On FOMO at Work

There were different reasons why I quit my job in the past few years.

One was because the chance of living abroad opened up, which had always been on my bucket list. So I moved abroad. Another reason was that I missed home so much that I had to move back.

The most recent one though can be associated with FOMO – Fear of missing out.

If there was one thing I took away from several conferences I attended in the past months, it’s the advice “Surround yourself with smart people.” And this is exactly what I feared to miss out.

Becoming mindful about exposure time

Looking back at my past jobs, I indeed found that the connections, relationships and experiences with my co-workers, especially those who are more experienced than me, shaped my opinions more than any book I read or talk I watched.

One reason is probably the amount of time I spent with these people. We all know the concept of mastery through practice: You can become good at (almost) anything if you dedicate enough time. Then there is the concept of learning through repetition: It says that you unconsciously internalise what you have repeated exposure to, even if it’s bad examples.

However, given the fact that 9 months of working in an agency stuck more with me than 6 semesters of studying communication, it can’t be only the amount of time that matters. So what else does count?

As in any part of life, relationships matters

I don’t have any proof for this, but I tend to believe that the emotional connection to the people around me makes their influence stronger and longer lasting.

It kind of makes sense. What your mother or your best friend tells you weighs much more than the words said by a random stranger.

So it’s not only the amount of time you spend with people, but the emotional connections you build along the way that make them important influencers of your personal and professional growth.

The more exposure time and the deeper the connection, the higher the influence.

It also makes a difference in which phase in your life you have these crucial interactions. You’re more open to other people’s opinions when you’ve just started your first job compared to later in your career when you’ve already gone through some experiences, read a few books and formed a more or less solid opinion about things.

Professional relationships in the digital age

But surrounding yourself with smart people doesn’t need to be limited to your day job.

I believe that it’s possible nowadays to surround yourself with people digitally and form a (pseudo)emotional connection with someone you never met, for instance by watching their talks, following them on Twitter, reading their Medium posts and watching their Instagram stories. If you find someone repetitively inspiring and keep checking what they’re doing and saying, you feel more connected to them.

However, the truth is, you spend around 40 hours a week in your day job. So it does matter with whom you surround yourself with at work.

The problem with remote work

The biggest lesson I learned about the impact your co-workers have on your life was when there was nobody around.

I just finished 10 months of remote work. I worked in Berlin while my whole team (both designers and product team) was based in Vilnius. Even though I wasn’t alone (we were about 10 people in the Berlin office), the people I directly worked with were all not around me.
While I did have amazing team events and coffee machine chats with my Berlin colleagues, I didn’t have those things with the people I directly worked with.


Believing in the same things

Besides exposure time, I learned that there is another ingredient that nourishes emotional connection: It’s believing in the same things.

Here it becomes tricky. Everyone tries to bring diversity into every corner of the workplace. We want to work with people of diverse gender, age, race and heritage. We want to work in cross-disciplinary teams to benefit from diverse expertise when making decisions. We want to be empathetic with diverse opinions and perspectives.

But when does diversity at the workplace become a problem for individuals?

I’d say when your colleagues’ beliefs hold you back from doing what you believe in.

When beliefs become culture

I met very different designers in my career, all with different values, strengths and weaknesses. This is beautiful. In my last job though, I found that the values and beliefs among my colleagues were very similar, while mine were very different from the rest of the group.

The problem does not lie in people’s individual values and beliefs, but if these transform into culture.

When HR talks about cultural fit, they’re looking for people with similar values and beliefs who will easily blend in. Cultural fit is important, but it also shuts the door for people bringing in completely different values and beliefs.

For me this door shut shortly after I came inside: I got hired, but found myself in the wrong place.

Super kitschy in this context, but I like this imperfect door in my hallway.

FOMO was the last feeling on the frustration line

After some months, I became very frustrated. I didn’t feel trusted because I didn’t feel understood. I didn’t feel inspired because we were talking a different language. I didn’t receive appreciation because people didn’t believe in my approaches. I began to have doubts about the impact of my work and my general expertise.

And if you then learn that there are thousands of people out there that share your beliefs and are fighting for the same things than you do, FOMO kicks in. And this is when you probably start looking for another job.

Because you start imagine what you could achieve together with these people, how much you could learn being surrounded by them. It doesn’t matter so much what you’re going to learn. As long as you’re surrounded by people you find smart and inspiring, you trust that they will help you grow and support you doing things you believe in.

I later found out that Simon Sinek gave a TED talk in 2011 about exactly what I’m talking about here.

Let’s be realistic

This is of course a dream situation. And from my past experience, I know that I can’t take it for granted. I also haven’t figured out how to identify cultural fit during job interviews (please let me know if you know a trick).

Also please don’t get me wrong. I think it’s very important to learn from people with different perspectives and opinions. We want to get out of our bubble, right? But I also learned that having no common ground makes it very hard to work together.

How to find common ground

Based on my recent experience, I identified 4 ways to set up an inclusive working culture:

1. Make sure you’re in one place or have frequent and regular touch points

To find a common ground, you first of all need exposure time together. You need to observe people in the wild and actually work with them to be able to empathise with them. Using Sinek’s words, you have to do handshakes from time to time. I learned that this is incredibly hard to achieve remotely.

I’d like to refer to another talk by Simon Sinek here. Jump to 27:30 and learn why communication via email fails to build emotional connection. I highly encourage you to watch the full talk because it’s brillant.

2. Be a good listener

Second, you need to build up a healthy emotional connection. You achieve this by carefully listening to each other, by being respectful in your communication and honestly interested in another person’s point of view. If one of these characteristics are not fulfilled, communication suddenly becomes very hard.

3. Be conscious in your communication

For a long time it hasn’t become clear to me why communication with some of my team members is so exhausting while with others it’s like holidays. I started to study how my co-workers and myself are communicating. I realised: It’s a lot about little details. Sometimes one single word can turn the whole sentence into something negative. You want to avoid the following phrases:

  • In all honesty/respect...
    If you start your feedback like this, it feels like something will follow that embarrasses the listener, maybe a mistake she made, something that needs honesty. It also implies that the person talking is not always honest. Finally it causes the perception that the listener can’t deal with open feedback, because otherwise these 3 words wouldn’t be necessary, right?

  • Look...
    Starting a sentence with ‘look’ gives the speaker authority, as if the speaker was a teacher or an old wise man and the listener a stubborn child that has a lot to learn or just doesn’t want to understand. My manager kept saying it and now I wished I told him how this little word ruined some of our conversations.

  • Have you tried...
    I never understood why some co-workers put a suggestion into a phrase like ‘have you tried xy?’. The automatic answer is ‘No’ or ‘Yes, but’ which puts the listener into a defensive position which we want to avoid at all costs. Also it doesn’t matter who has tried anything. Reaching a solution together matters.
    How to do better? Ask a lot of questions to understand the problem and the context instead of giving random suggestions. Then explain how your idea could solve the problem by saying something like “if x is the problem, could y be a solution?”

I know it’s tempting to use these words as fillers. However, try to remove them from your vocabulary and your communication will be more straight, clear and respectful.

4. Talk early about your expectations, values and beliefs

Normally we can say that if it’s just details, there shouldn’t be anything that holds us back from fixing it. But if the connection is broken from the very beginning, every little detail becomes a major one. Because they feed frustration, FOMO and the feeling of not fitting in. And if you fail talking about the thing that broke your relationship in the first place, it will only get worse.

So talk about your expectations, values and beliefs and listen to others’. Start with a workshop where everyone shares their point of view. This becomes especially crucial if exposure time is low or new team members have joined, thus there is little emotional connection.

And if everything you try doesn’t work out, there is nothing that holds you back from seeking a place where people share your beliefs.

Life’s too short to be frustrated.