Interracial Couples are Eroding Racism

hands-2604868_1280, CC by pixabay

Do you ever get pressure to choose between two ways of thinking?  Yeah, I don’t like it either.  Personally, I have always been intrigued by the lives of those who straddle categories.  Unless it’s on a chessboard, there’s nothing pleasant about dividing things into black versus white. The state of our discourse has been reduced to binary arguments that strip away our ability to have nuanced conversation. That is not who I am and not what society is meant to be.

Research shows that opportunities and opinions go in circles within cliques, and that people within those cliques are usually very similar.  If you were organizing a workplace or a community towards mutual understanding and opportunity for all, you would want to open up those cliques.  And if you personally wanted to break free you would need to make inroads into new crowds.

So how do you break down cliques? Nobody does it better than people with a foot in two worlds.  I personally find this interesting because I have a background in the labour movement, but I have since moved into human resources.  I have had some wild conversations about what people think the union ought to do, and what I assert the union is certain to do based on their history and their purpose.  But that’s lightweight compared to what some people have experienced.  Some people straddle worlds by changing nationality, by seeking education beyond what their parents had achieved, or by switching religious or political affiliation.  Others are born into two categories, including those who are biracial.

The Loving Generation and Emerging Career Equality

Anna Holmes wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times in February 2018.  Holmes is a member of the “Loving Generation,” children born to mixed-race couples shortly after the Loving vs. Virginia supreme court ruling.  The 1967 case struck down laws prohibiting black and white couples from marrying.  More mixed-race kids were born soon afterward, heralding the arrival of a new and more prominent hybrid identity.

When Holmes was in her early thirties she began to compile a list of people who, like herself, were part of this cohort.  The list included public figures in sports, entertainment, and politics such as Derek Jeter, Halle Berry, and even Barack Obama.  When she looked to leaders, she found black communities where the leadership was disproportionately mixed-race.

Holmes perceives that mixed-race people can call upon their whiteness to open doors.  Members of the Loving Generation have a comfort with white people because of their upbringing, and often presume that they can do just as well as the white side of their family.

Holmes spoke with Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 novel Loving Day.  Johnson notes,

“If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”

If you have an advantage, you can still take care of yourself.  But you still have a responsibility to others who do not have that advantage.  It’s a good leadership principle for people of all backgrounds.

But wait, what about white people who have an abundance of privilege?  Do they perceive that they should help others?

Anxiety About White Decline is Sensitive to Data Definitions

Over at the Washington Post, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy cite some interesting research about anxiety amongst American whites over the multi-decade decline of the white majority.  While some people want to hold onto the advantages of their “category,” the definition of this category is not so robust.

What they uncovered is that there are six different forecasts for the prevalence of whiteness in America based on different definitions.  In all data analysis your data definitions have an outsized impact on what raw data comes out, how it is analyzed, and how it will be interpreted – even by an unbiased researcher.  The forecast showing a white majority disappearing in America by 2042 relies on people identifying as white and no other ethnicity.  It’s equivalent to the one-drop rule from the 19th and 20th centuries in the US.  Under the one-drop rule both parents must be white for someone to be categorized as white, with that rule carrying back into all prior generations.  It’s an archaic definition that lends itself to conservative assumptions.  But there are other ways of looking at things.

Myers and Levy draw attention to their own research on this topic.  They ran a controlled experiment sharing two simulated news stories using similar race projection data based on different definitions of whiteness.

The first mimicked the conventional [one-drop rule] narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second …mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau’s alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century.  …Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading [the first story] about the impending white-minority status.  But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario. [Emphasis added, paragraph breaks removed]

In brief, one quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans who would normally be anxious about the decline of the white majority have more positive feelings about the emerging population of hip mixed-race semi-white people, whom they readily regard as kin.

Change Our Definitions, Change Racism

These findings imply that when we measure ethno-cultural background for Employment Equity purposes, we need to allow people to choose multiple ethnicities.  Also – and this may be controversial – we need to start reporting on the representation of the white population in a manner that empowers the new hybrid definition.  Sympathetic white people are a target audience for equity reporting.

I have a self-image that I’m one of those non-racist people who is unbothered by white decline.  But if I happened to be one of those coastal urbanites who was deluded about their own implicit racism (you know, hypothetically) then this new mindset would affect me.  I look to mixed-race couples and biracial kids and think, yeah, they could totally grow up in my neighbourhood, work with me, and become family, no problem.  It’s a gateway into general tolerance.

By blowing-out binary categories we can think expansively about being human and embrace complexity in an era of rapid change.  We cannot let demagogues simplify us; we need to become contradictory and cosmopolitan people in order to be true to ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin.  Only then can we freely consider all of our options and seek every opportunity that we choose.

[Hat-tip to Guy Kawasaki for sharing the Washington Post article on LinkedIn]

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 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 an 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.

Mini-Me Recruiting: Always Funny, Always Uncomfortable

Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer) by Bit Boy
Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer).  Photo courtesy of Bit Boy.

Who hasn’t wanted to clone themselves, especially when deep into a project that leaves a weekend in tatters. Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame hilariously and awkwardly created Mini-Me as this right-hand man. While Mini-Me failed to carry out Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination, he succeeded in illustrating a major problem in human resources that needs more scrutiny than ever.  The actor Verne Troyer – who played Mini-Me – immortalized an uncomfortable concept.

The hiring of mini-me in organizations is a problem-behaviour caused by two cognitive fallacies.  One is the affinity bias, the liking of people similar to ourselves. The other is the exposure effect, where we like things that we have been merely exposed to. In the readings of cognitive fallacies it becomes clear that the majority of such fallacies are a variant of the “availability heuristic,” when we over-value thoughts that come to mind easily.  If we choose what’s comfortable, we reproduce our own status quo.

However, it’s usually the case that an employer needs a diverse team.  Even the most excellent leaders need people who have different strengths.  In an article at entrepreneur.com, George Deeb asserts;

“Maybe you don’t need a ‘glass half full’ optimist like yourself… Maybe you need a ‘glass half empty’ realist, who will bring a sense of caution to your investment decisions. Or, you may need a similar ‘A-Type Personality’ to lead your sales team efforts… But, maybe a ‘B-Type Personality’ may be a better fit to manage your more introverted team of technology developers. …Maybe what you really need is the opposite of yourself. You need your Anti-Me to help keep yourself organized, on plan and in check. It really comes down to what you see as your personal strengths and weaknesses, and filling in any voids in your skill-sets.” (Emphasis added)

Equity and Inclusion in Hiring Decisions

The most visible consequence of unconscious bias is that organizations hire and promote people in the same demographic category as the hiring manager, increasing the momentum behind historic privilege.  In an article in the Guardian in 2016, Matthew Jenkin notes that the context of a selection interview will have an outsized impact on who is chosen.  If the context is white and middle-class, candidates who are white and middle class will be favoured.

Bias goes beyond blockbuster items like race and social class. Hobbies, personal experiences, and how we dress can be factors too. If the leadership of an organization is “all of one type” it is a reliable sign that the leadership has lost all curiosity, has no self-doubt, and does not take evidence seriously.  The leadership is not reading the news, and if they are, they are only reading it in print.

This is not the mindset of leaders who will make an organization successful in the near future.  Yes, we must achieve indicators of diversity, but we must also foster receptiveness to new information, a curiosity about diverse ideas, and ways in which an individual can be excellent in a manner that might be considered weird.

Why Structured Interviews Matter

The professional association in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), released a paper in 2015 entitled A Head for Hiring: The Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection. It looked at, amongst other things, the role of unstructured interviews.  The authors found a study that fed research participants a combination of good evidential information, plus random irrelevant information from an unstructured interview.  The research subjects upgraded the importance of the random irrelevant information and discounted the good information.  “This can be seen as evidence of sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.”

It’s not just the interviewers who are at risk of making bad judgment calls. The CIPD paper identified cognitive fallacies in the mind of the interviewee that caused them to self-select away from promising job matches.  And walking into an unfamiliar environment, where they feel like an outsider, can cause job candidates to underperform because of the additional stress.  When people are using their brains, they are vulnerable to issues of cognitive load in which a complex environment exhausts their brain prior to facing decisions.  Those coming from a different context face disadvantage in an environment that might seem “normal” to the host.

Solutions in Diversity Hiring

What is the remedy for these problems?  For one, structured interviews are key, as they narrow the range of evidence to information that is relevant.  Also, we must actively seek contrary evidence; not taking things at face-value, and seeking information that is outside of what is familiar and comfortable.  There is also diversity representation.  Charles Hipps, CEO of e-recruitment company WCN, was quoted in the Guardian article and  “…suggests having team members from the particular group you are trying to attract present during the recruitment process – whether that’s meeting and greeting candidates or on the interview panel.”  Structure a diverse context and it will set a balanced comfort-level with reduced cognitive load.

Employers are also starting to get hard-core, using new tools to improve the selection process.  The Guardian article spoke with one company, Elevate, that “uses algorithms to score every candidate’s CV, previous work experience, skills and education, and assesses their suitability for a role. It then ranks candidates much like Google’s search results…”   Another company, Joinkoru, conducts validated pre-hire assessments which provide candidate scores that are less sensitive to the candidate’s similarity to current employees.  It is also feasible to do blind selection in the process of creating a shortlist, in a manner that obscures the name and sex of the candidate.

Not all of these tools are perfect, and indeed there are emerging risks that algorithms can carry-forward the historic bias of past human behaviours.  The rise of the racist robots is a concern.  We might not be creating cloned versions of ourselves (yet), but we are at serious risk of creating artificial intelligence which has flaws identical to our broader society.

And the technology can be expensive.  Doctor Evil is the only one selling it, and he’s going to charge you (pinky to mouth) one million dollars.

Women’s Financial Security Depends on Their Own Courage

Too little to think twice about jumping. By Rob Briscoe
Too little to think twice about jumping. Photo courtesy of Rob Briscoe.

Does it seem unfair that men can carelessly do what they want with money when women can’t?  Well, it is unfair.  But women’s attitude about money has a huge impact on their financial security.  Fear itself might be causing women to be less financially secure, by weakening their moxie.

In an October 2017 report, Mercer published the report Inside Employees’ Minds – Women and WealthTM.  In brief, women are more worried about financial security than men, and the worry and fear de-motivates women from taking full advantage of programs intended to help them improve their finances.  The report is based on a survey of 3,000 U.S. employees in late 2016.

Financial Wellbeing is Part of Workplace Wellbeing

The report asserts that financial wellbeing is “a core pillar of total well-being.”  Wellbeing is not just about physical and mental health. Our ability to seek the comforts we desire, make meaningful connections with others, and achieve our financial goals are all amongst the things that make us well.  New wellbeing efforts foster self-awareness about our individual goals, and a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy over our lives.  These efforts imply a workplace culture of free-flowing information, respectful discourse, power sharing, and building intrinsic motivation.

In employee engagement surveys, wellbeing is often a hygiene topic.  Hygiene topics are important-when-bad; things such as physical safety or sexual harassment. Hygiene topics are important to identify because the policy imperative is to not to make the topic positive, but to make them “not negative.”  They need to be good enough that you can forget about them.

When employees feel that they lack control over their personal finances, they worry – at home and at work.  People need to learn how to improve their finances if only to stop being distracted by them.  Therefore it may be necessary for employers to express concern about the personal finances of their employees.  And women and men think about their finances differently.

Women’s Financial Courage Affects Their Financial Wellbeing

The analysis shows a major difference between men and women, with men once again coming out ahead.  “Whereas 62% of men scored in the medium-to-high or high range on Mercer’s Financial Wellness Index, only 41% of women scored in this range.”  Why is this so?  The report identified that financial courage is a major driver of financial wellbeing. Forty-nine percent of men exhibit high or medium levels of financial courage, compared to 30% of women.

Financial courage is made up of items such as attitude towards finances, time spent worrying, financial planning preferences, and a person’s self-assessment of their financial knowledge.  It turns out that courage is more important than underlying knowledge, consistent with the trend that personality can be more important than IQ.  Women holding modest-but-accurate self-opinions might be penalizing themselves, because confident men are taking initiative based on their bravado.

Those with low financial courage do things that cause their finances to be worse, such as avoid financial discussions to avoid embarrassment, decline investment opportunities for fear of losing money, and slip into a paralysis of inaction on their finances.  By contrast, people with high financial courage engage in the flip-side of these behaviours in an upward spiral.

Getting Women to Engage in Financial Wellbeing Resources

Imagine how those who lack courage will avoid thinking about it when there is an offer to attend a financial wellbeing class or advisory session.  That reduced awareness leads to reduced engagement in such programs.  Mercer suggests;

“Employers have the opportunity to help their female employees break the cycle of lower financial wellness by helping them build financial courage and become more confident in engaging in their finances. Simply offering women more in the way of financial education is unlikely to have the desired impact.” (Emphasis added)

Employers hoping to set up their employees to be well-and-productive need to prioritize financial courage with targeted programming for women.  So, who are the role models that women would look to while building this courage?

Women Are Building Wealth

Outside of the workplace, women are becoming more prominent investors.  An article in the Economist from March 2018 noted that global wealth held by women is trending from $24 to $72 trillion between 2010 and 2020, with their percentage of global wealth growing from 28% to 32%.  The growth is due to women participating more in the labour force, being better-paid, and benefitting more equally from inheritances.

Women behave differently when they invest.  The Economist cites a study that finds that

“…women outperformed men in the market by one percentage point a year.  The main reason, they argued, was that men were much more likely to be overconfident than women, and hence to carry out unprofitable trades.”

It’s not so much that women need to imitate men’s overconfidence, it’s that they need enough courage to take care of their wealth and then proceed with enough conscientiousness to make good decisions.  Courage and conscientiousness are not contradictory traits, and it’s possible to embody both.  Related to this phenomenon is that one of the first things women do when they get their hands on a bundle of money is to get rid of their money managers and start making investments by themselves.

And in the process they make different decisions about their own money.

Women Lead Socially Responsible Investing

Women are far more likely to be socially-responsible investors, with the Economist citing Morgan Stanley research noting that 84% of women (relative to 67% amongst men) are interested in social or environmental goals.  Funds specializing in responsible investing note that women tend to be the trailblazers.  And one of women’s criteria is to apply a gender lens.

Beyond the evidence that bias is bad for business, treating women fairly is increasingly seen as a sign that a company is diligent, responsible, and keeping apace of emerging trends.  A comparison to the environmental lens is helpful.  One investment fund

“…dropped Volkswagen because the carmaker scored poorly on corporate governance well before its value was hit by the revelation that it was cheating on emissions tests, [and] in future it hopes information about problems such as sexual harassment could help it spot firms with a ‘toxic’ management culture before a scandal hits the share price.”

Independent of whether “being good” is a core business goal, investors are watching for whether a company’s stock will tank because of regulatory failure, lawsuit, or customer disengagement following a public relations meltdown.  Investors, too, can be concerned about hygiene topics and women investors are ahead of the curve.

Yet we can still choose to be good, for the sake of being good.  Social change comes from all directions; from governments, social movements, and sometimes from investors.  But usually there’s that one person who has decided there’s something wrong in their life, and it’s time to take action.  That brave and conscientious person can be you.

Shift in Job Market Doesn’t Need to Be a Nightmare

Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162, by Fernando de Sousa
Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162.  Photo courtesy of Fernando de Sousa.

Are you a little scared of the future? I think we all are. And for good reason.

There’s so much to think about these days, especially with technology disrupting our jobs. But if you have watched a few horror films, you’ll notice things become far less scary when you understand what’s really going on.  For me, my shoulders relaxed a little and I reached for popcorn again after I read a report from the World Economic Forum about job transitions.

The report reveals next-job opportunities for employees displaced by economic and technological disruption.

The U.S. labour market will see a structural job loss of 1.4 million jobs over the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. However, the report also cites a structural growth of 12.4 million new jobs.  On average the job market will be better.

However, let’s set aside the average for a moment and focus on the 1.4 million individuals who will be put out of work.

The report analyzed at a thousand job descriptions representing the majority of the American workforce and looked for similarities in skills, abilities, qualifications, and the work itself.  The job-matching methodology was created by Burning Glass Technologies, a firm specializing in labour market analytics harnessing big data and artificial intelligence.

Using the 10-year labour market forecast, they identified the job families where the largest number of jobs would disappear, identified other job families forecast for growth, and mapped-out how people could transition from lost jobs into new jobs.

Production and Office & Administration jobs are projected to be the hardest hit. In every other area there are fewer job losses expected, and the new-but-different jobs created within a job family greatly exceeds jobs lost.

Jobs in Production (which includes the beleaguered manufacturing sector) have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Construction and Extraction; Installation, Maintenance and Repair; and Transportation.  Positions in Office & Administration have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Business and Financial Operations.  And a large number of handy and hard-working people can always find a job in custodial or food services.

But if you lost your job, would you want to be a barista?

The Desirability of Job Transitions

Thankfully, the report considers whether peoples’ next jobs are desirable.  A significant drop in pay won’t motivate employees to seek reskilling.  Stability is also a top concern.  The investment in re-skilling or moving costs can be expensive, so some transition opportunities might be rejected just because of the instability.

Desirability isn’t all in the mind of the employee. Governments want a successful transition to achieve a good return on their investment in training programs. They don’t want to undermine their tax base with a low-wage workforce. And some governments are also concerned about the experience of workers as voters.  Employers need successful transitions too, as they fear of a workforce of demoralized, dissatisfied, and under-productive employees.

The report factored-in all these concerns and categorized viable job transitions as those that have high similarity, stable long-term prospects, and wages that are equal or better than the previous job.

They found plenty of opportunities:

 “…our analysis is able to find ‘good-fit’ job transitions for the vast majority of workers currently holding jobs experiencing technological disruption — 96%, or nearly 1.4 million individuals…  Interestingly, the majority of ‘good-fit’ job transition options — 70% — will require the job mover to shift into …a new job family.”

Job Transition Pathways

One of the benefits of this sophisticated model was that the authors of the report were able to extend the career transitions from a one-time change into “a full chain of job transition pathways” covering three jobs.

For example, a secretary can downshift into becoming a concierge, then come out ahead as a recycling coordinator. Each new job has a solid 90% similarity score relative to the prior job, but the salary bounces from $36k to $31k to $50k.

There is a similar trade-off for the transition from cashier to barista to food service manager.  So yes, you might still want to become a barista.  Employees could come out further ahead if they could see these pathways and plan accordingly.

Job Transitions are Different for Women

There are mixed results based on the sex of the worker.  On the minus side for women, it is estimated that 57% of the disruption will affect women.  Women also have fewer job transitions options: “Without reskilling… professions that are predominantly female and at risk of disruption have only 12 job transition options while at-risk male-dominated professions have 22 options.”

But women also have a better chance at job transitions that result in increased wages.  Of those experiencing labour disruption 74% of women have a good match into higher-paying jobs while the equivalent number for men in 53%.

This difference may contribute to a “potential convergence in women and men’s wages,” but this impact would obviously need to be blended with those economic forces that don’t favour women.  By which I mean, most economic forces.

Men and women alike significantly benefit from reskilling efforts, resulting in a quadrupling of the new job options available.  With reskilling, opportunities for women jump from 12 job options to 49, and opportunities for men jump from 22 options to 80.

A Change in Societal Mindset is Required

The report recommends societal changes in order to make this all viable:

“…what will be required is nothing less than a societal mindset shift for people to become creative, curious, agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous change.” (Links added)

On the public policy side, there is an additional shift in mindset for corporations and government:  pick up the tab or everyone is toast.

The main item that would empower this change is a comprehensive re-skilling program funded at full scale.  Displaced workers need to take some responsibility and show some initiative. But nobody in their right mind is suggesting that the cost of all this should be borne by anyone other than business and government.

While the consequences of inaction are dire for individuals and society, the path forward is becoming better understood.  It’s that part in the scary movie where they can see the way out.  And for that reason, it’s not so scary any more, and might even be fun to watch.

Not Normal is Now Normal and More Productive

Day 42, Hannes. By A. David Holloway.jpg
Day 42, Hannes. Photo courtesy of A. David Holloway.

It’s the research you’ve all been waiting for: nobody is normal.  You might think I’m trying to reassure you that you’re normal-enough to be accepted, but no, that misses the point.  Everyone is unique and weird in their own way, and this is what allows everyone to function at their best as individuals.

The study is by Avram J. Holmes and Lauren M. Patrick, under the title “The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences.  Feb 20, 2018.

The authors were looking at the complex environmental circumstances under which mental illnesses develop.  There is an emerging effort to develop broad datasets that isolate what causes someone’s brain-function to diverge from the ideal mental state.  About that: there’s not a single ideal mental state.

“We challenge this concept… arguing that there is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors.”

At Inc.com, Jessica Stillman notes that “…for all but the most obvious maladaptations, there is almost always a mix or good and bad results from any given variation.”

“Take anxiety, for instance. …science shows that anxiety is probably keeping you safer, pushing you to be better prepared in important areas of your life, and improving your memory, even if it often doesn’t feel good… Or look at risk taking. If you’re a little further on the fearless end of the spectrum, your chances of suffering some life-threatening mishap are likely higher, but so are your chances of starting a world-changing company. Our strengths and weaknesses are intimately tied together.”

This research confirms what has long been understood from folklore, the humanities, and the school of life: everyone is different and we need to honour and cherish these differences.

Now that there is data to back it up, can we assert this wisdom more boldly?  I think we can and should.  There are profound implications for emerging workplace issues such as equity and inclusion, work-life balance, wellbeing, and performance management.

Equity and Inclusion

The research brings depth to the thinking around equity and inclusion.  Looking at demographic traits is one window into the ways in which totally arbitrary types of people get ahead while others are left behind.  If we want everyone to be at their best, we must strive to open our definition of what “best” looks like, be it sex or race or personality profile.  If there is a “type” who is tapped or favoured because they fit the mold, we need to step back and consider if we are being drawn into a bias, be it conscious or unconscious.  We need to look beyond types, consider the individual, and brace ourselves for plenty of surprises about who’s going to rock it, and how.

Work-Life Balance

There are also implications for work-life balance.  As employees go through major life events there may be special moments when they are a perfect match to your workplace.  But their home lives are important, and personal lives beckon for time, attention, and commitments.

Striking the balance is key in supporting employees to show up in their best form and deliver their best strengths. That balance hinges on allowing everyone to be themselves both at work and at home. Sometimes an employee’s workplace personality brings differences in what they can deliver.  And sometimes an employee chooses a home life that allows them to be their best.  Don’t make them choose between the two, they’re busy being themselves.

Wellbeing

With wellbeing efforts, every high-functioning workplace needs to evolve beyond claims-cost-reduction and mandatory anti-bullying courses.  If a workplace has developed a strategic and holistic sense of why they are advancing wellbeing, they are likely to happen upon the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health.  That definition emphasizes that to feel “well” people need to realize their potential, work productively, and make a contribution to their community, among other things.  How could that be possible if the corporate standards of performance disregard the unique ways in which each person is exceptional?

Performance Management and Competencies

This research raises questions about performance measurement against prescribed competencies.  Yes, employees need to deliver outputs at the right levels of quality, cost, and timeliness.  Yet the more specific we get about the kind of excellence expected, the narrower the opportunities for people to excel.

Competencies were originally put forward as a cutting-edge practice that blended skills and attitudes that employers wished people would deliver in their style of daily work.  Competencies allowed employers to get beyond people-as-machines applying skill and effort to the tasks specified in the job description.  But there is a flaw.  Top-down descriptions of desired competencies undermine the ability of individuals to define their unique strengths from the inside-out.

As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.

If people are to flourish, they need to be coached to identify their unique talents, develop their own learning objectives, and deliver work in a way that allows them to grow into their exceptionalities.  We need to recognize what is great about each person, anticipating that there may be a downside.  As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.  In order to develop people for their best growth we need a workplace culture of trust, sympathy, and encouragement.

By contrast, exercises where we score people against a half-dozen competencies sent down from corporate seem hopelessly archaic.  Allowing a privileged few to define themselves as excellent and encourage others to play along seems narcissistic and biased.  And telling others to achieve life-balance and wellbeing according to the standards of those with power reveals an antipathy for wisdom.

So spread the word: everyone needs to get their freak on.  If people can know themselves and be themselves, they’re far more likely to deliver the goods.