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Employee Engagement Requires More Than Caring Bosses

boss hugThis blog post makes a clear demarcation between the behavior of bosses that can enhance employee engagement and the lazy assumption that it must all be about being nice and friendly and a soft touch.

I’m seemingly forever clarifying to people that employee engagement is not synonymous with employee happiness or morale or satisfaction. They’re all nice things. They’re all interesting. We’d all probably like to work in a job where there are higher levels of happiness, satisfaction and morale. BUT employee engagement is a very narrowly defined phenomena – the application of discretionary effort. It isn’t about how workers feel or think or think they feel. It is about how we observe they behave. To what extent do they do more than they have to because they choose to – for whatever reasons? It’s not about evil, moustache-twirling villainous bosses extracting everything they can and more out of labour. It is about people’s fundamental human, psychological needs and how they are served (or not) in their work.

Our jobs need to be about more than a paycheck. We take a job for the money but how we perform once we’re hired is less about money than managerial wisdom has thought for years.

And it isn’t about bosses being ‘nice’ or a soft touch. I can get my own hugs thank you very much. A boss who, on the surface, may seem ‘un-nice’ or uncaring might actually be driving high levels of engagement in the people they lead. Regardless of their cliche and superficial people skills, if they can stimulate a sense of purpose in their people, backed up with allowing some degree of autonomy and provide a track for development and progression, then that goes a long way to enhancing engagement levels and the benefits that ensue for productivity and profitability.

But if you still want hugs – get a dog. A big one. I recommend a huntaway. Way less employment court consequences.

Pimp Your Office – Can Physical Environment Impact Employee Engagement?


My new book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ has a section on how physical environment can influence people’s workplace behaviour and choices. Here’s a great little article on the same topic from someone whose job title is ‘Chief Happiness Officer.” (What’s the emoticon for rolling your eyes again?)

I shouldn’t knock the guy for his job title. I admire the sentiment. I’m generally pro-happiness. I am very aware however that happy workers are not necessarily productive, nor are unhappy ones necessarily unproductive and that there is way too much use of engagement as a synonym for happiness.

That aside, I’m also in favour of distinctive and changing physical work environments. I find them stimulating both mentally and physically. That’s useful for us creative types but also for people working in routine or linear processes who have to maintain alertness and awareness. Try driving straight for miles and miles as in the US or Australia and see what that does to your alertness and awareness. Lots of little variations keep us on our toes.

I must search out one of those desks that enables you to stand whilst working. ‘Get moving’ is a great and proven way of adding quality and quantity to your life. Here’s a recent blog of mine citing a Dutch desk / bicycle combo.

Check out Kjerulf’s article. I personally love the bibliochaise. I want one, no, two. Great to share with a friend the simple act of sitting and reading…then… tweeting about the books… But then there is also the meeting bed… perhaps just being practical about how most meetings put people to sleep!

Employee Engagement: Transactional Vs Emotional

Employment SHOULD Be More Than A Mere Transaction

Employment SHOULD Be More Than A Mere Transaction

Does it really matter if employees are genuinely engaged as long as they behave as if they are? This article gets all up in your grill on this topic. It back-refers to a previous article on how some employees, when surveyed about their engagement, might say what they think their bosses want to hear. One reader’s comment summed it all up nicely, “No one ever got a pig fat by weighing it.”

What I’m choosing to believe he meant by that remark was that engagement surveys are not how you engage people. A set of scales will definitely tell you the progress of fattening a pig. An engagement survey might tell the progress of engaging your people at work. And IF it does, that’s about all it does. And, as I’ve said before, most employees work for small employers who don’t have HR departments and tend not to be able to afford soft consultants. Engagement is important because it enhances performance and profitability. Obviously, some form of measurement and tracking would be helpful. Walking around and purposefully observing might be more useful and timely for the majority of employers.

I’m probably over-simplifying things when I say that when it comes to people at work, you cannot over-simplify things. By all means, have your HR departments pay consultants for surveys so you can tick a box that says you’re managing the engagement levels of your people at work. You might also be ticking boxes on workplace safety because you’re identifying risks and filing forms. BUT until everyone is emotionally committed to safety…

In my simple way, I like to stick to any definition of employee engagement that includes “discretionary activity.” People doing things at work that they don’t have to because they choose to. I don’t especially care if they’re happy or if they consider themselves to be whatever they mean by engaged. Don’t care. Well, maybe the world might be a more pleasant place if everyone was happy and thought they were engaged at work but that hasn’t been directly proven to be related to productivity and profitability in the same way that employee engagement in the discretionary activity sense has been.

The other quote I liked, again from a commenter and not the article, referred to how some employers treat employees in ways unlikely to support a culture of engagement. The quote was, “Nobody Ever Washes a Rental Car.” (Hint: The employee is the car…)

Weight Training Your Self Discipline Muscles


Self discipline is a ‘muscle’ we can build by making small temptation corrections then incrementally increasing them

This article by Douglas T. Kenrick realistically stresses that we can’t be trusted. He rattles off some well-known studies showing how ill-disciplined people can be when faced with temptation. Given that other studies, such as Mischel’s marshmallows, have shown that having self discipline is one of the major contributors to a person’s success, a lack of it must be cause for concern.

I want to dislike the article because the guts of it is that we cannot trust ourselves so rather than try to change ourselves to be more reliable, we need to affect our environment. We need to avoid or prevent the temptations being around us as much as possible in the first place. Kenrick writes mainly about food but it is as true of alcohol, smoking, loser friends and time-wasting as well. So, we shouldn’t stock our larders and fridges with sodas, cookies, candy and chips. If we suddenly feel like them and we have to walk to our car to drive to a store, we’re less likely to do so. And if these things aren’t in our faces, we’re less likely to think that we want to. Good luck with that. Avoiding things is always a problem because, ultimately, you can run but you can’t hide. You will be confronted with your enemy-items soon enough via TV, billboards, a friend’s house, your workplace. What happens then? You go even more overboard.

That stuff just gets you fat and unhealthy which isn’t great but what really sucks the success out of your life is the brain-equivalents of soda and candy – time wasters like most TV, most computer games and social networking sites. And , of course, at work we have MEETINGS. (They’re ‘candy’ for someone involved.) I’m not trying to get my nag on here. If you’re happy vegetating, please do so on your own time and dime but, please, don’t whinge about your lack of success.

People who end up happy, healthy, wealthy enough, etc are those who can defer gratification. It’s a skill not a natural attribute. You can develop it if you choose to do so and you choose to do so every day as you put in the work, in the same way as a proper weight-training programme can build muscle.

You don’t start by throwing around Olympic powerlifting levels of weights. You start small and warm up first to prevent injury and demoralisation. The same goes for building your willpower muscles. One simple but effective technique to is self correcting every time you say, “Yeah” with a, “Yes.” It’s not that your classier speech will impress people. You’re training your mind to notice what it is you’re about to do. That’s a critical first step in stopping yourself doing it. Give it a go. See how it impacts your thinking and, more importantly, your behaviour. Once you get your ‘yeahs’ sorted out, then you can work your way up to potato chips and, down the line, big life stuff like your spending, saving and studying habits.

I am so hungry right now. Yeah.

‘Un-Thinking’ – Are Instincts Useful At Work?


Sometimes thinking is bad for us

This article by Ian Leslie discusses how performance in critical moments can be enhanced by removing your ‘thinking self’ from the equation. It reminds me very much of the writing of W. Timothy Gallway and his ‘The Inner Game Of Work’ book, especially its reliance on examples from tennis. The voice of ‘Self 1’ in your head saying judgemental and outcome-focused things like, “Hit it to his left,” and “Ouch, you didn’t hit it far enough to his left.”

The trick, apparently, is in knowing what to ignore. Our brain’s inner chatter can drown out the really important steps in the process to success. Successful people focus on the process. They might be motivated by the potential outcomes but they focus on the process. The sentence that best summarises the crucial distinction is, “Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought.” Leslie and Gallway argue that with the practice and experience and, for want of a better term, ‘pre-thinking’, top performers succeed because they trust their instincts when moments arrive in their performance when there just isn’t time to stop and think. Well, not at the very pedestrian pace that our conscious minds are capable of anyway.

Atul Gawande’s book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ tackles the same subject but from a different angle. Rather than saying that in critical moments we should rely on our subconscious instincts, he favours a simple checklist. We cannot be trusted. I need to point out that he isn’t talking about tennis games or run-of-the-mill job tasks. He is writing about life-and-death work scenarios – airline pilots and hospitals. The evidence is there that educated, experienced and confident (ie egotistical) experts need to have a simple but formal checking step in their process. It is their very education, experience and confidence that makes that necessary.

To my mind, if the question is, “Are instincts useful at work?” the answer lies in my stock answer, “It depends.”

It depends on the experience of the person and the seriousness of the consequences. Is hitting a tennis ball comparable to making a sale? If you hit a tennis ball thousands of times, you’ll get used to instantly assessing the physical steps needed, regardless of how the ball is coming towards you. It might not be exactly comparable but the same lesson applies – deliberate practice and feedback over time will make you more effective at making decisions in the sales process that will improve your chances of success. It might get talked about as, “Oh Lauren’s just got an amazing instinct for sales,” but, more likely, Lauren’s put in a ton of time and effort through practice and feedback that makes it look instinctive. Just like Djokovic gets accused by Federer of being “lucky,” maybe the harder he works, the luckier he gets.  Maybe, if Lauren is such a great salesperson, she could sell Djokovic a decent haircut?…


Persistence + Resilience = Persilience

Persistence + Resilience = Persilience

This blog post by Lynda Bourne makes several clear and simple points about a critical success factor for projects and people. She combines the concepts of persistence and resilience. (I have got to start doing that and making up words!)

Angela Lee Duckworth writes and speaks about ‘Grit.’ She’s inspired a chapter in my own next book on the subject of ‘Grit’ – a combination of behaviours that amount to not giving up and overcoming obstacles and set-backs. Tenacious, dogged, perseverance. Grit, it seems, is the number one attribute that leads to success at whatever it is you’re wanting to be successful at, be it Olympic gold medals, corporate success or mastering violin concertos. More importantly, this thing called Grit isn’t something you’re born with or without, like height. It’s something you can choose to learn. If you want. If you really really want. Here’s a link to Angela’s TED talk on Grit and how to go about learning it.

Intelligence is handy but the research shows that Grit is what sets the winners from the mere participants.

Tom Peters’ ‘To Don’t’ List

Here’s a link to a Tom Peters video outlining the stupendously simple but obviously-in-retrospect powerful concept of the ‘To Don’t’ List. Dang, it’s a great idea and its only a two minute long video.

Why You Should Be Careful Using Money As An Incentive For Performance Improvement

Be careful Using Money As A Performance Incentive

Be careful Using Money As A Performance Incentive

This article cites Dan Ariely’s research into the effects on monetary incentives on people’s performance and the surprising results. I first heard about this in an online video of Dan Pink’s and he included references to Ariely’s work in his great book ‘Drive.’ You should check out both Pink’s book and Ariely’s ‘Predictably Irrational.’ Impactful research told engagingly.

Broadly, money works fine as a performance incentive in limited situations. For dull, linear, routine processes where ‘more’ productivity is easily produced by ‘more’ effort. The moment any degree of cognitive processing is required at-risk extra money becomes, at best, a distraction. Mostly its impact is negative.

Money is what 70-year-oldd psychologists refer to as a ‘hygiene factor.’ It won’t motivate anyone but the absence of it will demotivate people.

I’m looking at a big pile of absent money right now and it is, indeed, highly demotivating. Oddly though it has motivated me to scribble out a quick blog post. I suspect there is a strong correlation between my blog productivity and money absence.

Sarcasm – Is It A Symptom Of Disengagement Or A Powerful Productivity Tool? No, Really…

Recognizing sarcasm (and other emotions) is a skill linked to other productive skills

Recognizing sarcasm (and other emotions) is a skill linked to other productive skills

This article by Richard Chin at Smithsonian Magazine discusses how our relative ability to identify and interpret sarcasm reveals, to an extent, how our brains process communication. I wonder how this skill, or lack thereof, impacts the potential engagement and productivity of our employees? I wonder if its something we’re born and stuck with, or whether it can taught and learned? Not the sarcasm per se but how some people are better than others at comprehending multiple layers of communication in this increasingly saturated world of communication in which we’re trying to make a living. Often the message isn’t really the message. It’d save a lot of time, money and heartache if people could ‘get’ that quicker.

Apparently when used in conversation the phrase “Yeah, right” is done so sarcastically 23% of the time. Maybe it’s a cultural thing in my country but I find that figure staggeringly low! When would anyone ever use it genuinely? For those of you not from New Zealand reading this, there is a New Zealand beer brand whose primary advertising campaign has been built around this phrase for a decade. Billboards with their logo have a comment on the left side and on the right side is the simple phrase, “Yeah, right.” (I’m writing this from memory. I’m thinking they probably didn’t use the comma.) Often these are verbatim comments from politicians or celebrities or things that real people say, “Hey babe, I’m sure no one at the office knows about us…” – Yeah, right.

I know a lot of advertisers claim their campaigns have become iconic and entered the zeitgeist etc but in New Zealand, seriously, ask anyone, everyone gets this. New born infants first words are often, “Yeah, right.” (Usually after being told, “Welcome to the world.”)

The criticism of sarcasm itself by the readers of Chin’s article revolve mainly around the issue of hierarchy. Sarcasm between equals is funny. Sarcasm between people of unequal power is either mean or bolshy, depending on which end of the power you’re on. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. Ouch!

Rightly or wrongly, New Zealand presents itself as an egalitarian land so maybe that’s why we’re so enamoured with sarcasm? (Nice haircut by the way.)

I recently ran a sales training programme for a group of reasonably experienced salespeople who sold large, costly capital equipment that often needed to be on-sold-in to decision makers within the purchasing company. That is to say, a committee or board. Part of our programme included anticipating and dealing with objections. Often, there are delays and barriers and excuses throughout a negotiation process and I found some research that implied that 70% of the reasons given for such objections were not the actual reasons. So, it would seem that the ability to read between the lines and to interpret subtext are very valuable skills with tangible financial and measurable consequences. It struck me as I started reading Chin’s article about sarcasm that some people are naturally attuned to picking the non-obvious emotion in statements and some people aren’t. Having Leonard from TV’s ‘The Big Bang Theory’ hold up a sign that reads ‘sarcasm’ so the austistic Sheldon can understand Penny is funny but unfortunately impractical for us in our workplaces. Fortunately we can all learn how to do this better in a work context. It can be taught. It can be learned. My sales people trainees found that out.

We could get into a long argument about the smarts of recruiting employees who already have the skills we’re looking for and how many employers totally over rely on recruiting for specific technical skills rather than attributes that actually lead to longterm success such as ‘fit’ and ‘perseverance’ and so forth. Here’s another one. Although I advise against being sarcastic to applicants in job interviews. That’s definitely one of those inappropriate power-imbalance situations!

Anyone who ever said that two positives cannot make a negative has obviously never heard the phrase, “Yeah, right.”

How Can You Help Your People Make Better Decisions?

You don't need to carbo-load to make better decisions, try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

You don't need to carbo-load to make better decisions, try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

This study by Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs out of the University of Amsterdam cleverly reveals how thinking too much and poring for ages over the logical list of pro’s and cons you’ve made about that big decision you have to make can actually cause a much lower quality outcome. (Which is bad if you’re choosing a new toaster but terrible if it’s a new car, employee or husband / wife.) This particular study focuses on creativity and originality but Dijksterhuis has another study more specifically about making decisions – examining the ‘deliberation without attention’ hypothesis.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and , down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options if they exist yet
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity*.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.

* By distraction activity, they’re not talking about painting the beach house or enlisting in the foreign legion (although if that whole husband / wife thing didn’t work out, it’s always an option.) No, it’s something simple. Their test involved having subjects follow a dot on a screen for three minutes. Thus they had to focus and actively concentrate on something unrelated to the problem for only a short period but nonetheless long enough to get the loud conscious mind to shut the hell up for while. I’ve started testing one that doesn’t need any capital investment in screens which seems like a hassle in the real world outside university studies. Try counting to 100 three numbers at a time, reversing the order of every second set of three numbers. Even the instructions are quite distracting! It’s simple really though but it does clear the mind of anything else, especially that pesky problem. 1,2,3,6,5,4,7,8,9,12,11,10 etc. (Don’t write them down. You’re supposed to to do it in your head. That’s the point – distracting focus.)

Despite the best efforts of everyone I know to recommend i-Phone game apps to me, I have only one – Word Warp. Six random letters appear and I need to make as many words out of those six letters as I can in six minutes, scoring points, but I lose out entirely and revert to zero if I fail to make at least one six letter word in that two minutes. There is, of course, a ticking clock in the background that cranks it up in the last ten seconds. I’ll play the game on flights when the person next to me I’ve been chatting to decides to fake sleep. Sometimes I’ll get interrupted during a two minute spell to reject the offer of airline food. I’m always astonished at my much improved performance upon my return to the game. Our much smarter unconscious selves get into gear once they’re allowed to, thanks to the distraction.

We can’t have a flight attendant distracting us all the time, at just the right moment to allow our minds to process decisions, utilising deliberation without attention. (Except JetStar, I think they’ll do that.) We need to manage our decision processes at work and those of our people to, not just allow, but insist upon, a managed period of controlled distraction. You’re paying the wages of their unconscious minds; they may as well get put to work too.

In case you’re wondering (and we should spend a lot of our time wondering, don’t you think…) what the pasta image has to do with anything, here’s what. The creativity study tested the subjects by getting them to think up names to for new types of pasta. If it ended in the letter ‘i’, suggestions were deemed to be uncreative. I have a similar rule when it comes to attending operas – I’ll only attend an opera whose composer has a surname ending in a vowel, and sometimes Tchaikovsky .

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