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 should 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 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.

Hippos Need a Devil’s Advocate

Hippo II, by Andrew Moore
Hippo II.  Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore.
Hierarchy is the enemy of information-sharing.

In this Linkedin article by Benard Marr the author identifies that people are extremely reluctant to express views contrary to Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion, or HiPPO for short.  Marr cites the book Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, by Avinash Kaushik, in which that author describes the dynamic;

“HiPPOs usually have the most experience and power in the room.  Once their opinion is out, voices of dissent are usually shut out and in some cases, based on the culture, others fear speaking out against the HiPPO’s direction even if they disagree with it.”

Marr references the Milgram experiment in 1963 in which obedience to an authority figure overpowered peoples’ personal conscience.  There is an additional study that finds that projects led by senior leaders fail more often, because employees “…didn’t feel as able to give critical feedback to high-status leaders.”

What is the solution?  Marr asserts that relying on data is critical; we must line up the data to inform a decision prior to gut decisions being expressed by high-ranking people.  There is also an example of Alfred Sloan of General Motors who insisted that a decision should not be made until people have considered that the decision might not be the right one.  Sloan fosters the devil’s advocate in the process of decision-making.

I think this critique and the related research implies that modesty is mission-critical.  It’s an important contrary idea because it implies that confidence might not be a leading indicator of effectiveness.  We wish our leaders were strong and brave and looked the part, but it’s far better when our leaders are right… because they thought twice, and waited for new information, and new opinions, from people with less status.

I also think that a properly organized social network of knowledge is usually superior to the thoughts of any one individual.  With education and access to information, it should become evident that you barely know one percent of what could be known.  However, if you aspire to having a diverse network of people with different backgrounds, contexts, professions, and knowledge, you can bundle together better insights from those who each know a different one percent.

Finally, a pro-social spirit of dissent is key to getting the information moving.  When information goes up the hierarchy there are problems of posture, reprisals, hubris, and corrosive office politics.  If you love knowledge, you should develop a sense that all those things are silly little power games that have nothing to do with wisdom or effectiveness.  To be good at your job, is to regard your superiors as capable agents of decision-making who are morally your equal.  And it’s your job to make them stronger, whether they like it or not.

It’s a troublesome attitude, but that’s part-and-parcel of disrupting decision-making with new and relevant information.

Sexism is a By-product of Incompetence

Trump Tower (Stuart)
Trump Tower.  Photo by author.
In the game of life, are you nice to those who out-perform you?  Maybe, if it’s not a big deal if you lose.  But if you lose games all the time, you might not be nice to those who are strong.

There was an interesting study from 2015 making the rounds anew in November 2017.  The study showed that low-performing males in the online game Halo 3 were hostile towards high-performing females.  The study found:

“…lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when [the male was] performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance…. Higher-skilled [male] players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate.”

The general idea is that in a contest of skills in a male-dominated environment, there is a hierarchy amongst the men in which junior men are politely submissive towards the men who are at the top of their game.  However, if a woman enters the arena, the lower-ranking men perceive that they can be pushed even lower in the hierarchy and respond with hostility towards the female entrants.

By contrast, higher-performing males aren’t as worried about hierarchical reorganization, so they act like gentlemen, scoring points (figuratively) for being both high-performing and well-mannered.

This is relevant to workforce analytics because the data was good.  There was a clear performance measurement, verbal communications were recorded (including hostility), and it was possible to split the data between males and females.  It’s hard to get this kind of data, and sometimes it’s best to look at games and sports, where data is abundant, to make meaningful interpretations.

In terms of what interpretations to make, it’s a reminder that women can’t simply be given permission to enter a male-dominated area of work.  Verbal discouragement and unfair treatment can damage performance, so creating an inclusive environment is key to allowing women to perform at their pre-existing level of competence.  But that only takes care of women coming up to par.  It is also implied that women need support to grow upwards and onwards.  That is, encouragement and targeted supports directed towards women might be part-and-parcel of enabling women to become equals and superiors.  And some of this support might come from high-functioning men.

The paper entitled Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour, by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, is from July 15, 2016.  In my own network I picked this up as a result of the paper being tweeted by Dr. Jennifer Berdahl from UBC.  Dr. Berdahl is well-known and her tweet drove more than 5,400 retweets and 214 comments.

The comments responding to Dr. Berdahl’s tweet were lively and provocative.  For example, the original paper proposes an evolutionary rationale for the male behaviour, and several people thought this was not meaningful (i.e. maybe this has nothing to do with cavemen).  Some people thought that the context of the research (online gaming) is not representative of society overall, because of the number of teenage boys involved.  It’s well known that those aged 15-25 exhibit behaviours that cannot be extrapolated into the general population.

The most prevalent comment was that the study rings true.  This pattern of behaviour resembles typical behaviour in society, and it mirrors peoples’ experiences in many realms.

Then The Introvert Spoke, And It Was Good

just a copy of... (cc) by Martin Fisch
“just a copy of…”  Photo courtesy of Martin Fisch.
When someone steps forward in a manner that sets themselves apart from the crowd, are they a natural leader?  Natural leader, maybe.  Good leader, perhaps not.

A gentleman named BG Allen has pulled together a compendium of resources on the topic of introverted leaders.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Susan Cain’s blockbuster TED Talk on the Power of Introverts, introverts are reluctantly being put into the spotlight as potentially great contributors to society.  Introverts are being overlooked and misunderstood because they are in the minority and their unique difference reduces the likelihood their views will be heard.

Allen has found multiple sources beyond Susan Cain, that get into the unique contribution of introverts as leaders.  I tried to find if Allen had written a book about this.  He hasn’t, but an Amazon search on “introverted leader” reveals a dozen books on the topic.  There are great articles in Allen’s compendium, from Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today.  The Psychology Today article even cites studies showing that introverted leaders that are not just adequate, they can also be superior leaders.

Although I am an extravert, I have personally benefitted from strong introverted leaders over the years.  You might have experienced the same thing.  I think that when we are at our very best, we come from a strong sense of internal strength, knowing our values and our thoughts with a clear sense of introspection.  I always look up to the strong introverts in my life who seem to be the masters of the internal journey.  I think it would be a good thing if we could cultivate this virtue in teams and in society by putting introverts in roles where they can lead by example and help others develop this strength.

My personal experience has been that as I aspire to be a better leader, I’m a little bit stronger when I hang back a little and let others talk.  I’m a little more clear-headed if I wonder why I think the things I think.  And I can cause others to be stronger by understanding what’s going on inside their own head and heart, independent of what sprang into my own mind seconds ago.

I think this emerging evidence of introverted leaders is best understood when you think of who are the very worst leaders.  The very worst leaders are those with poor emotional intelligence, bullies, narcissists, people who value their own excellence first and negate the contribution of juniors, and most importantly those who get ahead by smooth-talking their way into the next promotion.  These personality vices are often the mark of the extravert.  In order for an extravert to become increasingly excellent at leadership, they must avoid these pitfalls, seek solitude, and look inside themselves just a little more often than comes naturally to them.  Just pretend to be a little bit shy, and you might achieve greatness.  And if you’re already like that to begin with, be proud about it.  And tell somebody.

[Special notice: there is an event in Vancouver on the evening of Friday, November 17/2017 on the topic of “Introverts and Extroverts as Leaders” by Faris Khalifeh.  For more information look into tickets here.]

Tech Change Will Make Commies Of Us All!!

clenched fist

Is it just my imagination, or has there been an up-tick in socialist rhetoric lately?  Don’t get me wrong, I think that decisions about the role of government in our economy should be put in the hands of voters, and I recognize that for a few decades people steadily voted for less government.  But it looks like once every couple of weeks, another corporate heavyweight and another major news outlet presents a strong case that corporations have screwed it all up and it’s time for government to step in.

I’m counting this as a relevant topic for human resources generalists to take really seriously.  Brokering a compromise between the corporate mission and the sentiments of front-line workers is much of what we do all day, whether it’s in collective bargaining, employee communications, or just explaining a layoff to an affected employee.  So, when you’re trying to find an appropriate balance between the interests of unions and investors, it can be important to keep your fingers on the pulse.

In an article from Wired, the author criticizes Equifax, which released the confidential financial information of hundreds of millions of borrowers.  The author asserts that the Equifax breach is different from security breaches at regular bricks-and-mortar companies because Equifax’s entire reason for being is the safe storage of confidential information.  An effort at which they failed.  The author calls for the dissolution of Equifax’s corporate charter.

In my earlier blog post summarizing a major report by McKinsey on the structure of the gig economy, the general management consultancy started to leak spoonfuls of compassion.  The article notes that modernizing the social safety net may be warranted, in particular to extend social insurance systems to cover independent workers and those changing traditional jobs more frequently.  McKinsey also points to the pooling of workers by unions in the entertainment industry as a suitable vehicle for delivering health benefits coverage.

In an HBR article by Eric Garton from Bain & Company, another general management consulting firm, the author asserts that we should be investing more in employees to improve labour productivity.  After detailing a number of ways employee effort can be harnessed through employee engagement and a lower level of busy-ness, the author then turns to public policy.  Garton asserts that higher wages and investments in health care, training and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.

Over at Guardian.com, the left-leaning publication might normally be expected to call for greater government involvement in the economy.  But in this article they have abandoned those little comments from years gone by about tax-the-rich-here and social-programs-over-there.  They’re going for the jugular and calling for a government takeover of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

The author explains that the first-to-market and winner-takes-all nature of these major platforms eliminate competition, voiding any pretense of a free market.  With artificial intelligence likely causing power and money to concentrate even further in future, nationalization might just be fair game:  “…utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership. …Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won’t do.”

Over at the Atlantic, they’re interviewing people in the Silicon Valley who are asserting that our consumer electronics have addictive properties that are deliberate and need to be curtailed.  One expert “…compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

What should we do about being duped into staring at our smartphones far too often?  Why, open revolt, of course!  “Harris thinks his best shot at improving the status quo is to get users riled up about the ways they’re being manipulated, then create a groundswell of support for technology that respects people’s agency–something akin to the privacy outcry that prodded companies to roll out personal-information protections.”  On the low-end the same experts are calling for a shift to non-addictive behaviours, similar to switching to organic produce at the grocery store.  But that’s for lightweights.

Now, some of this might just be talk, and maybe we should take some of it with a grain of salt.  But next time you’re in the elevator or at the bargaining table or out for drinks with a friend who is stuck in their career, listen more closely.  As an HR professional you’re going to be expected to show that you’re in touch, and this kind of thing can sneak up on your.  So think carefully, ahead of time, what you’re going to say when you’re out in public and your best friend asks you to hold their pitchfork.

Workers Have Upped Their Game. It’s Your Move!

039-hard-work, by jdxyw
039-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
Does business make people productive, or is it people that make business productive?  It’s the latter.  Increasingly, in the modern economy, it’s people who keep the engines running, people who bring in revenue, and people who create profits.  And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that people have been neglected to the point that their full potential is not put to full use.

Eric Garton has written a compelling article for Harvard Business Review entitled The Case for Investing More in People.  Garton, from Bain & Company, has created and/or found strong research that makes the case that high-functioning human resources can be the best driver of corporate performance.  I haven’t read his book, but it looks like the article is an overview of his 2017 book Time, Talent, Energy.

Restoring Fairness in Wage Growth and Labour Productivity

There is a variety of metrics that show that labour market productivity (i.e. how much an individual worker puts out) has been growing at a very slow rate in the US relative to other countries and years past.  While labour market productivity is normally a good predictor of wage growth, the link has been broken such that even that meager growth that has been realized has not been passed along to employees.  This failure to re-invest in labour productivity is a problem.

The article cites a book by Zeynep Ton from MIT entitled The Good Jobs Strategy.  Ton notes a variety of businesses that have chosen to pay above-market wages in order to encourage employee engagement, which is increasingly seen as a driver of customer engagement.  The higher wages lead to “…lower levels of employee and customer churn, and correspondingly lower employee hiring and customer acquisition costs.  The compounding and virtuous effects of increasing customer and employee advocacy more than offset the higher cost of wages.” The decision to spend more on wages is not actually an expense so much as an investment.

We Are So Busy That We Are Unproductive

Garton also frets about employers carelessly wasting employees’ time.  Research shows that the over-abundance of interruptions and time-wasting meetings is causing employee burnout.  Particularly amongst managers “…great ideas that drive breakthroughs in productivity come from human beings with time, talent and energy to innovate.”  In my estimation an accidental or deliberate decision to slam managers with workload is a decision to reduce productivity.  Being cavalier about work volume implies a flippant view of workplace productivity, especially when people are working too hard.

The obligation to see every email, show up at countless meetings, and “look busy” is the hallmark of an organization that has chosen to do everything the same way, every day.  This hamster-wheel organization brings little hope to the future of labour productivity growth.  Yet there are opportunities to remedy this problem through productivity efforts such as Agile and Kaizen… if the workplace decides creative time is a desired business goal.  Remember, this is all about making choices.

Emotions Prevail: Employee Engagement is the Jet Fuel of Productivity

Another missing ingredient is employee energy.  In this case employee engagement is the focus.  “An inspired employee is more than twice as productive as a satisfied employee and more than three times as productive as a dissatisfied employee.  Yet, only one in eight employees is inspired.”

Personally, I’m fascinated by these performance metrics of an engaged employee.  If what the author says is true, and an inspired employee is producing 300 units, a satisfied employee is producing 200 units, and a dissatisfied employee is producing 100 units of output.  Can it be the case that turning an employee from dissatisfied to satisfied is proportional to a doubling their productivity?

That sounds about right to me.  People who are still feeling pretty good (i.e. “satisfied”) can probably get inspired and pour it on, increasing their productivity from 200 to 300 units (a decent 50% increase).  This means that for every 10% of the workforce that experiences a jump in employee engagement level, the return for the employer is in the realm of 5-10%.  And that’s mostly based on intangible items such as job design, power sharing, compassion, and open conversations.

That rate of return significantly out-performs most of what can be produced on the capital investment and cost-containment side of the productivity agenda.  I think that’s why we should conclude that the American investor class has completely screwed up their country’s ability to reach its full potential.  Low investment in labour productivity has been driving lower shareholder returns, flat wages, and generalized discontent.

Amongst society’s greatest woes is that people are working harder but not seeing any results in their paycheques, free time, or government services.  The instinct that we’re making sacrifices for the benefit of nobody but the investor class increasingly rings true.  The article notes that in addition to higher wages, investments in health care, training, and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.  If only there was some entity in the American economy that had accumulated extra money in the past few decades which might be available to pay for all of this…