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.
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 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.
This article reports on ‘wearable technology’ that can monitor micro aspects of worker performance. They seem well-intentioned, making comparisons to the bands and such that fitness trainers give their clients to monitor their steps and sleep. I suspect the potential to use the devices for evil is pretty high. I used to work with call centres and thought that was one particular job where human discretion was significantly limited (or limit-able) by measurement and monitoring technology. This takes the premis to the extreme and there isn’t even the need for the human in question to be tethered to any computer by a cable or headset
To be honest, I’d probably be OK if a bell went ‘ding’ if my posture went off target. It’s in my own interest and the firm’s that I maintain a healthy posture. I’ll be healthier and happier and look taller and more confident. Plus for the boss, there’s probably a long term link to health, wellbeing and productivity or at least less absenteeism if my posture is good. Customers might think I have a better attitude. If there’s a GPS component like sports teams use to see which player covers the most ground and that they’re where they’re supposed to be, that’s probably an integrity tool that some bosses might find themselves needing if the whole ‘trusting people’ thing hasn’t been panning out but it isn’t for everyone all the time. Wristbands that measure and encourage you to take 10000 steps a day have been around for ages and no one is up in arms about those.
“Philip L. Gordon and R. Brian Dixon, attorneys from management law firm Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg BNA May 15 that employee consent to wear the technology is critical.”
These new gadgets porport to measure brain activity. I am curious as to what my optimum brain activity is in any given work day or if it there is any when I’m watching TV but I’m not sure I want big brother buzzing me every time I glaze over a bit. That said, if I’m a truck driver maybe that’s a really good idea for safety?
This Harvard Business Review blogpost identifies other benefits of engagement, aside from productivity. Of course, workplace leaders who want productivity boosts may not be interested but they should be. I’ve seen workplace safety enhancements due to greater engagement efforts – just to name one benefit in addition to productivity.
“Improving employee engagement is not simply about improving productivity — although organizations with a high level of engagement do report 22% higher productivity, according to a new meta-analysis of 1.4 million employees conducted by the Gallup Organization. “
The author goes on to specify and quantify some other benefits, including safety.
Jim Harter Ph.D., a chief scientist at Gallup Research explained what engaged employees do differently in an email interview: “Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”
And, of course, improved safety means less costs and downtime, which means… greater productivity.
I keep harping on in my presentations and my books that trying to increase the engagement levels of your employees is not about vague warm fuzzy feelings but that it has practical, demonstrable and measurable outcomes, that as part of a wider business strategy, will increase profits – if profits are what you’re into. If not, then it also drives those other results that organisations seek – fundraising or effectiveness or whatever it is that Government departments are trying to achieve.
Recruiting and retaining the best employees shouldn’t be a matter of luck
This recent article in the business section of the New Zealand Herald cites research conducted by a firm of recruitment consultants. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they have a vested interest in interpreting the results in any particular way, but they interpret the results in a particular way… that says employers aren’t recruiting effectively. (If only there was someone around who could help them?)
Sarcastic and cynical as I am, I’m not disputing the results of the survey – just their narrow interpretation of the cause. There’s never ONE cause. Maybe poor recruitment contributes. I bet it does.
The Hudson survey “paints a bleak picture for employers”, saying: “Of every 10 employees: four are not good hires, eight aren’t engaged in their work and six are actively seeking other employment.” Ouch! This is born out by other research I’ve been reading over years and around the world. There’s a bit of variation, mostly by industry, but this survey isn’t that surprising and New Zealand isn’t that bad. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of scope for improvement.
Apart from the recruitment tools being used which the recruitment company focuses on, the primary cause of the problem implied is that employers are recruiting almost entirely for skills – technical skills. It’s that old mindset of, “I’ve got a vacancy, I’d better fill it because it’s costing me money” without doing the correlating maths on how much it costs to fill that vacancy and get it wrong – to fill it with someone technically competent (and that’s even assuming they get that bit right) but quickly disengaged or a misfit in several other ways.
Bad luck? Like most games, you make your own luck in the recruiting game. I was meeting recently with a manager who hadn’t had a single instance of negative turnover for nine years. Yes, people had moved on but for the right reasons such as internal promotion. He used the usual suite of tools to find a pool of potential applicants, whittled them down through CV checking, interviews, reference checks and even the occasional behaviourial profile. But he added another step. Shortlisted applicants all got to sit in on some actual work with some people who, if their application was successful, would be their co-workers. Those co-workers got a right of veto. I used this myself in the past with some success in a call centre that wasn’t a typical call centre. It gave applicants a dose of what their potential working reality could be. Sometimes they got put off by us and our work; sometimes we got put off by them. Either way, it’s better for both parties that be known early and up front so neither employer or employee have to suffer the consequences of misfitting. And those are greater than the costs of vacancies.
Another means of increasing your odds is to encourage referral of potential applicants from existing employees. Some firms even offer a commission for this. BUT if you do that, ponder how this might affect behaviour and what exactly it is you’re wanting to incentify and provide commission on. Any commission should be for a successful applicant who is still there after a predetermined period and performing well. Not just for putting someone with a pulse into a vacancy. Rather than just advertising to the great untargetted masses for your specific vacancy, wouldn’t it increase the chances of success if you sought via an informed gene pool – the people who are already aware of what it takes to do the job and who is likely to prosper there?
Wringing the final life out of my luck metaphor, when it comes to those few shortlisted candidates who are demonstrably technically competent but you’re not absolutely certain that they’ll fit and be engaged, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Often it’s better to walk away and play another day. Cheaper in the long run even if baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Rob’s article yesterday gave a very detailed snapshot of a study into the current state of employee engagement in New Zealand and, to a lesser degree, compared with Australia. I have one bugbear with something that someone from the research company said that worries me which I’ll turn to soon but the article as a whole and its primary conclusions were spot-on, I think.
That primary conclusion was reflected in the article’s title – there’s a big difference between the engagement levels of the bosses compared to the bossed. The opening paragraphs screams it out, “A massive gulf is emerging not just between managers and workers in this country, but also between senior managers and middle management – and that will damage productivity, both management experts and unions are warning.”
The average figures generally reflect other engagement studies. About a third of people are disengaged. BUT when they stratified their findings by pay-grade, the startling gaps became plain. “57 per cent of leaders were engaged at work while just 32 per cent of non-managers – or those people that actually do the work – were engaged, a 25 percentage point difference.”
While the disparity between bosses and the bossed is a worry, let’s look at that 32% of non-managers who actually are supposedly engaged. Other studies have shown that to be in the mid 20s so 32% is less bad. (In New Zealand we use the phrase “less bad” way too much.) Other studies routinely show, with some variation here and there, about a quarter of workers are engaged and a quarter disengaged. The rest are ‘present.’ They show up, consume oxygen, do what they’re told to or paid for and no more. That’s where the greatest performance improvement potential lies.
Here’s my beef from just one quote in the article from one of the researchers, “Only a third of New Zealand employees without management responsibilities report feeling engaged at work…”
Report feeling engaged! To me, what people report they think they feel is perhaps interesting but that is not engagement. Engagement is a set of observable behaviours which, to be fair, the article does go on to outline later. To me, the most basic, yet critical, of which is the acid test of engagement. The engagement that leads to the productivity and profitability benefits not just changes in people’s feelings. That acid test is discretionary effort.
People can say they feel motivated or unmotivated or engaged or disengaged or any number of adjectives. It may or not be accurate but what matters is their observable behaviour, not what they report they feel. If the research cited in the article was a genuine measurement of actual behaviour reflecting the correct definition of engagement then the startling gap is indeed a worry. I myself only have three facial expressions and one of them is startled so I’m OK.
The research company is also in the business of selling solutions to the problems they just identified. I can’t bag them for this. Why else does research ever get done? (One of my other facial expressions is cynical.) That said, I can’t disagree with their generalised solution guidleines:
- Be visible and available for people throughout the organisation,
- Build an environment of openness and trust,
- Connect your employees and their work to a shared vision and values.
I’m always raving on about autonomy, mastery and purpose being great drivers of engagement. Their point 3 certainly ties in with purpose. Their point 2 seems synonymous with autonomy. So while I’ve nitpicked a bit, its a great article and seemingly research highlighting a problem that needs addressing.
Someone should definitely do something about it. That’s where my third facial expression arrives – looking around innocently…
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 TIME Magazine article by Jeff Haden is short, sweet and worth a read. It’s theme to me seems to be that effective leaders deal with things in the ‘now.’ It suggests that many of the formal structures of organisations in dealing with people such as performance reviews, formal meetings and development plans occur too late to be useful. I agree… IF those reviews and plans are all that is done. My advice to leaders in the workplace is to do both – deal with stuff as it happens, which really is the smart and effective approach, BUT also keep thin but useful records so you can plug things into the formal structures. You don’t want to create a massive administrative workload but you do want to capture an ongoing record.
Memory in a tricky thing. It isn’t like pulling discs out of a video library and replaying exactly what happened. For a start, even your initial experience of the event is distorted by your perspective, as opposed to the perspectives of the other players. Whoever said that there are two sides to every story were severely underestimating. Time, emotion, biases and other stuff further distort memory. By the time we do need to recall a past event, our minds don’t replay, they recreate. Assuming, of course, that it ever gets recalled at all. I barely recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. How could I, or my employees, be expected to accurately and fairly recall something that happened six months ago? You can’t. You shouldn’t.
Feedback (of whatever kind) to be effective needs to be as close to the event as possible. Saving it up for a performance review in six months is of little use and perhaps even counterproductive. I agree with Haden on that. BUT I do think that all those little events in all those ‘nows’ across a year or six months or whatever the review period is, need to be captured somewhere, so they can be presented in summary to give all concerned a holistic picture of performance.
Now I need to attend to what I’m going to have for breakfast today. I’m not one of you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people. Your stomach might thank you but your mind gets miffed. I must search for research on what what this reveals about our mind and character. I suspect you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people would make good accountants and proof-readers. I know I wouldn’t!