The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.

Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires, by Robert Sheie
Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires.  Photo courtesy of Robert Sheie.

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

It took me considerable time and effort to come up with that clever calculation. And it makes sense for me.  Is it right to prescribe rules for others in terms of how they should organize their workplace clothing?  Especially when the math is clever?

In an April 2018 article at Quartz at Work, Leah Fessler describes the new dress code at General Motors.  It was cut down from 10 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.”  Mary Barra, the CEO at GM, had to work directly against GM’s bureaucratic corporate culture – including her own human resources department – to bring this simplified code into place.  One senior leader emailed her to object to the new rule.  That manager received a phone call from the CEO, after which they worked things out. (The rule remains in place) Barra found that first-level managers needed to learn how to develop their own in-house opinions of what constituted “appropriate,” and they each asserted some localized interpretations.  She thinks this practice helps develop first-level managers.

When I apply my own judgment as a human resources analyst, I sometimes think I have the capacity to create comprehensive rules-based systems that are best for everyone.  My first concern is, how many dress shirts should I own?  Based on the best advice, I have chosen to hang my shirts one inch apart, so they don’t wrinkle in the crush.  I have space in my closet for 24 shirts.  I can go four weeks before I have to do laundry, giving me lots of flexibility.

I replace shirts when they are three years old.  Over three years there are almost 160 weeks.  If I wear each shirt once every four weeks, I will wear each shirt 40 times.  At this pace my shirts wear-out at the same pace that they go out of style.  There are subtle shifts in patterns, colour, and cut, such that after three years a garment looks dated.  Those 40 wears cause them to get threadbare at the cuffs and shiny at the collar.

If I’m granted the authority to assert rules about clothing, I have a high likelihood of advancing my own strengths in clever mathematical calculations.  For example, if you replace shirts once every three years, and there are 24 shirts, this means that you are replacing eight shirts per year, or two shirts per season.  I make a ritual out of it, noticing the passing of the seasons and the fact that it’s okay to buy two shirts when I pass through a favorite store or find a deal.  It’s a ward against impulse buying because I know if I’m allowed to buy shirts right now.  And at any point in time, one-third of my shirts have been purchased in the past year.

It’s a great calculation and I recommend it to everyone.  If I’m ever given the authority to do so, I might just impose this calculation on others.  After all, I have put a lot more thought into this than others, and the math makes a lot of sense.  Do you work at an organization where one person did a bunch of calculations and obliged everyone else to follow rules that comply with the formula?  It’s pretty common, when you think about it.

In an April 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor compares the outcomes of businesses that have rules-based systems against those that are largely discretionary.  On United Flight 3411, when a doctor of Asian ethnicity was bloodied by security to clear space for an overbooking, the viral video and its after-effects erased $1.4 billion from the company’s stock value.  Taylor cites an in-depth analysis (which is behind a paywall) that found that “The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a ‘rules-based culture’ in which 85,000 people are ‘reluctant to make choices’…”

By contrast, I am not reluctant to make choices.  I have been granted significant freedom to advance workforce analytics in the manner I think is best.  And if you gave me a shot at it, I could save employees an awful lot of money.

If I spend $80 per shirt, with 40 wears this adds up to $2.00 per wear in purchase cost.  Ironing it yourself can save money, but I spend about $2.50 to have it ironed for me.  The combined purchase and ironing cost adds up to $4.50 per wear.  My wardrobe is carefully designed such that my cost-per-wear for office attire is $10 per day.  If you haven’t done cost-per-wear calculations, you may want to give it a try.  You may be surprised.  A $400 leather jacket might be worn 400 times, which is $1.00 per wear.  That’s a bargain.  Good leather-soled shoes have a similar calculation.  By contrast I only wear suits twice per year, and men shouldn’t keep a suit beyond ten years.  In one decade I’ll never get more than 20 wears out of all suits combined.  It costs me well over $25 to walk out the door wearing a suit, which is an unjustifiable luxury for me.  Hence I am not tempted to buy suits.  By contrast, if I wear a sports coat every day I get a large number of wears, bringing down that garment’s cost.  And I can wear each dress shirt twice, halving the cost-per-wear of my dress shirts.  Walking out the door in a nice crisp shirt is an obsession for me, so getting this right every morning really sets me up with a good start.

I particularly like the shirts that I bought at the department store Nordstrom.  Nordstrom has a single rule for customer service, which states “Use best judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.”  Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot in the retail industry.  In Bill Taylor’s article he cites research by business theorist Mark White who finds that organizations that grant employees more discretion, out-perform rules-based organizations in “service, empathy, and capacity to do the right things in difficult situations.”

It may be that judgment is a skill that is best learned with practice, and rules inhibit the ability to practice this skill.

We must choose between culture and efficiency, but strangely, pushing the power to the local level is a boon for both the bottom line as well as culture and workplace wellbeing.

You have two options if you want to be just like me.  You can make your own calculations and your own decisions about what works best for your own wardrobe.  Or you can feel the addictive influences of power and slowly impose your personal judgment calls upon others.  The irony is that the boundary between these two ways of living is not clearly marked.  You will only discover it by experience, through mistakes, and some kind of internal personal discovery.

Can you recognize that moment when you figured out what’s best, and then made a separate judgment call on whether to impose your views?  Can you remember a time when you did not make the distinction?  What did you learn about yourself?  Because that’s what employers are really struggling with these days.

Your Thoughts and Feelings Should Be Best Friends

girl-2047482_1280 cc pixabay

Do you think of yourself as a logic person or an emotion person?  Well, it’s far more comfortable being both.  A series of collective mistakes have encouraged people to think of themselves as being good at thinking and bad at emotion, or vice versa.  But polarized thinking is aimlessly judgmental, causing us to often miss the mark.  And one of the biggest drivers of this false dichotomy is the world-famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

How Robust is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?

Dr. Adam Grant is the author of Give and Take and also the host of the exceptional podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant.  In a Psychology Today article from 2013 Grant describes two contradictory MBTI scores that he got within a short time frame.  His first test said that he was a master-scientist type, the second said he was the care-free life of the party.  Luckily for us, he’s an industrial psychologist and he has words to say about this.

Grant asserts that in social science, a test must be “reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive.”  And Myers-Briggs does poorly on all fronts.  The test is unreliable, with three-quarters of people getting a different score when tested at different times.  The validity is poor, providing very little indicator of future behaviour.  The test is not comprehensive, glossing-over major predictors of behaviour such as our ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

The criticism that most resonated with me was that Myers Briggs is not independent.  The test should assess different traits separately from one another.  My personal journey right now is that I have often thought I had a high-functioning logical brain, but that my grasp of emotion and social interactions could use a bit of work.  I test as a “T” or thinker, which implies that I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum of those who test as an “F” or feeler.

Grant asserts that “…research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.”  I can think of one example.

When to Take Women’s Opinions Seriously

When I was staff at a labour union, one time I was in a hotel room with a dozen colleagues drinking late into the night.  That part was normal, almost mandatory.  I was thirty, and I was talking to a serious woman who was older than me.  She made a bold statement, and I started joking about whether she was serious.  The joke was that of course she’s serious so me asking if she was serious was the ridiculous comment.

The woman interpreted that I was making fun of her credibility, and her voice became stern. She cautioned that she had a lot of seniority, and that I was only temporary staff, and that if I crossed her she would break me in two.  It seemed like bullying, and after she went on like this for several minutes I committed not to trifle with her.

The next morning, we were all sober and showered, and I met her at the coffee station.  She was sheepish and asked if she owed me an apology.  I said it depends.  I asked her if twenty years ago, did men using humor to keep women down?  Yes, she said, that used to be very common and it still happens to this day.  Then I asked, did she think that’s what I was doing?  Yes, she said, that was her concern.  I commented that she was a good-looking blonde woman in her forties, emphasizing that I wasn’t coming on to her.  So, she would have been a very good looking blonde woman in her twenties, trying to be taken seriously, in the 1980s when all of the harassment rules were still being sorted out.  Was that tough for her?  Yes, she said, it was, and she was one of the ones sorting out the rules.

I clarified that I was not trying to make her less important than me and I understood why she reacted the way she did.  I asserted that she had given me helpful feedback, and an apology wasn’t warranted.  As for the harsh tone, we would chalk it up to the drinking.  From then onward I was respectful and formal with her, and she was a little more relaxed when we talked. A few years later she was in charge of the entire office.

Logic and Emotion Are a False Dichotomy

It may seem like I was being socially-aware.  However, I had read hundreds of pages of case law in graduate school about harassment in the workplace, mostly describing mishaps from prior decades.  And I know from observing social criticism that jokes are troublesome between people who are sorting out who is in charge, with joking put-downs being particularly painful.  In order to get along we need to perceive power imbalance, develop a sense of fair-play between unequals, and be sincere in our efforts.  My mental processing was logical.  Or rather, I think I was logical.

If we apply judgmental filters to everything we see, we will usually see a lot more of that one thing we’re looking for.  When you’re in a crowd looking for a family member who is “wearing yellow” you see yellow garments everywhere.  The same also goes for judging social interactions on a logical filter or an emotional filter.  It’s not always true that we make things more human by putting more emotion into them.  Our circumstances, our personal history, and our amount of spare time can have an outsized impact on how we react and interact.  Filters limit our perceptions and reduce our flexibility to decide what to change.

In your adventures as a people leader, a non-judgmental mindset can open you to analytics that offer a steady stream of logical insights.  But I assure you, the logic only gets you so far until you stumble onto the stories, the feelings, and the many universes of unique individuals.  To get the most out of people and make them feel right about it, let them tell you their facts and feelings.  But remember, you don’t need to categorize their hopes and dreams.  You need to cherish the whole person who delivers their best, while they’re just being themselves.

It feels better that way.  That’s what the research would say… I think.

Workplace Wisdom Needed in This Day and Age

Landscape. byi Rosmarie Voegtli
Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rosmarie Voegtli.

What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed.  When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point.  As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older.  Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point.  If only things were more transparent.

What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?

Developing Positive Attitudes About Older Workers

Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers.  Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.

Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School.  The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers.  Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information.  One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.

The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning.  This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly.  But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place.  Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.

Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones.  For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop.  He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago.  His advice kept me out of trouble.

Older-Worker Programs Require Good Practices Generally

The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace.  High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added.  Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:

“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)

As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements.  These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”

Knowledge Management Harnesses Older Workers’ Knowledge

Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…”  They have no age limit for their apprentice program.

“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”

I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best.  You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it.  Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.

Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers.  But both types are beneficial:

“Both types have been shown to improve job performanceincrease promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)

Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security.  As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management.  They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.”  This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.

Flexible Work Arrangements Have Diverse Benefits

Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements.  Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.

When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.”  This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.

“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities.  …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)

As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement.  But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective.  (See how that works?)

Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking.  Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40.  If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48.  I’m going to rock forever!

Stop Trusting People Who Agree With You

Réception, dîner et dansede la présidente commandités par Fisher Scientific Education Dining Services [Musée de la civilisation]
Photo courtesy of CAUBO 2016.
Do you really need to network to get ahead?  You might wish you didn’t have to.  Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty.  But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner?  Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.

An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look.  Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.

Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network.  He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent.  Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed.  The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.

Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more than ways than one is important.  However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.

Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking.  They are just debating what-causes-what.  I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything.  For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking.  That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.

In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity.  As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people.  All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.

In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts.  He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston.  She struck up a conversation with and older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting.  She noticed his great voice and asked about it.  It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter.  Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start.  Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story.  Nice connection!

That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions.  When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out.  She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence.  That was my impulse.  But her comment grew on me.

A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown.  She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected.  I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom.  We had two variants of a similar opinion.  I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.

Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way.  In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort.  And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong.  This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility.  If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better.  Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective.  It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.

Sincere networking isn’t one thing.  It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives.  If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night.  And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.

Curiosity is Key. Ask Me How.

CIMG5944. By Tim Sheerman-Chase
CIMG5944.  Photo courtesy of Tim Sheerman-Chase.

At work, do you sometimes feel guilty about indulging your curiosity?  Well, it turns out curiosity is a bigger benefit to your workplace that you might have expected.

Zandure Lurie, CEO of SurveyMonkey, asserts that curiosity is the attribute we most desperately need in today’s corporate environment.  He provides data co-created by SurveyMonkey showing that curiosity is significantly under-valued.  Senior leaders “…are speaking more and more about the importance of curiosity, recognizing it as the ultimate driver of success.”

This opinion is consistent with the finding that the best leaders are good learners.  The rules keep changing because of technology, political disruption, and demographic shifts.  Your excellence in past years may be irrelevant to the future, whereas your ability to learn-forward from your current state is critical.  You can keep pace with moving goal posts.

In Lurie’s data, executives mostly think there are no barriers to asking questions in their organizations.  But there’s a problem:  employees think otherwise.  I think executives are gripped by wishful thinking.  They wish they had a culture in which information was free-flowing upwards while decisions were moving in the direction of their own voice.  And then they talk a good line about a two-way exchange of information and decision making.  But the sincerity is perceived to be lacking.

Citing research from Stanford’s Carol Dweck, Lurie asserts that

“The Culture of Genius is largely to blame. In this type of company culture some minds are seen as inherently more brilliant than others, and others are intimidated to question things and speak up as a result. It can create a toxic environment that’s stifling curiosity and has many employees doubting whether they ‘have what it takes.’”

In the process of his article Lurie references an interesting academic paper from 2014 by Matthias Gruber, Bernard Gelman, and Charan Ranganath.  To spare you the polysyllabic details: curiosity improves learning.  This finding is sensitive to the learner’s innate curiosity about a topic (i.e. intrinsic motivation), which implies that we cannot always prescribe what others ought to learn.  It’s a nuance in workplace learning, as organizations often have a list of prescribed skills and attributes (i.e. competencies) that they perceive will determine organizational success.  But if they impose this learning obligation, they might get inferior results.

The learners who are best for an organization may be those who are already fascinated by the topic-area where an organization needs growth.  Identifying and cultivating a pre-existing fascination may be more of a recruitment-and-selection question than a performance-appraisal thing.  It poses some touchy questions about leadership style: do leaders have to hang back in those cases where the employee is already growing into a challenge of their choosing?  What shall we do with the performance scorecard, core competencies, and the mandatory learning modules?  Where’s the part where the leader “causes” important things to happen?

If a leader wants to “drive” high performance in learning, I think they would need to be good at spurring intrinsic motivation.  This has to be the hardest of soft skills.  I have a son who is fascinated by police, and there is a game he plays (in Roblox) where he’s required to write a report for every arrest he makes.  If I could just get him to write his reports with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, he would be producing a robust volume of writing every day under his own motivation.  But he didn’t seem to care when I last suggested this, so I had to back off.  I’ll try again next week.

The paper by Gruber and co. also finds that when learners are engaged in their curiosity they remember random trivial information in the surrounding environment.  You may have experienced this yourself: that moment you learned that one amazing thing… you can recall the room you were in, who you were with, and the weather that day.

This is notable because in business analytics it’s understood that information is data in a meaningful context.  All happenings are sensitive to the history, geography, economy, and culture in which they occur.  We don’t really get to decide what’s important and what’s trivial.  The large-and-small of every situation co-determine one another, such that tactics are just as important as strategy.  Given the research, it’s fortunate that brains remember the core experience as well as the context, as this gives us a natural opportunity to combine science and story.

Lurie makes compelling suggestions on how to turn curiosity into a strategic resource.  Make questions central to your daily work.  Encourage transparency.  Ensure the environment is safe for this exploratory behaviour.  Ensure diversity at all levels, to signal that all perspectives are cherished.  Direct this curiosity towards contact with customers.  “Celebrate prudent risks that fail – otherwise you will create a culture where employees are risk averse, thereby limiting your upside.” (Emphasis added)07

Most intriguing is that Lurie asserts that since Artificial Intelligence will allow robots to out-do us on efficiency and quality, “Being curious is our best defense.”  As we name compelling human instincts that cannot be imitated by robots, future careers become increasingly evident.  Decide for yourself what you think is interesting and share your discoveries with executives and clients.

The robots won’t have a clue.