The Perils of Unchecked Power

Peacock Crop. By Steve Wilde =
Peacock Crop. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilde.

Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail.  If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.

It comes by many names and appears in many fields.  For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia.  It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods.  Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures.  It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.

So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.

In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage.  The correct answer is, no it does not.  But it gets close.

Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.”  Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball.  Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball.  Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.

I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that.  The findings are mixed and contradictory.

In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.”  That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?  A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.”  By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson.  Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.

Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome.  However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders.  The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs).  Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.

In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;

…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.

And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.

Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power.  “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.”  The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement.  Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.”  The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?”  The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?”  It’s always a thought worth considering.

Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies.  They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.

The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others.  It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance.  It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.

But it only works if they care.  So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.

And if you don’t have power, make them care.

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.

Want the Ideal Job? Craft it Yourself

Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. By Unskinny Boppy (2)
Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. Courtesy of Unskinny Boppy.

There’s something strangely satisfying about a hobby where you do what you want for a few hours.  Wouldn’t it be great if your whole career was that satisfying?  Well, it’s possible, but you need to decide that your own job content the item you should craft.

There was an interesting conversation ignited in the New York Times “Workologist” section by Rob Walker.  In March the career advice column fielded a question from someone considering leaving their job several years before retirement because of excessive work-travel they found unpleasant.  Readers objected that there was not enough consideration given to whether the employee could just ask for less work travel.  In his follow-up column April 1, 2018, Walker broached the more sophisticated subject of job crafting.

Job crafting is the practice of employees identifying what parts of their job they do best and find fulfilling, then putting more of their time and effort into those activities.  Work that is difficult or unpleasant may be down-scaled, dropped, or given more support.  It is different from manager-initiated job design, as job crafting is initiated by the employee.

Significant work has been done in this area by Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale University.  Wrzesniewski and her peers have developed a formal methodology for job crafting, including an assessment of what change is desired, building-block visual tools, a before-and-after dichotomy, and a good dose of positive psychology.  You can buy a copy of the Job Crafting Exercise workbook for about US$35.

Why Job Crafting is a Good Idea

The methodology is displayed in a 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, in which the authors note:

“…employees (at all levels, in all kinds of occupations) who try job crafting often end up more engaged and satisfied with their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their organizations, and report greater personal resilience.”

Job crafting improves proactivity, innovativeness, adaptability, and emotional well-being.  Employers see this practice as a way of giving employees an opportunity to self-motivate and improve the likelihood they will stay.

The self-directed feature of this practice is key. Managers may have insufficient time or knowledge to figure out how to organize the work of their subordinates for the better. If employees are given the opportunity to self-manage in this way, it can allow the manager to achieve results without having to do all of the leg-work.

In a 2013 paper by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, Job Crafting and Meaningful Work, the authors describe job crafting as key to making work more meaningful.  The authors identify three main categories in which employees attempt to re-craft their jobs for better fit and meaningful work.  Those categories are the employee’s key motives, the leveraging of the employees’ strengths and talents, and the ability to pursue passions and topic-areas of deep interest to the employee.

What Will Your Manager Say?

It should go without saying – so let’s be blunt – that bottom-up efforts to change job content are contingent on good conversations between the employee and their manager.  There will be unpleasant work that everyone wants to avoid, and employees might self-select away from that work.  I once heard an astronaut describe how everyone on a space station is expected to take their turn emptying the toilet regardless of their rank. Because of how unpleasant the work was, it was a badge of honour that everyone took their turn, without complaining, for the benefit of the team.  This might be a bad example, however, because these employees get to be an astronaut.  You don’t hear them complaining about excessive work travel.

The Downside of Job Crafting

Because I have worked in both the labour movement and the compensation field, I know there is likely to be resistance to this practice. Let’s explore why.  To some extent organizational hierarchy is designed to keep people in their place so they will deliver the goods.  At least that’s the predominant opinion amongst management bullies and trade unionists alike, with the main disagreement being who should be in charge and how to divide the spoils.  Under that conceptual model it’s common for employees to assert they should be given less work, get promoted, and be paid more.  It’s just not feasible to say “yes” every time.

However, there is more than one model.  There is a time and a place for meaningful work, thoughtful job design, and power-sharing between employees and managers.  It is implicit that job crafting is only viable where it is possible for the employee to control the job content, and this autonomy itself may be one of the items the workplace needs to work on. In lieu of control systems and the maximization of effort, workplaces may instead pursue a mindset of growth, adaptation, and collaboration.  Indeed, those items underpin most efforts to improve workplace culture.

There are downsides to job crafting.  Yes, some requests for a change of job content run counter to the organization’s goals. Employees can also take-on more “fun” work than they expected; they get better work but just too much of it.  And for those seeking their true calling, it is possible that they will be exposed to features of their interest-area that they had previously been unaware of.  As in, be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.

Many people want to see more of the world, wishing they could travel more.  Others like to get out to cocktail parties to strike up conversations with new people.  And if you don’t do it very often, being in lengthy meetings making important decisions can be a thrill.  But it’s also nice to get home, have deeper conversations with close friends and family, and put independent thought into simple things within your own control.

It’s a good idea to know what you want before you try to go out and get it.  You need to know yourself to be yourself, and sometimes you only figure that out by experimenting.  But if you’re lucky you will probably discover that the biggest treasure you can ever find is yourself.

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.