The Innocent World of Comfortable Ideas

Discomfort of Innocence, by Mohammed alalawi - Copy
Discomfort of Innocence.  Photo by Mohammed Alalawi

Why do you hang out with people like you?  Because you have to be friends with your friends’ friends.  Society does not give you permission to dislike (or not know) your friends-of-friends.  It’s called the forbidden triad.  There is a complex quantitative puzzle involving triangles with plus and minus signs, all coded and ready for an elaborate statistical analysis.  You can peek at the math in this October 2016 overview of the research by Dustin Stoltz, a PhD candidate at University of Notre Dame.

But back to people.  The main problem is cognitive dissonance, that feeling you get when you are obliged to maintain two contradictory opinions at the same time.  An example may be that you both love and hate a particular family member, politician, or manager in your workplace.  Cognitive dissonance makes you uncomfortable, and you aspire to greater comfort.  Therefore, you will choose between contradictory opinions and let one prevail over the other.  So, you decide that you like that complex person.  If you then meet a third-party who dislikes that person, you have to even-out the triangle.  You will be motivated to change the third person’s mind, change your own mind, or just stop hanging out with the third party.    If everyone does this, friendships and world views will evolve within cliques that are internally consistent, comfortable, and smug.  But that’s not so clever.

That is because social networks are held together by people who choose to maintain contradictory opinions.  They foster civil dialogue, cultivate plurality, and agree to disagree.  It’s not so much that they are smarter, although that may still be the case.  It’s that the exploration of the best information and the most diverse opinions guarantees contradiction.  You will find attributes that seem contradictory but not mutually exclusive, such as sensitivity and courage.  You will find rival facts, such as the prevailing research on global warming and colder winters in your own locale.  And there will be facts that change quickly, such the price of oil or a change of government.

Workforce Analytics and the Workplace Culture of Curiosity and Discomfort

If you place comfort ahead of maximum information, then you have to insulate yourself from contradiction.  Yet this can be a big mistake in the modern world.  How could you possibly choose a stable mindset when the amount of information is exploding, technology is disrupting everything, and ideas and opinions go round the world in a heartbeat.  It’s a wild and crazy world we live in.  You must choose discomfort, and reject the allure of smug.

In workforce analytics, there is a great divide between colleagues and clients who are curious about new information and those who are not.  It often feels like I exclusively support those hungry for the new, who like the challenge, who want to pick up a few tricks.  Yet those who are more settled in their views or slower to change need to be brought along for the ride.  That is because at the center of the social network people are obliged to commit to, and support, prevailing views.  They tend to agree with one another just like you might do with your own friends.  Looking outward to the fringes of the network, you might see a wider variety of irregular opinions, trends, and opportunities.  The fringe is full of people who are removed from the network in some way, be it marginal legal status, geographic isolation, exclusion, or just looking different.  To bring diverse views from the fringe to the center (and vice-versa) obliges us to maintain contradictory opinions.

The prescription that we must become uncomfortable applies equally to social trends, new technology, and disruptive workforce analytics.  In your workplace, you may have had one opinion for a very long time.  When you are presented with change or new evidence, it is one thing to simply obey orders or comply with the data.  But if you really want to be clever, it is far better to hold onto that moment of discomfort for a while to get a sense of what everyone else is going through.  Only then can you talk to diverse people who think and live in different worlds.  And only then can you fine-tune new evidence to make it presentable to a broader audience.

If we are to disrupt normal ways of doing things through emerging information, we must stand at the bridge between two worlds, be prepared to disrupt ourselves, and get used to discomfort.

Chasing Your Tail, Finding Your Soul

Chasing his tail. Courtesy of Lil Shepherd
Chasing his tail. Photo courtesy of Lil Shepherd

Do you want to get promoted?  Here’s a quick tip… you probably don’t want to get promoted.  It’s extremely common for people to attribute their hopes and dreams to the single most common solution to their woes, which is a promotion into a higher-paying job.  But that’s not how our souls really work.

The “long tail” is a theory attributed to Chris Anderson of Wired and TED fame.  The long tail theory is that for many cultural products – books, movies, and music – we over-rely on a small number of great works that are immensely popular.  But there is also a very large amount of product that you might have enjoyed, if only you knew about it, it was easy to access, and you didn’t care that much what others thought about your taste.  If you want to get geeky, the long tail web site describes this concept using a power law distribution (1/x), where the popular goods are at the peak on the far left, constituting the “big head,” and the lesser-known goods tail off to the right, going on forever into smaller and smaller numbers, hence the “long tail.”

Bricks-and-mortar storefronts prefer to sell large volumes of popular goods, in order to reduce production and storage costs.  By contrast, things sold over the internet can be stored at low cost and sold in low volumes at reasonable profit.  The internet opens up your access to a greater diversity of concepts, allowing you to bypass overly-popular mainstream content.

It’s important to keep our eyes on consumer data, because consumer-based big data is about one decade ahead of human resources analytics in terms of maturity.

For those in human resources the long tail phenomenon is a good metaphor for career advancement concerns of employees.  Consider our societal obsession with vertical career movement and the opportunity to make more money by working longer hours and enduring greater stress.  Contrast that mainstream goal with the possibility of thousands of careers to choose from, a wide range of work-life balance concerns and solutions, and unusual combinations of hours of work and locations of work.

When people meet with career coaches, the employee will often name career advancement as their primary goal, typically to the rank of Director.  But after some inquiry, it often turns out that there is a deeper personal objective which is more important to them.  It could be energy level, the challenge, pride in craftsmanship, helping others, or greater independence.  But each of these individual objectives can be achieved through more targeted efforts.  Promotion is only one way to make life better, and in some cases it makes life worse if it takes us further away from the deeper goal.

Career decisions and deeper goals will occasionally line up with the mainstream.  For example, it’s usually an all-round good idea to get a degree.  But if your motivations are unique, think of your life choices as the equivalent of an obscure garage band with a cult following of two hundred people.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter if everyone else is doing it.  But it always matters if you’re doing what’s right for you.

Bias Bad for Business

Hiding, by Wes Peck
Hiding.  Photo courtesy of Wes Peck

Bias is bad for productivity.  Here’s an overview of a study that came out in July 2017.  The findings are that perceptions of bias have a negative impact on idea-sharing and job commitment.  “Of employees who experienced bias, 34% reported withholding ideas or solutions in the last six months and 48% said they looked for a new job while at their current job during the same time period.”

Perceptions of implicit bias are reduced by an inclusive environment. “Employees were 64% less likely to perceive bias at companies with diverse leaders, 87% less likely when they had inclusive leaders, and 90% less likely when they had sponsors.”

The methodology was to compare self-assessments of employee potential to those employees’ estimates of how they would be rated by their manager.  Larger gaps were interpreted as an indicator of bias.  There’s room for debate about the methodology, but the findings ring true.  That is, that managers who favour people like themselves discourage the productivity of a diverse workforce.  Bias is simply malfunctioning thinking.  Leading an organization with malfunctioning thought would presumably be a hindrance to workplace effectiveness.

Sorry Sir, I’m Just Not Feeling Motivated

Scream. Courtesy of Crosa.
Scream. Photo courtesy of Crosa.

What is the trade-off between a compassionate workplace culture and strong corporate performance?  Surprise, there isn’t one!  Corporate performance is subordinate to organizational culture and the emotional intelligence of senior leaders.

This article by Travis Bradberry of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 fame describes an interesting conundrum.  A large number of top corporate leaders have poor emotional intelligence.  The highest emotional intelligence is found amongst front-line managers and then each management level upward the leaders display increasingly diminished emotional intelligence.

Bradberry attributes this phenomenon to two factors.  First, corporate boards are selecting for leaders who deliver the numbers, such as profits, sales volumes, and stock price appreciation.  Second, the work environment of senior leaders impairs emotional intelligence and inhibits its growth.  Severe stress, lack of rest, regulatory enforcement, and a low-trust and blame-heavy environment can drag anyone into an emotional stone age (and keep them there).

What is fascinating is that corporate leaders with high emotional intelligence, although fewer in number, still perform better than others.  It may be that organizations will select the occasional gem of a leader, but otherwise we are mostly recruiting and promoting lower-functioning leaders into senior roles.  So how do mean bosses even get the job in the first place?

It is reminiscent of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.  Pfeffer provides endless examples of how an executive’s career prospects are often inversely proportional to their performance.  In brief, being a cold and calculating savage will motivate people to not mess with you.  It is possible to rig your career towards a poisoned and under-performing work environment where you still reign supreme.  When corporate leaders spend all day making power plays, there appears to be no beneficiary of this behavior other than the leader.  Look directly at these kinds of leaders.  How are they doing?  They seem to be doing well.  It’s just everyone around them who is falling apart.  It’s all of those people who just can’t play the game and can’t keep up; they aren’t able to deliver corporate performance.  Of course, the punchline is that downstream inability to perform is a hallmark of inferior top leadership.

There is another consideration; do major corporations have sufficient protections against leaders who have personality disorders?  The best-known personality disorder is psychopathy, which is well-documented in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience.  The other disorders are important, but psychopaths are special.  When you get to know the type, it sounds like the personality of someone who perfectly reflects the values of an emotionless profit-maximizing corporation.

Indeed this was well documented in The Corporation, a movie by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan.  Their critique is that the behavior of major corporations (as institutions) ticks all of the boxes on the checklist of psychopath behaviors for people.  If we promote leaders who reflect corporate values, and the corporate values are that we should act like psychopaths, then who is going to end up in charge?

There is a lack of insight amongst psychopaths, corporations, and many corporate leaders, and this lack of insight is at the root of poor emotional intelligence.  Let’s face it, if you got cut off in traffic by some jerk on your way to the office, and then a colleague cuts in front of you at the coffee station, it’s easy to get snippy.  Do you keep control? Are you even aware that you’re just carrying-forward a residual emotion from an hour earlier?  I mean, if it’s possible to carry-forward quarterly accounting indicators, surely it’s possible to carry forward emotions.

How can corporations be unaware of the need for a compassionate working environment?  I think it’s because hierarchy diminishes the two-directional information flow up and down the chain of command.  If the board wants numbers, executives commit to deliver, and the rest of the hierarchy snaps into line, this reveals an opinion that the best opinions come from the top.  However, this might not be how the world really works.  It is an organization’s history, geography, and people that determine the culture.  And it is the culture that determines the customer experience, the spirit of innovation, a healthy attitude towards rules, compassion during crisis, and discretionary effort amongst staff.

One does not simply demand good numbers.  Rather, we harvest good numbers from a well-cultivated culture.

Breathing Life Into Your Work Team

I love bubbles. So much. by Sam Wolff.
I love bubbles. So much. Photo courtesy of Sam Wolff.

In 2011 Google released the results of Project Oxygen.  Project Oxygen was Google’s effort to identify what makes a good manager.  They put analysts onto large volumes of data from 10,000 sources to find what is at the center of the puzzle.  Their results are:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Show interest in employees’ successes and well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills, to help advise the team

In the New York Times article summarizing these findings, a few things jumped out to me.  Five of these items (numbers 1-3 plus 5-6) imply a compassionate, nurturing, and transformational leadership style.  It is a rebuke to the notion that managers need to assert control, maintain discipline, and establish themselves in the hierarchy.  However, managers are also not allowed to be weak or wishy-washy in terms of results and clear vision.  While new managers step away from alpha-dog dominance to lead people in a “different” way, the alternate style cannot be deliberately passive.  You still need to actively cultivate, intervene, and get the information out.

It’s some stellar research.  For most of my work, I manipulate numbers.  By contrast, this is an interpretation of large volumes of text and I know this is hard, specialized work.  The findings are also contrary to many vested interests.  When the client and the analysts themselves are great at technical analysis, and they declare that technical skills are not the most important thing… you know they’re not feathering their own nest.

However, I would like to highlight a couple of vulnerabilities about these findings, just to keep everyone on their toes.  First, these findings are specific to the time and context, and findings can shift from one dataset to the next.  It’s likely the list looks a little different if you don’t work at Google, and it may even change within Google over the years.  Remember, this is not a representative sample of all organizations throughout time.  It is good practice to give research findings the benefit of the doubt within context, and be skeptical or critical outside of that context.

For example, what if everyone at Google is really good at certain things and therefore those attributes don’t have a correlation with anything else?  Examples might include having a university degree, getting access to information, receiving a decent salary, and vitamin D.  You need a data sample where some people are bad at certain things to build out the lower-left corner of a scattergram.  Otherwise a perfectly plausible driver of success will drop from statistical significance.

In the discussion about this project’s findings, people tend to go on about how technical skills are “dead last.”  Not so fast.  Wasn’t this a list of dozens of attributes, and they dropped all the attributes below number eight?  As presented by the analysts, technical skills still make the list.  Also, consider how you can blend technical skills with career development, empowering your team, and being productive.

I think it’s still the case that sleep, diet, exercise, and a good mood are the major drivers of focus, emotional intelligence, and energy.  As individuals we need to take care of those home-front items in order to break into the next level of performance.  However, if you botch the home front, you might not even get the job in the first place, never mind being good at it.

This brings us to the fact that they chose a fitting name for this project.  What is the one thing you need above else to determine your success at work?  Oxygen, of course.  Lots and lots of oxygen.  Good luck motivating staff without it!

Honey, I Shrank the Unemployed

Shrink Tricks. By Arne Endriks (Edited)
Shrink Tricks. Photo courtesy of Arne Endriks.

What if we just pretended that society’s problems had already disappeared?  It sounds dicey, but that’s often how things are done.  People who are struggling with unemployment are having a hard time explaining their lives.  And if you’re sitting in a job in human resources, you know that you have to understand this crowd.  Whether you’re administering layoffs and terminations, sorting through a long list of unqualified job applicants, or talking to friends and family who have a little problem at work, you know that the bewildered masses are your people.  But thankfully, you can make their problems disappear through government statistics.

An article from June 1, 2017 in the Huffington Post notes that the share of Canadians with a job has hit  a record high.  The content can be dense and confusing, but at issue is that people wrongly think the unemployment rate is a meaningful indicator of how well the economy is doing.  For labour economists, unemployment rates border on being a garbage statistic.

The unemployment rate is the number of people who have jobs divided by the number of people in the labour force.  But people have all kinds of reasons for not being in the labour force.  These include: discouragement from a long unemployment spell, disability, the decision to stay at home with kids, retirement, financial independence, postsecondary studies, prison, and travel.  Governments can also reduce unemployment by deciding that certain people aren’t trying hard enough to get a job and, therefore, they aren’t really in the labour market.  There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with economic statistics.  Since the labour force is half of the equation, the unemployment rate itself is of debatable value.  You can still use it occasionally (i.e. for month-over-month comparisons), but only with caution.

A far better statistic is the employment-to-population (EP) ratio.  We know who has a job, and we know how large the population is.  Take these totals, divide one by the other, and suddenly the data is clean and interesting.

The Huffington Post article notes that the EP ratio in Canada is now 78.6 percent, its highest level since Statistics Canada first started measuring this in 1976.  That’s good for Canada.

It’s also interesting to look at the second diagram in the article, which describes the labour force participation rate.  The labour force participation rate takes those two denominators we described earlier and combines them.  It is the number of people who are in the labour market divided by the population (within the relevant age group).  The labour force participation rate disregards whether the person actually has a job; it’s an indicator of how involved people are in the world of work.

Canada has a high participation rate relative to the US.  Amongst the working-age population, over 77 percent of Canadians work or are looking for work.  Labour force participation rates in the US used to be 77 percent, back in the late 1990s.  In the twenty years since, participation has slipped 5% to 72 percent.  The decline happened during three different presidents, and only half of the decline was during that nasty recession that started in 2008.

Long story short, the US has an unemployment rate of 4.1%, but they have an extra 5% of the population that could work but doesn’t.  It’s the tale of two economies, two Americas.  There is one America where things are bright and sunny, people aspire to career growth, and they talk about red wine and heirloom tomatoes.  But in the other America, things are not so great.  Theirs is a world where people lost their jobs to globalization or technology, lost their homes to the mortgage fiasco, and are now losing family members to the opioid crisis.  This is a crowd for whom voting for Donald Trump is totally rational.

Yes, we can pretend that society’s problems don’t affect us, and that those who don’t fit into the new economy are not our concern.  But those who don’t fit in get to speak their mind, and it’s not in a way that some find pleasant.