The Marshmallow Test For Grown-Ups

Marshmallows

I haven’t had a chance to more than scan this article yet but it’s on a subject close to my heart (and mind. And stomach.) It poses some modern parallels between adult workplace distractions and ill-disciplines and the classic self-discipline assessments and amusing video footage of the various Marshmallow experiments over the years, started out by Walter Mischel at Stanford back in the 60s.

I like the thinking behind the article so once I’ve ‘digested’ it a bit better, I’ll re-post some thoughts.

Marshmallows – 50% sugar; 50% gelatin, 100% evil.

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Freedom In The Workplace – Employee Engagement

freedom

It’s probably easier for a boss in a big organisation to wax lyrical about empowering their employees and allowing them discretion and autonomy than it is for bosses who actually own their businesses. The vast majority of employees work for organisations with ten or fewer employees. They’re run by owner-operators for the most part. For that kind of boss, letting go is more than just following the advice of some leadership book (or YouTube clip) they’ve seen. It’s way more personal and risky and impactful if it goes wrong. Nonetheless, there are a lot of advantages in granting greater freedom and autonomy to your frontline people to make decisions and guide their own workplace behaviours. IF (and it’s a big ‘if’) you’ve recruited the right people, if you’ve inducted them properly, if you’ve consistently and clearly clarified the non-negotiables, if you’ve got systems in place to measure and feedback, and if you’ve fenced off the areas where autonomy doesn’t apply – workplace safety and legal things for example.  (I said ti was a big IF…)

The problem is that many bosses hear that autonomy is a driver of employee engagement so they just let people loose. That’s not autonomy; That’s abdication. Get the structures and disciplines in place first. Hire the right people who fit. Then try out and iteratively increase discretion. It can boost innovation, reciprocity and loyalty from your team. But there are those risks too and risks need to be managed. Here’s an article about it that I didn’t write.

Maintaining Rock Stars – Employee Engagement

office space

It’s all too easy to keep loading work upon the seemingly endlessly broad shoulders of your top performers. This article covers off some great ideas on balancing the act of providing them with challenge and purpose, without grinding them down or leaving them feeling taken advantage of. Much of it is Employee Engagement 101:

Employees who feel a sense of purpose are:

  • 3 times more likely to stay in their jobs
  • 1.7 times higher to feel job satisfaction
  • 1.4 times more engaged at work

Some simple and practical tips are provided:

  • Empower employees to clearly communicate challenges they are facing through regularly scheduled meetings with managers.
  • Create a formal mentoring program.
  • Train managers to be aware of stress clues.
  • Offer programs that specifically address tips to reduce or manage stress, from wellness coaching to onsite classes.
  • Include questions about stress and the interconnected issues of sleep, resilience, health, and job satisfaction in employee surveys. Track results over time, by department, location, etc.
  • Find small ways to change your environment, such as onsite fitness programs, which can be as simple as offering pedometers and a little friendly competition.

If at any stage any of your rock stars throw a TV into a hotel swimming pool, you’ve waited too long.

The Science Of Productivity

The Dark Side Of Employee Engagement

dark side

 

It’s a catchy headline. It’s not mine. It’s from this article. Virtuously, it quickly reveals that dark side: “The only reason that any of this employee engagement stuff happens, is because companies want you to make them money.” I’m not sure that is such a dark side, or that it would be much of a surprise. It also disregards the organisations that aren’t profit-driven like charities, volunteer groups and government agencies who also see value in employee engagement.

But then the article takes a great turn and focuses on ROI – return on investment. That’s a much better turn of phrase and I agree with the sentiment behind it. Any kind of organisational effort, including employee engagement programmes, need to have a point, a purpose, goals and objectives. And achievement of, and progress towards, those objectives need to be monitored and measured. How can we know if we’ve succeeded (or not) if we don’t know and agree what success is? Investment in employee engagement is often more than money – there’s time, effort, risk to reputation, the opportunity cost of other efforts you could have done instead that you chose not to do, and more.

Fessing up, the Star Wars imagery idea is mine. That article didn’t impose that. I’m pretty sure Darth Vader didn’t put much effort into employee engagement, although that bit where he used the force to telekinetically strangle a commander who failed to capture “the rebel scum” did seem very motivational in the short term.

 

Don’t Believe The Employee Engagement Hype

hype

What distinguishes a timeless classic piece of leadership thinking from a flash-in-the-pan, flavour-of-the-month, keep-a-consultant-employed piece of hype? Names and labels may come and go and employee engagement as a phrase might be a relatively new kid on the block but the principles seem pretty timeless to me. This article cites a few problems with the current enamour with whatever people think employee engagement might be: lack of definition, lack of valid measures, it’s not new, lack of evidence and over-hyped claims. These criticisms would be true of anyone claiming anything about anything. And they’re a great place to start in critiquing a piece of leadership thinking that you weren’t previously familiar with.

I’d agree with his sentiments in general, particularly the first one – lack of definition. I’ve been very strong on having a specific definition and distinguishing it from even more fuzzy concepts such as employee morale, satisfaction and happiness. I define it quite narrowly as the observation of discretionary effort – people doing more than they have to because they choose to. From that narrow and specific definition, it’s a lot easier to address the issues of measurement, evidence and hype.

Long Distance Employee Engagement

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In my career, I once managed teams in various locations and teams who also worked around the clock. It wasn’t far but it was far enough. This geographic and chronological distribution is quite a challenge to manage. Technology both offers some solutions and causes some problems. The management from a distance, be it time or space, requires planning and purposeful effort. This post has a neat list of 12 ideas about promoting employee engagement with remote employees that are well worth considering and / or trialling depending on your own long-distance situation.

Employee Engagement – Affected By Gossip?

gossip2

Gossip is a disease. This article makes several sensible correlations between the spread and effects of behind-backs-chitchat and that of actual disease. In both cases, it is better to catch it and cure it early. I’ll add my own 2-cents’ worth to the imagery – it’s far better to immunize beforehand than ever have to cure anything at all. Prevention better than cure said someone’s grandmother, I’m sure.

WikiHow has its 8-steps to solving office gossip, including such classics as “Know what gossip is” and “don’t participate in it yourself.”

This Forbes article does suggest that it’s really only ‘negative gossip’ you should crack down on while actively encouraging ‘positive gossip.’

The simplest solution would be not to employ people at all. If an organisation has 3 people, it’s going to have (at least) 3 separate gossip streams going at any one time. Best to employ robots. They don’t gossip and can be programmed to take the blame if things go south.

Top 10 Employee Complaints – How Do These square With Employee Engagement?

complaint

 

What do you reckon the top 10 complaints from a survey of over two million employees of over 2000 organisations might be? This post lists that top ten. If ‘top’ is the right adjective.

The guts of much of the writing behind employee engagement rests on the primary motivational drivers of employee engagement being intangible, intrinsic people-things like personal development, a sense of purpose, a sense of control or influence over what gets done. Everyone usually downplays money. Where do money-related issues fall in this list of the top ten employee complaints?

1. Higher salaries – pay is the number one area in which employees seek change.
2. Internal pay equity, particularly having concerns with “pay compression” (the differential in pay between new and more tenured employees).
3. Benefits programs, particularly health/dental, retirement, and Paid Time Off/vacation days. Specifically, many employees feel that their health insurance costs too much, especially prescription drug programs.
4. “Over-management” (A common phrase seen in employee comments is “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians”).
5. Pay increase guidelines should place greater emphasis on merit.
6. The Human Resource department needs to be more responsive to their questions and/or concerns.
7. Favoritism.
8. Improved communication and availability (both from their supervisors and upper management).
9. Workloads are too heavy and/or departments are understaffed.
10. Facility cleanliness.

Before I swallow this as complete, representative and accurate, I’d have to go and check out the survey and the methodology and the motivations of those doing the surveys – both the company, the employees and the researchers. I’d be really loathe to give much credence to a check-box list of pre-drafted items from which respondents could select or rank. It’s more effort than I’m prepared to apply as no one is paying me to do it. The post only provides a link to the website of the research company not to the research itself. It doesn’t even date it, implying that it’s recent.

Completely subjectively, people have a job to make money and pay the rent / mortgage. Some of my friends are professional comedians. They do what they love with a skill they’ve developed. There’s is both an artistic pursuit for its own sake and a business they own. I never hear any of them complaining about their ‘job.’ I doubt many of them believe what they do is a job how they define it. It’s not particular to comedy. I know a diverse range of business people with similar mindsets. That said, when they do complain, they complain about money.

That said, there’s a world of difference between things that drive behaviour and things that cause complaints. I’m too lazy to go read my own book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ right now. There’s a section in there citing some classic research. (I would go look it up but no one is paying me to.) Roughly from memory, it seems people would rather be paid less in total, as long as they were being paid relatively more than those around them. There’s another piece of research that found that the 2 types of people most opposed to rises in the minimum wage were the very very wealthy and… the people just above the minimum wage…

Is Employee Engagement A Load Of Bull?

bull

This blog post , albeit a tad arrogant, makes one good point – that giving someone a raise might be the best way of engaging them. It’s a super close-minded post but they are right in the sense that bleeding heart hugs won’t make anyone into super-productive super-stars if they’re terrified that they’ll miss mortgage payments. They’re working for money, not for love. All those consultants peddling better communication are full of bull.

The blogger is right that money is important, maybe for many the most important influencer. But he’s as wrong as the full-of-bull communication peddlers and for the same reason – focusing on one thing. Local research in New Zealand indicates that the smartest approach is a combination of methods – a smorgasbord. And just like all-you-can-eat buffets, different people have different preferences and even within individuals they change over time. (Although, I will always love scallops! And for some reason, I feel like steak right now…)

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