Workplace Conflict: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

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Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.

Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.

The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.

The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.

Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.

My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.

I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.

There’s the old joke that goes like this:

During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”

“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”

 

When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.

 

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Training And Development Is Work

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People often see training and development as events, whereas the vast bulk of it occurs seamlessly everyday on-the-job.

Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ identifies three primary drivers of motivation and engagement. One of those is mastery – the sense that tomorrow we’ll be a little bit better at whatever it is that we do than we were yesterday, a need we all have to perceive a sense of self development and personal progress. Part of our fundamental human set-up probably has you irked right now that I haven’t yet mentioned what the other two primary drivers of motivation and engagement are.

Last century, Lombardo and Eichinger came up with their 70-20-10 model depicting the average sources of training and development in the workplace. (I say last century but it was 1996. But these days, 1996 is so ‘last century.’) My son was born in 1996. He’s taller than me now. He has a great part-time job with a great employer at Albany Pak n’ Save. His experience pretty much replicates the 70-20-10 model. 70% of his workplace learning occurs ‘on the job’ whilst performing tasks and solving problems. 20% occurs in semi-formal coaching sessions and via feedback. The remaining 10% occurs in formal situations like classroom training sessions and self-directed reading.

Some people see training as an event that occurs in the training room, according to a schedule on a wall or computer somewhere. There is a line on a budget called ‘Training and Development.’ One of the services I deliver for organisations is training. A trend I’ve noticed accelerating is a greater awareness, acceptance and embracing of supporting that informal, on-the-job learning.

These days I’m loving that, due to demand, I’m running a lot fewer sessions delivering content and a lot more on how to deliver content, provide feedback, manage performance and vary communication styles. That’s the stuff that enables workplace leaders to support workplace learning. I’m not in love with the term ‘Training and Development’ but I will marry the term ‘Workplace Learning.’

From smartphones to intranets to job-aids to NZQA to remuneration matrices linked to demonstrable and documented skill acquisition, a whole raft of ideas, technologies and demands have driven and supported this sea change. We need to know what we need to know when we need to know it. The people we lead in an increasingly complex and flexible workplace can’t be expected to be trained in everything then let loose. Increasingly in job descriptions and job interview scripts, I’m seeing ‘Ability to Learn’ as a critical competency. And it should be.

Knowledge and expertise you have today may be obsolete soon enough, if not tomorrow. Recently the last factory in the world that made typewriters closed down and the last telegraph service was discontinued. I presume once there was a hey-day when parents tried to convince their kids to grow up and get into the lucrative typewriter manufacturing and telegraph delivery gigs. They’re looking pretty foolish now. We all need to learn better skills on how to learn – how to be more efficient and effective at learning and, more importantly for employers, how to support others in their everyday learning.

Even more last century and harder to attribute than the 70-20-10 model is the Four Stage Competency Model. Wiki says it’s from the 1970s and credits Noel Burch. It’s a task-specific model so let’s use driving as an example. At stage 1, you’re not very good but you’re keen as you don’t yet realise how not good at it you are. This is unconscious incompetence. Then you have a go and experience some failure. This is conscious incompetence. Over time and with practice and coaching, you can do it unsupervised but you still really have to think about it. This is conscious competence. Eventually, you get in your car, blink, and suddenly you’ve driven to work with no recollection of the preceding forty minutes. You’re in stage 4 – unconscious competence. Any bad habits are well engrained now. You might get stuck on a level. You might go backwards. Critical to progression is the support of a supervisor via deliberate practice and feedback. The model is helpful for workplace leaders to know because you need to provide the people you lead with different things depending on what stage they’re at.

So let’s let T&D go the way of typewriters and telegraphs and let’s celebrate workplace learning. (Oh, and the other two drivers of motivation and engagement are Autonomy and Purpose.)

But, do people really care passionately about investing in learning? Recently, on my Brain-Based Boss FaceBook page, I posted a link to a great article on research linking investing in skills paying off economically. It got zero responses. Separately, I also posted a flippant and sarcastic criticism of the new Whittaker’s L&P flavoured chocolate. It got dozens of responses…

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Recruitment: Gangnam Style!

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What can employers learn about recruitment from the techniques of viral internet videos?

 

There’s a delightful parody floating around YouTube of the Gotye song ‘Somebody That I Used To Know.’ Actually there are about 17,000 of them ranging in delightfulness but the one I’m referring to is ‘Some Recruiter That I used To Know.’ If you’ve ever been on either end of a recruitment process, then it will ring familiar to you. Search for it or its kiwi creator Adam King. (“Always a pen… Always a pen…”)

As popular as the original Gotye song’s video was on YouTube, it cannot hold a candle (or luminous smartphone) to the billion views, or thereabouts, of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style.’ My beef here is how YouTube counts the views. The moment you click PLAY, that counts. So, if you watch one second of it, refresh and start again and repeat, all those ‘views’ count. They shouldn’t but they do.

Too many employers treat recruitment like YouTube treats view counts. A recruitment process is just that – a process – and it shouldn’t count until it’s completely finished. And when’s that? I’m going to say that it isn’t finished even when the role is filled and a contract is signed. There’s a period, and it’ll vary from time to time and from organisation to organisation and from role to role, but there’s a period that the new hire needs to remain and be productive for the recruitment to have been considered a success. I reckon the recruitment process shouldn’t be considered over until that period is complete. Then tick all the boxes you want.

So recruitment would then include orientation, induction and maybe even the first period of performance management, up to and including a performance review.  That’s the equivalent of watching the YouTube video all the way to the end. And the best thing is that recruitment doesn’t involve Justin Bieber. Or, if it does involve Justin Bieber, I’m assuming you’re reading this article in 2015 and you’re hiring for McDonalds. I’d probably hire him. I imagine he’d be great at customer service but you’d have to insist on a hairnet. And this might be the first and best ever use of a hairnet for both improving food hygiene and fashion.

I’m assuming that mocking Justin Bieber is safe, as few Beliebers would read Employment Today, unless it’s 2040 by which time I’ll be holed up somewhere safely in a cave with my guns and Led Zep vinyl LPs.

So, how does a Gangnam video get so popular? How does PSY get a billion views instead of having to settle for half a billion? One theory is that his is the perfect music video, being derivative and paying homage to about twenty different classic music video scenes. Why wouldn’t you cut n paste from the timeless classics just like cutting n pasting from old position descriptions?

How else do these viral videos get so virulent and are there learnings from their approaches for recruiters? Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Made To Stick’ outlines the critical components of ideas that stick and get retold and retold, spreading out through inter-related professional and social networks, not just in today’s world of wires and wireless, but timeless principles of engagement dating back millennia.  The components are as relevant to gossip, mythology, urban myths and music videos as they are to the reputation of a workplace as a fantastic employer. There is simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. No one really believes job ads or the hype but they do give traction to stories. “Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.” That’s the power of repetition and Gangnam Style is certainly testimony to that.

It doesn’t have to be stories about waking up in a Cambodian hotel bath full of ice minus a kidney. That’s probably not a better work story but it is one that starts their book. But as the Heath brothers write, that’s the kind of story that gets around because it has those features. It’s similar with Gangnam Style. I remember reading years ago an early edition of ‘What Colour Is My Parachute’. (It may have been on a tablet – a stone tablet.) It stressed that most jobs weren’t gained via CVs and answering job adverts in the newspaper. It was all about over-hearing about a vacancy or knowing someone who knew someone. Employers and recruiters need to get their message out there in story form. The Heaths sticky idea criteria spell out an acronym: SUCCES. It’s almost success but is missing that last S. I recommend adding Substance.

And getting back to that Gotye parody ‘Some Recruiter That I Used To Know’, there’s a recurring line in there that I particularly liked:

“But you treat me like an accountant and that feels so rough.”

 

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Safety, Silliness, Systems And Self-Esteem

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For reasons that will become quickly evident, I am unable to use the name or location of the specific hardware store where the following events occurred.

I had a small paper list of four hardware items I needed. I went to my local hardware store. It’s one of those big ones that stock everything, even things you didn’t know existed and several items that don’t actually exist. It has many aisles and acres of area – indoors and out.

I walked in without buying a hotdog but walked in slowly to optimise my exposure to the hotdog smell on a chilly winter’s morning. I was greeted by the greeter. I made it as far as the central area between the rows and rows of aisles and the checkouts. This oh-so-keen and obviously-new-guy in a spotless uniform asked me if I needed any help. I say I don’t as I know where everything is. He says I couldn’t know where EVERYTHING is. (And it was THE WAY he said it.) I glare. It degenerates into a good-natured debate. Other staff are attracted to the drama. A challenge develops. It’s him versus me in a race to get my four items and return to the cashiers. So, it’s product knowledge AND logistics AND footspeed.

Go! I beat him to the torch batteries, scramble to a draw at the double-sided tape and I have a decent lead by the tomato food but it all peters out as they don’t stock the 4th item – disinfectant spray. Hardware is the winner on the day. So you those of you who say I have no life – wrong! I have THIS life. Others of you might say the real question is WHY do I need disinfectant spray?

(Whilst these events did actually happen to me, this concept is going to be my reality TV show pitch and on everyone’s list will always be a knife and you’ll be allowed to use whatever’s on your list to stop your opponent. ‘The Block’ meets ‘The Hunger Games.’ Copyright Terry Williams 2013 All Rights Reserved.)

So anyway, this month’s issue of Employment Today is about health and wellness in the workplace. I didn’t see any senior management leap into the fray and scold anyone for what we were up to. Were we creating an unsafe workplace? We both had shoes on. We weren’t running with scissors. But one of us could have shoulder-charged an arthritic granny around a blind corner as she reached exposed and vulnerable for one of those extender-claw grabbers for less tall old people with high shelves.

Health and safety in the workplace often comes down to personal responsibility and the choices made by people in the moment or across a period of time. Robust systems control and limit discretion in the direction of safety but humans are a hard mob to totally limit and control. People aren’t always great at making sensible choices in the short or long term. Now, I’ll admit the following statement is not one I’ve literally heard in line at a KFC but it’s one I imagine is implied via subtext, “Yeah, I’ll get the tower works combo, side of potato and gravy, the spicy double down, a jumbo diet Pepsi and… a low self esteem please.” People regularly make poor choices in their behaviours ‘in the now’ that affects their wellness long-term.

Those of you who attended the SafeGuard national health and safety conference in June would have seen Fonterra’s presentation of their research findings into the connection between employee engagement and a safer workplace. Second-to-last in the list of drivers of employee engagement were financial incentives. The top three were: What other people are doing around me; regular performance feedback conversations; and my boss’s behaviour. In a nutshell these three are outcomes of frontline leadership and frontline leadership systems. The smart money in the hands of senior management would be well invested in frontline leadership development, with proven, demonstrable returns in safety outcomes (and productivity and profit too.) More profit means more tax for the Government and maybe NZ On Air for funding my reality show. C’mon kiwis, get behind ‘The Hardware Games.’

 

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A small US supermarket chain is consistently ranked up there with Google as one of the best places to work

Here’s a short inbetween post about a small fish succeeding in a big pond. New Zealand does an annual best places to work survey and awards. The USA has several. Here’s a link to an article about the most recent where a small regional player, a supermarket chain, ranks #2 in the entire USA – second only to someone you may have heard of – Google. (If you haven’t heard of Google, look them up, let me know how you do it).

It’s a real snapshot of the benefits and possibilities for non-huge orgs to leverage employee engagement.

Influencing Productivity

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Deadlines, scarcity and pointless shouting are three techniques for influencing productivity with differing degrees of success.

So 3M, you’re telling me that your post-it notes will adhere 317 separate research notes onto a wall for sorting into categories but after an hour, with the window slightly ajar on a not-especially-windy day, they will not remain adhered to said wall? Is that what you’re telling me 3M? I only ask because it didn’t say that on the packet! Maybe I should’ve stapled them to the wall? I know what I’d like to staple to a wall. Seriously, I love your product but I fail to see how this is, in any way, my fault. Much like how I fail to see how anything is my fault. This was my fault. In fairness only a hundred or so fell off. So, the glass is half full. 31.545% full. On the plus-side, they’ve all clumped together on the floor so they’re not being blown around anymore. Except the ones that have. Which I can’t find. And can’t tell that they ever existed.

I’m a writer, amongst other things. Writing is a great occupation to reflect different approaches to productivity. I tried using post-it notes to enhance my creative productivity because, until I get a PC screen 3 metres by 3 metres, post-it notes on a wall is a superior approach to anything computers can offer but, as the rant above suggests, it worked up until the point that it didn’t. Writers aren’t productive for money. If they were, they wouldn’t be writers.

Productivity might be enhanced by working away from an office without the distractions and interruptions that offices have. Nope, writers don’t have those – just fridges, TVs, radio, FaceBook, kids home from school and the voices in our head.

People get productive when there’s a deadline or when there is a scarce resource being competed for. Things that are running out get appreciated. This is why we hunt for the last chip in the bag and those crunchy bits. This is why we eke out the last of the toothpaste in the tube. I like the experience of the last saline solution for my contact lenses. You shake the bottle and can’t believe there’s still some left but it keeps on coming until the very last which emerges in a fizz. You place your lens in your eye overflowing with tiny bubbles. It’s like champagne for your cornea. And don’t get me started on the challenge of getting your car as far as it can go when the tank says empty. Oh, it says empty but you know it’s holding out on you. Just like the personal trainer at the gym knows your tank isn’t really empty and just shouting at you loudly and repeatedly will extract that last little bit of effort out of you. (Note – shouting at your car as you abandon it by the side of the motorway after it’s literally run out of petrol will not extract any more effort out of it. It does however make you feel better about yourself. I suspect this is also the motivation of the personal trainer.)

The New Zealand Government has a Productivity Commission. It’s great to finally put the word “productivity” in a sentence with the phrase “New Zealand Government.” I suspect this might be one of those political sops to a minor party under MMP to be seen to be doing something but their website has some cool graphics. There’s a 3-panel sketch with a sheep turning into a ball of wool that itself turns into a jersey. I’m assuming that’s all about adding value which is the essence of productivity – not just making more with the same or less resources but creating goods of greater value along the way. The jersey, when you squint a bit, is actually made up of 1s and 0s – binary code. Bit more symbolism there – from the sheep’s back to the digital age. Or maybe we make robot sheep now? I’ve seen that movie. It doesn’t end well.

As the site says, when it comes to kiwi productivity, “New Zealand has slipped from one of the wealthiest countries in the 1950s to now around 26th in the OECD. It is not the case that our productivity has shrunk. Rather, the rate of increase in productivity has been behind other countries and our income growth has been slower.”

We’re well educated and honest but we’re small, far away and over reliant on a few industries. We’re never going to get that much bigger and, major tectonic shifts aside, we’re unlikely to get any closer to major markets.

A PDF available on the website of the agency formally known as the Department of Labour suggests we should “work smarter.” I’ll start by not drafting the main topics of my next book on post-it notes.

 

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Family Business: When It Comes To Business, Don’t Mess With The Family

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Employees are sometimes heard to say that their workplace is, “like a family.” I always like to presume they mean that in a positive sense and they don’t mean, “like the Bain family.” But is it really a good idea to run a business like a family?

I’ve just completed MCing a series of regional awards dinners around New Zealand for the dairy industry. Hundreds of people from, or supporting, the dairy industry all scrubbed up and dressed up in places like Hawera and Awakeri. I wore a custom-made tuxedo but if I could have found one by Swandri, I would have worn it.

This was my second year of hosting them and, more significantly than just being around successful business people, I was exposed to the system that nurtures, develops and challenges them. You can wax romantically about some rose-tinted vision of families as much as you like but this industry’s consistent success is driven by a system deliberately designed to be progressive and improving continuously on a nationwide basis.

I’m not sure these days what mental images are struck in people’s heads when they think of dairy farmers but old stereotypes should be long gone. I estimate about half the category winners are women. They’re all very online. Many are not from a long line of dairy farmers.

That said, a lot of emotional acceptance speeches are given thanking mums and dads. (When I said “emotional”, I meant emotional. It wasn’t a euphemism for drunk, a.k.a ‘tired and emotional.’ There was only one really drunk speech and that was superbly hilarious for four minutes. I stopped him at four minutes. Trust me, no one ever finishes gracefully after four drunk minutes.) The genuinely emotional and sober declarations of thanks frequently cited the parents and preceding generations. Often there was a joke about providing babysitting services but it was quickly and demonstrably evident that it was much more than that. From capital investment, advice, motivation, assistance and connections, these business families help each other. It goes beyond help into intergenerational sustainability and this is where I think it can be truly powerful to run some businesses like certain kinds of family.

If you ever want to play an original drinking game at a dairy awards, just skull a shot every time someone says the word “sustainable.” You’ll be having an early night I assure you. They say it a lot because they mean it a lot. Environmental sustainability is critical to these best of the best, because it’s also about being economically sustainable. These people don’t have perverse short-term contractual incentives like some corporates designed to encourage the boosting of quarterly profits. This is about the long term in a truly inter-generational sense. I doubt many bank CEOs planting a tree will be in the job when that tree matures.

Forbes recently ran an article noting how the companies with the greatest combination of scale and longevity tend to be family businesses, or at least were family businesses originally. Many of these were over one hundred years old. A similar proportion of family businesses fail along the way as non-family ones but a disproportionate number of stayers are handed down on blood lines.

The NZ Institute of Directors estimates that about half of businesses are family businesses. They cite the advantages of adaptability, ingenuity and passion, strong relationships with employees, suppliers and customers, and the ability to retain corporate or specialist knowledge within the company.

My friend Mike has a model of family business that says the first generation has the idea and the passion, makes the sacrifice and gets it going. The second generation takes it mainstream and optimises production, distribution and marketing. The third generation has a sense of entitlement and wastes it away, embarrassing everyone along the way downhill. New Zealand has a few famous surnames conforming to this model.

Dairying aside, the first thing I thought of when writing an article about running a business like a family was The Sopranos. Tony’s management style was effective in the short run but it didn’t end very

 

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Remuneration: Show Me The Money!

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Getting paid with money means we have to endure dealing with banks. What are some innovative alternatives to stone-cold cash?

One of the problems with most remuneration is that it comes in the form of money and that means you have to deal with banks.

I was late home thanks to the traffic. Why do they call it rush hour when you can’t?  I needed to ring my bank. I said, “I’m going to ring the bank. Be supportive.” Her lips said “no” but her eyes said, “Read my lips.” So I went ahead alone. I managed to get my son off the internet so I could connect the phone. “We didn’t have the internet in my day, or any of your fancy Playstation 3s.”

Back came his retort, “What did you have Dad? Playstation ZERO?” I’d ban him from using the internet but we need the money from his illicit trade in black market knitting patterns.

The TV news in the background told me that a man in Birkenhead was struck by lightning. I ignored the omen and dialled the bank’s 0800 number. 0800 is better than 0900. The TV news runs those 0900 viewer polls. The poll last night had a ‘yes’ vote of seventy eight percent and a ‘no’ vote of twenty percent. Two percent were ‘don’t know.’ These calls are $1.99 a minute! Who rings up and pays $1.99 a minute to vote ‘don’t know’? I am not that proud of my ignorance.

I had to wait a while. Not so much ‘on-line’ banking, as ‘in-line’ banking. I thought back to a customer service conference I attended recently. The keynote speaker must have been good because, well, he was American and had a book published. He wore a black suit with a black tee-shirt and a hairstyle that looked as if it was descended from one of the guys from Crosby, Stills and Nash (but not Young.) He said that banks had their software, not to improve customer service for all customers, but to identify the top value customers and suck up to them. The middling customers would get what they paid for. The bottom non-profitable twenty percent would be actively driven away to their competitors, or better still to a Government-subsidised banking alternative, if only such a thing existed. You can tell your place in this modern food chain by how you are treated by the queuing software. If you want them to answer the phone quicker, don’t complain, give them more of your business. (Remember, whenever you withdraw money from an ATM, say thank you. Those things have cameras…)

Anyways – I spoke to a call centre rep. She empathised proactively. I felt the love.  However, she was unable to assist me. I would need to speak with my personal banker. Ooh. I had a personal banker. All I needed was a personal trainer, a personal shopper and a personal lubricant and I could complete the set. She couldn’t put me through to my personal banker. I would have to ring my branch. I rang my branch. The first person would have loved to have helped me but he reiterated that I would have to speak to my personal banker. Ah-ha. I was ahead of him there. I knew that but I did not know who my personal banker was. He told me not to worry. He would look it up, but right now their system was ‘down.’ I knew how it felt. He looked up my personal banker. It turned out to be him. He felt bad and sent me flowers as an apology. I’m allergic. So are my kids.

Maybe there’ll be a Playstation 4 game called ‘Personal Banker’? I hope it’s one of those really violent ones.  It will be when I’m finished with it.

Apparently only four percent of the New Zealand money supply is actually paper or metal cash and coins. The rest is electronic pixie dust that only has any value at all because we collectively believe in it. Have a read of the Peter Pan story. Tinkerbell’s existence was threatened because people started to believe less in fairies. So what, if not money, could we collectively choose to believe in? What might remuneration become?

Roman legionnaires used to be paid in salt. The word salary comes from the Latin for salt (but you already knew that.) Pay me in salt, fat and sugar and that’s pretty much two-thirds of what I spend my money on anyway. A lot of people buy things using loyalty scheme points. If you’re looking for a card that accumulates points quickly, I can recommend my driver’s licence.

 

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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

office

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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