Sensitivity, the invisible superpower

superhero-2503808_1280. Creative commons from Pixabay.

Ever notice how some people are extra-careful about choosing the right lighting for a room, deciding what tone to use when they speak, or trying to eliminate small errors in final reports? It turns out that people like that have different things going on in their brains. And there is a name for it: A Highly Sensitive Person. Such people bring unique value to the workplace when they are understood and can put this strength to best use.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a bundling of personality traits identified by Dr. Elaine Aaron beginning in 1991. The Highly Sensitive Person website, book, and related movies and workbooks teach people how to self-identify and manage their unique situation. Among other things, the highly sensitive person has the following traits:

  • Easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarsefabrics, or sirens.
  • Notice and enjoy fine scents, tastes, and sounds.
  • Make a point of avoiding violent movies or TV.
  • Make a point of organizing their lives to avoidoverwhelming situations.
  • Have a “rich and complex inner life.”

Being highly sensitive is common, found in 15-20% of people, and is innate. A sensitive person’s outward behaviour is often confused with introversion, shyness, or being inhibited, each of which is a different thing. Often a sensitive person is told “don’t be so sensitive” in a manner that deems the trait abnormal and impacts their self-esteem. For this reason self-assessment, self-description, and self-determination are key to wellbeing.

Highly Sensitive People use several parts their brains quite differently, according to Andre Sólo in an article in Psychology Today from January 2019. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex connects emotions, values, and sensory processing. High sensitivity turns up the dial of this part of the brain, increasing emotional vividness such that some experiences have a much greater impact, subjectively.

The Human RightsImplications of Being Sensitive

These intense experiences are real – not imagined – in themind of the sensitive person. The perception that an experience is dramatic istrue-for-them, regardless of whether less sensitive people feel that way. Wedon’t get to collectively dictate the sensitivity norms of the group anddowngrade the significance of the individual. Rather, the proper collectiveview is that we all experience vividness in different ways and we need toaccommodate these differences. And that means there’s a little extra work inmaking things okay for the person who is sensitive.

Although there is not an explicit duty to accommodate underthe statutes, the challenge here is that we are considering how someone wasborn and whether they can choose to be any different. Since the HighlySensitive Person is in a genetic bind, it seems considerate to put in an effortto accommodate them. Indeed, if you’re thinking about how you would want to betreated if you were in their situation, you’re getting a feel for what thissensitivity is all about.

Amongst the things you can be sensitive to is the emotions of others. Highly SensitivePeople have more active mirror neuronsystems. Using your brain’s mirror neurons, Sólo describes that you“…[compare] the other person’s behaviour with times when you yourself behavedthat way – effectively ‘mirroring’ the other person to figure out what’s goingon for them.” This mirroring “allows us to feel empathy and compassion forothers”

This empathy takes us out of the realm of differences (often a euphemism forhaving a flaw) and into the possibility of superpowersthat can save the day. Consider the many ways in which having greater empathycan make things better. You can catch small insults, say “hey, be nice”, and ifyou were at fault you could patch things up with a considerate apology. Maybeyou can put together small pieces of information and realize that someone needshelp, and solve problems without people asking for help.  And if you were selling something, you couldread who was not buying and who was a promising prospect.

HSP’s become more conscious in a social context, such thatother people pop up on their radar more significantly.  For the HSP,

“Your brain is fine-tuned tonotice and interpret the behaviour of everyone around you. If someone is badnews, you know it. If someone is not going to treat you right, you see itcoming. And if a situation isn’t right for you, you know that, too.” (Sólo)

Greater awareness of the social context means sensitivepeople act as the canary in the minewho can give early warning that something is not right. It’s a double-edgedsword, as it can make a person warm, caring, and insightful. But in theworkforce, such people may need to also back away from labour relationsconflict, physical hazards, and corrosive leadership styles. But then, perhapsworkplaces need to universally strivefor harmonious labour relations, the minimization of physical hazards, and thecurtailment of bullying? Could it be that feedback from sensitive people putseveryone on track for greater effectiveness and wellbeing? Perhaps we could allincrease our willingness to be caring and insightful, to explore a rich innerworld, and organize our lives and workplaces to reduce abrasive and unpleasantsocial interactions.

It may be harder to assert that sensitivity is importantthan it is to assert the inverse. That is, that insensitivity isa liability, and behaviours that come from deliberateinsensitivity must be flagged as inappropriate. Thumbing noses at sensitivitycan be an early indication of sexism, bigotry, bullying, and abusive leadershipstyles. Sensitivity cannot be a small thing if its opposite is regarded as amajor problem. Therefore, compliance needs to make interventions on his veryimportant issue. 

How To Get the MostOut Of Being a Sensitive Employee

Let’s return to the upside of the situation.  Many people regard sensitivity as a great asset in the workplace. In a Forbes article from November 2016, Melody Wilding asserts that “…managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as the best performers in their organizations.” Wilding’s article, addressed to the sensitive person, describes five ways you can get the most out of this strength:

  • Have confidencein your communication skills. Sensitivepeople are “attuned to subtle gestures and tone” which means you hear more thanjust the words that people are saying.
  • Speak up ifothers have missed something. Sensitivepeople can spot things that don’t add up, picking up on overlooked risks orsubtle details about job candidates. These almost-overlooked tidbits will be new information, and businesses pay bigbucks for new information. 
  • Jump intoteamwork. The ability to stay attuned tothe team’s mood increases a sensitive person’s ability to identify the upsidesand downsides of team efforts. So yes, you can increase the flow of informationand nuance in team communications, which is great. However, this sensitivityalso makes it harder for the person to come down with an authoritativedecision, as you will need to bring the whole team along when arriving at afinal decision. There is a subtle sub-plot, that authoritarianism might not bethe best leadership style for you.
  • Use yourcreativity to solve problems. Becausesensitive people have rich inner worlds, “this can lead to fascinatingbreakthroughs, innovative solutions to problems and a unique sense of clarity…”I don’t think it’s the sensitivity itself that causes creativity. Rather, it’sa three-step process: hang back, listen to yourself, produce intuitive outputs.Sensitive people are far more experienced at this. That means their creativityis a strength that can be leveraged by the larger organization.
  • Prepare forstimulating situations. As a survivaltechnique, sensitive people need to think-ahead how they will respond to toughquestions and difficult situations. If they wing it and things take a turn forthe worse, sensation overload can cause them to be overwhelmed, freeze, or drawa blank. As with creativity, it’s another three-step process. Sensitivityincreases the personal consequences of poor planning, so they must plan, and their planned responsesare better as a result. Desperation provokes the intrinsic motivation todevelop planning skill. It’s a dystopian sci-fi future-of-work kind of skillsgrowth… adapt or be savaged.

Wilding’s recommendations are compelling because they give the sense of how someone with a unique trait needs to not just survive but also leverage their superpower for best outcomes. Being “the best you” means you need to identify what’s different about you, choose to be the real you, and figure out how you’re going to rock it in a way that others may not anticipate or understand:

“As a highly sensitive person whoexperiences strong emotions, you might feel like you’re carrying a heavy loadat times, especially at work. But the truth is you likely have a huge amount ofuntapped value to share with your co-workers, clients and in your career as awhole. It’s time to start viewing your sensitivity for what it is: yourgreatest strength.”

Not normal is now normal and more productive

Day 42, Hannes. Photo courtesy of A. David Holloway.

It’s the research you’ve all been waiting for: nobody is normal. You might think I’m trying to reassure you that you’re normal-enough to be accepted, but no, that misses the point. Everyone is unique and weird in their own way, and this is what allows everyone to function at their best as individuals.

The study is by Avram J. Holmes and Lauren M. Patrick, under the title “The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences.  Feb 20, 2018.

The authors were looking at the complex environmental circumstances under which mental illnesses develop. There is an emerging effort to develop broad datasets that isolate what causes someone’s brain-function to diverge from the ideal mental state. In the process, they tried to define the ideal mental state. About that: there’s not a single ideal mental state.

“We challenge this concept… arguing that there is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors.”

At Inc.com, Jessica Stillman notes that “…for all but the most obvious maladaptations, there is almost always a mix or good and bad results from any given variation.”

“Take anxiety, for instance. …science shows that anxiety is probably keeping you safer, pushing you to be better prepared in important areas of your life, and improving your memory, even if it often doesn’t feel good… Or look at risk taking. If you’re a little further on the fearless end of the spectrum, your chances of suffering some life-threatening mishap are likely higher, but so are your chances of starting a world-changing company. Our strengths and weaknesses are intimately tied together.”

This research confirms what has long been understood from folklore, the humanities, and the school of life: everyone is different and we need to honour and cherish these differences.

Now that there is data to back it up, can we assert this wisdom more boldly? I think we can and should. There are profound implications for emerging workplace issues such as equity and inclusion, work-life balance, wellbeing, and performance management.

Equity and Inclusion

The research brings depth to the thinking around equity and inclusion.  Looking at demographic traits is one window into the ways in which totally arbitrary types of people get ahead while others are left behind. If we want everyone to be at their best, we must strive to open our definition of what “best” looks like, be it sex or race or personality profile. If there is a “type” who is tapped or favoured because they fit the mold, we need to step back and consider if we are being drawn into a bias, be it conscious or unconscious. We need to look beyond types, consider the individual, and brace ourselves for plenty of surprises about who’s going to rock it, and how.

Work-Life Balance

There are also implications for work-life balance. As employees go through major life events there may be special moments when they are a perfect match to your workplace. But their home lives are important, and personal lives beckon for time, attention, and commitments.

Striking the balance is key in supporting employees to show up in their best form and deliver their best strengths. That balance hinges on allowing everyone to be themselves both at work and at home. Sometimes an employee’s personality brings favourable differences in what they can deliver at work. And sometimes an employee makes decisions in their home life that allows them to be their best at home. Don’t make them choose between the two, they’re busy being themselves.

Wellbeing

With wellbeing efforts, every high-functioning workplace needs to evolve beyond claims-cost-reduction and mandatory anti-bullying courses. If a workplace has developed a strategic and holistic sense of why they are advancing wellbeing, they are likely to happen upon the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health. That definition emphasizes that to feel “well” people need to realize their potential, work productively, and make a contribution to their community, among other things. How could that be possible if the corporate standards of performance disregard the unique ways in which each person is exceptional?

Performance Management and Competencies

This research raises questions about performance measurement against prescribed competencies. Yes, employees need to deliver outputs at the right levels of quality, cost, and timeliness. Yet the more specific we get about the kind of excellence expected, the narrower the opportunities for people to excel.

Competencies were originally put forward as a cutting-edge practice that blended skills and attitudes that employers wished people would deliver in their style of daily work. Competencies allowed employers to get beyond people-as-machines applying skill and effort to the tasks specified in the job description. But there is a flaw. Top-down descriptions of desired competencies undermine the ability of individuals to define their unique strengths from the inside-out.

As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.

If people are to flourish they need to be coached to identify their unique talents, develop their own learning objectives, and deliver work in a way that allows them to grow into their exceptionalities. We need to recognize what is great about each person, anticipating that there may be a downside. As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all. In order to develop people for their best growth we need a workplace culture of trust, sympathy, and encouragement.

By contrast, exercises where we score people against a half-dozen competencies sent down from corporate seem hopelessly archaic. Allowing a privileged few to define themselves as excellent and encourage others to play along seems narcissistic and biased. And telling others to achieve work-life balance and wellbeing according to the standards of those with power reveals an antipathy for wisdom.

So spread the word: everyone needs to get their freak on. If people can know themselves and be themselves, they’re far more likely to deliver the goods.

[This is a re-post of an article from April 3, 2018]

How to correctly work with bleach and unions

Milwaukee Public School Teachers. Photo courtesy of Charles Edward Miller.

I know you’re terrified to use bleach on your clothing. You probably destroyed a cherished garment a decade ago. Never again, you said. But bleach damage is a result of using bleach incorrectly. And if you follow the instructions, bleach can overwhelmingly improve the value of your wardrobe. Let me explain.

Instructions say use one cup of bleach for a single full load of laundry in a large or high-efficiency washer. If washing a half-load of laundry, scale down to half a cup of bleach. You need a measuring cup that you only use on bleach. Pour the bleach into the receptacle that says “bleach only” at the beginning of the load. Do not throw it in on top of the dry clothes. Don’t use Oxy-Clean in the same load, as chlorine bleach and Oxy-Clean cancel each other out. Then add your other detergent, press go, and that’s it. Now you “know how to use bleach.”

People Fear Bleach For Nonsensical Reasons

The 400-page book Laundry by Cheryl Mendelson – which is a delightful read – spells out a number of misconceptions of bleach. Garment labels are required by law to give instructions on how to wash clothing while causing no damage to the garment whatsoever. To prevent lawsuits, instructions are overly-restrictive in a practice called over-labelling. The most common type of over-labelling is to prescribe non-chlorine bleach (e.g. Oxy-Clean) or that you use no bleach whatsoever. I only obey this instruction with dark garments. Loads of whites, greys, or colours are all made better by bleach.

Concern about damaging garments is misplaced even if it were true that garments are harmed. Consider if bleach damaged your garment by 1%, which is enough to mandate prohibitive labelling. If you only bleached the garment three times ever, you will have lost 3% of the garment’s quality. Compare this outcome to the effect of ugly stains that prevent you from wearing a garment. In that case, the damage is 100% because you are avoiding the use of bleach. Not using bleach is, in this case, far more damaging as using bleach regularly. If you destroy the garment, you are no further behind, because it was destined for the garbage in the first place. There is no downside to destroying a garment with bleach, if you were never going to wear the garment because of a stain. So move on with your life and put bleach to its proper use.

Bleach and Industrial Relations

A lot of managers and human resources professionals are perplexed and intimidated about how to deal with unions. This looks strange to those experienced with unions because, although some things are complex, the basics are extremely simple. When you are dealing with a labour relations puzzle the first question is almost always; “what does the collective agreement say?”

This is where things go completely sideways for a lot of people. First, there are people who did not personally sign the collective agreement, who wonder why they are bound by it. But they don’t question invoices from utility providers, contracts with clients, or precautions imposed by risk management. Only the contract with the union faces this faux-bewilderment for which the acting quality is well below community theatre. Questioning the basic legitimacy of the collective agreement says more about the questioner than it says about unions.

Admit it, you’re only pretending to dislike unions in order to curry favour with someone powerful. But real executives think that a deal is a deal and that unions are simply one of their many bargaining partners. Move on.

The second challenge is those collective agreements are a type of instruction manual. A large percentage of the population never reads instruction manuals. Consider how many times you retrieve a box from the garbage so you can read, then re-read, the instructions to heat a frozen meal. It ought to be embarrassing but instead, we have hip internet memes where we all get to laugh at ourselves, collectively, that we can’t read instructions. But it’s not ha-ha funny. We’re laughing at how stupid we are, collectively. Safety in numbers. But if you want to get the job done, stop laughing. The union isn’t laughing. Instruction manuals aren’t funny.

In brief, if you are a manager in a unionized environment and there is nothing in the legislation or the collective agreement that inhibits your use of power, according to the rules you are allowed to do as you please. It’s called management rights and it’s biased towards the discretion of the manager. A manager even has the right under industrial relations law to do things that are contrary to the employer’s interest, disobedient to that manager’s superiors, and contrary to any measure of professionalism or competence.

But there’s one catch. If you don’t read the instructions, you might be barred from doing something incredibly basic. And that will make you look ridiculous.

As with the use of bleach, so-to with the use of authority in a unionized environment. Bleach and unions are both practical tools to achieve the desired outcome. They are to cause good where intended, act as a remedy to a precise problem, and have the side-effect of causing harm to those who are negligent. You are not being asked to apply high intelligence. Rather, you must take care that you follow the written instructions, be diligent and prudent in your handling of the active ingredient, and make regular use of this skill-set so that you don’t get sloppy.

Remember, when putting bleach in your wash basin you have the goal of getting the laundry done. So too, when interacting with a union you have the goal of achieving business goals by providing direction to staff. If you make the caustic agent something that you fear, neglect, and refuse to interact with, you will gradually lose the freedom to step out into the world looking your best. Stains will gradually destroy your favorite garments, while labour contempt erodes your confidence to advance brave and respectful leadership.

So get over your arrogance and fear, and read the instructions. It will make your willpower look bright and fluffy.

Not too shocking – those high numbers for job disruption by technology

static halo. Photo courtesy of Bridget McKenzie.

Can you think of a time you took advantage of a new technology, and in the process came out way ahead? You’re going to need plenty of stories like this in order to take full advantage of the future of work.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to a pirated version of Microsoft Excel. I was in graduate school in 1994 and a young woman in my class, Bev, handed me a stack of eight floppy disks held together with a blue elastic band. She told me Excel was way better than what I was using. Six months later I had finished an entire graduate thesis based on clever charts and tables I had created using new software. Six months after that, I was at a firm in one of the towers in Toronto’s downtown core with experienced consultants lining up at my cubicle, waiting for some solid analysis. My mind had co-evolved around the technology, and I was valued.

For many months I was the only analyst on a team that had four consultants. When new technologies are brought in, sometimes one person can do the work of several peers. And this appears to be a concern today with incoming technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and analytics.

Reports of Technology Eliminating Jobs Are Greatly Over-Stated

There has been some excitement lately about McKinsey’s report that 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology. Reading the content of the report – not just the media coverage – I can assure you that it’s far less dramatic.

First, the 800 million jobs was the upside of a forecasted range, and the authors recommend considering the mid-point of the range, which is 400 million jobs. Those 400 million jobs are proportional to 15% of current work activities in the global labour market. These job losses are not expected to be immediate, as this is a forecast into 2030 – twelve years from the paper’s date of publication. This means the forecast is closer to 30-35 million jobs lost per year, which seems far more modest on a planet with 7.6 billion inhabitants.

But it gets better. Of the 400 million jobs lost, only 75 million jobs will be eliminated altogether. The remaining job losses will be in cases where parts of our jobs will be eliminated. About 30% of “constituent” work will be automated for 60% of occupations. That is, there will be bots taking care of the more mundane parts of our jobs. It remains to be seen whether this shift will result in 30% less employment, or if our outputs will just be more efficient. There may be a line-up at your own desk, with senior people increasingly reliant on your own unique, human-machine hybrid.

Is it Technology or Globalization That’s Eliminating Jobs?

This technological revolution will have more dramatic impacts on industrialized economies such as Canada, the U.S. and Europe. New technologies have a cost of implementation, and cost savings are needed to justify the investment. A lot of cost savings can be found in eliminating expensive jobs. But in the developing world, wages are lower and the gains of the new technology won’t always outweigh the cost. The trade-offs between hiring people and bringing in new technology often tips towards employing people in those places where wages are low. It’s in the industrialized world where we will see the most change.

In my opinion (not necessarily McKinsey’s), this will have an impact on political optics. Jobs will appear to be eliminated in industrialized economies and then magically reappear in the developing world. But the back-story is that technology allows work to be done with fewer employees and more machines in industrialized countries. And those western workplaces will have competition from countries where it is not optimal to bring in new technologies. The jobs created in developing countries will look like the same jobs that used to exist in the West. But that’s not what’s going on. Developing economies are just briefly immune to the more-expensive technology, for as long as those countries have low wages.

McKinsey also reviewed the history of technological change and found that there tends to be a net gain from new technologies. The technology benefits someone — the buyer, investor, or some new profession or trade. That someone spends money in a manner that creates different jobs, often by taking advantage of yet another new technology. Those 400 million lost jobs are likely to be only the downside of a net-gain from technology.

Development and Social Supports Needed to Remedy Workplace Change

This raises the difficult issue of things getting better on average. As I described in an earlier post, if one million jobs are eliminated and a million-plus-one jobs are created, this is a net gain of one job. In the minds of economists, this is considered progress. However, looking at the blow-back from voters in industrialized countries, it appears that we must now pay very close attention to the millions who were on the downside of this net gain. And perhaps you know some of these people.

McKinsey was all over this issue:

“Midcareer job training will be essential, as will enhancing labour market dynamism and enabling worker redeployment. These changes will challenge current educational and workforce training models… Another priority is rethinking and strengthening transition and income support for workers caught in the cross-currents of automation.” (p. 8)

Within the human resources crowd, we are experienced at either enduring push-back from unions, or anticipating labour’s response with meaningful policies and initiatives. But regardless of whether you are sympathetic to the underclass, or just trying to implement a new technology as quickly as possible, you can see that society’s success at adapting to this change will hinge on the personal experience of those who have lost.

Looking around us, it seems like we are all trying to get our footing, trying to figure out for that one special thing that sets ourselves apart. You might not be told ahead of time what that thing should be. In fact, you might need to figure it out entirely by yourself. But those who are always working on their angle will have a better shot than those who are relying on prior wins.

Sure, there might be an employer who is loyal enough to set you up for success, or a program or union that will help with the job transition. But as we take turns eliminating each other’s jobs, you might want to hold onto a dash of selfishness. If you can bot-boss your way into a superior level of productivity, you might become that one valued employee on the upside of a turbulent net-gain.

Either as a society, or as an individual, you need to write yourself into a story where you reached for the power cord and taught the corporate machine to work for you.

[This is a re-post of an article from March 8, 2018]

Only the lonely know who they are (and can do something about it)

#hug. Photo courtesy of Dizao Goncalves.

Hey you, lonely person. Don’t look away, I know you’re lonely. No, I haven’t been looking through your things. I just know you’re lonely because it’s in the data. Everyone’s data. And if you follow me, I will walk you through the rest of the data. I can help you get out of these deep dark woods. The first step to beating loneliness is to understand it. This will only take seven minutes. Ready to go?

As we make our way through this fast-changing world of work, we uncover unpleasant emotions. One such emotion is the soul-crushing sense of loneliness. And like other trends, it’s something people are reluctant to talk about. We’re particularly unlikely to discuss loneliness at work, in close quarters with those who are obligated to be in our company.

How Bad is Loneliness? Really Bad

There’s a sobering overview of the loneliness research in AARP.org, the web site for the American Association of Retired Persons. As far back as 2010, correlations emerged between loneliness and adverse health conditions.

“…the percentages of the lonely among those diagnosed with obesity (43 per cent), sleep disorders (45 per cent), chronic pain (47 per cent), and anxiety (56 per cent) were considerably higher than the 35 per cent who are lonely overall. Could loneliness be contributing to these conditions? ‘Studies have shown that people sleep more poorly, exercise less, eat more fats and sugars, and are more anxious when they feel lonely than when they are not…’”

That last quote was from the late John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, who was a pioneer of loneliness research. Cacioppo cited evidence that loneliness has adverse impacts on diabetes, sleep disorders, weakened immune systems, Alzheimer’s disease, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Wikipedia article on loneliness notes that higher cortisol levels can cause “anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems [again], and weight gain.” And in a predictable game of fill-in-the-blanks, if loneliness is causing depression it’s also causing… alcoholism. Yeah, I know you knew about that, I’m just spelling it out for the others.

Loneliness kills people one by one, in different ways. In spite of its universal nature, loneliness is not a collective experience. There is no great-big-party in hell where people with similar sins and vices dance and writhe in a place with bad air conditioning. In this hell, you are always misunderstood. Things that are important to you, you cannot convey to others, even when they’re sitting right there.

How is Loneliness Defined?

Back to Wikipedia, loneliness is “a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings… [and] can be felt when surrounded by other people.”

In addition, it’s a subjective experience, so “if a person thinks they are lonely, they are lonely.” That last comment implies a life-pro tip: you are the boss of defining yourself as lonely. It might not make you look like the boss if you talk about it openly, but if you reflect on what’s going on inside you, you might feel more control by defining yourself in this manner.

What’s special about loneliness is that it’s intangible. For example, isolation is a feature of geography and communications, and as such there are major businesses devoted to real estate, transportation, and telecommunications that help remedy isolation. Depression, although it has taken decades to get here, is now recognized as a medical condition related to biology for which pharmaceutical companies provide a partial remedy, professionals devote their careers, and employers pay for insurance to cover treatment and time away from work.

But stuck in the middle between isolation and depression is this mysterious linchpin, loneliness, for which there is no major entity that makes it their responsibility to offer a remedy.

Except, perhaps, the workplace. Positive workplaces, that is.

How Leaders Can Reduce Loneliness in Their Workplace

If you are in a leadership capacity, you have an opportunity to create a positive environment that mitigates loneliness, for others. Four authors published a paper in January 2011 which covered this quite well. The paper is Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness, by Kim Cameron, Carlos Mora, Trevor Luetscher, and Margaret Calarco from January 2011. In a study of the health care sector, workplace effectiveness improved on a variety of measures when employers:

“…provide compassionate support for employees, emphasize positive and inspiring messages to employees, forgive mistakes, express gratitude to and confidence in employees, clarify the meaningfulness of the work being done, and reinforce an environment characterized by respect and integrity. No one positive practice stands out as the single most important determinant of improvement, but positive practices in combination appear to have the most powerful impact.”

It’s important to realize that each of these positive practices fosters connection and understanding. But it’s the general environment of inclusiveness that makes the difference. And this would make sense, as fostering authentic connections are a general approach to others, with workplace culture mostly coming from the very top.

How Can Individuals Overcome Loneliness?

And what can you do, just for yourself? Loneliness is an area where an accurate self-assessment goes a long way. There is a quick loneliness quiz online that is a shortened version of the full loneliness scale produced in 1996 by Daniel Russel. The assessment is important because you need to differentiate between three items that are easily confused with one another: isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Specifically, isolation often causes loneliness, and loneliness often causes depression. Isolation is the lack of contact between an individual and society. Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response arising from disconnection. By contrast, depression is a persisting low mood accompanied by additional medical symptoms. You could face any combination of these three challenges, and possibly just one. So assessing yourself then taking charge of your own self-description is the first half of the battle.

An article in TheCut.com by Cari Romm summarizes recommendations from seven therapists on how to overcome loneliness. One of them recommends you engage in small talk with people you encounter throughout your day. Don’t be needy and desperate – not just yet – instead this is a time to build rapport. Most importantly, this small talk can become second nature for when you are at the early stages of developing a more important impression, such as with new in-laws or a new boss.

Two experts think the increase in loneliness is due to our “persistently frantic state of busyness.” Jaqueline Olds and her partner Robert Schwartz teach at Harvard Medical School and are co-authors of the book The Lonely American. When interviewed for the AARP article they note that busy people

“…just need a bit of solitude and downtime at the end of the day, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you put socializing at the end of your to-do list, then you won’t see people and you’ll feel more isolated. You will also feel as if everyone else is leaving you out, even though you’re the one who started it all by sending signals that you don’t want company. So what started off as a reasonable wish fed on itself and became destructive.”

This interpretation jives with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which ultimately links declining community involvement to longer commuting times. However, it is just too important to give social interaction a low priority in your time-planning. As I discussed in an earlier post, it is tempting to assert that we are “too busy” as a status symbol, but those who have their act together are always working on those things that are most important to them. You need to decide that social interaction is part of who you are as a human. And that you are on this earth to be human.

A sense of connection to something outside ourselves is important: loneliness runs at 27% for religious people but 43% for the non-religious. If you have decided that God isn’t your cup of tea, you need an alternate sense of connection to the universe, and some other way to participate in a community. Loneliness runs at 28% (which is low) for those who donate time to school, hospital, or another non-profit and 26% for those who belong to a book club, garden group, or other social organization.

You may or may not require God’s love, but you fundamentally need community and connection.

New deal required for labour in gig economy

Issues. Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Milo.

There used to be a time, decades ago, when investment capital was rare and workers were struggling to find good jobs. But now the tables may have turned. There is far more money available to invest than ever before, and new business models are relying increasingly on ideas instead of capital. What are the implications for workers and for labour unions?

How Much Money Can Be Invested, Per Worker?

Let’s take this from the top. Total financial assets are $245 trillion (US dollars) globally, as of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank’s financial accounts matrix tables. By contrast, other sources estimate that the total was about $12 trillion in 1980, equivalent to $35.7 trillion in 2017 dollars. Total investment capital has grown 6.9 times in the last 37 years.

According to the International Labour Organization’s data tables, as of 2017, the global workforce was 3.46 billion, which is 46% of the global population of 7.55 billion people in 2017. In 1980 the world population was 4.5 billion people, and if 46% of that population had been available to work, I estimate the global workforce was 2.1 billion in 1980. Over the past 37 years, the global population has grown from 2.1 to 3.5 billion people or 1.65 times.

I’m interested in labour market conditions and the effect they have on society, so I’m particularly curious about the amount of investment capital available per worker. In the old economy, jobs that were supported with good machinery and good workspaces tended to be more productive and have higher potential wages and salaries. On one hand you don’t want powerful investors bossing people around just to keep their wages down, but on the other hand, you want investors to have plenty of money available to invest in tools and machinery that can make high wages possible. Global investment capital if public frenemy #1.

Looking at capital per employee on a global scale, in 1980 those 35.7 trillion dollars divided by 2.1 billion workers equals $17,000 of investment capital per worker. As of 2017, those 245 trillion dollars divided by 3.5 billion workers equals $70,000 of investment capital per worker. That’s a four-fold increase.

The implications are large because we may be approaching the end of cheap labour. Employers are still trying to keep their composure while offering unions modest wage increases and holding the line on compensation budgets. But there are persisting stories of employers having a hard time filling job vacancies, such that some businesses can’t take on new business. Businesses can no longer differentiate themselves by simply investing money in capital and employing people to operate that capital. They have to do something more.

Physical Assets Not Driving The Biggest Profits

In a 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, three researchers note that the largest profits are increasingly going to companies that have few physical assets. Their research looks at a scatter-plot of Average Multiple (how much investors pay for every $1 of revenue), against Average Net PP&E (or plant, property, and equipment as a percentage of total assets owned). They found that “The industries with the very highest [revenue] multiples were those with the lowest percentage of physical assets.” The most lucrative businesses are light on physical capital.

Their analysis broke industrial sectors into four quadrants. Builders are in capital-intensive sectors such as transportation, utilities, and communications. This is the “real work” of the old bricks-and-mortar era, and they’re still in business… but profits are light. Servers are sectors that deliver services such as health care, distribution, and consumer non-durables. These sectors have both low multiples and low investment capital. The big money-makers were called Creators, technology and technology services companies that are constantly advancing disruptive devices and novel business models that give every other sector a run for their money.

To round out the model, there is the fourth quadrant but it has nobody in it. Dreamers is a would-be category of businesses that have plenty of investment capital which generates plenty of revenue. That’s just not a thing any more:

“…suddenly, in the digital age, the physical assets that the big industrial companies have acquired are becoming more and more burdensome. Inventory depreciates and must be moved around. When geographic needs change, land is difficult to acquire or offload. And equipment must be maintained… In some cases, these assets are preventing companies from adapting, and weighing them down. It’s the corporate equivalent of having a closet full of old VHS tapes and CD cases.”

Implications For The Future of Work

This new dynamic between capital and elusive profits implies that capital has less power in the workplace. If good ideas are the main driver of business success, and capital is merely a tag-along, then the employer is more of a host for worker productivity. The investor is not really the boss any more. If things are going really well in your workplace, you probably see the equivalent of a high-functioning sports team, with everyone pulling in the same direction and the boss sitting on the sidelines, arms crossed. Coercive tendencies don’t drive new ideas, so big bundles of cash won’t “cause” productivity. Perhaps rich people are collecting empty houses because they’re running out of places to invest.

This shift in power would normally have been a boon for the labour movement if people had less fear of reprisals for signing a union card. But the world is changing in a way that is also disadvantageous to unions. In the emerging gig economy, freelance contract workers can often set up a viable business with little capital. But they’re often off-site, legally established as their own organization, and have one employee (themselves). This means they can’t be unionized.

To clarify, gig workers can’t be easily unionized, at least not under our current industrial relations model. The current model is one in which employees are in a single fixed location where capital is invested, in which employees are a clearly-defined pool of people, distinguishable from the leadership. But the future of work is not a physical location, may require little capital, and workers might be significantly outside the organization.

If I were tasked with organizing people in a way that ensures they get their fair share of the modern economy, I would most certainly choose a global perspective and look a little further back in history. Look to the deep history of the guilds of the medieval era, when people in similar trades teamed-up to establish a common rate for their work. The guilds spoke on behalf of contractors, and their efforts pre-dated the violent conflicts of 19th-century industrial relations. Labour needs to start organizing contractors, and if there are laws about that, that’s just par for the course in emerging labour struggles.

Many of these gig workers are part of the degree-educated professional services class. Labour needs to increasingly consider management and the professions as a substantial untapped pool of people whose complaints need a remedy. They don’t look the same as other workers because they’re not particularly poor. But labour can’t just be a country club of men with beards; there can’t be one “type.” Professionals who are struggling to get ahead often have a deep sense of fairness and duty. They are often over-worked, alienated, and increasingly fed up with coercive leadership styles.

Capital and labour alike are both being taken sideways by new ideas. To some extent, capitalism is becoming a misnomer. Employers are increasingly desperate to create an engaged and creative workplace where trust and inclusion are a competitive edge. To find its place, labour would need to increasingly participate in this game of new ideas.

I’m not describing a world where labour and management stand hand-in-hand singing folk songs. Rather, it’s a world where one-on-one conversations, possibly clandestine, create a web of connections across industries and across the labour-management divide. It’s through this network that ideas and feedback travel the globe. And to be clear, this is not my vision for the future, but rather it’s an observation of the way things are happening, already. It’s so much easier to predict the present.