"The definition of insanity," Einstein once said (or maybe didn't say, but it's a gem of of succinct wisdom anyway), "is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Sadly, despite the obvious truth of this well known saying, almost all of us have experienced Groundhog Day-style problems at work that meet this definition of insanity. Like in the fabulous Bill Murphy movie, some highly annoying situation just keeps getting repeated over and over again. Deep down you know it's crazy to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect things to improve, but you feel stuck and hopeless. Is there any way to escape this sort of stubborn work problem?

Yup, suggests a thought-provoking recent HBR post by psychologist and author Michael Lipson. When you feel stuck in a loop at work, he urges readers, it's time to improvise.

Go ahead, stand on your head.

"It has proved helpful in these cases to take the real-time moment when you recognize a repeat problem as a kind of cue, a reminder. It's a cue to improvise. As soon as you notice that you are in a familiar and noxious work setting, where the other party is likely to do the same thing as usual and you are likely to play the part you usually play, then it is time to do something different," he writes.

So when you feel one of those Groundhog Day-type conversations coming on, instead of following the usual script, just surprise yourself (and the other party). "The remarkable thing is that the content of what we do instead almost doesn't matter," says Lipson, offering this over-the-top example of a boss who routinely scolded a late employee for her tardiness.

"Next time she shows up late," Lipson told this boss, "improvise something you're never tried before." The manager's response: "Like stand on my head?"

"That would be an improvement over scolding her as you usually do," Lipson replied.

How could doing something surprising, no matter how wacky, be effective? Not only does it force you to break out of your rut and apply fresh thinking to the situation, it can also "liberate the other person. When you stop playing your familiar role, you implicitly invite them to stop playing theirs. You can't directly control the other person, but you can change the environment around them--in this case, your own response. This makes it likelier the other person will respond differently in turn."

It worked in the case of the perpetually tardy employee -- in the end, her boss tried praising her contribution rather than showing off his acrobatic skills -- and will work for you, Lipson insists. So next time you experience unpleasant office deja vu, simply command yourself to improvise.

Published on: Jan 27, 2016
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