Change: Spoiler Alert!

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It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself.

You know when you’re in a conversation and the person you think you’re in a conversation with is having a different conversation, even though you’re both speaking with each other, and at some eventual point, one of you realises before the other that you’re talking at cross purposes? At that point, you have to either stop talking and backtrack, or you have to interrupt them. You know that look in their eyes just before they get what’s been happening, that confused, almost pained expression? Remember that face. That’s the face of change.

I recently needed to visit a firm that dealt in air conditioners. I was told it was in William Pickering Drive. I didn’t bother getting any more specific details such as the name of the firm or the actual street number. I drove along and saw in the distance a big red sign saying “34C” and a much smaller black and white sign saying “Climate Control.” In a brief conversational exchange with someone in passing in the reception area, I glibly commented that “34C” was a clever name for a firm dealing in climate control, although probably a tad warm for my tastes. I wouldn’t say what followed was a heated exchange (pun intended) but there was certainly escalated confusion, as I was sure the name of the company that dealt in climate control was “34C” whereas the reality and the other person’s perspective was that the company was called “Climate Control” and “34C” was their street number.

At some eventual point, the other person realised what had been going on and interrupted me. The few moments either side of that was the conversational equivalent of when you’re sitting in a chair and leaning back and you get to a point and you don’t know if you’re going to fall or stop yourself falling. I’m sure there was a confused and almost pained expression on my face – the face of change.

The theme of this issue of Employment Today is ‘Managing Change.’ It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself. Research shows that worrying about losing your job causes greater ill health than actually losing your job. Sarah Burgard from the University of Michigan has shown that job insecurity (fear) causes more illness than the eventual reality of unemployment.

So, what can canny employers do to prevent, or at least mitigate, any harm caused by potential change, actual change or the perception of the risks of possible change in the minds of the employees to which the changes happen? Let’s look to Hollywood for some answers.

With the synchronisation in recent years of movie release dates around the world and the tsunami of streaming and downloading or movies, a lot of our friends are seeing a lot of movies before we do. And, good friends that they are, they’d love nothing more to share their experience with us and encourage us to see their recommended films. The term “Spoiler Alert” has thus fallen into common usage as our good friends give us notice if anything they are about to say might ruin a critical story point or narrative twist.

This is the lesson from Hollywood for employers – DO THE OPPOSITE!

Provide spoilers at each and every stage that you can and repeat them more often than you think is necessary. The less uncertainty the better when it comes to managing change. It’s the uncertainty that causes the problems and damages the relationships and the mental and physical health. Change isn’t going to stop – both the change you’re deliberately and proactively provoking and the never-ending stream of reactive changes in today’s economy and workplaces. That’s the reality and will continue to be so. What you can control to a greater degree is the level of uncertainty. So, sprinkle out those spoilers like salt on takeaway French fries (way more than a normal person thinks is necessary.)

I’m performing in the NZ International Comedy Festival this year in a show called ‘The Grin Reaper.’ While it’s an hour of stand-up, its theme is about how to live longer, based on a great book on longevity studies called ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Buettner. Learning some life lessons from those who’ve lived the longest, they’ve distilled the research down into nine key things you can do to add ten quality years to your life. ‘Having purpose’ was one. ‘Wine at 5’ was another so that’s good news. A couple of others related to ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘handling stress.’ That’s where change presents itself. Managed badly, change can literally affect the quality and quantity of our years. Managed well, it can enhance both. Also, you should totally watch the movie ‘The Sixth Sense.’ It’s not so much about longevity but definitely about spoilers.

 

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(The Office) Space: The Final Frontier

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People are not mice wandering through mazes in search and cheese and getting rewards for pushing levers. Having said that, employers can greatly influence the performance of their people by the physical environment they create and provide, both positively and negatively, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Law Professor Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler coined the term ‘Choice Architecture’ in their book ‘Nudge.’ It describes how decisions are influenced by how the choices are presented in order to influence the outcome. While they didn’t literally mean architecture in the sense of the plans for a building, sometimes the physical layout of a location can strongly influence the decisions that are made there. Look around your workplace. Check out the next store you walk past. There is no neutral architecture. Even doing nothing influences the behaviour of others.

Research conducted in some American school cafeterias has showed that the location of the food on offer can impact consumption by food type 25%. If those fatty snack foods aren’t right in our faces, we do tend to buy less of them. How’s your willpower when passing those end-of-aisle ‘specials’ display at your supermarket? (Never shop when you’re hungry!) Are there impossible-to-ignore distractions at work right in your face?

My favourite example of influencing behaviour through simple environmental design is Aad Kieboom’s urinal fly. Kieboom was an economist yet was put in charge in the 1990s of directing the building expansion at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. I’m sure they did a lot of other marvellous things during their renovations but what really got the internet buzzing was their urinal fly.

Without getting into too much graphic detail, men are grossly inaccurate in bathrooms and there are costs associated with that – cleaning is one and possibly psychological scarring is another. By simply embedding the image of a fly within the porcelain of the urinals, they reduced spillage by 80% (Please do not seek out the individual researchers who measured that. I think they’d rather move on.) Maybe it’s the novelty factor? Maybe it’s a damning indictment of the male psyche? (They tried a simple black dot instead of a fly. It didn’t work.)

They wanted a behaviour change. Asking nicely and appealing to sensibilities and reason had failed. A cheap and simple bit of choice architecture drove a major behaviour change. Neat.

And if you don’t think it’s neat, think again the next time you push a door that’s supposed to be pulled then look up to see a sign that says ‘PULL’ in bold impossible to miss print. There’s a classic Gary Larson ‘Farside’ cartoon where this occurs. Unmissable, next to the door is a sign that says, ‘Midvale School For The Gifted.’

Signs are a typical tickbox solution. Someone thinks to themselves that they need to communicate something. They put up a sign. They tick a box and feel that communication has occurred. Nope. I’m sure the airport toilet people, society in general and mums everywhere communicated strongly that men shouldn’t urinate on the floor. Design achieved true communication. Message meaning received, understood and acted upon! How difficult is it to anticipate the door push / pull embarrassment occurring and to design a door that looks intuitively that it needs to be pushed or pulled? Put a sign up as well if it makes you feel better.

People often drove off from petrol stations without their car’s petrol cap. People walk away from ATMs without their card. These are called ‘Post-Completion Errors’, are entirely predictable and can be prevented or mitigated through physical design and choice architecture. What such errors happen in your workplace and how might a minor tweak to the physical environment positively affect behaviour?

We’ve covered individual behaviour being impacted by changes to the physical environment. What about group behaviour? Specifically, what about group interaction? You know how positive comment ratios, social interaction and frequent feedback stimulate internal motivation and productive group dynamics. Studies show that the number one factor in influencing those who collaborate effectively at work is physical proximity. This might be the single most obvious finding ever. We tend to work with, and hang with, those who are already around us. Frequent exposure to these people at our desk, over coffee or in the hallway over time generates ‘propinquity’ – an attraction born of familiarity. How does the physical set-up of your work encourage those that need to collaborate to do so?

I’ve visited workplaces with mini-golf courses in the corridors, little lounge areas in amongst the cubicles and scooters by the doorways to get about. Some have swiss balls for sitting on in meetings (possibly cos it makes meetings shorter?) Please write to my editor in support of my pitch to television networks for my reality TV show idea ‘Pimp My Office.’

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Building Teams – Can Your Skills With Lego Help You Here?

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Too many employers see ‘Team Building’ as an event. Something you do, tick a box and move on. It’s really a continuous process and in addition to any team that’s getting built, your leadership is too.

My local burger place prides itself on being an equal opportunity employer. They’ve hired an Orc, a Hobbit and an Elf. Personally I think it’s just Tolkeinism. Bada bing!

I wrote that joke when the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ movies were big and I’ve never had an opportunity to use it. Many of you might be thinking that I still haven’t had the opportunity and that I just force-fitted it here because I thought it was a good idea. Many times, that’s how employers treat team building – they force-fit people into roles and into groups because that’s all they’ve got to work with, or they think that it is. They don’t take into account the tremendously real, negative and lasting costs of poor fit to the employer, employee and the wider team’s morale and productivity.

Team building is a term loosely hurled around to justify ten pin bowling. I’m not disrespecting ten pin bowling. It’s great. I especially like those bumper rails they put up on the lanes for the kids to avoid the gutters. (Some people need those bumper rails to follow them around for when they’ve walking after they’ve been drinking, often during bowling. Gutters are everywhere!) Team building should be a continuous process incorporating a formally thought-out plan for what the team culture is, versus what it should be and how to plug that gap via recruitment, orientation, employee engagement and evidence-based performance management. It isn’t a themed scavenger hunt on Waiheke Island using those motorised bicycles.

“How’s the team building going Kim?”

“Oh, really good, we did it last week.”

I’m not saying that bowling, motorised bikes and drinking aren’t part of the solution. (Although, definitely not at the same time!) These fun aspects are potentially genuine short-term stimulators of productivity, albeit often fraught with some peril for those organising them and paying for the insurance on the bikes. Recent research has proven that time flies when you’re having fun. From the people who proved that men and women are different, diets are never the means to sustainable weight loss and that bears do stuff in the woods. Seriously, Philip A. Gable, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama (yes, THE University of Alabama) has shown via the scientific method that people’s perception of the passage of time is influenced by the nature of the experience including fun. More specifically, Philip used the term, “positive approach motivation” which just goes to show what a wild and crazy guy he must be. Nice work if you can get it.

The Christchurch post-earthquake experience has injected a new word into the zeitgeist. (For me, ‘zeitgeist’ is also a new word and it was also force-fitted because I thought it was a good idea.) That word is ‘deconstruction.’ Not ‘demolition’ but ‘deconstruction.’ There’s a definite, distinct and important difference that also applies to teams.

Few of us get the chance to genuinely build a team from the ground up – so to speak. To start from scratch and recruit people where before there were none, specifically and sensibly chosen for specific purpose. Mostly we inherit a team when we start out leading people and they come and go and we replace them. When you were a kid, maybe you got some Lego blocks as a gift? You opened that box and spilled out the loose individual components? Or did you inherit the blocks from an older sibling with various pre-made and abandoned clumps of failed constructions. Bits were missing. There were teethmarks. And you had to work with what you got? People are like those Lego blocks and not just because they hurt when you stand on them.

Team building, rather than fun and beer and skittles, might have to involve a period of deconstruction. If it’s true that 26% of employees are engaged and 28% actively disengaged, then 46% of employees are showing up and doing the bare minimum. Sure you want to attract and keep more of the highly engaged and sure you want to amp up the efforts of those just showing up but how much angst is warranted with those who just do not fit?

Real and useful team building is made possible when budgets, time and priority is given to planning and upskilling those people who lead teams. Then they’re aware of, and able to do, whatever they can to achieve the fit and goals they need. If that includes a karaoke night then great. (Note – it should not include a karaoke night.)

And just like Lego blocks, if a person doesn’t fit, then no amount of banging with a hammer is going to make them fit. And any teethmarks will be traceable back to you.

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Terry Williams

Speaker / Trainer / Author

The Brain-Based Boss

www.terrywilliams.info

Auckland

Ph: 0274 80 79 80

terry@terrywilliams.info

P O Box 65562, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 0754

Workplace Surveys: ‘Like’ or ‘Like Not’, There Is No Try.

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‘Everyone’ is on FaceBook and that allows us to express our views by clicking LIKE when we feel like it. Is this a useful approach in the future for workplace surveys?

I follow the blog of Scott Adams. Scott is the creator of the workplace-lampooning cartoon ‘Dilbert.’ Recently he mooted that online social networking could be a great tool to bring neighbours closer together. Technology for decades has helped society retreat into our cocoon homes with food deliveries arranged via cellphone, home theatres and a microwave in every room. Then the onslaught of the internet arrived and people could be more connected than ever without ever having to actually connect at all. Kids no longer played outside in treehouses like we constantly lie to them about having done so ourselves as children. Adams felt that there was the potential for the tide to turn and for social networking tools to stimulate and reinforce connectivity amongst neighbours who never ventured out to borrow a cup of sugar (or maybe these days, a cup of phenylalanine.)

Sure enough, such services already exist to share resources like babysitters and extension ladders or encourage carpooling. People can opt in to go halvsies on housewashing or attend social events. Ubiquitous networks like FaceBook even have a rudimentary ability to connect people who could simply look out their window but mostly don’t. FaceBook also has those little LIKE buttons to click and many express a desire for there to be a DISLIKE option. That says a lot about people and that there isn’t a DISLIKE is a laudably non-evil aspect of FaceBook.

One of the themes of this month’s issue of Employment Today is workplace surveys. Is there an opportunity to combine the network neighbourhood idea and the FaceBook LIKE / DISLIKE concept with the intent of workplace surveys?

Workplaces (big ones) survey lots of things. Workers tick boxes. Graphs are constructed and pinned to noticeboards. Other things might happen as well but they’re not always as noticeable. Action steps get added to action plans for someone to do something at a later time. There is a substantial disconnect between those surveyed and anything that may or may not happen as a result of the information that gets collected. Even assuming the information is worth anything. Not so big workplaces tend to have one person ask another individual a direct question face to face, respond to the answer given and move on with their lives. Most people work in not so big workplaces.

Time lag is just one of the limitations of traditional workplace surveys. Often people don’t return them at all, thus skewing results and the cloak of anonymity can allow the disengaged to vent non-specific and unconstructive fury. I love watching debates about response scales, “Never give them an option to sit on the fence.” If not the best response scale, then certainly my favourite, had 7 points. Each point had a smiley face which waxed and waned the degree of smile depending on which end of the scale you were looking at. Charming! I say though, if you’ve got seven points and that much imagination as a survey drafter, then use the seven dwarves. I’m sure at least six of them are relevant to workplace cultures. “Dammit Williams, how’s the troops’ morale this quarter?” “Well sir, Sales are happy, Accounts receivable are grumpy and most everyone in Marketing is dopey.”

(If you’re in the mining industry, maybe don’t try the dwarf model.)

I haven’t seen a paper-based survey for a while. Most are online with links being sent out by email and responses followed up automatically. Response rates are better. (The results always get printed out though, don’t they?) Could a canny intrapreneur create an internal workplace equivalent of FaceBook? (WorkBookTM?) Given the amount of time people at work are supposedly on there anyway, it might get a rapid uptake. Trending topics of actual workplace relevance could be captured and assessed in realtime, replacing the need for cumbersome and generalised surveys. Is everyone digging the new deodorant scent in the toilets? The new courier service – how’s that working out? Will the proposed accommodation changes enhance your productivity or simply impede your work-avoiding prolonged toilet stops where you’ve developed an unnatural addiction to the new deodorant scent?

I know LIKE / DISLIKE is all a bit simplified and binary and not like real life at all. Real life is much more fifty shades of grey. Well, seven shades anyway.

You could probably take the WorkBookTM concept a bit far, I suppose. Bosses probably shouldn’t have a list of their favourites, it’s generally unwise to gift a co-worker a sheep and poking at work is never appropriate.

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Well Well Wellness

 

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I used to work in local Government. When I started, there was a ‘Rubbish’ department. It became ‘Refuse and Recycling.’ Last I heard, it had become ‘Waste Minimisation.’ These aren’t just superficial labels, they represent a shift in thinking. A similar shift has occurred when it comes to wellness at work. It’s gone from ambulances at the bottom of cliffs (sometimes literally) to prevention and a broadening of scope from the merely physical and work-related.

I’ve worked with organisations that offer subsidised gym memberships, 10,000 Step programmes and reward-point-scoring health insurance schemes. In-house Occupational Therapists teach posture and micro-pausing to the masses, ergonomic furniture is installed while Sven the masseuse takes your shoulder massage booking. I actually saw one company intranet’s homepage announcing the boss was paying for a diet specialist to come in and speak, although this was right next to an advert for the social club’s fish ‘n’ chip evening. I love those situations, like my local supermarket which had a sale bin of toothpaste right next to a sale bin of chocolate bars – 5-for-$4! An aisle of value but also an aisle of irony.

My point here is that even if you’re not an employer that doles out massages and gym memberships, your workplace has a tremendous capacity to affect your people’s physical and mental health one way or the other. That some employers make efforts to bolster worker wellness isn’t altruistic. They reap the benefits of attendance, attitude, engagement, productivity and more. A study published in the U.S. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that for every dollar a worker’s illness cost, the average impact on their employer’s productivity was $2.30. So, for example, preventing staff illnesses causing $10,000 of medical costs could enhance your bottom line by $23,000.

I read a book last Christmas called ‘The Blue Zone. Lessons for living longer from those who’ve lived the longest’ by Dan Buettner. He and his team have studied the four little pockets of humanity where they have a ridiculously long length and quality of life. (None are in New Zealand. They’re in Sardinia, Costa Rica, Japan and California.) There’s a quick online quiz, after which it tells you how long they reckon you’ll live if you keep going the way you’re going and how long you could live if you take their advice. Take the test but do it with friends. (Ironically, doing it with friends is part of their advice.)

I need to get a pet and at least one more friend at ‘organ-donor’ level. Otherwise, I’m pretty sweet. You might be pleasantly surprised at their alcohol and exercise advice. Having a reason to live is important and, for some, work can provide that. Friendship is generally good for your health but there are different levels of friend. I think we all know that. We might not have it written down but we have a ‘friend matrix’ somewhere. When you’re a kid, you need a friend with an X-Box. When you leave home, you need a friend with a van to help you move. When you’re my age, you need a friend with a spare (functional) kidney.

In 2007, Gallup research found that “having a best friend at work” increased the likelihood of someone being engaged at work by 700%. Sarah Burgard from the University of Michigan has shown that job insecurity (fear) causes more illness than actually losing a job. Disconnected employees are more likely to get sick and more likely to miss work. A study by the Confederation of British Industry estimated that fifteen percent of illness days taken were not due to actual illnesses.

A recent episode of TV’s ‘The Biggest Loser’ was filmed in New Zealand. I presume New Zealand paid for this because it seemed that the phrase, “In New Zealand” had to be said at least every ninety seconds. “I’m eating an apple IN NEW ZEALAND.” “I never thought I’d be doing push-ups IN NEW ZEALAND.”

There is a lot of time on screen of exercise, dieting and dramatic weigh-ins which probably makes for good TV but is unlikely to lead to ongoing long-term wellness-supportive lifestyle changes. What does help are social proof, goals, regular non-judgemental behaviour-based feedback and a sense of purpose. Not surprisingly (hopefully), these things are also powerful drivers of workplace behaviours that support not only wellness but productivity and profitability.

An obese person sat next to me on the plane recently. Despite he and I both paying for one seat, he was taking up a good third of my space. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me IN NEW ZEALAND.

 

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Managing Change and the ‘E’ Word – Emotions

 

 

I like hearing about people who are looking for a place to live near their work. That’s just so… optimistic. Another symptom of optimism is New Year’s resolutions. It’s March and after three months is a pretty good time to step back and see how we’re tracking towards success with our New Year’s resolutions. (The other two best times are after an entire year and on January 2nd.) This annual process for many of us in our personal lives is curiously analogous to the more formal goal setting processes that occur in our workplaces. In our workplaces, we’re trying to increase sales by 3% or decrease costs by 5% or reduce staff turnover by half, whereas our personal goals might be to lose 10 kilograms. You don’t often see an employer come up with that kind of workplace weightloss goal. (Unless the goal is for the department to lose 95 kilograms and we call those kilograms ‘Barry.’)

What I like about New Year’s resolutions and workplace goal setting is that, regardless of how successful they turn out to be, they are, at the very least, an attempt to be proactive and take some degree of control rather than bounce around the random pinball machine that is the modern international economy. This perception of control or influence over our own futures is a fundamental human need. And I’m assuming that for most of you, most of your employees are some pretty fundamental humans.

Your human brain receives over eleven thousand signals from your senses every day. Of those, you’ll consciously process only about forty of them. The rest get dealt with by our good old and efficient subconscious. Our primal instincts prefer ‘same old same old.’ Sameness isn’t threatening. New things could be threatening. From a rational perspective, change, progress and innovation have no doubt been fantastic for the collective society but nevertheless the first thing our individual subconscious brains instinctively care about is not dying. It is old fashioned and emotional that way. Changes, which could contain potential threats, stimulate a physiological stress response, even if your suggested departmental reorganisation isn’t literally life-threatening. It takes time for us mere humans to work through and determine that the change may not only be unthreatening but potentially advantageous. Unfortunately while we’re still slaves to the feelings of stress caused by the emotional response to a perceived threat, the rational bits of our brain play second fiddle. This is normally occurring at the same time that leaders are explaining rationally why the change is happening. Sound familiar?

There’s the old and feeble joke that change is inevitable except from Council carpark payment machines. Change is constant and the pace of change is increasing. Look it up using your smartphone which was superseded about six weeks after you bought it. If change is perceived as external and happening to us then that contributes to a sense of powerlessness which increases feelings of helplessness and pessimism. Hardly conducive to a cooperative or productive workplace environment.

So often, leaders with change projects focus on the tasks – get prices, evaluate vendors, install hardware – and the steps that are people-oriented still tend to be about tasks – training for example. Early and often, these leaders of change need to plan and implement steps to help people deal with the natural cycle of emotional reaction to the prospect of change. Too many times I’ve asked managers how they’re dealing with how people are reacting to the change process and been answered, “Communication.” I ask how that’s going and get answered, “Its done,” accompanied by a wave of a printout of an email or three. One-way linear broadcast communication is not dealing with people’s emotional reaction to change and it never will be.

Nikolas Westerhoff’s recent article in ‘Scientific American’ cited research that shows that older people find it harder to change and deal with change due to brain chemistry. That’s disturbing but not as disturbing as them defining “older” as “over thirty.” Young people may be able to handle change but if you’ve ever witnessed them at a cash register, they struggle to make change. (OK, enough old-man defensiveness. Sorry kids.)

Another key step for leaders of change is to create a shared sense of urgency. Getting back to our New Year’s resolutions, losing weight because you ‘should’ is vague, unmotivating and unlikely to drive anyone to success. Losing weight to fit into a wedding dress by June (for some) could generate a sense of urgency. (Yes I am a guy and if I want to fit into a wedding dress, that’s my business. Don’t judge me – I’m over 30!)

 

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Terry Williams

Speaker / Trainer / Author

The Rapport Accelerator

www.terrywilliams.info

Auckland

Ph: 0274 80 79 80

terry@terrywilliams.info

P O Box 65562, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 0754

Executive Leasing: Executive, former lease model, one previous careful owner, normal wear and tear, seeks new home…

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Executive leasing – What, who, when, how and sometimes why? I leased a car once. I think it was because there were tax advantages or because it was better to treat it as operational expenditure rather than capital or maybe it was because the dashboard navigation computer’s voice was Scarlett Johansson. Do we make executive leasing decisions the same way? That new manager you contracted for accounts payable with the MBA – not only has he improved productivity and slashed costs but he’s also got the voice of Scarlett Johansson! Double-plus whammy right there. No?

I suppose one of the foundation beliefs underlying the desirability of executive leasing is that management is management is management and it doesn’t really matter if what you’re managing is insurance sales, museum curating or nuclear power generation. If you screw up nuclear power generation then your workplace may end up as a museum (in 140 years) and you’ll certainly need insurance so maybe there are benefits to overlapping knowledge there. You can delegate specific technical tasks to experts and focus on those universal people leadership thingies that you’ve convinced multiple people that you’re an expert in. Or you might be a practitioner of some acronymmed discipline that applies in any industry like HR, PR or BS. (And if you cannot distinguish between HR, PR and BS, then perhaps you really are management material.)

I recently MC’d a series of award shows for the Dairy Industry. At black tie dinners, dairy trainees, farm managers and sharemilkers in full black tie regalia received well deserved acclaim for jobs well done and single-handedly saving our nation’s economy. (The Swandri company really need to come out with a tuxedo. Give me a call. I can hook you up with a market.)

I am a townie and must admit if there are two words I don’t want to see together in a sentence I hear at my house, those two words are “milk solids.” (Unlike dairy farmers who might see the words “milk solids” but hear the words “white gold,” which appropriately enough was the theme of their events.) My point is that every industry and workplace has its own very specific jargon and psyche. I’m not rejecting the concept of executives flitting about the place but one of the disadvantages is that they need to get up to speed with the language of where they’ve arrived at. Or maybe this is an advantage? I’d think about it some more but I’m not feeling too well as I can’t get “milk solids” out of my mind.

I read an article on cracked.com about some non-English words that the English language desperately needs. Some cultures just have a different view of the world and their language and vocabulary has developed some insights from which we could benefit. That’s as true of workplace cultures as it is of languages. A definite benefit of executive leasing is the short-term lesser-risk injection of fresh perspective, processes and ideas, challenging the status quo and sacred cows.

Sure your leased executives aren’t going to add value instantly with great words like the Georgian “Shemomedjamo,” meaning to eat beyond the point of being completely full just because you can, or the Tibetan “Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu,” meaning giving an answer unrelated to the question. Frankly, in today’s business world, if you can master Gadrii Nombor Shulen Jongu, then you are destined for a salary package that will enable you and your family to shemomedjamo to your heart’s content. (And by “content,” I mean “demise.)

What’s that right on the tip of your tongue – that’s right – bacon! And also on the tip of your tongue is a question – how else is executive leasing like leasing a car?

That car I said I leased – on returning it, the dealer inspected it because they were going to re-sell it. It needed to be in ‘reasonable’ condition for a three year old vehicle. At some point I, or one of my ‘friends,’ had opened a door onto a slope in such a way that a tiny corner of the driver’s door had been snapped off. I’d never noticed it but the inspector did notice it like it was a $1000 noticeable thing. If I’m milking this analogy of executive leasing compared to car leasing, then there should definitely be an end-of-lease inspection and the poor old executive should be returned in a reasonable condition. Who knows what might have snapped during their employment with you?

 

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D.I.Y. Psychometric Testing

 

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The oldest do-it-yourself cliché in the world is, “Measure twice, cut once.” This is axiomatic wisdom when applied to pieces of wood. It’s not a bad approach to people either, although the “cutting” bit might be a tad dodgy from a health and safety perspective. Try before you buy or, at the very least, test before you hire. But in the same way that you’re less of a man if you have to get a tradesman in*, are you less of an employer if you don’t do-it-yourself? I’m here to help. (Editor’s note – No, he isn’t.)

In his book ‘Quirkology’, Professor Richard Wiseman throws down a quick and dirty psych test to determine the inherent honesty of the character of the person with whom you’re dealing. Me, I used it on my kids. They say there’s a correlation between dishonesty at a young age and success in later life. I’m kind of pinning my hopes on that one.

Anyways, pick your victim. Don’t give away in advance the purpose of this ‘psychological profiling technique.’ Ask them to imagine that the index finger on their dominant hand is a pen and they are to write an uppercase letter Q with that pen on their own forehead. Observe them doing this. Maybe get an independent third party to observe and verify. As you’re observing how they write their Q, pay particular attention to how they apply the ligature – the squiggly bit that distinguishes a Q from an O. (Does the letter O have ligature-envy?)

The trick in the tail is if they have written their Q so it’s correct from their own point of view or from the point of view of someone looking at them? (I once trained a man in customer service who had self-tattooed on his own forehead the phrase ‘Justice Sucks.’ The S’s were backwards. Maybe his protest was valid but the backward S’s made me feel less supportive of him, although his customer skills were impeccable.) Those writing their Q’s from their own point of view are alleged to be inherently more honest.

When I’m speaking or training, I generally tell people about these inner-soul-revealing techniques as a means of getting a cheap chuckle at someone else’s expense. ie the best kind! (This column is called ‘Last Laugh’, it’s not called ‘The Professional Opinion Of A Qualified Expert.’) I also use them as a warning to business people to treat every supposed profiling technique with a healthy degree of scepticism. One such giggle inducing technique which is sufficiently and disturbingly plausible in a large group is as follows.

Lay your dominant hand flat on a surface. Observe the relative lengths of your index and ring fingers. The longer your ring finger is in relation to your index finger in this experiment / joke reflects how much testosterone you were exposed to in utero and therefore how it subsequently affected your physiological development. (It adds to the gravitas of the set-up if you use words like “physiological” and “in utero”. It’s even better if you can pronounce the italics of “in utero.”)

Again, don’t give away the point until the people you’re ‘testing’ have revealed their finger gap ratio.

If you’re a female and you have a high ratio, you probably find yourself better at Olympic throwing sports than females with average ratios. If you’re a male with a low ratio, then please do refer to the owner’s manual of your red convertible sportscar or ask your girlfriend to do it after she’s finished updating her One Direction fansite.

Okay so now you’ve got a couple of ice breaker activities for your next dinner party or after-work gathering which is about as much credence as I’d really give these games as psychometric profiling techniques. I’m always a bit wary of more formal processes too. I’m sure they’re valid as part of a portfolio of recruitment, selection and placement tools, not just for screening applicants but for determining best fit and approach once hired. I’ve been in groups where everyone’s read their results and lots of people have declared, “Oh my God, that is so me,” or words to that effect. Mind you, try reading your horoscope today and see how that also eerily accurately applies to you.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the consultants to whom you pay tens of thousands of dollars are in any way as shonky as me on stage but I am probably slightly cheaper and I tell you in advance that my techniques are a joke.

 

*The references to “man” and “tradesman” are deliberately sexist for the joke to work. I’m really sorry. I would’ve rewritten it but I was distracted by the massive gap between my ring and index fingers.

 

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Conflict – What is it good for? – Absolutely nothing (except when it is).

conflict

Conflict is inherent in human interaction so people must love it, right? Xbox is hugely popular but there is no game called ‘Gears Of War: Conflict Resolution.’

Solomon Asch is a great name for an Xbox villain but it’s also the name of a psychologist who ran a now-famous 1951 study on social conformity. (If you’re visualising this as you read, do so in the grainy black and white newsreel style of the day.) Groups of participants were seated at a table while a moustached man in a lab coat with a clipboard told them they were part of a programme of assessing visual judgements.  All but one of the participants were in on the scam and it was that one person per session who was the actual subject of the experiment.

Each group was shown two large cards at once. On one card was a single vertical line. On the other card were three different vertical lines labelled a, b and c. Each person was asked to say out loud which of a, b or c was the same length as the first line on the other card. The process was repeated again and again. For the first two rounds, the researcher’s confederates gave the right, and obviously right, answers and so too did the subject. From the third round onwards, the confederates gave the same wrong, and obviously wrong, answer. The subject, who was in the middle of the group, got to hear the incorrect answers being spoken before and after it was his turn.

Initially, most subjects stuck to their guns but it didn’t take more than a couple of rounds for most people to scrunch up their faces, weave their eyes back and forth and go with the group. There were eighteen sessions and three quarters of people conformed at least once. One third went along every time.

I don’t know if would’ve influenced the science but all the participants were men. They were student volunteers and maybe there weren’t many women at university in 1951 or maybe women had better things to do with their time? (Insert your own joke here about women lying about the length of things.)

The thing about experiments like this is that, if they prove anything at all, they prove it about most people and I’m sure you are not most people. However most people are most people and they’re the ones you’re employing, leading, developing and depending on for your success. Thinking about your workplace, how conformist are your people? What innovations aren’t happening? What sacred cows aren’t being challenged? What problems aren’t being solved? All because of too much of what seems to be an overly human trait of conflict avoidance.

One of the themes of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. Some people, perhaps even most people, see conflict as a problem that needs to be prevented, avoided or minimised. I see it as a tool to be managed. By definition, ‘resolution’ does not mean prevention, avoidance, minimising or even ending. It means the act of resolving or determining upon a course of action. We need to acknowledge the conflict and choose to deliberately do something about it. I call this, “Going ugly early.”

A lack of conflict may seem like a great idea but it’s more likely a symptom of organisational avoidance problems. It’s an unrealistic fantasy to have a conflict-free workplace.

Often though, the conflict on balance becomes destructive or unsustainable. Then someone needs to intervene.

One of the critical ingredients in anyone’s skill acquisition, personal development and long-term success is heightened self awareness – metacognition or our ability to think about the way we think. Nowhere is this more evident than how different people view and handle workplace conflict and conflict resolution. There are a number of different models simplifying conflict styles. “I’m an avoider. You’re a competitor. She’s an accommodator.” The key first step is to realise that, whatever the label de jour, when it comes to conflict you have a default preference style and others may differ. Become self aware, then look for clues in others. Only then can you tweak, test, evaluate and re-tweak an approach. Modelling and teaching this behaviour flows through into non-conflict communication, accelerating understanding of, and effective interaction with, others. It allows innovations, third ways and the emperor with new clothes finding out he’s naked.

When it comes to conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right (in the same way that two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.)

 

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Employee Engagement: WaterCooler-itis

Water-Cooler

This article talks about the impact of employees chatting, gossiping and asking questions about work stuff “around the water cooler.” The grapevine, or call it what you will, is a natural human communication system that occurs whether you like it, want it or not. Trying to tame it is tough and, unless there are legal, morale or safety reasons, maybe you shouldn’t. Trying to leverage it or manipulate it for your own ends? Good luck. Laws of unintended consequences come into play there.

But you should always be aware and have an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse (and a nose to the wheel and a shoulder top the grindstone… Just one shoulder though or you’ll stuff your back.) If issues crop up, you can nip them in the bud. Better to deal with a pimple than a volcano, I always say.

The article rightly reckons that by delving into water-cooler chat, you can pick up the consistently asked questions and that’d be good to know. Questions indicate uncertainty and I believe a critical role of workplace leadership is to minimise uncertainty. The article cites some examples:

1. Are the top leaders at my organisation are committed to making it a great place to work.

2. Is there is trust in the leadership of the company where I work.

3. Can I believe this company will be successful in the future.

4. Do the top leaders at the company where I work really value people.

5. Do I know how I fit into the organisation’s future plans.

6. Are career development and growth opportunities are available to me at this organisation.

And of course, the most pressing question of all – who is going to swap out the empty water cooler!?

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