Waking up is not a competition

Shadows. By Stuart Murray
Photo by author.

Do you have a strange pang of guilt about your wake-up time?  You shouldn’t. People have varied natural wake-up times, and the “best” time to wake up appears to be extremely personal.

One of the more important workplace numbers – and one that is rarely discussed – is the normal hours of work and the degree to which hours are flexible. Work hours are a big deal because people need to make a lot of trade-offs between family size, housing, commuting distance, and family care obligations. In an office environment, while it’s good to have a general sense of when we want people around for meetings, it also makes sense to ensure peoples’ work and home lives to be compatible.

Wake Time is Mostly Genetic

One item that complicates normal work hours is peoples’ sleep times.  While a lot of people have a typical sleep pattern of 11pm-7am, plenty of people tend to be early risers or night owls. The variety of sleep times are linked to something called chronotype. There are many news articles implying that waking early is virtuous, but there is little discussion of whether we can choose to change our sleep patterns. My reading of the research shows mixed results amongst those attempting to change their wake time.

There are several genetic variables that affect chronotype. The Wikipedia entry on the topic notes that “there are 22 genetic variants associated with chronotype.” The sleep cycle is related to our levels of melatonin and our variations in body temperature. Age has a major impact on sleep patterns. Children and those aged 40-60 are more likely to be early risers, while teens and young adults are more likely to be night owls.

In an HBR article from 2010, biology professor Christoph Randler was interviewed about an article he published on sleep cycles. He cited one study that found that “…about half of school pupils were able to shift their daily sleep-wake schedules by one hour. But significant change can be a challenge. About 50% of a person’s chronotype is due to genetics.”

Looking into people’s personal experiences in attempting to wake up earlier, they will often emphasize discipline and routine in waking up properly. Other articles identify wake-up technologies that oblige you get out of bed promptly. The best overview that I could find comes from lifehacker.org, which has a great infographic on why and how to become an early riser.

Dr. Randler notes that evening people tend to be smarter, more creative, have a better sense of humor, and be more outgoing. By contrast, morning people “hold the important cards” as they get better grades and the opportunities that arise from them. Morning people anticipate problems and minimize them, and are more proactive. “A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.”

Team Productivity and Genetic Diversity

What is notable is that early risers have the traits that are most beneficial for their personal effectiveness and their personal career success.  This is troublesome. You see, if early risers are more likely to get into positions of power and status they are also more likely to end up with a captive audience through which they can imply that others should be more like them. This may be a factor in the early-rising hype.

I would assert that an employer must always look beyond individual performance and pay close attention to teamwork. It is common for some behaviours to cause one person get ahead to the detriment of the team, and part of good management is to nip this in the bud and put the team first. If there is a solid talent pool of night owls who bring smarts and creativity which is historically less recognized in grades or career advancement, their contribution might be strong and also under-appreciated. We must consider what is best for the entire workplace, and cultivate the best contributions from all sleep types.

If the purpose of our diversity and employment-equity efforts is to get the best out of all people regardless of how they were born, perhaps we should be open-minded about sleep patterns. The correct moral standard should be inclusiveness and team effectiveness.

Dr. Randler, who is from Germany, is quick to acknowledge that our bias towards early-rising is more circumstantial than fact-based:

“Positive attitudes toward morningness are deeply ingrained. In Germany, for example, Prussian and Calvinist beliefs about the value of rising early are still pervasive. Throughout the world, people who sleep late are too often assumed to be lazy. The result is that the vast majority of school and work schedules are tailored to morning types. Few people are even aware that morningness and eveningness have a powerful biological component.”

We can’t choose to be a morning type any more than we can choose to be tall, male, white, a baby boomer, or someone with executive-face. And for that matter, we can’t choose to be Prussian. Under what circumstances would we oblige everyone to fit a single standard of excellence that elevates one genetic type to be superior to the rest? Didn’t we sort this out already?

[The above is a repost of an article from January 2, 2018]

There is more to your soul than your career

Photo courtesy of Ken Banks from kiwanja.net

Does work give meaning to your life? I sure hope not. Careers, on close examination, are an extremely useless vehicle for delivering a holistic life purpose. If you’re extremely busy you may not have had time to consider this. But it’s healthy to take the idea for a test drive.

Your Career Does Not Define You

This summer I was at the staff BBQ, to which everyone’s family were invited. The husband of one of the senior leaders, whom I had not yet met, was free for conversation. Here’s the hard part. In my late twenties, I read Miss Manners to learn those mainstream social skills not instilled in me by my hippie parents. One obscure item of tact is that it’s not always proper to ask what someone does for a living. People can choose to divulge, but it’s sometimes rude to demand that a first impression is built around one’s current career success. There is more to a person than their career, and demanding their career identity is limiting and possibly demeaning.

So, I asked this man how long he had known his wife. They met in their late teens in the same small town they had both grown up in, and they had been together ever since. Being who I am, I regurgitated the statistic that couples who meet before age 23 have a much higher divorce rate than everyone else. They tend to evolve into their true selves as they mature, usually in contradictory ways. Why were they doing so well?

“We each grew, but together. We made decisions as a couple about how we wanted to change, and we followed that path together, as a team.”

What would it mean if we could simply decide who to become? There are a lot of constraints put upon us by society, telling us that we must be this or that. What if instead of imposing constraints on each other we supported one another’s individual hopes and dreams? If this behaviour were normal, I can’t decide if I would think more about myself or what I could do for others. Is true success mostly about our conversations with friends and family and where we are going as a team?

What is Careerism?

Careers, by contrast, might not be all they’re chalked up to be. According to an article in Quartz by Andrew Taggart from July 2018 entitled The Case Against Careers:

“A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs…) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant…) …The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.” [Emphasis added]

This is a great definition of career because it spells out some presumptions that are worthy of dispute. For example, if you had a good self-definition would it be work-centric? If your whole life is your spouse and your spouse dies, you lose your identity. If your whole life is fitness and you become disabled, you lose your identity. And if your whole life is your career and it gets derailed, you can’t look to your healthy body and your robust personal relationship to carry you through hard times.

In order to be resilient in a world of constant change, you need several identities in place before adverse events occur. That way you can be four-fifths “complete” when hit by hard times. And real people are weird; they have sincere internal contradictions that make them uncomfortable at times. There are mumsy types sneaking off to roller-derby, health enthusiasts who love their chips, and happily married people who put a little too much effort into looking good at the office. But being weird also turns out to be universal, so it’s fine to get used to this kind of thing. More than anything, we need to value complex thought as the rest of the world becomes contradictory in its own right.

Developing a clear identity gives you resilience that is a solid base from which to be brave, take risks, and shrug off threats from toxic people and a world gone mad. By contrast, a singular focus on the careerist mindset is a path to personal ruin that exposes you to extremely reliable disappointments.

Your career tells your first-person story. But increasingly our workplace effectiveness is determined by how well we dovetail with our superiors, subordinates, and our peers, both inside and outside the organization. Do we help each other, have each other’s back, and speak to one another with a respectful and considerate voice? Your surrounding network is so influential, your existence at work cannot truthfully be a first-person story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan who cites research by a scientist named William Muir. Muir ran an experiment that attempted to breed chickens that were top performing in producing eggs. The surprise outcome was that after several generations these “super-chickens” had almost pecked each other to death. Super-chickens as individual performers become excellent by hoarding the best resources and belittling others.

Coops built around super-chickens under-performed the control group of chickens made of equals. Heffernan makes the case that real workplace productivity is increasingly about teams working together with a sense of helping and collaboration. By contrast, the egos and demands of star-performers can cause teams to fail. Back to the definition of career, the first-person story is less important than the story of the team. Careerism is sounding, increasingly, like it’s not so clever.

Why Do Careers Fail to Deliver Ultimate Fulfillment?

Taggart asserts that before the ascent of careerism, humanity was built around higher visions advanced by organized religion. When humanity mostly abandoned religion, this sense of purpose was thrown out as well. Taggart asserts that there is a “vital existential anxiety” in the human experience that cannot be remedied or brought to peace through our career journey.

In order to achieve life meaning, we must seek transcendent experiences, Taggart suggests. The main feature of spirituality (an individual experience) and religion (a group experience) is that they offer transcendence, taking us beyond the day-to-day. But, by its very nature, work is fundamentally mundane. As meager compensation for abandoning transcendent spiritual quests we are given tasks that give us a sense of meaningless work.

In the typical workplace, purpose is undefined and often kept a secret. If purpose gives us our place in the cosmos, organized religion, at least, puts in a good effort. However, work imposes upon us a secret cult of stuffy clothing, buzzwords, and parlour games where we mimic the views of the highest-paid person who has a relative absence of baby-face. If you were not religious, and you had a good plan to replace God, surely you would turn to something lofty and impressive such as science or art or philosophy. To turn up at your workplace on a Sunday when the air is turned off and your friends and family are absent has got to be the Worst. Religion. Ever.

Don’t Scare the Children

Taggart is most bothered that we always ask children what they want to do for a job when they grow up:

“Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; … what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is. …To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.”

It’s been a good thought exercise, but I’ll have to draw the line right there. I won’t be starting any death-talk with children at the staff BBQ. You don’t need to read Miss Manners to know it’s a bad idea to make children cry. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Life hacks will not save your soul

Texting, by Alexandra Zakharova

Do you feel put-upon to stay productive at work, and at home, and in friendships? It’s exhausting when you think about it. Everywhere you look there is a new tip to make your relationships super authentic, to make your career deeply meaningful, and for your morning routine to run like a seamless assembly line. If you feel boxed-in by unreasonable, self-imposed expectations, you are not alone. That is because we are universally immersed in values that are the rational extension of the passing whims of merchants.

Bourgeois Values and the Bourgeois Era

In an article in Quartz entitled Life hacks are part of a 200-year-old movement to destroy your humanity, Andrew Taggart puts our current middle-class lives into an historical context. There is constant speculation that we’re entering a different historic era. If we look at how we entered our current era we might learn how we will move onward.

Taggart cites economic historian Diedre McCloskey who describes the present as the “Bourgeois Era.” The Bourgeois Era was created 200 years ago when the industrial revolution took hold, merchants bloomed, and those merchants promptly overpowered aristocrats and religious leaders. Your ancestors were controlled by lord and cleric, but you have broken these chains and are now controlled by your boss, your clients, and advertisers. There has been progression, but you are not entirely free.

You are not free because your thinking is enveloped by prevailing values. I would note this is something that typically happens under hegemony: not only does the economic and political dominance of the elite control your life, but the values of the elite permeate the thinking of those under their sway. Long ago, aristocrats cherished the values of honour, leisureliness, and pride. Christian peasants valued charity and reverence. These are rare values today, to the point where you almost have to look them up.

When the Bourgeois Era came along, it came with “the bourgeois virtues of prudence, temperance, trustworthiness, and pride in fair dealing.” We now look up to visionary entrepreneurs who embody these values, abandoning wars of aristocratic honour, or the self-flagellation required to seek salvation. And the new(ish) bourgeois values bring their own problems, creating diseases of the soul and existential heartbreak. When you email that final-final draft at 3 p.m. on a Friday and imagine the weekend ahead of you, is your life truly more complete than those who have confessed their sins?

What Happens to Old Values When We Make Progress?

Taggart does not entirely suggest that we go back to the older values. The way I think of it is, there are places on this earth where the biggest problem is inadequate plumbing. If those regions achieved adequate plumbing that would be great, however, it would be foolish for them to continue to obsess about plumbing as their highest goal. You’re supposed to move on. Perhaps their next goals would be fair elections, clear title on land ownership, and universal K-12 education. And after that, their goals might be togetherness of communities, greater self-expression, and nicer clothing. But when the community comes together you don’t abandon plumbing. Rather, it fades into the background as important-yet-forgettable.

As such, we may hold onto a variant of aristocratic honour when we defend our prestige in the workplace. And we may still be advancing the Christian-peasant virtue of charity when we support social change movements by contributing time, money, or simply our voices. But we remain completely shackled to the bourgeois values of temperance and prudence when we count our calories, declutter our wardrobes, and try to get a better telco package. You cannot go home from work and adopt the aristocratic value of leisureliness because temperance and prudence have penetrated our homes. Look busy!

I don’t think the solution is to seek the opposite of bourgeois dominance. I get triggered by the word bourgeois because of my past exposure to the labour movement. I’ll always be in remission from polarizing Marxist patter. I always get that I-know-where-this-is-going feeling. If I allow tomorrow’s next Lenin to keep talking I’m going to have to eat rice and beans at a banquet hall where I am sucked into a bottomless pit of volunteerism and bad taste. But it’s not just the left who can lead you astray. You also can’t let clerics and aristocrats join in on the bourgeois-bashing, as they don’t even want you to have plumbing.

The mainstream has done an exceptional job at offering meaningful careers to those who are intelligent and hard-working. There used to be a crowd of people who were alienated from the mainstream, some of whom were intelligent leadership-types who could create a meaningful rebel resistance. But now that corporations are adopting corporate social responsibility, advancing transformational leadership styles, and increasingly promoting a diverse population into the professions and leadership, there’s not as much appeal to heckling from the margins. Who is going to lead the resistance? Not always the best people. Fifteen per cent of the population has a personality disorder, but in political crowds (on either side of the fence) it seems more like one-half. The negation of the current dominant class might not be a viable path forward.

What Values Will Take Us Forward?

If I were to name the cherished values of our next era, I would go with humility, introspection, and empathy. The reason why is that the data keeps revealing cognitive fallacies and implicit bias that make it clear that our brains only have the power of a 40-watt light bulb. In order to do well, we have to get over ourselves and ask us why we think the things we think. And this is done best by looking at the evidence and working with a team. We need to figure ourselves out while we help others do the same. This task is impossible if you think you have everything figured out, so humility is your first task.

As artificial intelligence and robots take over the productivity race, those who pull ahead will do something human that artificial intelligence just can’t do. This kind of holistic thinking is deeply incompatible with the conformity and profit-maximizing focus of the promotable class of agreeable bourgeois leaders. Instead, the new leaders are those who look inside of themselves, build their story, and enmesh their own story with those of others. It’s not something that can be written by a public relations professional or a ghostwriter. You must become yourself, make it real, and show up as authentically human.

There’s no eye contact with any app anywhere that will give you a sense that your humanity resonates with your colleagues, friends, and family. Rather, you start with that which is human and tell the market and the technology what is required.

So when you get home on Friday and look at those dishes that need loading, try going deep on why you care. Are you allowed to do nothing? Is the person who loads the dishwasher committing a benevolent act? Or are you, in all honesty, trying to keep everything running smoothly? If you meditate long enough, you might just decide that it’s really about the ick factor. Then you’re in the future.

Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox

I lift weights because I was quite small as a kid. In grade two, a tall athletic kid named Micah spoke down to me. When I talked-back he threatened: “Watch yourself or there’s going to be trouble.” Things escalated and word got around. We ended up in on the gravel soccer field surrounded by older kids who stood shoulder-to-shoulder so the noon-hour supervisors couldn’t see. One kid showed me how to hold my fist, moving my thumb to the outside, then told me to aim for the nose. In the next two minutes, my opponent hurled verbal threats at me while I got him onto his back and bloodied his nose. The older kids pulled us apart, and said “great fight.”

There used to be a great divide between jocks and nerds. But it’s now obvious there is no meaningful line between a strong brain and a healthy body. You have to have your wholeact together in order to walk into meetings with calm and confidence.

The Effects of Fitness on Workplace Productivity

There is ample evidence that the benefits of physical health translate into intellectual and emotional health. For employers, that means improved bottom lines, as outlined in a 2003 Journal of Exercise Physiology article entitled, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels and Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism”. The authors are Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris.

The study looked at three indicators of workplace effectiveness and four indicators of physical wellbeing. Notably, not all fitness measures were associated with all workplace effectiveness indicators.

  • Muscular strength influenced productivity
  • Cardiovascular endurance influenced job satisfaction
  • Flexibility influenced absenteeism

Amongst those who had increased their activity levels, there was more than an 80% favourable response to questions about exercise affecting their quality of performance, ability to relax, think clearly, and concentrate. Experiencing less fatigue was a big deal because:

“Employees who have more muscular strength would not be as physically taxed as employees with lower strength levels. This may make the employees physical work feel less demanding and may have contributed to their feelings of increased productivity.”

In their literature review, the study cited one paper that found that “the average reported impact of fitness programs on absenteeism is between 0.5 and 2.0 days improvement in attendance/year and it is estimated that the improvement would translate to a dollar savings of 0.35 to 1.4% of payroll costs.”

It’s another case where doing the right thing and making more moneylead to similar conclusions.

Cardiovascular endurance, by contrast, creates a sense that everything is chill. Those with better cardio have less anxiety, more self-esteem, concentrate better, and are more satisfied. Interpretations beyond the evidence were that fitness increased work capacity, reduced minor illness, and provided “…relief from boredom, anxiety or pent-up aggression”.

I wonder if we could reduce aggression in the workplace – and in schools for that matter – if we just got more cardio into people’s lives. A lot of workplace issues relate to struggles between those with different levels of power. Yes, we can cultivate more meaningful conversations between those in the midst of a power imbalance. But people need to be physically calm in the first place.

Related to power imbalance is that results vary between men and women. Fitness improved sick-day absences for women by 32% whereas for men there was no change. This makes sense because fitness improvement is often about bringing women up to a level that already exists for men.

This Girl Can

The “This Girl Can” campaign out of the UK is a best-case scenario for inspiring people to get active. Sports England, a government agency, was concerned about the under-representation of women in sporting activities. In addition to an inspiring video-driven campaign homepage I also found an article in Campaign magazine which provides great drill-down.

The campaign started with a research base that identified that “by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly… despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active.” Digging deeper, they found:

  • Women’s fear of judgment by others is the primary barrier to exercise. In particular, women fear being judged about their ability.
  • 44% of mothers feel guilty if they spend time on themselves instead of their family, in contrast to the fact that men having “hobbies” is encouraged.
  • 48% of women say that getting sweaty is not feminine so being seen sweating causes concerns about their appearance.

If you watch This Girl Can videos and read the write-ups you hear from women who are recovering from a major surgery, getting going after a breakup, or becoming active after having kids. These women had been put in certain place by their circumstances and the way they were born, and have decided to change their lives physically. The campaign created a manifesto:

“Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

Since the campaign, the number of women playing sport is up by 245,200 people over a 12-month period to the end of September 2015.

About the Self-Image of Muslim Women Kickboxers

Regarding all shapes and sizes, Asian Muslim women in Britain have a lot of extra work in overcoming the judgment of others. There’s a great article in Vice about a woman organizing a kickboxing studio geared entirely towards Muslim women. Khadijah Safari is a 5’4” Muay Thai boxing instructor who teaches classes in Milton Keynes, outside of London. In the past 10 years her community experienced a doubling in the size of the visible minority population, up to 26%, of whom 4.8% were Muslim.

The rising ethnic diversity and the occasional act of Islamist terrorism is now wrapped up in a toxic blowback about “British values” at the heart of the Brexit fiasco and open racism in the streets. Women wearing religious headdress feel particularly threatened, telling stories of being spat on and name-called. Instead of “going home” this vulnerable population can instead attend self-defence classes. In these women-only classes, the women remove their hijabs and cover the windows, while they build their muscles, skills, and emotional resilience.

One participant is a 33-year old woman named Afshah who has been in the UK for eight years:

“…I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself,” she says. “…before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout ‘Muslim!’ at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn’t want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence.”

These women have a great icon to look up to. Ruqsana Begum – known as the Warrior Princess – was the British female boxing champion in 2016 and at the time the only Muslim woman at the top of her sport in the UK. She’s petite, has used her sport to overcome depression, and has gone on to build a business designing and selling sports hijabs. She has a great interview in highsnobiety.com where she sums it up: “I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.”

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]

Would you trust your doctor to repair your car

Reach for it (she made it, btw). By Lorie Shaull
Reach for it (she made it, btw).  Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

When people move up in the world, do you notice how they sometimes expect to be trusted?  It’s almost as if the trust were some kind of cherished prize attached to status and position.  But that’s not how it works.  Trust is something people earn.  And the ways in which trust is earned are mysterious and counter-intuitive.

Onara O’Neill’s TED Talk on What We Don’t Understand About Trust is an eye-opening revelation of an ambiguous concept.  Trust is a sentiment experienced by the trust-er, not by the person hoping to be trusted. In order to receive the trust of others, one must behave in a manner that is trustworthy.  This trustworthiness is judged on whether someone is honest, competent, and reliable.

You can trust people on some behaviours but not others.  For example, you can trust leaders to make good decisions, but perhaps not trust them to understand the perspective of those who are less powerful.  This dichotomy can make lives difficult for leaders who make missteps in empathy.

It’s also possible to trust someone will give accurate information, but not trust that they will guard your secrets.  For me, that’s the analyst’s dilemma.  The act of sharing information too freely can discourage people from providing the very information that is needed to advance research.  Conversely, being over-protective of information sends off signals you’re using the information for your own benefit, or for the sole benefit of your masters.

Trust can be localized to the profession of the person in question.  There is no good reason to presume a physician would provide good advice on auto-mechanics.  A doctor’s importance, intelligence, and general credibility might normally sway you, but this influence should have no bearing on whether you trust them on topics outside their expertise.  This distinction should be key when considering the trustworthiness of senior leaders in your workplace.  Do you ever see leaders express their views about how the world really works, while they stray outside their area of professional competence?  It doesn’t instil confidence.  Someone should tell them.  But who?

If only it were possible for clear opinions to go up and down the hierarchy.

The Features of Two-Directional Trust

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article from July 2017 entitled “Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them”, describes how workplace performance suffers if employees perceive they are not trusted by their managers.

The authors note: “Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization.” The degree to which employees trust their manager is sensitive to the degree to which the manager trusts them. And if there is any chicken-and-egg question, it’s easy to see the direction of causation: leaders set the tone.  Sometimes by accident.

The authors bemoan how workplaces often have rules and structures which minimize risk, and this environment can undercut the degree to which those with less power feel trusted:

Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit employee initiative. Managers may support their employees taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day.

Smothering risk-taking creates an environment where people are not free to apply their best judgment.  As I described in a related post on workplace dress codes, judgment is a skill that needs to be used regularly to be effective.  Excessive rules create a workplace culture where people are out-of-practice making judgement calls when something emerges in a grey area.  This is how a doctor got bloodied by security for refusing to get off an overbooked flight on United Airlines.

Instead of creating and enforcing rules, it is far more effective for managers to cultivate employee talents (i.e. generating competence), give a clear direction of what is expected every day (in a bid for honesty), and set clear accountabilities (fostering reliability).  If the manager has conveyed a sense of trust, the employee should be in a good position to ask for help, having already taken their talents to the limit.

The Paradox of the Bottom-Line Focus

In the HBR article, another reason managers convey a lack of trust is a bottom-line mentality.  It makes sense for management to focus on a core goal, which might be the earning of money.

However, in the pursuit of this top-level goal

…many managers become focused on their job security and respond by constricting control.  This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, such as developing relationships and empowering employees to make independent decisions.

Pressure to focus on the bottom line may cause insecure managers to pass along the insecurity to subordinates in the form of control.  That dynamic creates enough side-effects that the people lose their devotion to profit maximization.  It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where powerful people think profit maximization is where it’s at, and their subordinates wonder “what’s the point?”

By contrast, a workplace culture of empowerment and independent application of competence can be an engine of bottom-line outcomes.  Some managers don’t perceive that this is the case, allowing their creeping control tendencies and myopic perspective to take over.  The villain here is not people who make sound leadership decisions while sacrificing employee independence, it is managers who perceive no trade-off whatsoever.

Self-Awareness Continues to Be a Key Attribute

The manager’s lack of self-awareness is a big factor in the lack of two-directional trust.  Many managers think in their own mind that they trust employees, but send off signals that they do not.  Managers often scrutinize work in a manner that expresses a lack of trust.  This scrutiny is so close to the expectation-setting and accountability culture that would be the feature of a high-functioning and high-trust environment.

How can you tell which environment you have created?  You can take stock through qualitative measurement and feedback systems to help managers overcome lack of awareness.  If the manager rejects push-back and negates survey findings, this might be a clue.  A trusting manager would need to carefully give up control in an incremental manner which measures and tolerates risk-taking.  Well-taken risks are usually calculated risks, and better information can reduce fear in the face of those risks. First, the information needs to be created, then it needs to be pushed down into the hands of the people to whom control and trust have been granted.

Employers need to increase information-sharing, including the sharing of bad-news items, on the presumption that employees are adults.  Employees’ understanding of management decision-making is important for two-directional trust.

On the topic of unpleasant conversations, a leader can also encourage transparent conversations about career aspirations.  From the metrics, a manager should know the odds that an employee might leave.  Maybe talking about goals more openly will give the employer the opportunity to help that employee grow into a new skill set?  I foresee an interesting exchange, that the employer has confidential information about corporate decision-making, and the employee has private information about their work-place and where else they think they could do better work.

The exchange of these two pieces of information obviously involves an exchange of trust, with the information mostly acting as the frisbee that is being passed back and forth.  And you can’t foster a high-functioning environment if managers keep the frisbee framed on a wall in their basement.