Hi everyone. I’m downshifting to two blog posts per month until September. I’ll have plenty to say in the fall. Enjoy your summer!
Hi everyone. I’m downshifting to two blog posts per month until September. I’ll have plenty to say in the fall. Enjoy your summer!
What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed. When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point. As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older. Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point. If only things were more transparent.
What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?
Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers. Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.
Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School. The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers. Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information. One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.
The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning. This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly. But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place. Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.
Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones. For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop. He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago. His advice kept me out of trouble.
The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace. High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added. Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:
“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)
As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements. These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”
Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…” They have no age limit for their apprentice program.
“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”
I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best. You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it. Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.
Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers. But both types are beneficial:
“Both types have been shown to improve job performance, increase promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)
Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security. As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management. They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.” This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.
Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements. Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.
When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.” This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.
“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities. …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)
As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement. But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective. (See how that works?)
Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking. Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40. If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48. I’m going to rock forever!
I have a confession to make. I love mundane errands. Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm? Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?
In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed. My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure. To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”. It turns out I’ve been doing it right.
Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful. The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.
The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first. Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy. When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well. By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.
The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created. Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved. It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning. But not all goals are equal. For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities. Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.
Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work. David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce. He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.
If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.
I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless. Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.
People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated. This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.
Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying. Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.” He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment. Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so. It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.
Sure, we ought to be hard workers. But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck. Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets. The research makes a distinction between two types of self. The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept. The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.
Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self. Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us. By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much. People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self. But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver. That sounds like meaningless work to me. That sounds like disengagement.
What does this mean for our day jobs? It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose. Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire. Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose. Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal. Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.
I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes. But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self? A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them. I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.
Do you ever get pressure to choose between two ways of thinking? Yeah, I don’t like it either. Personally, I have always been intrigued by the lives of those who straddle categories. Unless it’s on a chessboard, there’s nothing pleasant about dividing things into black versus white. The state of our discourse has been reduced to binary arguments that strip away our ability to have nuanced conversation. That is not who I am and not what society is meant to be.
Research shows that opportunities and opinions go in circles within cliques, and that people within those cliques are usually very similar. If you were organizing a workplace or a community towards mutual understanding and opportunity for all, you would want to open up those cliques. And if you personally wanted to break free you would need to make inroads into new crowds.
So how do you break down cliques? Nobody does it better than people with a foot in two worlds. I personally find this interesting because I have a background in the labour movement, but I have since moved into human resources. I have had some wild conversations about what people think the union ought to do, and what I assert the union is certain to do based on their history and their purpose. But that’s lightweight compared to what some people have experienced. Some people straddle worlds by changing nationality, by seeking education beyond what their parents had achieved, or by switching religious or political affiliation. Others are born into two categories, including those who are biracial.
Anna Holmes wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times in February 2018. Holmes is a member of the “Loving Generation,” children born to mixed-race couples shortly after the Loving vs. Virginia supreme court ruling. The 1967 case struck down laws prohibiting black and white couples from marrying. More mixed-race kids were born soon afterward, heralding the arrival of a new and more prominent hybrid identity.
When Holmes was in her early thirties she began to compile a list of people who, like herself, were part of this cohort. The list included public figures in sports, entertainment, and politics such as Derek Jeter, Halle Berry, and even Barack Obama. When she looked to leaders, she found black communities where the leadership was disproportionately mixed-race.
Holmes perceives that mixed-race people can call upon their whiteness to open doors. Members of the Loving Generation have a comfort with white people because of their upbringing, and often presume that they can do just as well as the white side of their family.
Holmes spoke with Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 novel Loving Day. Johnson notes,
“If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”
If you have an advantage, you can still take care of yourself. But you still have a responsibility to others who do not have that advantage. It’s a good leadership principle for people of all backgrounds.
But wait, what about white people who have an abundance of privilege? Do they perceive that they should help others?
Over at the Washington Post, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy cite some interesting research about anxiety amongst American whites over the multi-decade decline of the white majority. While some people want to hold onto the advantages of their “category,” the definition of this category is not so robust.
What they uncovered is that there are six different forecasts for the prevalence of whiteness in America based on different definitions. In all data analysis your data definitions have an outsized impact on what raw data comes out, how it is analyzed, and how it will be interpreted – even by an unbiased researcher. The forecast showing a white majority disappearing in America by 2042 relies on people identifying as white and no other ethnicity. It’s equivalent to the one-drop rule from the 19th and 20th centuries in the US. Under the one-drop rule both parents must be white for someone to be categorized as white, with that rule carrying back into all prior generations. It’s an archaic definition that lends itself to conservative assumptions. But there are other ways of looking at things.
Myers and Levy draw attention to their own research on this topic. They ran a controlled experiment sharing two simulated news stories using similar race projection data based on different definitions of whiteness.
The first mimicked the conventional [one-drop rule] narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second …mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau’s alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century. …Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading [the first story] about the impending white-minority status. But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario. [Emphasis added, paragraph breaks removed]
In brief, one quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans who would normally be anxious about the decline of the white majority have more positive feelings about the emerging population of hip mixed-race semi-white people, whom they readily regard as kin.
These findings imply that when we measure ethno-cultural background for Employment Equity purposes, we need to allow people to choose multiple ethnicities. Also – and this may be controversial – we need to start reporting on the representation of the white population in a manner that empowers the new hybrid definition. Sympathetic white people are a target audience for equity reporting.
I have a self-image that I’m one of those non-racist people who is unbothered by white decline. But if I happened to be one of those coastal urbanites who was deluded about their own implicit racism (you know, hypothetically) then this new mindset would affect me. I look to mixed-race couples and biracial kids and think, yeah, they could totally grow up in my neighbourhood, work with me, and become family, no problem. It’s a gateway into general tolerance.
By blowing-out binary categories we can think expansively about being human and embrace complexity in an era of rapid change. We cannot let demagogues simplify us; we need to become contradictory and cosmopolitan people in order to be true to ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin. Only then can we freely consider all of our options and seek every opportunity that we choose.
[Hat-tip to Guy Kawasaki for sharing the Washington Post article on LinkedIn]
Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail. If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.
It comes by many names and appears in many fields. For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia. It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures. It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.
So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.
In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage. The correct answer is, no it does not. But it gets close.
Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.” Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball. Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball. Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.
I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that. The findings are mixed and contradictory.
In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.” That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder? A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.” By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson. Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.
Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome. However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders. The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs). Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.
In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;
…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.
… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.
And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.
Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power. “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.” The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement. Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.” The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?” The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?” It’s always a thought worth considering.
Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies. They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.
The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others. It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance. It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.
But it only works if they care. So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.
And if you don’t have power, make them care.
Mother’s Day weekend has passed, and the emotional roller-coaster has come and gone. You may have spent time reflecting about what is important to you. Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire? Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.
There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial. You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish. Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle? I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.
The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com. Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot. The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office. Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.
The gains were many. Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space. They put 9% more time into productive work hours. They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time. Their turnover was 50% lower.
Their mothers would be proud.
Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate. Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration. He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room. It was called “radical colocation.” The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups. In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances. Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.
What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context. Call centres are all about the dynamic the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant. By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity. This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.
That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013. I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.
For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences. Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home. This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life. Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves. The interests of work and home are not always a dichotomy, as both are sabotaged by commuting.
During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis. When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead. They were mostly concerned they would be passed over from promotion. Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive. They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” I see a side-story about the social contract. The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and the employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.
About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation. Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home. This highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized. Any two people can make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.
May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home. When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home. During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive. The impact was almost doubled.
I think it’s important to flag that autonomy itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign. That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.
One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill. I have to confess, I have done this myself. Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer. This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.
When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well. Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.
But there’s a catch. Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home. When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family. Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly. But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues? I need to choose my own life.