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

#hug. Photo courtesy of Dizao Goncalves.

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

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

How Bad is Loneliness? Really Bad

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

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

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

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

How is Loneliness Defined?

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

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

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

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

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

How Leaders Can Reduce Loneliness in Their Workplace

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

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

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

How Can Individuals Overcome Loneliness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New deal required for labour in gig economy

Issues. Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Milo.

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

How Much Money Can Be Invested, Per Worker?

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

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

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

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

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

Physical Assets Not Driving The Biggest Profits

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

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

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

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

Implications For The Future of Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s awkward is tomorrow’s cool

Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

In this disruptive era, it’s as if all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away. It seems that the adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even. But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change? Yes, but they have to work at it. There is an interesting article from the British Psychological Society about malleable personalities. The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be. This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age. Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting. I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity. He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change. Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline. Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes even longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression. The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and anxiety over a nine-month period. The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents. The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change. Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization. Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing. Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it. Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people. Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle. Put down the smartphone and start reading. Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest. Because tomorrow is another person.

[The above is a modified repost of an article from December 27, 2017]

Magic jelly is more important than IQ for career success

Study. Photo courtesy of Judit Klein.

Is it just me, or have there been an awful lot of career-advice articles in social media about “X is more important than IQ for career success”? The articles are usually about a specific attribute that truly moves people forward to accomplish life goals. But on closer examination, general intelligence can be brought to bear on all of these “more important” attributes such that IQ is the true cornerstone. has a great infographic about eight things that are more important than IQ for career success. Those items are:

  1. Self-Regulation. Take time to think before you act, and manage your emotions prior to reacting to negative situations.
  2. Growth Mindset. Carol S. Dweck makes the case (which I summarize here) that excellence is not a set point but rather an act of becoming. Welcome challenges and setbacks as learning experiences and opportunities to improve and grow.
  3. Resilience. When you fail, don’t let it get to you — persevere, try something different, and keep trying. This is the “grit” made famous by Angela Duckworth in her TED Talk and book.
  4. Passion. Hidden in the research about the 10,000-hour rule to becoming exceptional is a graveyard of broken hearts. Many people lost the passion for their true calling after a few hundred hours of experience. A mean coach, strict parents, performance-contingent rewards, and a long list of deal-breakers can suck the life out of anyone’s potential. It’s the passion that nets the hours, and the hours cause the talent. Guard your passions like a precious gem.
  5. Empathy. The ability to feel the feelings of your clients and colleagues allows you to work with them on things that are important to them. Empathy develops that closeness and warmth at the root of great relationships. Empathy is a key ingredient in Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability and shame. It’s critical to feel the feelings of others in order to help them with those things that bother them the most.
  6. Conscientiousness. These people are disciplined, compliant, and plan ahead. Salt-of-the-earth people get things done, allowing others to rely on them, building trust and teamwork. In my experience, you can be conscientious but not be recognized, so you may need some other behavior to turn this quality into gold, such as boasting or billing.
  7. Openness to Experience. More to the point, curiosity. Curious people are four times as likely to succeed in class. Curiosity is a mixture of several other attributes above, but does deserve its own word. It’s easiest to understand why curiosity is important when you look at it in reverse and imagine those who are uncurious. Admit it, you want them to fail.
  8. Social Skills. This is a sincere other-orientation where you can, according to the article, “network, function in a team and bring people together…” At this point we’re getting into a magic-jelly attribute that’s really just dozens of mini-skills pulled together by experience.

You may recognize self-regulation, empathy, and social skills as the key elements of emotional intelligence, as described by Dan Goleman in his book by the same name. Goleman makes the case that our wellbeing and social advancement is strongly influenced by an emotionally-awakened ability to pull together meaningful relationships and interactions. The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.

The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.

Can Low IQ Undermine Other Types of Intelligence?

But sometimes IQ is still critical to success. A few years ago, I watched an event at the Special Olympics which my workplace was hosting. I was doing Olympic lifts as part of my fitness routine, and I was curious to see what the activity looked like for those with an intellectual disability. Lifting can be a brain game. Any lack of focus and concentration can cause failure. You need to calculate the correct weight, approach the bar as if it’s the only thing in your world, and put all of your focus into one thing: lift this weight. If your thoughts under-perform,they can cause the body to under-perform.

One contestant at the Special Olympics was a large fellow who was the previous year’s champion. He made two really impressive lifts at a high weight, the last of which was obviously near his maximum (the beet-red face is the give-away). He only needed to make one last lift that was equal to his previous one, and he would become champion once again. But instead, he asked to have an additional twenty pounds put onto the bar. He pulled and pulled but the bar wouldn’t budge. He didn’t place because he had not made three successful lifts.

I thought to myself, did his intellectual disability affect his athletic performance? Was it entirely up to him to choose to add twenty pounds? What was his emotional state when he made this decision? Was he over-confident? Did he perceive that today was going to be his best day ever? I also wonder if he learned from this experience, and whether he would persevere and came back with a vengeance next year.

Are There MultipleTypes of Intelligence?

Watching this athlete attempt his third lift was intriguing to me because of the disparities in his talents. There’s a debate about whether there is more than one type of intelligence. Howard Gardner is the author of several articles and a book on the topic. Gardner proposes the theory that there are in eight different intellectual ‘modalities.’ The first three items – visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, and logical mathematical – resemble those abilities tested in IQ tests. Two others – interpersonal and intrapersonal – once again match the emotional intelligence indicators described by Goleman. Then there are the two modalities where it’s possible to become a world-famous star in sport or music – bodily-kinesthetic and musical-rhythmic.

But Gardner’s theory starts to falls apart when he gets to naturalistic intelligence because he names a specific subject-area, which is biology. Why biology but not other disciplines? This puzzle brings into question whether a specific interest in nature or music or math are just the canvas onto which intelligence is applied. Indeed, Gardner starts with seven intelligences, but then adds existential, moral, and naturalistic intelligences. At this point, we’re on a slippery slope to the full list in the Clifton strengths assessment, which itself has stronger empirical basis and a broad public appeal.

One Intelligence toRule Them All

Can someone with a really strong IQ just become good at the non-logic intelligences? There is some evidence that this is the case, when we look into something called the “g factor.” The g factor is the notion that there is a core type of general intelligence (g = general). According to the evidence, this intelligence passes-through into the sub-variants of other types of intelligence. When studies extract this g factor from several batteries of tests, the varied g-factor measurements are extremely similar regardless of the type of test. And, there’s always a positive relationship between someone’s g factor and their measures of other intelligence types, ranging from 10-90% with an average “g load” of 60%.

But there’s heated debate about whether there is an underlying single type of intelligence, probably because of a touchy social critique. The g factor implies that people have a fate and are destined for a set path in life, like Oedipus or Macbeth. This is disturbing, it feels unfair, and if it were true, a lot of people would wish it weren’t so. By contrast, the multiple intelligences theory brings to mind the legend of stone soup in which a visitor comes to town and places a stone in a giant pot. He asks for help, and everyone in the village throws in their own special ingredient, a metaphor for diversity in talents. The village boils up the soup, it’s delicious, and everyone gets to eat. Society rocks!

I love the stone soup story, but to clarify, it’s about exceptional sociology. A clever visitor manages to get a great meal for free. The visitor is a leader, has a collective orientation, and he is strong on Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence. However, we could also interpret that the visitor also has a strong g-score. On one hand, we don’t want geniuses to hoard all the money and power, but on the other hand, we want to harness genius such that it contributes to collective wellbeing. I think the research about intelligence and the way we discuss it in the public sphere is strongly influenced by these kinds of social and political forces. Notwithstanding the evidence, we’re entitled to influence these social forces as citizens.

We don’t need to reject the notion that brain power drives positive results. We need the context, the wisdom, and the agency to organize ourselves such that society moves forward, together. And we’re going to need that big guy to get the rock into the pot.

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, 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]

Is Lean In really gaslighting?

Photo Courtesy of Drew Altizer.

Can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to overcome an injustice you have faced? It really does depend. There’s a thriving debate about whether women should act as individuals or as part of a collective when fighting for equality. Quartz recently ran an insightful article about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and her related TED talk. While Lean In has received a great deal of critique from all corners, the article in Quartz argues that Sandberg negated systematic discrimination and told women they can personally overcome discrimination by taking individual action.

The Quartz article is titled All Career Advice for Women is a Form of Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when an abuser contradicts your understanding of reality, perhaps telling you the opposite of what you know is true, in a persistent manner that causes you to question your sanity. The key moment is when the abuser says you’re making things up in your head, or that you’re going crazy. If you’re in good shape, you identify that the problem is the abuser and take action. Otherwise, you could endure mistreatment for years. This definition doesn’t really match Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. Sandberg rightfully describes structural issues about how women’s careers are held back by the system, and then proceeds to offer tips to get ahead. It’s individuals engaging with society, and her advice is fair game.

What the Research Says

The Quartz article and a similar overview in Harvard Business Review summarize fresh research from December 2018. (For the full study, see Kim, J. Y., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. (2018). Lean In messages increase attributions of women’s responsibility for gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 974-1001.)

The paper covers six large-sample studies that look at how people judge women’s inequality based on messages they are fed. The main variable is a polarized portrayal of Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. In one sample, researchers only quoted Sandberg’s analysis of systemic discrimination, and people who saw this message came away with the impression that sexism was society’s responsibility and that we need to band together to change the system. In the other sample, they only quoted Sandberg’s advice on what individual women can do to improve their lot in life and get past everyday sexism. In that case people perceived that it was women’s individual responsibility to overcome sexism, and that women themselves are the cause of the sexism.

This notion that women cause sexism is victim-blaming. The researchers attribute this thinking to a kind of mental gymnastics that people indulge in to get past the discomfort that there is injustice in the world. But logically, victim-blaming is malfunctioning thinking. If you take reality seriously you must perceive injustice as it occurs and contribute voice and effort to remedy it.

The academic article is most concerned that people can’t disentangle causation and solution in their own minds:

“Responsibility for the problem, in this model, describes responsibility for the origin of the problem, or causal responsibility. Responsibility for the solution, in contrast, describes responsibility for finding a solution, or control over outcomes. …the two forms of responsibility are conceptually distinct, but will often be correlated.” [Emphasis added]

And indeed the research did find that the two were mixed up together in peoples’ head such that people became individualists or collectivists based on what messages they were fed.

How the Story Evolved Beyond the Research

Then it gets sticky. There are individual reasons why some people thrive and others fail, much as there are systemic factors that change a person’s odds of doing well. Therefore, there is a combination of collective and individual strategies to pursue women’s equality. If a woman is born petite, she can take up kickboxing and stare down physical intimidation. Conversely, if a woman had chosen a career which streamed her into a lower-wage workplace, she could still sign a union card and participate in a group effort that improves her life chances.

Even if people agreed that inequality was societal, that does not prove that all solutions must be collective. Social justice advocates are quick to acknowledge that you need a diversity of tactics to achieve your goals. It is not authoritatively true that individualism and collectivism fall on some great divide, with one being good and the other being bad.   

We all need to aspire to a nuanced view, but that’s not where critics took things. The authors of the Quartz article and the study itself seize on the one-half of the research sample that deliberately skews Sandberg’s message as individualist, asserting that do-it-yourself (DIY) feminism is bad news.

These people are like those tourists that went around Europe taking snapshots of themselves at the locations of the fictional events in The Da Vinci Code. Although there are real individualists out there, in this study Sandberg’s self-loathing misogynistic individualism was an abstraction fabricated for research purposes only. Now, social critics are weighing-in that if choosing between two polar opposites – a fabricated individualism or a fabricated collectivism – women must favour collectivism as “correct.” But the problem is not that causation and solution are actually twinned and people must choose between individualism and collectivism. It’s that if we revert to polarized thinking, individualists tend to win.

How To Actually Become an Executive

There are better sources to turn to if you are trying to get promoted. Elsewhere in the TED Talks, Susan Colantuono delivers a talk entitled The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get. Women are already well-represented in middle-management, the question is why do they not get beyond that. Colantuono found that a good executive must be good at three things:

  1. Use the greatness in you (individual effectiveness)
  2. Engage the greatness in others (leadership)
  3. Achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes (business, strategic, and financial acumen)

The first two items are important for getting into middle management. When women are given career advice it is disproportionately in areas in the first two categories: self-promote, get a mentor, network, and speak up. Corporate talent and performance management systems are highly devoted to engaging the greatness in others, the second of the two competencies. That’s not going to make a difference for this problem.

That is because when assessing executive potential, the third item is valued twice as heavily as each of the other two. Women have truly been kept in the dark that they need to know more about finance and strategy in order to get an executive job. To clarify, society has withheld this information from women (i.e. the causation is collective). However, because each person’s best learning hinges on individual interest and personal goals, women need to determine that this advice is accurate and change their own course as individuals. That is, if becoming an executive is important to them.

The majority of executives (63%) perceive they do not have strategic alignment with everyone rowing in the same direction. Colantuono proposes that one of reasons why there is not strategic alignment is that those women who are half of middle management have not received clear messaging that they need to be “…focused on the business, where it’s headed, and their role in taking it there…” The culprit is not clever-and-efficient sexism, it’s incompetence but with a gendered filter. It’s squarely within the responsibility of men in power to remedy this issue, if they plan on being any good at their day jobs. Boards, CEOs, HR Executives, and individual managers must all change their mindsets in order to turn this around.

In this context it doesn’t seem at all like women have to choose between a collective or individual orientation. Women aspiring to executive roles need to have a clear sense of the collective vision of the organization and figure out how they’re going to lead their team towards that collective purpose. If anything is gaslighting, it is the deliberate misquoting of Sandberg’s work. In her TED talk, Sandberg spends a fair amount of time describing appropriate trade-offs between women’s household collective orientation and their workplace collective orientation. Indeed in May of 2016, a year after her husband died, Sandberg acknowledged that “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right…” She acknowledged this two years before the research that polarized her comments.

Women with busy careers make frequent trade-offs about when they will take care of themselves and when they will take care of the group. It will ever be circumstantial which decisions are the right ones, and which tactics will actually work. Nobody knows this better than the very social justice leaders who foster individual agency when they encourage vulnerable populations to pick up a picket sign and protest.