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

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

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

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

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

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

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

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

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

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

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

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

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

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

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

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

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

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

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

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

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

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

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

Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

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

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Ideal Self Will Assign You Meaningful Work

girl-1186895_1280 cc Pixabay

I have a confession to make.  I love mundane errands.  Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm?  Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?

In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed.  My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure.  To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”.  It turns out I’ve been doing it right.

Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful.  The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.

Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State

The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first.  Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy.  When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well.  By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.

The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created.  Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved.  It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning.  But not all goals are equal.  For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities.  Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.

Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement

Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work.  David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.  In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce.  He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.

If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.

I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless.  Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.

People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated.  This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.

Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying.  Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.”  He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment.  Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so.  It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.

Pursuit of the Ideal is More Meaningful than Doing What We Ought

Sure, we ought to be hard workers.  But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck.  Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets.  The research makes a distinction between two types of self.  The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept.  The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.

Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self.  Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us.  By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much.  People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self.  But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver.  That sounds like meaningless work to me.  That sounds like disengagement.

What does this mean for our day jobs?  It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose.  Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire.  Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose.  Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal.  Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.

I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes.  But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self?  A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them.  I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.

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]

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.

“Working from Home” is a Just a Euphemism for Higher Productivity

Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com, courtesy of Sil Silv
“Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com.”  Photo courtesy of Sil Silv.

Mother’s Day weekend has passed, and the emotional roller-coaster has come and gone.  You may have spent time reflecting about what is important to you.  Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire?  Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.

There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial.  You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish.  Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle?  I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.

The Case For Working From Home

The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com.  Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot.  The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office.  Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.

The gains were many.  Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space.  They put 9% more time into productive work hours.  They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time.  Their turnover was 50% lower.

Their mothers would be proud.

The Case Against Working From Home

Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate.  Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration.  He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room.  It was called “radical colocation.”  The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups.  In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances.  Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.

The Best Decisions are Sensitive to Context

What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context.  Call centres are all about the dynamic the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant.  By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity.  This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.

That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work?  Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013.  I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.

For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences.  Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home.  This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life.  Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves.  The interests of work and home are not always a dichotomy, as both are sabotaged by commuting.

During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis.  When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead.  They were mostly concerned they would be passed over from promotion.  Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive.  They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”  I see a side-story about the social contract.  The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and the employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.

About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation.  Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home.  This highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized.  Any two people can make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.

May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home.  When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home.  During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive.  The impact was almost doubled.

Human Nature Out-Ranks The Logistics

I think it’s important to flag that autonomy itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign.  That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.

One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill.  I have to confess, I have done this myself.  Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer.  This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.

When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well.  Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.

But there’s a catch.  Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home.  When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family.  Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly.  But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues?  I need to choose my own life.