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This Is The Overlooked Trait That We Need To Cultivate At Work

Being able to do this well is crucial in the “knowledge” economy.

This Is The Overlooked Trait That We Need To Cultivate At Work
[Photo: Ivana Cajina/Unsplash]

The world of work is changing.

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This statement has become a perennial mantra of sorts, blazoned across everything from trade show booths to billboards to websites for software companies. I don’t disagree with the statement. But, the majority of conversation about the way in which the world of work is changing ignores the most important and powerful potential for change.

On his last day as the CEO of General Electric Corporation, Jeffrey R. Immelt said, “Leadership is this intense journey into yourself.” Beyond having a nice ring to it, his message was clear: Leadership doesn’t necessarily equate with output. It’s much bigger, and much more personal.

What the current conversation about the changing world of work neglects to acknowledge is that the biggest opportunity for change isn’t in migrating to cloud computing, offshoring (or repatriating) jobs, upgrading your internal employee communication tools, or optimizing your supply chain. All of these changes are external, extrinsic, and do not touch upon what Immelt is speaking to; namely, leadership and work as an inner experience. That’s because today, what we think of “work” is almost exclusively represented by what I call outer work.


Related: How To Trick Your Brain To Slow Down Time 


This work encompasses activities that are external to us, such as sitting in meetings, analyzing, making presentations, interacting with customers, and even collaborating with teammates. Outer work consists entirely of what you do and what others do. And if you think anything like I used to, you probably think that’s exactly what you’re paid to do. For the vast majority of professionals, outer work is where most people spend 99% of their workday. In fact, we devote so much time to outer work, we hardly even think about it– and that’s part of the problem.

Because when it comes to making tough decisions, coming up with creative solutions to problems, and being an inspiring leader, outer work plays a small role. I’d argue that in a knowledge economy, what we’re really getting paid to do each and every day is fueled by critical inner work. And there’s a profitable side effect of doing it, which is exponentially elevating the value of our decision-making and productivity.

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What’s Inner Work, Anyway?

There’s a famous slide in Netflix’s culture deck that I’m sure you’ve seen before; it highlights that the best inventive work is 10 times better than average, as compared to the best non-creative decision, which is only two times better than average.

The reality is that when we’re buried deep under a pile of outer work, it’s difficult to get to that optimal place. That’s because good knowledge work is about how you think, not just what you do. And, how you think isn’t outer work. It’s inner work.

Inner work is centered on the inner experiences of yourself and others. Thinking about inner experiences in the context of work is not something we’re accustomed to doing. It’s a lot harder to visualize than outer work. One reason it’s so much harder to understand inner work is because we don’t have a clear picture of our inner world. The sphere of outer work is the world outside of us. The sphere of inner work is our world inside of us.

Based on this understanding, inner work consists of:

  • Mental acts or activities focused in your inner world to achieve a purpose or result. That purpose could be to “the good ordering of your mind” as recommended by Marcus Aurelius, gaining clarity as to why a particular coworker bothers you so much through self-reflection, or meditating on your values or principles.
  • More advanced inner work can consist of things like quieting your own thinking and feelings so you can deeply listen to what others are feeling.

You’ll likely initially feel lazy or even guilty engaging in inner work at work, but you shouldn’t.


Related: Struggling With A Setback? Reflect On Your Childhood (Yes, Really)

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In Pursuit Of Guilt-Free Inner Work

Prior to the industrial revolution, people actually spent a lot of time doing what I call inner work–contemplating, reading, meditating, and just being present with their thoughts and selves.

Admittedly, if you work in a textile factory, inner work likely isn’t moving the needle (no pun intended) on the value you create. But if you work in the knowledge economy where creativity and leadership–not routine manual labor–produce value, then inner work is indispensable.

How We’re Prioritizing Inner Work At BetterUp

Without inner work, we’re vulnerable to depression, stress, and burnout, and consequently, lower-quality decisions and decreased creative output. I would argue that one reason there is so much disengagement or toxicity in the workplace is because people come to work with the expectation that their job is only to do outer work and make no time for inner work.

As I reflect on episodes in my career where I wasn’t performing at my best as a manager, one common theme is that I lacked is the internal clarity around what was important to me to prioritize, personally and professionally. We’ve all been there: unanchored, flailing, desperately trying to gain a sense of control, knowing all along that every frantic step we were taking was only further diffusing our impact instead of fastening our footing.


Related: How To Train Your Brain To Be More Innovative


As CEO, I aggressively seek out opportunities to sponsor everyone at BetterUp making “journeys into the interior.” The reality is that when fortified with inner work, our jobs can be one of the most fulfilling parts of our lives. Work can be a powerful platform to discover new parts of ourselves: interests, capabilities, and opportunities for growth. But capitalizing on these insights requires meaningful reflection. The day-to-day grind can be unrelenting and all-consuming.

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What we’re learning at BetterUp is that part of the solution is to provide helpful nudges to remind us to step back for a second, turn away from the task at hand, and turn inwards to check in with ourselves. We routinely share “notes from the interior” to create a community of practice around what good inner work looks like. On Monday, October 9th, we also held our first-ever BetterUp #InnerWork day. We hope that this will become a long tradition at BetterUp, and we’re committing to giving every BetterUp employee one day, every quarter, to focus on inner work.

The biggest opportunity our world affords us is to reinvent the very concept of work: away from busyness of our to-dos, and inward toward developing ourselves so that we lead more fulfilling lives outside of work, too. As a culture, we’ve become obsessed with quantity and speed, but we spend less and less time doing the important inner work required to drive quality and well-being. It won’t be easy. In fact, it’ll be hard (inner) work, but it will be well worth it.


A version of this article originally appeared on BetterUp and is adapted with permission.