Overlooking the virtue of patience in business comes at a cost
Corporate culture often sees swift decision-making as a strength, with patience unappreciated
Patrick Collison and John Collison of Stripe. It took the brothers 11 years to build their payments technology company into the success story it has become. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Patience is in short supply in today’s fast-moving world of work. Emails clamour for a reply, text messages demand answers and decision-making has to be swift and unequivocal. There’s a simmering undercurrent of urgency driven by an assumption that, in today’s competitive world, if you don’t seize the moment, someone else will and this or that opportunity will be lost forever.
Operating in an always-on digital environment leaves little room for the reflection or patient deliberation that might lead to better decision-making. It also piles pressure on employees and inevitably leads to a backlog of work because, at its simplest, there is too much going on for people to cope with.
In short, modern business is overlooking the virtue of patience at a cost to organisational success and individual burnout.
Antonio Argandoña, emeritus professor of economics and business ethics at the IESE business school in Barcelona, argues that “in a highly competitive corporate environment, which values speed and tangible results, it would seem there is no room for patience. Even though research shows that very few decisions in the workplace should be considered truly urgent, business culture seems to embrace the idea that he who hesitates is lost,” he says.
At its core, the concept of patience is a middle ground between impatience, which reacts to difficulties and delay with anger and bad grace, and passivity which does not react to stimuli at all.
Argandoña doesn’t define patience as simply waiting. He says it’s waiting without agitation and goes hand in hand with a calm and balanced attitude in the face of adversity.
“Those who are patient are not passive; instead, they factor a wait time into the planning phase of any new idea,” he says. “Being patient means listening, observing, waiting for information to come, consulting other people and seeking relationships that provide new resources to make good decisions.”
In reality, patience is a virtue that is seldom seen in isolation. As something that fundamentally relates to how we use time, it is typically accompanied by other positive attributes such as industriousness, punctuality and perseverance, Argandoña suggests.
It is necessary too when doing most things from growing a company to looking for a job, developing an innovation or negotiating a trade partnership yet today’s emphasis on everything happening in real time often makes it look as if high-profile companies – Amazon, for example – are an overnight success. In fact, Amazon is around since 1994 and people with less patience than its founder Jeff Bezoz would probably have given up because it was loss-making for so long.
While patience may not immediately jump out as something businesses should cultivate, there are many good reasons why it should have a place both for the benefit of the business entity as a whole and for the individuals working in it. Patience helps to keep people’s expectations real and encourages them to take the time necessary to ensure that the foundations for a preferred decision or outcome are solid.
It also ensures that a balanced approach has been taken to assessing the risks and rewards and, where appropriate, additional steps have been taken to mitigate one and enhance the other.
In an environment where people can now get most of the things they want at the touch of button, instant rather than delayed gratification has become a virtue and by comparison patience looks decidedly old-fashioned. But Argandoña argues that the development of patience within the workplace has wider benefits, including underrated calmer behaviour. This stops people taking on too much and doing a poorer job because there is disorder in their workload and they don’t have the time to focus on the detail.
Patience also creates a better work environment and builds trust because it facilitates understanding while allowing people a reasonable amount of time to complete a task and recognising that they have their priorities just as you have yours, helps to create a more respectful work environment that fosters better quality work.
Tesla has been on the go since 2003 and Musk’s entrepreneurial career started back in 1995
Studies have also demonstrated that in companies with patience embedded in their culture there are positive associations with the quality of what they’re producing and even their long-term sustainability. Tesla’s colourful founder, Elon Musk, may appear to be the epitome of overnight Silicon Valley success, but Tesla has been on the go since 2003 and Musk’s entrepreneurial career started back in 1995.
Closer to home, it took the Collison brothers 11 years to build their payments technology company, Stripe, into the success story it has become.
The problem for those who exhibit patience, however, is that in general they’re working in an environment that rewards action and those who exhibit drive and an unwillingness to ever take “no” for an answer are the ones who tend to get promoted. Impatience is the mindset of the ambitious and the entrepreneurial and, to some extent, it’s needed to push progress and innovation. However, it also isolates those who are slower to process information and take longer to make a decision.
More haste and less speed can overlook important details and miss less obvious but critical nuggets of information that ultimately lead to a decision being based on less than solid conclusions. It can also create false timelines and create enormous pressure for those expected to deliver on those decisions.
Finally, impatience can make a person look desperate, which is hardly the best image for any entrepreneur or senior manager to cultivate.