Why patience is a workplace virtue
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When Richard Jackson, a former senior UK government lawyer, puts his junior team through its paces, the process includes asking them to produce options for how to deal with a departmental crisis. He notes that for most of his staff, the option of “do nothing, yet” does not make their list.
Most people do not seem to think that deploying patience is a viable course of action at work. The word, which originates from the Latin word for “suffer”, nowadays tends to suggest passivity, forbearance, tolerance and even resignation. None of which are prized in the working world.
Yet it has a distinguished history, with the first known use of the phrase “patience is a virtue” in the late 14th century poem “Piers Plowman”, by William Langland. And patience was listed as one of the seven heavenly virtues by the Roman Christian poet Prudentius 1,000 years earlier in his book, Psychomachia (Battle of the Soul).
Patience may be unfashionable, but it is making a modest comeback. I interviewed people working across a variety of sectors — the law, banking, the civil service and scientific research — all of whom thought patience could be active and effective. Most of them saw it as an important workplace skill, along with teamwork, leadership and communication.
Mr Jackson thinks patience can be an asset in the civil service: “If you can crack patience as a tool, then you stand a good chance of being seen as professional and reliable.”
Yet he had sometimes seen patient people being marginalised by more dynamic and impatient colleagues. And he notes that “patience should not, however, be seen as an excuse for indecision.”
While those who are naturally impatient can use it as a tool, they too have to learn how to manage their impatience and use it wisely. Mr Jackson considers that patience is learned, often through mistakes, rather than taught and concludes that patience can be used as one of many, interconnected skills.
Sara Selvarajah, who recently retired after a career as a senior corporate tax adviser, agrees that “patience is a hard learned and useful art form”.
She reflects that passing her professional exams required stamina, resilience and an element of impatience, in order to qualify as quickly as possible. In contrast, she says, “clients had to be managed with saintly patience, as did senior staff with unrealistic expectations of workload management”.
More broadly, she found that “patience is useful when you are faced with a lack of understanding, political motivation to block, or just misogyny and racism. That said, too much patience allows these factors to hold you back.”
Mira Kassouf is a senior postdoctoral researcher in gene regulation at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford and knows that her career in life sciences academic research has depended on patience. Success is based, she thinks, on “resilience and perseverance and is mostly incremental wins, while plagued by failures and disappointments in experiments, paper and funding application rejections”.
She also cites the need to exercise patience with managers who are measuring success in tangible outcomes, while waiting for her detailed experiments that can take months to reveal significant results.
Ms Kassouf thinks that patience gives her the courage and confidence to stand her ground against the “avalanche of information and alluring possibilities, the fear of missing out, and the infliction of instant gratification”.
In these instances, patience at work is not to be confused with complacency, but is rather a learned stillness that allows us to evaluate before advancing strategically with intention and enthusiasm.
Over the last 30 years there has been a marked shift in how quickly people are expected to react to messages. Within the UK civil service, for example, this came from a political imperative. As Mr Jackson puts it: “The [Tony] Blair government did much to encourage [so called] pace in decision making.”
But technology has been the big enabler of impatience and speed: having letters typed and proofread involved a built-in reflection period that allowed time to reconsider and ideas to develop.
All that has disappeared. New graduates enter the workplace having been trained by social media that they can, and therefore are expected to, respond instantly. The 24-hour news cycle creates a febrile atmosphere in which patient deliberation can be seen as a personal weakness.
No one wants to be seen as inactive in case it looks like inability to act or complacency. And it is easy to confuse activity with progress — whereas allowing time for consideration and just letting things play out can be a more effective approach.
Nicky Creed, executive director at Garsington Opera in Oxfordshire, observes that “even if one is impatient to act, you still have to time when to strike; that can require patience itself.”
Patience — and noting when we are impatient for change — is also a useful tool for managing one’s entire career. Ms Selvarajah thinks that “impatience for change is critical for a successful career”. This was echoed more formally by a government lawyer, who every three years asks himself: “Do I like what I’m doing and should I stay?”
In some fields, patience and impatience are built into the career development structure. David Russell, who left the Royal Navy as a commodore in 2002, says that after becoming a lieutenant commander, promotion relies on being selected from the pool, or “zone”. Officers do not enter the zone for promotion to the next rank for a period of years, in order to consolidate skills and experience — an approach which he describes as, “guided patience”.
Ms Kassouf views her career as a “purposeful continuum, which requires assessing my current position and strategising the next; if done mindfully, this requires time and patience”.
The urge to act quickly — responding immediately to an email or chasing a promotion — may have underlying behavioural reasons. Economists call this tendency hyperbolic discounting, or “present bias”, in which humans place a higher value on the more imminent reward when considering two future events. Taking action immediately can give a psychological pay-off and show how engaged you are — even though ultimately it may be less effective at making progress.
With decision-making timeframes under increasing pressure, the virtues of both patience and deliberate impatience risk being forgotten at work and when we think about our long-term career plans.
While we do learn from our mistakes, teaching the importance of patience may result in fewer mistakes in the first place — which is surely the better outcome.
The author is director of the careers service at the University of Oxford and writes the FT’s ‘Dear Jonathan’ advice column
How to use patience as a tool at work
If you are going to be patient, or impatient, do it deliberately.
Include “wait and see”, or “do nothing yet”, as an option for all decision making.
Do not respond to all requests instantly; even the urgent or important may need time for consideration.
Do let people know what you are doing. If naturally impatient, use the phrase, “I need to think about this before I can respond”.
If you are too patient, especially on your career, do not wait for others to look after you. Set yourself deadlines, tell other people your plans, and act on them.