra of “move quickly” and “make things happen”, high pressure played out against a backdrop of constant and accelerated change.

But isn’t that just business as usual?

PwC recently reported that chief executives now spend, on average, just 4.8 years in their role, compared to 8.3 years in 2010. Quite simply, they have less and less time to make their mark and create success.

The chief executive role is now like working in a spin cycle. Keeping clients satisfied, driving innovation, improving sustainability, delivering a diversity agenda, winning new business, building a positive reputation – an exhausting list of actions and decisions that rely on your experience to make split-second judgement calls, day in, day out.

When the stakes are relatively low, this is fine. But what happens when the stakes are high and the situation complex, with multiple stakeholders and conflicting information?

That’s when you need to deploy the patience and self-restraint of “actively doing nothing”. This isn’t about sticking your head in the sand and hoping that a problem will go away or miraculously resolve itself. It’s about taking the considered decision to “wait and see what happens” before making your next move.

It’s the same philosophy used by the military, but they refer to it as “tactical patience”. The principle is based on the truth that even if you’re not doing something, everyone else around you will be, and while you may not be 100 per cent clear on the right course of action today, it may become clear tomorrow. Ostensibly, it’s about not making a quick decision based on your first impulse.

Working with complex, high-stakes business activities is no different. The challenge, of course, is that “actively doing nothing” is counter-intuitive, and it requires a lot of self-discipline to resist the “act now” temptation.

There are, however, examples of those in power who have mastered the art. For example, the EU has seemingly plunged our entire parliament into a tailspin by simply sitting back and not moving. In contrast, our MPs are trying desperately to make more and more decisions and take more and more actions, in the hope of forcing a solution. The EU seems to be holding most of the cards, even though it has done very little for months.

Doing nothing can also save you valuable energy for when you need it most. As any good rugby coach will tell you, if every fullback tried to run around constantly during a match, they’d never have the energy to last more than 20 minutes, let alone make the try-saving tackle.

In a study by D.A. McLean, the average work-to-rest ratio of a typical rugby back is 1:15 – that’s 15 minutes of relative inactivity for every one minute of intensive action. As England manager Eddie Jones commented after the 2-1 series loss to South Africa in 2018, “you lose rugby games when you get sucked in to playing at the frenetic pace of the opposition”.

And the idea of space and of “less is more” is one reiterated by the international rugby union referee Nigel Owens. “The easy part of the job is blowing the whistle”, he explains. “The hard part is knowing when not to blow the whistle.”

It makes great personal and business sense to take this lesson from sport and pick your moments in order to conserve energy and wait for the clouds to pass before sprinting into your next decision or taking the next forced action.

Perhaps we can turn more high-stakes moments to our advantage if we take a step back, use our inner strength, and deploy the power of doing nothing.

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