Swearing makes people stronger

Hear no evil, speak no ev... Well you know the rest. By Barbara Burton
Hear no evil, speak no ev… Well you know the rest.  Photo courtesy of Barbara Burton.

Do you swear in the workplace?  I bet you try not to, at least not too often.  But sometimes it slips out, and sometimes it just feels right.  What do we know about the effect profanity has on our candor and our emotional closeness to others?

Years ago, I was driving my two-and-a-half year old daughter to childcare.  It was cold out, and she was safely bucked into the car seat in the back.  We lived on a major street, and I drove Westbound a half-mile to the nearest red light.  There was a car in front of us with the right turn signal on, but they weren’t turning.  My daughter said “Get out of the fawa way.”  My head tilted, and I ran the phrase through my head.  “Sweetie,” I asked, “what did you just say?”

“Get out of the fucking way,” she announced.  I contained my laughter.  This was her first F-bomb, and I had just enough self-control to realize I couldn’t teach her this was funny.  I had to keep this social.

“Darling,” I asked, “where did you learn to talk like that?”

“Mummy talks that way every time she drives.”  I gripped the wheel and tensed my facial muscles, using all of my life force to resist laughing.  The light changed, and we continued driving.  I turned into the ever-familiar cul-de-sac, and we stepped into the childcare to take off her shoes and jacket.  I asked our childcare provider, Liliana, if I could borrow her phone.  I said there was something I needed my wife to hear.  Liliana said she knew what this was about.  She was experienced.

I phoned my wife who was at home on maternity leave bonding with our second child.  “Hello?” she answered.  “Hi, your daughter just said something and I want you to hear it” I said.  “Oh, this can’t be good” she cringed.  I handed my daughter the phone and prompted her to “Say to mummy what you hear her say every time she drives.”  She was wearing a cute little dress with pink flowers.  She held the phone to her ear and yelled: “Fuckin’ mooove!”

What the Science Says About Profanity

What does swearing accomplish, really?  Citing excerpts from Emma Byrne’s Swearing is Good For You a Wired article from January 2018 described several behavioral experiments involving swearing.  In one, test subjects were asked to submerge their hands in ice water until they could not tolerate it any more.  Some were asked to state neutral terms describing furniture, and others were asked to say a profanity.

“…when they were swearing, the intrepid volunteers could keep their hands in the water nearly 50 percent longer as when they used their non-cursing, table-based adjectives. Not only that, while they were swearing the volunteers’ heart rates went up and their perception of pain went down. In other words, the volunteers experienced less pain while swearing.”

Enduring physical pain was also associated with aggressive game-playing, and a willingness to harm others in a simulation in which they could choose to shock others.  There’s a cross-over between insensitivity, enduring discomfort, mean-ness, and profanity.  Hence our vocabulary is so much richer when driving.

Swearing also makes people physically stronger.  Athletes can attest to this.  In one study cited by the Guardian people swearing while operating an exercise bike saw their peak power increase by 28 watts.  In another test, profanity increased grip strength by 2.1kg.

We can envision a profanity-rich working environment where people exert physical effort and occasionally get hurt.  I imagine construction sites, the armed forces, and resource sectors as places where swearing might just be a normal coping mechanism for the physical environment.  But what about an office environment?

Directly quoting Byrne’s book once again, an article from the Cut noted

“From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t,” she writes. …A study published earlier this year backs up this and other research, suggesting swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation … and cohesion.”

Referencing other research, the article noted that profanity “…does still carry some social risk — it’s still a little bit taboo — so it imparts a feeling of trust in whomever you’re swearing with.”

Profanity Must Be Distributed Fairly

It’s interesting that we would trust people who swear more.  On one hand, people are going against the current to express a more candid emotional state.  On the other hand, people who break all the rules tend to swear more… and those people aren’t more trustworthy.  There’s a good review of the literature by Scott McGreal in Psychology Today, in which he looks at three different studies about honesty and swearing.  McGreal concludes the findings are mixed and sometimes contradictory.

A frustrating feature of this trust and solidarity is the double-standard on the use of profanity.  In the article in the Cut, Byrne noted men and women used to both swear with abandon until the early 18th century. Then women were encouraged to adopt cleaner language.  Men, by contrast retained the right to swear, using their power to express a full range of emotion.  To this day, there is more judgement when women swear, compared to the men’s presumed freedom.

My question is, if there’s a workplace that has a mixture of men and women, how are people to experience equality and camaraderie without a level playing-field for profanity?  If it’s male-stereotyped work involving physical strength and the endurance of pain and discomfort, do we disadvantage women in those workplaces by discouraging them from swearing?  And what about female-dominated work in health care, child care, and food services that often require strength and the enduring of pain and discomfort?  Those are customer-facing work environments, so some decorum is in order.  Are we discouraging full workplace performance by requiring lady-like vocabularies?

Besides, who ever said that women should swear less in the first place?

One thing’s for certain, this opinion did not come from my wife.

I wish I was insecure

teenage confusion, by Pabak Sarkar
teenage confusion.  Photo courtesy of Pabak Sarkar.

I wish I was more insecure, so I could relate better to colleagues who struggle with their insecurity. I keep missing opportunities to share moments of vulnerability.  I can’t tap into that common language where we all wish we were better.  People watch me, waiting for me to trip-up, and then I succeed.  Then they stop watching.  This is not how you get likes.

Perhaps I can overcome this challenge by doing more research.

My greatest frustration is articles proclaiming that almost everyone is insecure.  From a Huffington Post article by Susan Winter:

Every human being wonders if they’re “okay.” That’s the big secret no one shares and no one wants to share.  …at the core of every human is the desire to be accepted and seen as valuable in the eyes of those around us.  …There will be times you’ll feel on top of the world and times you’ll doubt your worth. This is normal. It’s a part of our forward movement as we take stock of who we are, in transit to who we’re becoming.

I feel like the captain of a Star Trek vessel observing “the planet of the insecure” hesitating about whether I should help.  If I could cure this planet of its insecurities, would their social order fall apart?  Would I take away that one thing that moves them forward every day?

What Teenagers Learn About Status and Insecurity

In this age of industrialized narcissism, the insecure are way better at delivering photos of their perfect life, drawing attention to their accomplishments, and working late to meet high expectations.  In an Inc.com article Jessica Stillman cites Yale psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who bemoans that a growing number of platforms are making it easier for us to gain status.  Prinstein differentiates between two types of popularity, status and likability.  Those who pursue and achieve high status tend towards “aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”

It’s great television.

In another article Stillman argues you should be relieved if you were not a cool kid in high school.  Cool kids get their reputation through behaviours that must become increasingly extreme in order to keep up with their subgroup.  At some point these antics veer into criminal behaviour and drug use which peers realize isn’t cool at all: “by the age of 22, these ‘cool kids’ are rated as less socially competent than their peers.”

By contrast, those who focused on developing one really close friendship “reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.”  Nerds and healthy people work on their likeability.  Not facebook likes – that’s just a type of status.  I’m talking about people liking you for who you really are.  This is hard work. You need to make yourself vulnerable to close friends.  Sincerely attempt to improve yourself.  Be authentic in your words and deeds.  Back to Susan Winter’s Huffington Post article…

A truly empowered person can look at their shortcomings and seek improvement. The arrogantly insecure must only see a mirror that reflects their perfection. …The nature of growth requires embracing the new and unexplored. Security is opposed to growth, as growth is chaotic and unsettling.  Insecurity is the gift of wondering what comes next in our discovery process. [Emphasis added]

Insecurity is a good thing?  I’m furious.

Defining Emotional Security and Its Evil Twin, Insecurity

When doing people analytics, the first pass at the numbers often hinges on a data definition that needs better clarity.  Humanity is ambiguous and the closer we get to precisely measuring people, the more the human element claps-back at the empirical system, exposing that it’s the quantitative models themselves that are vulnerable.

Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Wikipedia has a great article on emotional security, which by default gets into insecurity.  Wikipedia is the source of consensus amateur opinion, which is perfect for you and me.  I mean you.  No offense. Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Already we’re in a pickle given Brené Brown’s research that the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to make ourselves vulnerable to others on a topic of personal shame.  To go deep in a relationship, we must choose to be insecure.  Those high school kids with one close friend were onto something.

Is There Anything Tangible We Can Do About Insecurity?

Is there anything tangible about insecurity?  Yes. Wikipedia says

The concept [of Emotional security] is related to that of psychological resilience in as far as both concern the effects which setbacks or difficult situations have on an individual. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience.

Some people have a status and/or demeanor with which they can weather setbacks better than others.  Therefore the emotional state of insecurity relates to 1) things that do in fact happen to us, 2) our ability to adapt to those things that happen including our own actions, and 3) our perspective and emotional state that arises from our experiences and adaptations.

This trifecta reveals that there are multiple responses to these shocks to our lives.  We can prevent bad things from happening through precautions and defenses.  We can mitigate after things have happened through insurance claims, emotional debriefs with friends, or by pressing charges.  We can improve our adaptations by upping our game (by trying harder or changing our methods as individuals), or fighting back against a collective injustice (e.g. go to a rally or make a targeted donation), or sometimes just letting others win (e.g. I hereby choose to load the dishwasher).

Or we can choose a different perspective and emotional state, such as accepting flaws in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large.  There is comfort in humility.  If you don’t like that, there’s always hope.  Choose your emotional posture.  Shape the clouds with your own bare hands.

What a Secure Workplace Looks Like

Now, let’s consider what this means in the workplace.  If an employee knows what is expected of them every day, they can correctly self-assess if they are delivering on expectations and change course accordingly.  If an employee has one good friend in the workplace, they can share vulnerable moments in which they are reassured and accepted as who they are.  If an employee is mistreated or put at risk, they can only prevent and mitigate if they are free to complain, talk to the union, or refuse unsafe working conditions.  If the employee faces unexpected dental expenses or fears poverty in retirement, they focus better when their employer provides pensions and benefits.

Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

The employer is asking people to do work for them, and in return offers an environment that is economically, physically, and emotionally reassuring to their security.  Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

There we go, my work is done.  It’s amazing what you can learn about a topic you know nothing about by putting a few hours into research and explaining things.  It feels accomplished.  It’s not that I was feeling insecure earlier.  I wasn’t.  I’m only doing this for you.

Do you like it?

Creepiness Defined

Dead-eyed girl portrait
Dead-eyed girl portrait. Photo courtesy of simpleinsomnia.

You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.  To avoid doing so, you need to know more about what creepiness actually is.  Here’s an example.  If you are a parent, you may have noticed in your duties as tooth fairy that you need to safely hide the teeth.  In our family it was my duty to make the money-for-tooth exchange silently in the dark.  Also in the darkness – but not as stealthily – I would diligently place the tooth in the hiding space my wife had designated, in the middle drawer of her jewellery case.  One time in the light of day my wife fully-opened the drawer, saw the collection of teeth in all its glory, and screamed.  She was creeped out by herself.  We joked about making a necklace, and we laughed and laughed.  They’re gone now.

Creepiness was the subject of fresh research published two years ago in the paper On the Nature of Creepiness.  It’s by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke in New Ideas in Psychology as of March 30, 2016.  It’s only six pages long, it’s well-written, and you can download it here.

The Definition of Creepiness

They define creepiness as follows:

A mugger who points a gun in your face and demands money is certainly threatening and terrifying. Yet, most people would probably not use the word “creepy” to describe this situation. It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc) that might be present. Such uncertainty results in a paralysis as to how one should respond. In the mugging situation, there is no ambiguity about the presence or nature of threat. [Emphasis added]

The findings from the paper come from a survey of 1341 people who ranked items on a creepiness scale.  They ranked careers, behaviours, hobbies, and features of physical appearance.  With some consistency, the items at the top of the creepiness scale represent an ambiguity of whether there is something we should fear.

The creepiest occupations are clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner, and funeral director.  Creepy behaviours are things like standing too close, making it impossible to leave, and odd clothing or laughter.  The creepy features of appearance are greasy hair, bulging eyes, long fingers, and pale skin (i.e. features that make people look like a zombie or a skeleton).  Creepy hobbies include things that involve a lot of watching (such as bird watching), or collecting dolls, insects, or body parts.  I mean really, who collects body parts?

It’s fascinating that creepiness, although real, is three steps removed from a matter of substance.  The substantial item is harm.  You take it back one step and perceive a threat, which is the intention of harm or the likelihood one will experience harm.  Then you perceive the ambiguity of that threat.  The final step is that this ambiguity is subjectively-felt as anxiety.  So, whereas there may be material evidence of harm after it has been experienced, creepiness anticipates harm, three steps removed, has less evidence, and is hard to prove.  It’s no wonder why creeps lurk in this environment.

Eliminating Creepiness in the Workplace

It’s one thing to understand creepiness in public spaces.  But what does this new understanding about creepiness say about how we should behave at work?  We know that leadership and organizational culture shape our environment.   As a manager or human resources professional you have significant influence over several perceived risks such as health & safety, workplace cleanliness, and sexual harassment.  You can also influence things that could adversely affect the employee’s economic wellbeing such as layoffs, promotions, and performance conversations.  It is critical to convey a sense that you mean the best and you’re not going to sacrifice the employee’s wellbeing for your own self-interest.

There are also risks associated with the questionable use of data.  If you handle data about peoples’ address, benefits claims, and participation in wellbeing programs, you should feel a great sense of responsibility.  Add to that the secrets given to you by other managers about secret agendas and the organization’s direction, and you soon discover that you are truly a guardian of privileged information that can be used for good or evil.

Handling information properly can impact your reputation and how people feel about your leadership and your judgment.  You need to feel that healthy sense of fear that if you mishandled something, bad things could happen.  When I snuck into my children’s bedrooms at night to swap money for teeth, I was quite worried that I would be exposed as the tooth fairy and scar their innocence.  I felt the weight of generations past, that I must do this one thing well.

If confidential work is done poorly, you could harm a third party, the organization, or your own career.  The harm could be a matter of substance.  Or it could simply be a threat to those affected.  If you cannot provide credible assurances that you mean the best, then you are creating ambiguity about a threat of harm.

You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.

To avoid being creepy you need to be truthful, consistent, and transparent.  Or to be precise, you need to show a competent handling of truth and transparency, as if lying and secrecy were things you only do as a duty to society.  After the truth is known, will people say you did the right thing?

More than anything, trust is about advancing a sense of integrity and authenticity, that things are as they seem.  A trustworthy environment allows people to forget about bad things.  Trust allows people to stop spending precious work hours protecting themselves and each other.  If you want people to contribute their best work and share their best ideas, they need to feel safe.

So could you please keep your story straight about the tooth fairy?  Other leaders are trying to keep it together, too.  We need to tell the same story.  And keep that tooth collection hidden.

Bad is the new good

Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. By Phil Roeder
Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

Several of the things that make work unpleasant are actually making you more effective.  And that bodes well for increasing your value, improving your job security, and advancing your career.

I have a confession to make.  I keep a list of things that I have failed at.  It’s on the back-page of my in-house accountability document, the “boast report” where I write down my team’s accomplishments for the year.  Only a few people have read it, contrary to the very spirit of boasting.

The document came in handy one time when my value was questioned.  My own boss simply forwarded the document to another senior leader, and that was the end of debate.  It was seven pages long… in bullet form.  I doubled-down after that and started to list efforts where I had attempted and failed.  It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Talking About Mistakes Improves Learning and Relationships

We have come a long way since feeling shame about our mistakes. And talking openly about our failures is considered a key to success.

We must now think of talking openly about mistakes as a key to success.  A New York Times article by Oset Babur from August 17, 2018 delves into the research on meaningful failures.

Babur talks with Allison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School, who encourages people to discuss their failures.  That is because “…discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace.  It also generally increased levels of so-called ‘benign envy,’ which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.”

It brings to mind the principle from Brené Brown’s famous TED talk that making yourself vulnerable is the key to meaningful relationships.

By contrast, boasting about your achievements creates malicious envy.  Attempts to convey an image of perfection are “…harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous..”  It’s an in-person version of the effects of Facebook, that if everyone is portraying their best moments, it makes us collectively miserable we’re not doing as well as everyone else.  To be precise, if we are engaging with others about what is truly happening in their lives, we become more connected and happier.  But if we’re passive observers of these boasts, we become increasingly unhappy.

Babur interviews Amy Edmonston from Harvard Business School who describes different types of failures.  One failure type is called intelligent failure, which occurs “when we’re working in areas in which we don’t have expertise or experience, or in areas that are unchartered in a broad, industry-wide sense.”  Intelligent failures are a result of exploration and they generate new information.  Refusing to talk about failure prevents learning, causing a recurrence of the same mistake.  You need a safe environment where you can trust that talking about failure will be valuable.

Constructive Friction – How Jerks Make You More Effective

But you don’t want to be too safe.  It’s also helpful talking to people you disagree with. To summarize, jerks make you more productive.  An August 2018 Linkedin article by Michael Arena reports on research from Stanford University’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao when describing feedback on ideas produced in-house:

…constructive friction is essential to scaling ideas because the resistance to the initial concept creates a pressure-testing effect that encourages iteration and co-creation. …when ideas and concepts are modified in response to friction from another team, their perspective is incorporated, therefore enhancing the likelihood of broader organizational endorsement. Internal friction, creates organizational lift—much the way headwinds assist with an aircraft’s takeoff.

Arena notes that there is a distinction between constructive friction and destructive friction.  Yes, there are jerks who are just dragging things down and poisoning the organizational culture.  The positive force is constructive colleagues on rival teams that provide brutal-yet-accurate feedback that your first and second drafts are not going to fly.  It’s as if we need a companion course for respectful workplace workshops, that if you truly love your colleagues you must give powerful feedback.

Is there anyone in your workplace who cares for you in this way?  I hope so.  Sometimes you need friends who always take your side.  But other friends keep you guessing.  And it’s the ones that keep you guessing that are helping you grow.

Instability and Uncertainty Cause Your Brain to Learn

In an Inc.com article from August 2018 Jessica Stillman shares research that you only learn when you are uncertain about the outcome.  The research comes from Yale’s Daeyeol Lee who did research on monkeys.

…scientists taught a group of monkeys to hit various targets for a reward of tasty juice. Sometimes the odds of a particular target producing a sweet treat were fixed … Sometimes the target was more unpredictable… If the monkeys could predict how often a target would pay off, brain regions associated with learning basically shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t guess what would happen, their learning centers lit up.

Once you have figured out the best way of doing something, such as your commute home, you stop thinking about it and don’t try to improve the outcome.  “For this reason, stability kills learning.”

Stillman recommends that in order to keep learning, you need to seek the unpredictable and bring “strategic instability” into your life.  She recommends travel, change of routine, new projects, and seeking unusual perspectives, including a list that she got from Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison.

The Best Workplace Culture is Not Too Cozy

You may have thought that if you achieved success, you might get to live a life that is easier.  You won’t have to deal with jerks, things will finally become settled and comfortable, and you will only have to talk about success.  But the opposite is true.  To be a winner you must expose yourself to constant disruption, seek out the jerks, and talk openly about your failures.  You can’t climb to the top and rest, because that pile of people below you is still moving.  You must always be in play, always strive to break even and get ahead.  Excellence is in the striving, not in being there.

Talking about failure without punishment depends on the trust level in the organization.  The high-productivity learning organization needs a workplace culture that nurtures, provides support, and fosters trust.  Only then can we get that savage feedback we desperately need.  Only then can we stay constantly on-edge with new changes that keep us learning every day.

You can slip into bed at night knowing that on average, the world is just.  These uncomfortable moments feel good when they end.  To sleep, perchance to fail.

“I’m busy” is the call of the meek (and they shall not inherit the earth)

It's All in the Eyes. By Chris Gilmore
It’s All in the Eyes. Photo courtesy of Chris Gilmore.

Have you ever been stressed and overwhelmed by your workload, but then got the satisfaction of getting a grip of your to-do list?  I manage this several times a month, and I find it empowering and calming.

My favorite part is when I write a fresh list without dragging over the crossed-out items from the prior list. Then I write next to each task the priority number in which I would like to approach them.  After that, I write an new fresh list, prioritized in the order I had chosen.

It turns out I was onto something.  Having a clear sense of purpose and direction is the thing that makes us productive.  And that’s totally different from being busy.

Instead of resorting to the “I’m busy,” proclamation, simply organize your obligations and commitments.  You’ll realize it’s a good thing.

But once things are under control, you lose your bragging rights about being busy.  That’s a bad thing.

“I’m Busy” is a Humblebrag

In an article by Jessica Stillman in Inc.com from 2016, she shares research showing that people who say they are busy are perceived to be more important.  People know the “I’m busy” humblebrag is compelling and they use it liberally.  I think people only say “I’m busy” because others are saying it too.  Kind of like straight people drawing attention to the fact they’re straight, or women’s right activists saying they don’t call themselves feminists.  If there weren’t these crowd-sourced self-impositions to look busy and conform to norms, would we still be grabbing for labels that allow us to fit in and be validated?  Surely it would be easier to bring our best to the workplace and be our usual, weird selves.

As people increasingly say they are busy, the evidence suggests otherwise.  In another article by Stillman she reports data from the U.S. that people are sleeping more and finding more time to watch television compared to a decade ago.  This article was from two years ago when people were still watching televisions instead of being addicted to their phones. On average, people are not more busy.  “It’s not entirely surprising that we fit in all [that]… leisure — the average full-time workweek is a moderate 42 hours.”

Busy People Are Not Always Giving Their Best

In those cases where people are truly busy, it’s not a good thing.  Beyond a certain point people suffer cognitive overload.  In an article in Inc.com from June 2018, Wanda Thibodeaux interviews Fouad ElNaggar, the chief executive of an employee experience portal called Sapho.  ElNaggar cites oft-quoted research that people “…check email 47 times a day… And it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted.  They experience an endless tidal wave of beeps that require an acknowledgement or response and with mobility.”

ElNaggar references research that people compensate for the barrage of interruptions by working faster.  This leaves people stressed-out “…and subsequently, focus, concentration, and creativity – all tank.”  These are not the people who have got into the zone and got a lot of work done exceptionally well.  These are people who are controlled by clients, superiors, Facebook friends, and advertising algorithms coming out of the Silicon Valley.  These are people who have become unimportant.

He asserts responsibility for this problem sits with leadership, but notes individual employees need to share some blame.  He encourages individuals to take control of their calendar and decline meaningless meetings, assign narrow windows to handle email (i.e. not all day long), and keep the cell phone out of the bedroom.

However, this opens two controversial opinions.  One, he presumes we have enough control over our work-day to make these trade-offs.  Only leaders that give employees autonomy can expect employees to improve their work pace for the better. The second is that ElNaggar’s remedies imply you can become more effective by being less busy.

How Productive People Differ from Busy People

In an article from February of 2018, Larry Kim asserts productive people have a mission in their lives, have few priorities, and focus on clarity before action.  “Busy” people want to look like they have a mission, have many priorities, and focus on action regardless of clarity.

Productive people want others to be effective, and busy people want others to be busy.  The list of behaviours and attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but you get a sense of two different styles.

Described in this manner, people who say “I’m busy” are not actually drawing attention to their importance.  Rather, they are broadcasting that they lack focus, have no control, and are short on self-management.  “I’m busy” is a malfunctioning humblebrag, as it serves a backhanded compliment that insults the self.

But it might be early days for this realization.  You might have superiors and influential colleagues who have that busy buzz to them.  If this polarity between productivity and busyness comes into public view, it’s not going to look good for the busy-bees.

The biggest revelation from Kim’s article is that “Productive people make time for what is important.”  Productive people are all about mission, priorities, and focus, and they are allowed to target their time and effort.  If you have ten minutes to spare to get “important” work done, that important work is to consider your values and your mission, and create a fresh draft of your priorities that put everything into perspective.

People might not see you breaking a sweat, but with time you will deliver better results.  But remember, it looks way better when there’s no boasting.  And that will go a lot further after we’ve outed the “I’m busy” call of the meek.

Pay Equity need not be a beast of burden

IMG_2876 - Copy

I sometimes get self-conscious about being more supportive of feminism than some of my women colleagues.  Sure, I have lots of tools at my disposal to help make a difference.  And yes, it is part of my job in Human Resources to make things fair and reasonable.  But is this really my fight?  Should I really be getting excited about it?  I’ll give an example.

In April 2018, Tracey Smith from Numerical Insights blogged that the Gender Pay Gap is NOT the Same as Pay Equity.  It’s an interesting read because there is some truth to it, but the devil is in the details.  I have worked on a several efforts to equalize pay between men and women, and I can confirm the pay equity exercise is narrow in scope and changes salaries far less than some would hope.

The problem is branding.  It’s too popular.  It has become the yoke that carries all the hopes and dreams of the broader equality conversation. We need to expect less of this one solution, and allow for some levity. We need to give pay equity permission to wear sweatpants to the convenience store and grab a slushie, without paparazzi snapping photos for Stars Without Makeup.

Some Problems Are Not Solved by Pay Equity Alone

Smith references the predominance of males in some professions:

Certain STEM-based professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are naturally male-dominated because the graduating classes are male-dominated. That’s the hiring pool, so through no fault of any company, these STEM companies will be “more male” in the specialized jobs.

She also notes it is common for fewer women to apply for management jobs, implying women are self-selecting away from these roles in child-bearing years.  As a result of men self-selecting into higher-paid professions and higher-ranking roles, this creates average salaries for men that are higher.  Smith asserts that this is not a measure of pay equity, and that’s true.  The smaller number of women in these roles might be paid equal to their male counterparts, so pay equity might have been achieved already.

But let’s step back, consider the larger picture, and match problems with reasonable solutions.  If there’s a shortage of women graduates from STEM disciplines, we should consider reserving an equitable number of college and university spaces for women in these fields.  If women are less likely to put themselves forward for management openings, workplaces can cultivate leadership styles that are less critical, are more encouraging, and are time-structured to get people home at a reasonable hour.  If the problem is career growth during childbearing years, a suitable remedy is maternity leave provisions and government-funded child care.

Which tools should we consider if we want to achieve broader equality between the sexes?  My favourite tool is, “all of them, now.”  Does that sound better?  It makes far more sense that ridiculing pay equity for its shortcomings.

Battles Over Pay Equity Legislation Are More Than Meets the Eye

Smith also noted that the United States recently cancelled legislation to require the reporting of average salaries by sex.  The government expressed concerns that the reporting obligation would “lack practical utility, …[be] unnecessarily burdensome, and …not adequately address privacy and confidentiality issues.”  There was something fishy about this quote, so I cut-and-pasted it into a Google search and got something totally different.

In a Washington Post article, reporter Danielle Paquette described this cancelling-of-legislation as the Trump administration reversing an Obama-era rule to shrink the gender wage gap.  That article notes Ivanka Trump originally supported the Obama-era measure, but after she consulted experts, “worried that it wouldn’t work as intended.”  We have since learned that the only expert consulted at the White House is the President himself.  The Obama-era official who brought in the rule and leaders of women’s equality organizations panned the decision.

The Post article quoted Nancy Hammer, who spoke on behalf of the Society for Human Resource Management:

She recommends that employees go to their human resources department if they’re concerned about their paycheck, giving their employer a chance to explain or fix the issue.  Otherwise, Hammer said, “to really do it, you’d need to practically report on every single employee.  That’s not a practical way at looking at this issue nationwide.”

It’s ironic that she thinks it’s impractical to report on every single employee. Moreover, she asserts that for women, as individuals, to approach their human resources department to fix unequal pay without government or union backup, is totally practical. I would note that Nancy Hammer is a lawyer speaking on behalf of HR generalists.  The correct professionals to consult about this work in Compensation, and in North America their profession is represented by WorldatWork.  Also, employees are legally allowed to talk to each other about their pay, despite of the fact that HR often discourages such talk.

Pay Equity Analysis is Not Onerous

Under conventional pay equity plans, employers do in fact report on every single employee, bundled by job classification.  This data-bundling includes average pay and headcount indicators of whether a classification is predominantly made up of men or women.  This data, combined with other sources, allow employers to do a simple statistical analysis to measure pay inequality and take appropriate action.

The analysis is done either by consultants or in-house by HR departments.  The analysis is made available to regulators, union representatives, and litigants alike, under appropriate confidentiality protections.  The process involves slightly more work than creating a new pay structure in the first place.  It’s not practical to do it this way nationwide, because it is done at the organizational level as is normal for pay structure design.  The cancelled legislation obliged employers to report simplified data that was consistent with this approach.

Activist Campaigns Even the Score with the Trump Family

Let’s go back to Ivanka Trump speaking against this legislation.  In July of 2018, Ivanka Trump closed shop on her fashion brand.  Sales were flagging.  In particular, sales were way down at Nordstrom and Hudson’s Bay Company, two of the companies targeted by #grabyourwallet.  For those unfamiliar, #grabyourwallet is a consumer activist campaign that calls on people to refuse to give money to the Trump family.  The campaign was a response to the Access Hollywood tape revealing that Donald Trump thought he could accost women sexually, in public, without recourse, because he was rich and famous.  Some women felt otherwise, hence the campaign.

Let’s return to how women advance their own careers.  If women are reluctant to advance themselves into situations that make them vulnerable because the environment makes them unsafe, maybe the best remedy is to foster and support an activist base that keeps men on their toes about abuses of power.

And if a company is openly unsupportive of women’s equality, one possible remedy is for an activist base to reduce it to rubble.

But don’t try to do this alone.  Team up with others to bring more than one solution.  Pull your car into the convenience store and pick up your old friend in the sweatpants.  As she hands you your own slushie she smiles and says “I found your wallet.”  And drive onward to the next adventure.