I’m a basketball fan. More specifically, I’m an NBA basketball fan. Kiwi Steven Adams is doing some amazing things for the Oklahoma City Thunder at the moment. There have been a couple of psych studies conducted involving basketball that I think have some application for the topic of work environments.
Basketball is full of players high-fiving, chest-bumping and butt-slapping. One researcher spent a whole year watching games and tapes of games. He concluded (Obviously it was a ‘he’ with that kind of time on his hands) that there was a positive correlation between ‘high-touch’ teams and success. That year, the highest of the high-touch teams was the Boston Celtics and they won their first title in 30 years. Now, I’m no expert in human resource law but in general terms, I’d anticipate that any workplace that prided itself on being literally ‘high-touch’ probably isn’t a great place to work. (Unless you’re a male panelbeater in 1975.) Supposedly, human contact releases within us small amounts of the hormone oxytocin – the drug our bodies use to trick us into loving our children. This might be a positive feature but to avoid harassment risks in the work environment, I’d advise getting a puppy.
Nonetheless, the principle behind the high-fiving and human touch is that of recognition, reward, inclusion and feedback at a personal and individualised level. A goodly amount of that leads to a better place to work. And who doesn’t love puppies?
I remember once when my daughter was little. One day from school, she brought home a book called ‘I Love Puppies.’ The next day she brought home a book called ‘Looking After Puppies.’ The third day, she brought home a book called ‘Puppies Puppies Puppies.’ We could take a hint. So, we got her a library card. She really loved books.
The other piece of basketball research involved the somewhat churlish tradition amongst home basketball fans to try and distract and put off visiting free throw shooters. Mascots will make offensive or suggestive gestures in line of sight of the shooter. Fans will scream and wave towels. Another researcher, and good on them for getting the funding, analysed various strategies by a huge range of teams’ fans. Most strategies were loud and frenetic but generally not that effective. The one outlier that was rare, hard to achieve but quite effective was for every fan to wear the same colour, sit silently and motionless as the shooter prepared to take the shot and, just as they were about to release the shot, the crowd as one, shifted a little bit to the left.
Our brains notice big disruptive distractions and are pretty good at treating them with the disdain they deserve. What dilutes our productive efforts at work are lots of little distractions, each barely noticeable by itself but collectively highly impactful in a bad way.
All the talk earlier of high-touch and positivity may have made you think I’m a tree hugging liberal hippy who thinks that everyone at work needs a statue and parade to motivate them. I’m not a tree hugger but if I was, I’d hug ponga trees. They’re practically furry as long as you caress them with the grain. Always, with the grain. As you’ve probably been hoping, a psychologist has indeed studies the right amount of positivity for a truly productive workplace and it’s not all beer and skittles and rose petals and fluffy bunny rabbits. The Losada ratio is another piece of research I’ve discovered recently. (In fairness, Losada actually discovered it. I was just recently made aware of it. A bit like Columbus ‘discovering’ America.)
Losada’s quest was to find the sweet spot between positivity and negativity in the workplace. Obviously no one likes being criticised or negged all the time but is it really all that productive where everything is seen through rose-tinted glasses, no one is ever wrong and everyone gets showered with rose petals just for showing up? Losada concluded that the magic ratio of positive to negative feedback was 5:1. Everyone gets their nourishing feedback but also get steered constructively back on track when needed. The often-overlooked aspect of Losada’s research though is that it wasn’t just looking at interchanges between bosses and the bossed. It was looking at the environment generally, including conversations amongst peers and in social situations such as coffee breaks.
The time-honoured tradition of MBWA (Management By Wandering Around) has lots of upside. One of those is that you get to hear some of that peer-to-peer workplace environmental commentary and get a feel for your own workplace’s ratio. That is, until they put a bell around your neck like cat owners do to warn the birds that the cat is coming. I feel there have been a lot of cats and puppies and bunnies in this article. It is the Christmas edition after all.
Here’s a recent podcast of mine about the Dunning Kruger Effect. It’s a useful phenomenon to be aware of when leading different types of people, especially when needing to give performance feedback of any kind. There are two sub-groups of people who are least accurate at assessing their own levels of performance: the very excellent and the very non-excellent. Most people are average or either side of it and their self-assessments are ‘there or thereabouts.’ The high performers become high performers because they underestimate how good they are (or should / could be) and try harder and smarter as a result. AND they continue to improve through deliberate and focused practice built on feedback.
The best illustration of the other end of the scale where poor performers never improve because they either never receive feedback (or effective feedback) or they are closed to it are the auditioners for any of those Idol-type shows where security has to escort them off the premises. They characterise perfectly the Dunning Kruger Effect. They simply cannot believe they’re being told “No” and that they’re not the next Mariah. Their dramatic OTT response is great for these shows and symptomatic of why they’re never going to get any better without a substantial external intervention in their lives. Or never. How many of these people have you worked with over your career? Here’s John Cleese’s interpretation.
All sweeping generalisations but an interesting lens through which to look at your team.
I blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.
The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.
I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)
The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.
It really worked.
Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?
Last night I performed a small set of stand-up comedy at the Auckland Town Hall as part of an ensemble line-up in a show for Amnesty International called ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball.’ It was part of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Generally, I try and separate my two strands of business as a leadership speaker / trainer / author and as a stand-up comedian but last night reminded me of one important parallel – feedback.
The show went very well and every performer nailed it. Te Radar was MCing and did a fine job. About half the line-up were very good local comedians and half were visiting overseas comedians. This was my first comedy gig in a few months so I couldn’t have wished for a better re-entry gig. That said, if it isn’t funny, they won’t laugh. Instant, honest feedback that can be used (should be used) in real time to alter your performance for the better. What job wouldn’t benefit from that? (The instant honest feedback, not the being laughed at. Few jobs would benefit from that.)
What can you do in your workplace to enhance the timeliness of the feedback your people receive?
“Terry Williams provides some lovely comic moments throughout his time at the microphone, pulling laughs by chatting about his family life and his mid-life crisis trip to an Indonesian jungle away from civilization. He is very much at home on the stage, and from his entrance it is like watching an old friend: lovely jubbly, as Del Boy would say.”
British-based American comedian Reginald D Hunter was opening the show and, in conversation back stage, he told me that I “looked like a kiwi JFK.” I hadn’t performed yet so it was a comedy reference but it was valuable feedback. I might get a haircut this week…
Here’s a blog post about the dangers of non-specific feedback. The blogger references the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who I also quote in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ on the subject of fixed versus growth mindsets. Here’s an excerpt:
The work of psychologist Carol Dweck is germane here. What she’s found is that, when children are praised in abstract–“You’re so smart” or “You’re so creative”–rather than concretely about how they improved their performance–“You put in an enormous amount of work, and it paid off”–the feedback is diminished. How come? Because the child takes from the teacher or parent the idea that she is innately smart or creative, and that she doesn’t need to work at it–so she doesn’t.
On the other hand, very specific feedback–especially about something an individual can control–can work wonders.
Quite rightly, the blogger points out that general statements such as ‘Good job’ might make you feel better and make you think that you’re dishing out some positive feedback but it needs to be more than merely positive to be useful and conducive to enhanced productivity. That phrase would need to:
- be said at the time the specific action warranting praise occurred or as immediately afterwards as possible.
- be said to the specific individual performing and controlling the praiseworthy action that you’d like to see more of.
- contain a few more details and expectations than 2 words of generality (what exactly was the bit that was good?)
- some connection to a greater goal, the wider team or higher purpose.
So, here’s some specific feedback to several new Twitter followers I’ve gotten recently – If you’ve only got 17 Twitter followers yourself, best not describe yourself as a ‘social media guru.’
This recent item from CBS News considers how looking to co-workers for feedback might be an improvement on the traditional linear boss-worker performance reviewer-reviewee relationship. According to a study it cites, 45 percent of HR leaders don’t believe that employees’ annual performance reviews accurately reflect the quality of their work. As an employee, I certainly never believed that (unless it equaled or exceeded my own expectations.)
The article doesn’t go into the practicalities of how it could or should be done but they stipulate 3 benefits:
- Capture feedback continuously
- Widen the circle
- Feedback is genuine
For all its downsides, the traditional one-on-one approach is simple. (But is that sufficient reason to keep it alive?) Probably all the benefits of a peer-to-peer feedback system could be incorporated into a traditional approach – if the manager could be bothered getting out and seeking and aggregating the feedback. Which is, of course, where it falls down.
The aggregation is important to keep it honest and timely so it’s not just all warm and fuzzy cuddle feedback but open and honest corrective feedback too. As grand as crowdsourced feedback would be if it could be practically done, there definitely needs to be a means of keeping a practical ratio of positive and negative.
Psychologist Marcial Losada’s 1999 study looked at communication in teams, particularly the ratio of positive to negative statements. Various teams were tagged as being high, medium or low performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations from management. The lowest high performing teams has a ratio of positive to negative statements of 2.9013:1. (For us non-academics, let’s round that to 3:1.) The highest performing teams averaged around 6:1. But there were diminishing returns and eventually a negative effect. Some of the worst performing teams had an 11:1 ratio so everyone must have been so busy hugging and bestowing warm fuzzies on everyone else, that no one ever did any actual productive work. That level of positivity is over-the-top, unrealistic and evidently not productive.
What’s so special about this magical zone of positivity? Losada says a highly connected team balances internal and external focus while also balancing enquiry and advocacy. If you’ve ever been in a highly negative workplace, you’ll know what he’s talking about. If you do something and make a mistake and you get slapped with blame and negativity, that drives the behaviours of avoidance and defensiveness.
Isn’t that right, you moron?
I was recently contacted by someone from marketing at a company called Kudos – a polite and literate human, not a bot. They asked if I’d blog about their product. This was new to me. There’s no commission nor would I seek one. I don’t use their product – I’m a self-employed sole-charge contractor. I give myself recognition all the time which probably could be a bit more positive than it is, although some days I think I’m way too fabulous.
I knew (and know) not very much about the specifics of Kudos beyond their website and what other bloggers reveal. So, don’t think for a moment I’m formally recommending them at all, or commenting on the reliability or functionality of their offering one way or the other. I’m not because I can’t and I shouldn’t. Plus, as I said, not only am I a a self-employed sole-charge contractor, I also have a history of being flippant with a sideline as a professional stand-up comedian making serious business points using humour as a lever.
So, after that long introductory proviso, I like the idea of Kudos. That’s all I’m even remotely qualified to comment upon.
I like that here is a possible solution to the problem I’ve personally encountered with managing operations that are 24/7 and / or geographically distributed. As I said, I sometimes think I’m pretty fabulous but no amount of fabulousness makes you omniscient or ominprescent. You cannot be everywhere at all times. Tons of things are happening in the workplaces you’re supposed to be leading when you’re, quite simply, not there. You can’t be. And no matter how charged up you are about “catching people doing things right” and how committed you are to ensuring your people get all the positive reinforcement and corrective feedback they need, you, alone, simply cannot.
I paraphrase Tom Peters (I think) a lot when I say the true test of your communication / leadership / whatever is what happens when you’re not around. A challenge I often throw at people I train is how can you be more influential over what happens when you’re not around. The idea of Kudos seems to be a great tool for helping here.
In your absence, employees can give each other feedback online and you can be kept in the loop. If it works and if some tricky bits can be handled well, then this has the potential to be very helpful. If you’ve ever sent an email that someone else has misinterpreted, then you’ll know what I imply by “tricky bits.” And, in the same way as email in some workplaces has laughingly replaced face-to-face communication lies a potential pitfall. There’s no substitute for feedback that is BEST:
B -behaviour based
E -esteem building
T – timely
Target behaviours when recognising employees
Sure Kudos would be great if it can create a formal record and trail. It would be excellent if it helps bring together teams spread over time and space. But it would need to be implemented carefully with accompanying training and moderation. Carol Dweck’s research on mindset showed the dangers of how just gushing with praise for the wrong behaviours can be counter productive. (Kids praised for “being smart” avoided challenge later on whereas kids praised for “working hard” sought challenges.) I think that any automating of feedback needs to cater for this pitfall.
The ratio of positive to negative statements in employee recognition
Psychologist Marcial Losada’s 1999 study looked at communication in teams, particularly the ratio of positive to negative statements. Various teams were tagged as being high, medium or low performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations from management. The lowest high performing teams has a ratio of positive to negative statements of 2.9013:1. (For us non-academics, let’s round that to 3:1.) The highest performing teams averaged around 6:1. But there were diminishing returns and eventually a negative effect. Some of the worst performing teams had an 11:1 ratio so everyone must have been so busy hugging and bestowing warm fuzzies on everyone else, that no one ever did any actual productive work. That level of positivity is over-the-top, unrealistic and evidently not productive. Kudos would need to factor this in too.
Another opportunity for automated recognition systems to be corrupted would be familiar to you if you have teenagers on FaceBook, Tumblr etc. Often you’ll see ‘like for a like’ requests. (Actually, you see that a lot with grown-ups’ LinkedIn recommendations.) They may indeed be genuine reflections of actual positive experiences or they could simply be recognition as a tradeable commodity. Again, Kudos would have to tackle a praise ‘black market.’ (But who am I to criticise? I’m not even sure I spelled “tradeable” correctly.)
There could be, I suppose, an application for Kudos in my current working environment where I frequently subcontract to a few training providers. I don’t have colleagues or bosses in the traditional sense. They generally employ a contractor model but we contractors too have our our needs for recognition (prick us, do we not bleed?) and we are even more problematically spaced out over time and geography. There’s definitely potential usefulness for Kudos or similar in that structure.
I’m not meaning to be negative. I do like the idea of Kudos. I also like the idea of cars and there are road rules and safety systems in place for those. Give it a try. There’s a free offer. Check out that new software smell. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, that’s what I say (despite my stance against meta-amphetamine…)
I’ll keep looking at it. Let me know your thoughts if you’ve had direct experience.
This article lays out a few principles for workplace leaders to get feedback from those they lead with a view to improving their own performance. The whole point of feedback is to improve performance. Without feedback (from whatever sources) it is almost impossible to improve or even know how well (or badly) you are currently doing compared to whatever your performance measures are.
Any leader who is not after, or open to, feedback must think themselves to be operating at their optimum level. That’s sad.
Of the article’s principles, the two most important in my opinion are:
- Ask for it
- Act on it
Even if the act is to say, “Thanks but for insert valid and non-defensive reason, I’m not actually going to act on it.”
The leader’s behaviour when it comes to feedback for themselves and for everyone generally is one of the main drivers of a workplace’s culture. Is it Blamesville or is it Learning Town?
(Note – these aren’t actual places. Although Blamesville would be a great place to base a country music song.)
Last week I presented to a group of dairy farmers. And by ‘dairy farmers’, I mean a group of business leaders whose businesses just happened to be dairy farms. I rarely meet people who are so professional AND passionate AND successful. The presentation went well. Laughs occurred where they were supposed to and some where they weren’t, yet it turned out for the best. Questions and comments afterwards indicated that they got a lot of value out of it and it would make a difference to them. One guy asked me a curly question though.
It wasn’t a negative question and he precursored it with all the things you’d expect an experienced and positive manager of people to say. He clearly had bought into employee engagement’s value to his business, along with goal setting and performance management (done the right way!) and feedback and so forth. He knew what a KPI was and he wasn’t afraid to use it. His question was, “What can I do about Sleepy?”
To be honest, it is a question I hear a lot in various forms. Almost all supervisors and managers I meet (and potential supervisors and managers) aren’t too worried about most people. They worry about negative or angry people. They worry about conflict. I’m sure I did too back in the day. Funny thing though, is that they’re relatively easy to deal with. Negative non-performers are obvious and a problem that you’re motivated to deal with. If it is 3-strikes-and-you’re-out level of serious then there’s a fairly prescribed path to follow in law and HR policy. I think the tough ones are like ‘Sleepy.’ Often not obvious, not a squeaky wheel demanding immediate attention yet potentially quite a drain on productivity down the line. There are clues like absenteeism, reduced participation and so forth but a pretty obvious clue is that they have a nickname like ‘Sleepy.’
Sleepy wasn’t avoiding work or doing it below expected standards. The farmer saw him as lacking drive, initiative, repeating mistakes, being ‘blinkered’ and generally operating to the letter of the law.
Sleepy had an actual name but his nickname was Sleepy. I wondered if it might be that quirky nicknaming thing where you do the opposite like calling a redhead ‘Bluey.’ Nope.
I asked my usual range of triage questions of my farmer. What have you done so far? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Tell me about ‘Sleepy.’ Have there been times you have seen him motivated? What caused that state?
My farmer didn’t tag Sleepy as a problem child. Quite the reverse, he was an above-average performer but my farmer was frustrated because he knew Sleepy was capable of so much more and the farmer wanted to move him towards that ‘so much more’, partly to improve results at his own farm but also for the sake of Sleepy himself.
I’ll ask you all the same question. What can we do about the Sleepys (Sleepies?) of this world? I’m giving it some thought and my next few blog entries will tackle aspects of my answer. I’ll probably start by thinking back to when I was that guy.