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.

Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

Is Workplace Culture the Right Kind of Revolution?

The wall of plexiglass, by ebt47563 (=)
The wall of plexiglass.  Photo courtesy of ebt47563.

Exactly how do you change organizational culture?  This is a good HBR article from June 2017 about attempt to change corporate culture from the bottom-up.  It’s a story about Dr. Reddy’s, a global pharmaceutical company based in India and led by G.V. Prasad.  The authors are Bryan Walker from IDEO and Sarah A. Soule from Stanford Business School.

Dr. Reddy’s process of culture change began with significant ground research to find out what their staff, providers and investors needed when dealing with customers.  They brought their goals down to four simple words that brought it all together: good health can’t wait.  Instead of selling the slogan through posters and speeches they chose to demonstrate their purpose through actions.  The initiative named projects in packaging, sales, and internal data to advance the new vision.  There were some immediate impacts.  One scientist broke a number of company rules and produced a new product in 15 days, having prioritized new efforts to match the vision.

The comparison to social movements is important, because movements start with an emotion rather than a call to action.  Movements start small, “with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver modest wins.”  Momentum builds through networks, penetrating power structures and leadership.

There are also “safe havens,” places where activists can behave differently from the dominant culture and discuss their goals.  In innovative organizations, research labs are often built as separate mico-organizations that cultivate change as prep-work for the larger organization.  This story resonates with me, because disruptive workforce analytics will occasionally fall of deaf ears.  The analysis needs to be created in a manner which partially ignores pre-existing agendas or presumptions of how things would normally be done.  The decision of whether to apply new ideas might belong within a more formal process, but when experimenting with messy new ideas, to be sequestered is ideal.

Beyond the HBR article two additional models are appropriate to discuss the nature of change.

Innovating Technology and Trends Through Social Networks

The first model is the diffusion of innovations as described by Everett Rogers.  In this model, there is a small avant-garde of weirdos who just get into stuff that is new and interesting.  That crowd of innovators will not have the full opportunity to make money or make it big.  But their new findings diffuse through social networks, based on peoples’ network connections and their readiness to consider new ideas.

There are several hold-outs, such as the laggard crowd who resists change until it is impossible to do so.  The biggest difficulty is the early-stage challenge of “Crossing the Chasm” where the new idea has won-over a small crowd of early-adopters who are about 13.5% of the population.  The challenge is that sometimes there’s something about the new idea that doesn’t mesh with the next crowd, the early majority.  Some examples might be that the new technology has a difficult user interface, or the social trend is incompatible with the conventional lifestyle of those in the burbs.

In my opinion, the classic example of this challenge is the hands-free bluetooth headset that you see people wearing when they’re talking on the phone while walking down the street.  The technology has been in public for more than fifteen years and our first instinct is still that we want the caller to get professional help.  And that’s if you’re not also angry at them about a misunderstanding.

Using Social Disobedience Tools to Change Workplace Culture From Within

Another compelling cultural change model is the Spectrum of Allies model from George Lakey of Training for Change.  Lakey is highly experienced in training social justice activists in civil disobedience.  I attended a couple of workshops with Lakey when I was part of the labour movement, and his spectrum model is eye-opening.

The key diagram is a semi-circle, kind of like a half-order of a large pizza with six or eight slices.  The idea is that everyone can be categorized according to their level of enthusiasm for, or resistance to, an agenda or new idea.  Then you lay these wedges out in order, with the most supportive categories on the left and the most resistant on the right.  Your goal is to shift all of society one wedge to the left.  That is, the biggest hold-outs still get your attention, you’re just trying to convince them to become only moderately opposed.  Those in the middle, you can tip towards you slightly.  Those who are with you from the start, those can be your strongest advocates.

What really holds the model together is that you are shifting the entire social culture towards your way of thinking, resulting in culture change.  Everyone is a big deal, everyone receives the attention they deserve.  It’s very different from that us-against-them stuff that we’re accustomed to seeing during elections.  And it is very different from the notion that the main difference in the key players is their place on the org chart.

What this means for workforce analytics, is that you will require several different vehicles to bring meaningful information into human resource decision-making.  While there will be those who are hungry for the information, there will be others who need to simply be sold on the notion that it is not a threat.  While innovative findings might be compelling amongst an in-crowd, getting the information through cliques and interests will require bridging links and data translation.  You can build new ideas in self-imposed isolation, but at some point you step into public and advance it your ideas through the audience.

But before you step out, please put away your Bluetooth headset.

The Innocent World of Comfortable Ideas

Discomfort of Innocence, by Mohammed alalawi - Copy
Discomfort of Innocence.  Photo by Mohammed Alalawi

Why do you hang out with people like you?  Because you have to be friends with your friends’ friends.  Society does not give you permission to dislike (or not know) your friends-of-friends.  It’s called the forbidden triad.  There is a complex quantitative puzzle involving triangles with plus and minus signs, all coded and ready for an elaborate statistical analysis.  You can peek at the math in this October 2016 overview of the research by Dustin Stoltz, a PhD candidate at University of Notre Dame.

But back to people.  The main problem is cognitive dissonance, that feeling you get when you are obliged to maintain two contradictory opinions at the same time.  An example may be that you both love and hate a particular family member, politician, or manager in your workplace.  Cognitive dissonance makes you uncomfortable, and you aspire to greater comfort.  Therefore, you will choose between contradictory opinions and let one prevail over the other.  So, you decide that you like that complex person.  If you then meet a third-party who dislikes that person, you have to even-out the triangle.  You will be motivated to change the third person’s mind, change your own mind, or just stop hanging out with the third party.    If everyone does this, friendships and world views will evolve within cliques that are internally consistent, comfortable, and smug.  But that’s not so clever.

That is because social networks are held together by people who choose to maintain contradictory opinions.  They foster civil dialogue, cultivate plurality, and agree to disagree.  It’s not so much that they are smarter, although that may still be the case.  It’s that the exploration of the best information and the most diverse opinions guarantees contradiction.  You will find attributes that seem contradictory but not mutually exclusive, such as sensitivity and courage.  You will find rival facts, such as the prevailing research on global warming and colder winters in your own locale.  And there will be facts that change quickly, such the price of oil or a change of government.

Workforce Analytics and the Workplace Culture of Curiosity and Discomfort

If you place comfort ahead of maximum information, then you have to insulate yourself from contradiction.  Yet this can be a big mistake in the modern world.  How could you possibly choose a stable mindset when the amount of information is exploding, technology is disrupting everything, and ideas and opinions go round the world in a heartbeat.  It’s a wild and crazy world we live in.  You must choose discomfort, and reject the allure of smug.

In workforce analytics, there is a great divide between colleagues and clients who are curious about new information and those who are not.  It often feels like I exclusively support those hungry for the new, who like the challenge, who want to pick up a few tricks.  Yet those who are more settled in their views or slower to change need to be brought along for the ride.  That is because at the center of the social network people are obliged to commit to, and support, prevailing views.  They tend to agree with one another just like you might do with your own friends.  Looking outward to the fringes of the network, you might see a wider variety of irregular opinions, trends, and opportunities.  The fringe is full of people who are removed from the network in some way, be it marginal legal status, geographic isolation, exclusion, or just looking different.  To bring diverse views from the fringe to the center (and vice-versa) obliges us to maintain contradictory opinions.

The prescription that we must become uncomfortable applies equally to social trends, new technology, and disruptive workforce analytics.  In your workplace, you may have had one opinion for a very long time.  When you are presented with change or new evidence, it is one thing to simply obey orders or comply with the data.  But if you really want to be clever, it is far better to hold onto that moment of discomfort for a while to get a sense of what everyone else is going through.  Only then can you talk to diverse people who think and live in different worlds.  And only then can you fine-tune new evidence to make it presentable to a broader audience.

If we are to disrupt normal ways of doing things through emerging information, we must stand at the bridge between two worlds, be prepared to disrupt ourselves, and get used to discomfort.

I Like Your Style, You’re Just Like Me

Apostrophe Absent. By Michael Derr
Apostrophe Absent. Photo courtesy of Michael Derr.

Are you compatible with your organizational culture?  I sure hope not.  You need the freedom to break from the pack in order to pass along new information and adapt to disruptive change.

In the 2011 book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors describe the way opinions and behaviors spread through social networks.  They describe a Three Degrees of Influence rule: we influence and are influenced by people three degrees removed from us, most of whom we do not even know.

You might know one hundred people, but those people may know another one hundred people (each), and so on.  This could result in a million people crowd-sourcing shared opinions.  You would pick up many opinions from this extended network.  The reverse is true as well.  You could spontaneously assert that we should have all better table manners, and a million people might change their behaviors.  Or maybe they’ll just talk about having better manners.

The implication is that you do not entirely experience independent thought.  You might control what time you arrive at work, what garments to wear to the office, and how you respond emotionally to what  your manager just said.  But the allocation of housework in your household, the social norms in appropriate dress, and the organizational culture of two-way conversation could all be things that have significant third-party influence.  You’re not exactly an autonomous hero in the workplace; you are a team-player in an environment where culture runs deep.

This critique has been revisited in a recent book review in which Yuval Harari summarizes The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.  Sloman and Ferbach posit that individual thinking is a myth, and that we actually think in groups.  With modern civilization we have come to rely increasingly on the expertise of others.  This crowd-think has mostly been good for us, but it also has a downside.  People “…lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.”

Group loyalty and pride in our presumed intelligence causes us to stick to the normal way of doing things.  This is a challenge to those of us who produce or consume new information.  New information and new ideas disrupt stable group environments.  If we are trying to change the workplace so that things are done differently, we must exchange discomforting opinions.  We must propose ideas that will be rejected.  We must try things out that won’t work.