Home life has its interminable waits: for the clothes to dry, for the MIA cable guy or for a renovation. But, at work, waiting is often endemic. The specialization of office tasks creates an interdependence of staffers that makes every move susceptible to delays that can slip towards forever. A project can only be as speedy as its most sluggish participant.
When Tim Munson worked for a start-up, he had to funnel all requests to the company’s founder for a nod—even pen and paper requisitions. “There were projects that were started my first year, and five and a half years later, I was still waiting,” says Munson.
Without anything to show for long waits, people stopped caring, waiting instead for their options to vest. Munson left to raise horses. “(Now) I only have to wait when I want to wait,” he says.
When Heather Newcomb, who is currently waiting to hear back from clients and vendors, used to work at a bank, she waited for approvals and annual reviews. Just as routinely, she waited for someone to finish using the microwave, a product that was supposed to alleviate the pain of watching water boil.
“Invariably, he or she has to reheat two or three times,” she says of her colleagues.
She was always struck by how long things could be dragged out, and how little one of her former bosses claimed he could do to speed the process. She attributes that to apathy. But she allows that maybe the boss was just too busy waiting, too.
“No matter how senior you are,” she says, “it makes you feel like a fief in the big, fat corporate fiefdom.”
Technology purports to help. But, for every technological advance designed to eliminate waiting (call waiting, for example), there seems to be another enforcing the status quo (the “hold” button). You may be able to send an email at the speed of light, but that doesn’t necessarily produce a faster response, just an earlier arrival at a longer wait.
Research shows that waiting for uncertain outcomes can be more uncomfortable than adjusting to the worst of them, which explains why impending mergers and reorganizations drive people mad. In a paper to be presented later this month, George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, studied people who underwent colostomies, or intestinal bypasses. Half of them had the possibility of having it reversed; for the others it was permanent.
Measuring their life satisfaction, the researchers found that those with permanent colostomies very rapidly improved whereas those who could ultimately reverse them stayed relatively unsatisfied. “Hope impedes adaptation,” says Prof. Loewenstein.
To better cope, some people try to dupe themselves out of hope. Consultant Jacqueline Beckley, who travels on business a lot, began to view scheduled events as aspirations—even flight schedules. “Leaving at all was all they could hope for,” she says of airline passengers. “Since I got that framework in my head in February, life got easier.”
Whenever faced with long wait times, wealth manager Claudia Weinberger talks about herself in the third person in an effort to “make it somebody else’s problem.” Never mind that she’s the somebody else. “That’s a minor technicality,” she notes. So when she was waiting for a promotion for two years at a prior company, she would tell herself, “Claudia deserves it. She’s been doing a good job.”
The torment of waiting arises partly from an uncertainty that seems to gather over time. Julie Fordyce, a former corporate lender, once had a professor who believed that the longer the wait, the more likely something was about to happen and, at the same time, never happen at all. That applies to layoffs. “The longer you wait to get a pink slip, the more it seems that you may have escaped the axe, and at the same time, that the axe is millimetres from your neck,” she says. “It’s excruciating.”
Waiting drives some of us to make dumb decisions. In a study conducted by Gregory Berns, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Emory University, respondents were given an option of receiving an electric shock now or a lesser shock after waiting. Roughly a third opted for more voltage sooner.
“The brain runs a simulation of the future using the same process that simulates the experience itself,” says Dr Berns. This extreme response is what often governs bad decisions, he says. That may explain why some people, at the slightest whiff of layoffs, fire themselves.
Lee Miller, a former head of HR, has witnessed that “huge mistake” with a colleague who left his job rather than wait for an inevitable promotion. But, Miller also understands how distracting idle time can be. He and colleagues once had to wait a full day on an urgent matter just to get approval from the company chairman, who was vacationing in Mexico, and had to travel by donkey to get to a phone.
“We couldn’t do any other work,” explains Miller. “We were waiting.”
(Write to Jared at firstname.lastname@example.org)