On Waiting


Recently I was asked to write and speak about the topic of waiting. I thought I’d share it here. 

So here’s how it works: each employee gets 30 minutes. I introduce myself as a consultant, we sit down and I assure them confidentiality. I tell them that I’m there to look for patterns across all employees, to see what’s working well with the team and what aspects of the company could use polishing.

Then I ask how work is going. Literally. “So… how’s work?” I say.



“Yeah, it’s pretty great.”

Any of these are accompanied by an optimistic head nod. Rarely do I get a different response right off the bat, regardless of what company I’m working with. My boss is fine, my coworkers are great, this place is grand. And then, 11 minutes in, a tiny glimpse of the underbelly. “… yeah, well, that’s another story,” they say.

AHA. Always, always, 11 minutes into the conversation.

I call this kind of project an Employee Experience Audit and the first few times I did this work, I got a little panicked. Wasn’t there a way to be more efficient here? We’re talking about BILLABLE HOURS, people. Must we wait until 1/3 of our time is up to get to the heart of what really makes this place solid and which cracks need to be fixed?

“Tell me about that other story!” I say. “That’s the kind of thing I’m here to learn about.”

And the stories emerge. The phrase “in deep trouble” spoken by nearly every member of the team. A coworker who consistently stays late to help her teammates, whose value to the company is more than anyone in management knows. Hurt feelings from 6 or 7 years back that are still held onto, still causing friction in meetings and impeding progress. The best and the worst; it all shows up.

I love this work. People are fascinating to me. And yet, I have a hard time spending those 11 minutes to get there.

I’ve tried other things. I tried to speed up the trust process, writing introduction emails ahead of time. “Hey! I’m Jen! We’re going to chat tomorrow over coffee about your experience at Company X!” I tried sending drafts of questions I might ask. Who’s the most stressed person in your office? What’s your favorite part of your job? I tried being funnier, tried being warmer, tried looking deeper into whoever’s eyes were across from me.

11 minutes. It still took 11 minutes.

And then one day, I realized something. The waiting is not inefficient. The waiting is not fluff to be sped through. The waiting is also the work.

In many cases, waiting is about hope. It’s about a pause before the action, the anticipation of something coming… and frankly, it seems kind of slow. I’m a New Yorker and I admit that waiting is frustrating for me. I’m generally not very good at it.

But sometimes the waiting is the work, the active buried in the passive, a tiny seed gearing up to sprout. And I can appreciate that, this silent work in the background. As a consultant, I know well what silent work looks like.

After I’ve interviewed everyone, I sit down with all of my notes. I circle things and use highlighters to underline. I throw post-its around and set up a small whiteboard in our living room. Even though I’ve spoken with every member of the team, it now becomes my job to listen to the team as a whole, to let the plural fade into the background and feel the singular emerge. How is work at this company?

At first it seems like a bunch of gibberish, one complaint here, a compliment over there. But I wait, I keep at it and eventually a picture starts to emerge, a few key truths about the culture I’ve been observing. I write it up, giving leadership strategies for the short, medium and long-term.

No matter how broken the org, no matter how dysfunctional the team, there is always a way forward and there are always emerging leaders who will build the road ahead. This has become my favorite part of the whole thing, finding again that no place is truly unfixable.

So whether it takes 11 minutes or even longer, I try to remember that there is a path towards betterment that will emerge in the end. And truly, no matter where I am, this reminder is always worth that wait.