There was a classic longitudinal study conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel. It involved pre-school children and marshmallows. Individual children in a room were offered a marshmallow but, if they waited until the researcher returned after a short (but unspecified) time out of the room, they would get TWO marshmallows. The kids consistently responded in one of three ways: They took the one marshmallow instantly; they waited until the researcher returned and got their two marshmallows; or they waited as long as they could but ended up succumbing to the solo marshmallow on offer. Crudely, the kids were either ‘grabbers’ or ‘deferrers.’
Hey that’s interesting but so what? Mischel continued to follow the progress of the kids for the next forty years. On every measure of success, the deffering children went on to do better than the grabbing children – financially, academically, relationships, health, happiness. Deferred gratification is an aspect of impulse control which Daniel Goleman identified as a pillar of emotional intelligence. Maybe you started out thinking about whether your own kids are grabbers or deferrers but now you’re thinking back to your own childhood… How you doin’!?
Mischel studied individuals, not societies or nations, but I have a nagging and a gnawing that we kiwis are a nation of grabbers and that’s reflected in our diminished and diminishing returns.
This concept of deferred gratification has its largest observable tangible manifestation in retirement savings. You have to wait a very long time for your marshmallows. (If you’ve lost your teeth, you’ll still be able to eat marshmallows!)
It’s not just grassroots kiwis having problems with their long-term financial behaviour. A UK study showed that of employees eligible for schemes entirely funded by employers (ie free money), where the only onus on the employee was that they proactively acted to enrol, only 51% enrolled. Wow. In their book ‘Nudge’, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about their own employer’s retirement savings scheme at the University of Chicago. Bear in mind that all these people are professors and such. (There may even have been rocket scientists.) Some two-thirds of academics approaching retirement still had their mothers as the primary beneficiary of their insurance. Before we laugh at the mad professors, go look up how many kiwisavers never shift from those default providers!
It has been suggested that a seventh default provider be set up to be managed by the ‘Guardians of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.’ Guardians? I think this group sounds like it includes Green Lantern, Thor and Iron Man (though, hopefully, not Captain America.)
Is it laziness or human nature? I just visited the ‘Sorted’ website. It asked me for my year of birth via a drop down menu that defaulted to 1910! It took me four clicks to get to 1966. (Hey, that’s a lot of work for my forty-five-year-old wrists.) Maybe the default should be the average year of birth of those who visit their site? I’m guessing those born in 1910 aren’t surfing the web for superannuation options. Frankly, at that age, I don’t think I want to know what they are looking for on the internet.
Politicians can, and will, continue to tinker with schemes. We can blame them for that but New Zealand is a representative democracy and when it comes to mucking around and not collecting nuts like good little squirrels, it’s sad to say that they probably are accurately representing us. They’re grabbers and so are we. So, tinkering with entitlement ages and employer contribution levels that get traded off with lower wage rises and so on isn’t ever going to provide a long-term meaningful solution. Never. It requires a societal attitudinal change and, as Mischel proved, it all starts with the children. (Oh God, won’t someone please think of the children!) You remember the children, the ones who as adults won’t be able to afford houses, yet we’re relying on them to fund both our debts and our retirement income through their taxes.
The good news is that being a grabber or a deferrer isn’t something you’re born and stuck with (like your height or being from Hamilton.) Mischel with Albert Bandura proved that deferring was a set of learnable skills. Will power, it seems, is skill power. So, let’s set up the schools to teach and model delayed gratification behaviours for the sake of the future of our country’s very existence. After all, if there’s anyone who has extensive experience of not getting what they want for prolonged periods of time, its teachers!
Which company culture is best for productivity and getting the best out of your people – blind obedience, informed acquiescence or self-governance? Are those really the only choices? Sounds a bit loaded to me, like, “What do you want for Christmas – a piece of coal, a pair of socks or a pony?” Coal and socks might seem old-fashioned but they’re functional and damn handy in the right circumstances. A pony might seem like the obvious choice but ponies aren’t for everyone, they require ongoing investment and often they’ll give you another gift for which you’ll require a shovel.
A recent article in The Economist about corporate culture contrasted the view from the top versus the view from the bottom. Bosses disproportionately perceive their organisations to be self-governing, awash with inspiration and driven by values rather than profits. The study was commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of the book ‘How.’ The basic thrust of this book and surrounding consulting empire is that it’s not what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged. (I cannot prevent myself at this point stressing that the foreword to the book is by one President Bill Clinton which, albeit in an unintentionally ironic way, goes a long way to proving that it really isn’t what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged.)
Seidman talks about the different categories of company culture – from the command-and-control military style of ‘Blind Obedience’ to the less-bad ‘Informed Acquiescence’ with its rules and carrots and sticks to the sleek and shiny ‘Values-Based Self Governance’ resplendent with missions and inspiration. I see his argument visually as that classic ‘Evolution Of Man’ poster with Neanderthals evolving to the modern whatever we are. (Hint: Command-and-control leaders are supposed to be the Neanderthals in this picture.)
Of those surveyed, 43% felt their company was in the ‘Blind Obedience’ category, 54% felt their company was in the ‘Informed Acquiescence’ category and a mere 3% had achieved the supposed ‘Self Governance’ nirvana. I did the maths. That adds up to 100% which means those surveyed were only given three mutually exclusive choices. Are they really mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t it be more useful and realistic if they could co-exist in a managed way?
I’m always a bit wary of surveys that end up in articles. Time Magazine reported one recently declaring that 78% of burglars regularly use social media to choose and / or plan their crimes. So when you ‘check-in’ via FaceBook to that out-of-town resort hotel, you’re declaring to the world that you’re not home and your high definition everythings are unattended. Who are these burglars that they’re surveying!? And even if it did satisfy all the criteria supposedly reputable survey companies say are necessary, maybe the burglars being surveyed have their own motives other than the noble truth? Maybe employees might too? (85% of my friends think I’m being cynical about surveys.)
Are these cultures really mutually exclusive and is one better than the others? The answers are, “No” and, “It depends.”
In his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink writes about the uses and limitations of extrinsic motivations (carrots and sticks.) He says that they have their place and can be very effective in simple, mechanical, programmed or scripted task-oriented roles. Studies repeatedly show positive correlation in those type of activities between incentives and improved performance. You reinforce the behaviours that you think you want and you get more of them but that is not a universal truth. If a task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill”, larger rewards lead to poorer performance. Thinking tasks require thinking people and they are internally motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Carrots and sticks don’t work for those people in those roles.
We need to nurture a culture for these people that allows a range of self-direction, develops them beyond their immediate work itself and plays to people’s inherent need to feel like they’re part of something bigger. Chances are, you have people like this in your workplace as well as those with routine task-oriented roles. The same culture won’t work for both groups. So it seems company cultures are like pants – one size does not fit all and you really can’t operate professionally without them.
Different people in different situations requiring different results at different times need different approaches. Crazy stuff but doesn’t it match your experience of reality in managing people? Fitting the right aspects of culture to the right person at the right time is a major driver of employee engagement.
Engaged employees shine out like diamonds. Karen was one such diamond. I met Karen at the supermarket where she worked as a checkout operator. It wasn’t my usual store but I was running a workshop nearby and popped in afterwards to buy some ingredients for dinner. I plonked them on the conveyor as Karen cheerfully greeted me. She looked at me, looked at my choice of groceries and asked, “Chilli for dinner tonight is it sir?” Before I had time to feel judged that chilli was all she felt I was capable of making, she added, “I always add cloves to mine.” It wasn’t busy so I explained to Karen who I was, what I did and asked her about her choice of conversation topic. She wasn’t on commission from the multinational clove corporations. She didn’t have a command-and-control manager dictating that she must try and upsell cloves. (“Do you want cloves with that?”) In a role that has precious little opportunity for discretion, she exercised discretion and was encouraged to do so. For her, it made the day go faster and amped up ever-so-slightly her job satisfaction. That radiated through to my perception of improved customer service. And, in a little but repeated way, she improved the quality of my life. (Try cloves in your chilli. Seriously, try it.)
I was speaking at a conference of dairy farmers about motivation. (Motivating their people not their cows, although, in this country, if I can develop that methodology, I’ll make a fortune!) Afterwards, one farmer came up to me (let’s call him ‘Barry’) to talk about one particular employee of his. The employee wasn’t a non-performer as such but frustrated Barry due to not improving and not making any effort to move towards achieving the potential Barry felt he had. It may or may not be relevant but the employee’s nickname was ‘Sleepy.’ We discussed the various ideas Barry had tried to little or short-term effect. Barry did say that carrots had worked but the impact had worn off. ‘Self Governance’ wasn’t going to work with a ‘Sleepy’ either, at least not by itself. What then? Perhaps a combination.
The group with the best perspective when talking about views from the top and bottom are those in the middle. I’m currently running a year-long development programme for a group of supervisors who are straddling that middle ground. They occupy that dynamic ‘meat-in-the-sandwich’ zone. I asked this group on their views. They’re a diverse bunch culturally and demographically with a range of supervisory experience (including zero.) Their responses were almost entirely questions – requests for more information. Who is this person we’re talking about? What’s the situation? What are our objectives right now and in the future? Smart people ask good questions. If I had to sum up their responses, I’d say, “It depends.”
I recently MC’d a health and safety conference. One of the speakers was Dr Rod Gutierrez, Principal Psychologist at DuPont. He told me about some research that had been conducted on people entering elevators. (He didn’t tell me why they conducted the research. I regret not asking.) People were covertly filmed entering a standard elevator, not one of those double-doored hospital elevators. Like most people I imagine, when you enter an elevator, you turn, press the button for your floor then stay facing the door you entered through. This proved true of all people – if the elevator was empty. They tested two other scenarios – one with a single occupant already there facing the back of the elevator and one with two occupants already there facing the back of the elevator. With the single weirdo facing the wrong way, most people regarded them strangely and faced the usual way. BUT with two weirdos facing the wrong way, over 80% of elevator entrants joined them in facing the wrong way.
Humans are social norming creatures and it’s likely many of your employees are human. The way things are done around here are the way things are done around here. If you’re a leader in a company that sells goods and services, no doubt you’ve got a marketing person or department that knows all about the value of ‘social proof’ in convincing and influencing customers out there in the market. Social Proof is evidence that others like us (or those we would like to be like) have already taken the road or bought the steak knives we’re considering, including the increasingly pervasive online video testimonials and LinkedIn ‘recommendations.’ The same principles apply to convincing and influencing inside the organisation. My advice to my farmer friend is going to be to try some social proof – to find someone who has been in Sleepy’s slippers, gone on to success, and to buddy them up with Sleepy. Let’s see what happens in combination with some of those carrots that worked in the past. Just don’t pick anyone nicknamed Grumpy…
This article is from comedian / writer / director / actor Mike Birbiglia about getting started in show business. I love his comedy and his films, and I think his advice about show business is just as applicable to business in general:
- Don’t wait
- Learn from the failure
- Maybe quit?
- Be bold enough to make stuff that’s small but great
- Cleverness is overrated and heart is underrated.
Workplace culture is a phrase that gets bandied around. Small workplaces probably don’t have the time to think about it or consciously and proactively affect it. They’re the same workplaces that roll their eyes at terms like ‘proactively’ and, most of the time, fair enough. They’re rightly more focused on getting things made or services provided and getting paid. Large workplaces spend lots of time, money and effort to mold their people and processes into something they’ve benchmarked against that’s supposed to be productive, or support engagement or blerby blerdy whoop.
I think workplace culture is a real thing not just a passing buzzphrase. It might’ve been called different things over the years and might be called something different in two years. Sports, music and other analogies abound. The recent NBA finals went 7 games and whichever team was going to win it would’ve inspired articles abound team culture or chemistry or locker room morale. New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team is the winningiest longterm team in the world ever. (Evidence neither cited nor provided, neither am I sure on the word ‘winningiest’). The current coach is in his 5th year and has a winning percentage in the mid 90s. That includes winning a world cup so these numbers are not generally inflated by playing bunnies. All these teams place a huge credit on team culture by selecting the right people, putting ongoing effort into helping them fit, focusing on shared goals and managing consequences when things go well or poorly.
To me, wandering in and out of organisations as an outsider, the thing done least well in both small and large workplaces in that consequences thing. A real test of how good a leader is, or how effective a workplace culture is, is what happens when something goes wrong. All talk of inclusiveness and learning from our mistakes gets put to the test when a client is lost or an expensive failure strikes.
Rather than wait until you get put to the true test, how about a pre test – a litmus test if you will? A means by which you can gauge the temperature of your team or organisation as to how much of a non-blaming culture you really have. I like this article’s suggestion. At meetings, or away from meetings, or indeed, away from work entirely, try asking: “Tell me one thing you think I don’t want to hear…”?
Think about what that implies and how you reckon it might go at your work. Then think about how it should go, how it would go if you really had an effective workplace culture, that has accountability and responsibility without the base and non-productive human instinct to blame.
I performed some comedy shows in Singapore a few days back. Such a diverse crowd and real fans of comedy. It really reinforced to me the power of, and need for, humour as a means for humans to express and provoke. Express thoughts. Express opposition. Express alternatives. So, to me, offending through humour is less about topics such as race etc as much as context, purpose, timing and style. And it better be funny. And, if the joke has a ‘victim’, that victim should be an idea. Never “punch down”.
No one’s ever complained to my face that I’ve been offensive. I’m not trying to offend and I’m not trying to not offend. I do try to challenge and provoke. I’m never going to mock someone directly for being overweight or what I might consider to be overweight. I’m not going to mock a group that I might label the ‘overweight’. But I do think society generally need to be healthier and eat smarter. My only platforms to express my views are my presentations, my writing, my comedy and my social media. That’s how I try to tell the emperor he has no clothes. I’ll direct the joke at a behaviour not a person or group. I did do a few race-based jokes in Singapore, a highly multicultural society. I wasn’t going to initially but it became clear that not only was it OK, it was expected and demanded. It was almost an act of inclusion. But, again, it wasn’t attacking people or groups, it was drawing attention to behaviour and ideas. Why did the racist chicken cross the road? Out of ignorance and fear.
That said, I’m a professional, so if you book me to entertain at an event, you’re not looking to change the world. You’re looking to fill a gap before dessert. I get that and don’t fret. That said, maybe your company should tell your emperor a few things and maybe humour is a means. Several native American tribes such as the Navajo and the Lakota have a great system of ‘Sacred Clowns‘ to drive improvement and often survival through humour. Pointing out flaws with purpose – kind of a useful application of humour and one that a few corporations and Governments could benefit from. Although Mr Trump seems oblivious and impervious to it.
This is getting way too deep for me. I’m clearly putting off shifting that half tonne of lime metal into the boggy patches by the barn. Barn owners – you know what I’m talking about right?! Barn owners, make some noise.