Category Archives: Influence
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.
I’m not suggesting that employees should be made to be miserable. Ultimately, that’s up to all of us individually. The point I’ve been trying to make for ages and this recent article captures nicely is that employee happiness and employee engagement are quite separate and different things. If you want to gift chocolate fish and back rubs (no non-consensual touching!) that’s up to you and your spare time and resources. Happy employees can be unproductive and unhappy ones can be productive. Engagement is about the observable application of discretionary effort at work that on average leads to greater productivity, revenue and profitability. Who knows how happy people are? (Including themselves.)
Here’s an extract. Note that happiness is cited as one of many components of engagement, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I don’t think they’re in order so don’t get excited that happiness is “number 1.” The article talks about a dashboard which also is an interesting idea. It’s all about trending.
Here are the 10 metrics that are proven to have the biggest impact on employee engagement:
How happy are employees at work and at home?
How much energy do employees have at work?
Are employees getting feedback frequently enough?
Are employees being recognized for their hard work?
Are employees satisfied with their work environment?
Relationships with Managers
Do employees and their managers get along well?
Relationships with Colleagues
Do the employees get along with each other?
Do employees’ values align with the company values?
Are employees proud of where they work?
Do employees have opportunities for career growth?
Here’s a tale of yet another software system that gamifies the workplace with the justification that it enhances employee engagement. Actually, it sounds pretty cool and may well be worth its costs with whatever benefits it may or may not generate versus the distractions it definitely will generate. I’ve yet to personally witness or directly connect with a significant workplace that has done this for a significant amount of time and publicly raves about the tangible, measured and proven results. Alfie Kohn might be controversial but his research does not reinforce the use of what he would term ‘bribes’. And that is what ‘points for prizes’ are.
Genuine engagement comes from an internal motivation. If the gamified points-for-prizes were removed, would the desired behaviours continue? Nope. And you’ve thoroughly reinforced the position that they shouldn’t. Plus, the incidental stuff that isn’t directly being bribed via points-for-prizes suffers. “Is this going to be in the test?”
“…money affects our attention as shown by Alfie Kohn’s experiment where participants are given cash for remembering words on cards, but they are almost unable to remember any of the word cards’ colours. That wasn’t what they were focused on so their incidental learning was minimal. The same goes for our incidental attention.” – From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’
Of course, that is assuming there is a culture of support already in existence for people’s internal motivation. Given the generally terrible levels of engagement everywhere, this clearly isn’t the case. If motivation levels are starting from a baseline of terrible, I guess the games can’t make things any worse. But is, “Can’t make it any worse” really a sound tick in any cost / benefit analysis for a software investment or intrusive engagement project?
Carol Dweck might argue that the problem isn’t that we reward, but what and how we reward.
“Dweck’s famous finding from this and other studies was that people tended to fall into one of two groups. There are those who believe that their talents are a fixed trait. They believe they are or they aren’t fast, strong, smart, etc. This is the fixed mindset group. Then there are those who believe that talent is something that can be developed. This is the growth mindset group. You can tell them apart by their behaviour towards work and mistakes. If you have a fixed mindset and believe you are what you are then why would you work hard and why would you attempt something new or challenging that could lead you to making mistakes and being judged on them? Growth mindset people do the work and see mistakes as a pathway to learning. They use the word “yet” a lot. They say, “I did” versus “I am”. For them, becoming is better than being.” – From my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’
So, by all means, play your silly games and see how it goes. True ongoing engagement that drives productivity comes from a working environment supportive of people’s need for autonomy, development and a sense of meaning in what they do, and a pay level sufficient to remove money as a worry. If points-for-prizes are offered as a short-term attention campaign, I can see it working in a focused way in an area with a definite problem. A health and safety campaign or a wellness campaign for example are, in themselves, good things and might contribute to an overall enhancement of engagement.
I’m trying not to be a hater here on the points and games, but all the info I see on them right now seem to come from those selling systems. Once I hear some credible and independent success stories, I tend to be a lot more generous of spirit.
I’m writing a new book – this time about adding ten years to our lives. Part of that is having to pay for the extra years. Not that working is just about earning but wine doesn’t pay for itself. (Note to self: invent self-paying wine.) Engaged employees – engaged people – live longer, better lives.
So, for income, a sense of purpose and simply something to do, we’d like to keep working. You and me anyway – on our terms. I’ve been reading some interesting research on how those of us trucking on into our seventies and onwards in the workforce can’t rely on being perceived as hire-able in the traditional sense. Even now, over half the ‘workers’ above 65 are self employed. There are lots of reasons for that. Some reasonable reasons and some not so much.
Being self employed is tough and challenging and has no guarantees. You either dig that scene or you don’t. I do. I never thought I would.
To better tool ourselves up for a future with options, we need to bulk up the quantity and quality of our social and professional connections. That’s good for health, longevity and business. We could also prep for our potential launch into self employment by having a Brain-Based Boss who allowed, even encouraged, Intrapreneurship. ENtrepreneurs are those idealised risk-taking arse-kicking people who take new ideas and energy and try and implement and monetise them. The minority who survive are lauded as wealth and job creators for others. This is true although it is a gruesome attrition. So, INtrapreneurs would, in theory, take that same attitude and apply it in a job inside an existing company.
It’s a thing. There’s even a conference about it.
The poster child for Intrapreneurs is the inventor of post-it notes who was working for 3M at the time and they took the idea. Although, that guy, whose name I cannot remember, was just trying to keep his place in his choir’s hymnbooks. He was using company time and resources to do it. 3M might be cool and programme such time and efforts into their people’s jobs, not just allowing it after the fact but encouraging it hoping for that 1-in-a-1000 hit.
Employee engagement is helped significantly where there is an alignment between an employee’s personal goals and the goals of the organisation. (Not just saying that they do.)
A recent study conducted by Macquarie Graduate School of Management showed that Corporate volunteering improves employee satisfaction, retention and engagement.
Corporate volunteers were very satisfied with their volunteering experience (83% satisfied), very likely to continue (87%), and very likely to recommend it to their friends (75%). The most common barriers were ‘not being asked’ (38%), ‘being too busy (36%), preferring to volunteer privately (31%), and preferring to donate money than to volunteer (21%).
I presume “I don’t care” and “I can’t be bothered” weren’t provided as options. Therein lies yet another failing of surveys and prompted responses.
Here’s a post from Forbes where the author picks a fight with Gallup on the validity of the claims of their latest surveys shrieking that 70% of employees are either unengaged or disengaged. The author reckons from his own surveys and simple personal observation that the number cannot be right.
Stepping to the sidelines and shouting on to both sides of the debate, it might be because of differing definitions of what employee engagement is. I reckon that I don’t care what anybody’s survey says if the survey is getting people to self declare, anonymously or otherwise, how they feel about their job or how they think they feel about anything at all. To me, employee engagement is a quite specific and observable set of behaviours. Quite apart from what people SAY, I think it matters what they DO. And we can observe that.
Employee engagement is people doing more than they have to because they choose to – discretionary effort. We can delve into the whys and the drivers of their choices later but the actual existence and extent of the engagement needs no survey.
If people say they’re thrilled with their jobs, that is not necessarily an engaged employee. There’s plenty of instances where unhappy employees bust their hump and do apply discretionary effort and plenty of instances where delighted employees coast. People’s feelings of delight or disgruntlement are neither here nor there. It is behaviour that matters.
And, ultimately, who cares what the national average engagement levels are? You need to watch and gauge your business’s levels and their trend. Work alongside, observe, interact – you know – people stuff. Not emailing them a link to an online assessment – if that’s all you do. As part of a planned programme, I can live with surveys, but often, surveys are the start and finish of employers’ efforts.
So, I disagree with the blogger about his disagreement with Gallup in that sense. It makes sense for a company to shriek a number like 70% if you’re a company that also sells solutions to that problem. Me, I just sell cynicism.
But I do think his latter point has merit – about survey results colouring management’s perception of, and therefore behaviour towards, their people. Like Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’ / Pygmalion, if people saw her as an impoverished common seller of matchsticks, they treated her as such, but if they saw her as a refined lady, their reactions altered. If bosses think their staff are disengaged (regardless of whether they are or not) and treat them as such, maybe it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe bosses should treat people as individuals, make decisions based on their own specific and direct data and have a healthy cynicism towards any data coming from people with something to sell?
Wouldn’t that be luvverly?
Successful organisms and groups in nature rely on diversity as a defence mechanism and to provide tools to deal with a wide range of situations – business is no different. Here’s the rest of that thought, expressed in my lead article from the Careers section of The NZ Herald on 20th July 2013. To save me re-typing it, here it is in image form with a link back to the Herald’s original online article.
This Harvard Business Review blog post is a great encapsulation on what to do about disengaged employees. So many bosses try and attract pre-engaged employees without putting much effort into the latent and potential talent they already have. Or might have. Trying to buy engagement from outside may not necessarily be a bad idea but engagement tends to be contextual. Just because someone is engaged at a point in time in a particular place doesn’t mean that they are perpetually engaged anywhere and everywhere. Throw Superman into a negative enough environment, even he will become increasingly negative. (Terry makes mental note to himself to draft a graphic novel using this premis…)
Hiring ‘A’ players, those transitory and mercenary talents, is a zero-sum game. If they come to you because you dangle more money (if that’s all you do) you will merely attract those people that will be equally attracted away by someone dangling a bigger carrot and there’s always a bigger carrot. Just like lowering your products’ prices, it may work today and solve a problem in the short term, but someone else can do the same or better and you’ll lose that game even if you win it.
The numbers vary and I prefer to use three categories rather than ‘engaged’ and disengaged.’ I have a middle group I call ‘present.’ The engaged do more than they have to because they choose to. The disengaged are toxic, stealing time and resources, badmouthing you while they use your PC to look for work elsewhere. The ‘present’ show up, clock on, do their jobs and no more, consume oxygen and clock off. Contractually there isn’t a problem but neither you nor they are optimising potential here. This group offers the greatest opportunity for enhancing the overall engagement and thus productivity of your team. Love the engaged and lose the disengaged.
Here’s what the blog post says about what to do about the others – the ‘present’:
- Understand the basics of positive psychology and engagement research
- Find out what engages your employees, not someone else’s
- Encourage grassroots engagement
- Recognize engagement as a moving target, and check back often
That’s enough blogging today. I’m off to work on my ‘Negative Superman’ graphic novel. Or maybe screenplay?! Does anyone have Zach Snyder’s phone number or know how to spell his name?
No potential superstar employee is going to reject the trappings of success you offer but will the free petrol, subsidised healthcare or at-desk massages actually improve their engagement and performance. Some perks do and some perks don’t and it depends. This post citing some recent Gallup research is revealing.
“Gallup found that access to flexible work time, which is considered a more mainstream workplace perk, is related to increased employee engagement.”
“…remote workers are slightly more engaged than onsite workers…”
One of the usual drivers of motivation and engagement is autonomy – a sense of control or, at least influence, over if not what we do, at least how we do it. That’s tough to create or allow in many jobs, especially routine or entry-level ones but if you can generate it to a degree, it can positively influence engagement and thus drive the associated productivity benefits. Something like flexi-time is a good compromise, where it is do-able, in generating this sense of influence / autonomy. Gallup does warn though of the “diminishing returns” which is worthy of note.
“…an engaged management team and a positive work environment are more beneficial than housecleaning and bowling alleys.”
Don’t deny already engaged employees their perks if you wish to provide them and it makes you feel good but clearly many are not drivers of engagement or motivators. Far more effective are the low-cost but disturbingly rare ‘perks’ of positive feedback and non-tolerance of poor performance. Perks, by definition, are extras and these two I just mentioned shouldn’t be extras, yet the behaviour of many workplace leaders makes it seem like they are. It’s easier to throw trinkets but far less effective.
Although, if the trinket you’re throwing is a bowling ball in the company lanes, that’s almost certainly a health and safety issue.