Love Will Keep Us Together, Even at the Office

Hugging Zebras. By Nicole Doherty
Hugging Zebras. Photo courtesy of Nicole Doherty.

Sexual dynamics in the workplace can be troublesome even when they turn out well, and the worst-case scenarios can be a disaster.  Yet, if you think about your experience and look at the stories in the news about workplace sexual harassment, there is a recurring theme that harassment displays a lack of love.  We live in a pivotal era when harassment is rightly being called-out on a mass scale. At the same time, emerging research indicates that workplaces with love are higher functioning.  What shall we do?

This is a longer post than usual because the well of love is deep.

One of the main studies is aptly named “What’s Love Got To Do with It? The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting” by Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill, Administrative Science Quarterly, May 29, 2014.

Barsade & O’Neill conducted research on the work environment in long-term care facilities.  Their research is summarized in a Harvard Business Review article, concluding that:

“Employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork.  They showed up to work more often.  …this type of culture related directly to client outcomes, including improved patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER.”

For those skeptical that long-term care facilities are too focused on care to embody a larger workforce trend, these findings were repeated in a follow-up study of seven different industries.

Barsade & O’Neill make a distinction when describing companionate love, which is “…based on warmth, affection, and connection rather than passion…”

In analytics, data definitions are extremely important because people can apply a word to multiple meanings, causing errors before they run the numbers.

The School of Life has a four-minute YouTube video asserting that “love” is a troublesome word which creates confusion and unrealistic expectations.

The video notes that the ancient Greeks used three different words with better meaning: eros is passionate love, philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, and agape is a charitable love that we feel for those who have acted badly, are in pain, or whose faults and weaknesses are endearing.  I interpret that companionate love it is a blend of philia and agape.

In a Harvard Business Review article from 2016, Duncan Coombe discusses people’s tendency to use euphemisms to avoid saying the word love.  “You might prefer to use words like compassion, respect, or kindness.  That’s okay.  They all speak to the core idea, which is intentionally expressing concern and care for the well-being of another.” (emphasis added)

A lot of business leaders are nervous about love being connected to lust.  Barsade & O’Neill tell an interesting story:

“…we talked with employees at a large aerospace defense contractor who told us about a newly acquired division that had a strong culture of love.  Employees there routinely greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. Visiting executives from the parent company were alarmed to see this gesture, finding it not only inappropriate but possibly an invitation to sexual harassment lawsuits. Although they initially tried to prohibit such displays of affection, ultimately they decided to allow the culture to flourish within the division…”

Reflecting on the different types of love, it is important to consider that passion and concern for others are two very different things.  Sexual harassment largely consists of advances made with little concern for the well-being of others.  One of the central problems with our sexual culture is that women are often perceived as objects devoid of perspective, opinions, and feelings.  The opposite of this would be a world in which men are sincerely curious about, and interested in, the perspectives and opinions of women in the workplace. 

Men are reading the news, reflecting on their past, and getting nervous about whether they are going to be accused of harassment.  But this is healthy, since they can’t feel nervous without cultivating a concern for the feelings of others.  It is not so much that our culture needs to be de-sexualized, rather that we should all be aspiring to greater concern for one another’s perspectives, emotional state, and general wellbeing.  As such, organizational love — a combination of philia and agape — complements a harassment-free workplace.

Andrew Rosen at has a humorous blog post, asserting that the co-worker crush is good for the office.  In brief, people work harder, dress better, communicate more clearly, and have more spring in their step getting out the door on Monday morning.  Mind you, this is a description of outward behaviours.  Entry-level attempts to create a harassment-free environment include prescriptions about how we ought to behave.  Don’t stare at a colleague’s cleavage, say firefighter not fireman, don’t ask people where they are from.  But you have to go deeper.

I once spent several years reading manuals on good manners.  I was raised by hippies and I needed to up my game.  It turns out that etiquette is the display of behaviours that adhere to certain rules.  By contrast, manners are good behaviours arising from a concern for the other person, with the goal to not cause harm or discomfort.

Looking closely at each prescribed behaviour, you learn that each of the correct behaviours are intended to prevent the social pain of others.  When you “get” manners, you do not get a high score for memorizing rules.  Instead, you learn to feel the other person’s feelings and choose your behaviour accordingly.  Once again, it comes back to love.

For example, I hold the door open for people all the time.  There’s a secure door in my workplace, and I feel the other’s person’s frustration about having to fumble for their key-card.  I put a small effort into relieving them of this frustration, not because of rules, but because I sincerely want them to be free of discomfort.  I think they know I feel this way, and that may be why I have never been asked me to stop opening the door for strong women.

Once you know yourself a little better, and get to know others as well, you also have a shot at influencing the collective wellbeing.  One of the books that Coombe referenced is Love Works (by Joel Manby) which veers into religion-based love.  I was starting to think this was taking me off-topic.  But then Coombe noted:

“I have previously suggested that love is indeed the underlying impulse behind corporate citizenship and sustainability. We believe that love is a much-needed antidote to many of the challenges facing our communities and planet.”

That is, if we reach into our hearts to find motivation to make a better world, we can’t help ourselves to live our values and apply our best efforts.  Coombe noted:

“…founder-led businesses, family businesses, and the military are where we have seen the most frequent references to (and comfort with) love. Why is this? Our understanding is that love requires high levels of personalization — it is the opposite of the detached corporate automaton.”

If you did a double-take when you saw references to the military having a lot of love, remember our more nuanced Greek definitions.  Philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, which includes the collective sense of brotherhood.  As Shakespeare described it in a speech in Henry V, “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”  Let’s love each other as a group, march forward into our best efforts, and share our victory or defeat, together.  This loving sense of sisterhood is also noticeable in the #metoo movement.

It’s not all unicorns and cupcakes.  Some people have had a difficult history with love.  Bringing up love in the workplace can make some people uncomfortable, and preaching to such people about love doesn’t work, according to Coombe.  This makes sense because you would only connect with them if you were considerate about where they were coming from.

Love is something you can give; it is not something you can ask for. But, if you add a little nuance, watch your manners, and give freely of your understanding and compassion, maybe a little love can make your workplace better.

Sexism is a By-product of Incompetence

Trump Tower (Stuart)
Trump Tower.  Photo by author.
In the game of life, are you nice to those who out-perform you?  Maybe, if it’s not a big deal if you lose.  But if you lose games all the time, you might not be nice to those who are strong.

There was an interesting study from 2015 making the rounds anew in November 2017.  The study showed that low-performing males in the online game Halo 3 were hostile towards high-performing females.  The study found:

“…lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when [the male was] performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance…. Higher-skilled [male] players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate.”

The general idea is that in a contest of skills in a male-dominated environment, there is a hierarchy amongst the men in which junior men are politely submissive towards the men who are at the top of their game.  However, if a woman enters the arena, the lower-ranking men perceive that they can be pushed even lower in the hierarchy and respond with hostility towards the female entrants.

By contrast, higher-performing males aren’t as worried about hierarchical reorganization, so they act like gentlemen, scoring points (figuratively) for being both high-performing and well-mannered.

This is relevant to workforce analytics because the data was good.  There was a clear performance measurement, verbal communications were recorded (including hostility), and it was possible to split the data between males and females.  It’s hard to get this kind of data, and sometimes it’s best to look at games and sports, where data is abundant, to make meaningful interpretations.

In terms of what interpretations to make, it’s a reminder that women can’t simply be given permission to enter a male-dominated area of work.  Verbal discouragement and unfair treatment can damage performance, so creating an inclusive environment is key to allowing women to perform at their pre-existing level of competence.  But that only takes care of women coming up to par.  It is also implied that women need support to grow upwards and onwards.  That is, encouragement and targeted supports directed towards women might be part-and-parcel of enabling women to become equals and superiors.  And some of this support might come from high-functioning men.

The paper entitled Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour, by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, is from July 15, 2016.  In my own network I picked this up as a result of the paper being tweeted by Dr. Jennifer Berdahl from UBC.  Dr. Berdahl is well-known and her tweet drove more than 5,400 retweets and 214 comments.

The comments responding to Dr. Berdahl’s tweet were lively and provocative.  For example, the original paper proposes an evolutionary rationale for the male behaviour, and several people thought this was not meaningful (i.e. maybe this has nothing to do with cavemen).  Some people thought that the context of the research (online gaming) is not representative of society overall, because of the number of teenage boys involved.  It’s well known that those aged 15-25 exhibit behaviours that cannot be extrapolated into the general population.

The most prevalent comment was that the study rings true.  This pattern of behaviour resembles typical behaviour in society, and it mirrors peoples’ experiences in many realms.

Don’t Hate Mayhem. Love Complexity Instead.

You Better Hold On. By Jane Rahman
You Better Hold On. Photo courtesy of Jane Rahman.

The strongest defense against a bewildering world is a love of complexity and ambiguity.

Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most popular female novelist, has provided a brilliant critique of our modern times.  In her TED Talk from September 2017, she expresses concerns about economic uncertainty, the impact this uncertainty has on our emotional bewilderment, and knock-on effect this has on the appeal of demagogues.

“Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment, and I think lots of fear.  But here’s the thing:  Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors.  …I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions.  Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure, and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models.”

Speaking as a workforce analyst, these are my sentiments exactly.  People like me often try to figure out what is happening inside the workplace while thinking of employees as livestock or machines.  But then the people talk, and their souls come through.  Their context and their lives prevail over objective definitions of effectiveness.  Workplace culture overpowers the declarations of those with authority.

Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification

Nowhere do I see this more than when I split a dataset into demographic categories.  The categories are usually either-or scenarios, such as age bracket, binary sex, or length of service.  And just as we find the definitive behaviors and opinions of a certain category of people, with a little more digging we find that there is a deeper human story that defies categories.  I see men taking parental leaves, older workers expressing career ambitions, and high-school dropouts with unmet educational needs.  Putting people into categories only helps find a demographic that best gives voice to the human story.  But that human story will usually speak for everyone.

Shafak, who understands human stories, notes that demagogues “…strongly, strongly dislike plurality.  They cannot deal with multiplicity.  Adorno used to say, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.’  …that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we are living in?  Because everywhere I look, I see nuances slipping withering away.  …So slowly and systematically we are being denied the right to be complex.”

To Shafak, it is the bewilderment imposed upon us by change that makes us susceptible to the simple ideas offered by demagogues.  “…In the face of high-speed change many people wish to slow down, and when there is too much unfamiliarity people long for the familiar, and when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.  This is a very dangerous crossroads, because it is exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture.”

Emotional Intelligence, Embracing Complexity, and Building Resilience to Organizational Change

Shafak suggests that “…we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide.”  Those who struggle with complexity and ambiguity need our help.  We’re not at liberty to define non-complex people as the “other,” as people whose opinions we can reject in yet another polarizing simplification.

I felt this concern when I followed the James Damore incident at Google.  A programmer on the autism spectrum was fired for writing an anti-diversity manifesto, and his memo showed that he struggled with sensitivity training in a culture of diversity.  He attempted to attribute the onus of emotional intelligence to a liberal bias and the imposition of allegedly feminine social concerns.  The true lesson was not so much that bigotry sucks; it is that simplified emotions make us prey to extreme opinions.  I think we need to devote more time and energy to empathizing with the perplexed.

Shafak is insistent that we must cherish complexity.  We must value ambiguity.  We must allow ourselves to carry multiple identities and become the cosmopolitan people who can adapt to the world.  For me, I felt reassured that a deep curiosity for new information and enthusiasm for diverse views is the ultimate resistance against bad ideas.

With complexity we can have a meaningful society, meaningful work, and a resilient sense of self that allows us to move forward.  Only then can we get back to work and do our jobs well.

Can We Teach Robots to be Egalitarian?

Abstract robot head from different angles on black background. Artificial intelligence. 3D render.

Can we teach robots to be less biased than us?  Probably yes.  But only if we do this right.  Bias is mostly the product of mental shortcuts we make in our reasoning, and machines can only think clearly if we teach them to not make the same mental shortcuts.

There is an interesting article about employers’ best attempts at reducing bias in hiring algorithms.  Paul Burley, the CEO at Predictive Hire, describes his company’s efforts to identify and eliminate bias in the recruitment and selection of the best job applicants.  This work goes beyond eliminating applicant names from a conventional recruitment processes; this effort gets into predictive analytics to identify the best candidate.

Burley is particularly keen on identifying interview questions that drive bias (either direct or adverse-effect discrimination), and then eliminating those questions entirely.  While they do not use demographic information inside their algorithms, they do use demographic information outside of the algorithm, to test if any of their questions are causing a bias after-the-fact.

Using Workforce Analytics to Identify Invisible Bias

It sounds to me like his company is going about it the right way.  With bias, we don’t disproportionately “choose” white males to be the boss.  Rather, we assess what traits would normally indicate strong leadership, accidentally carry-forward historic stereotypes about strong leaders, and then inadvertently choose white males.  Plenty of people, including some women and visible minorities, accidentally advance this momentum.  That is because it’s the underlying thought patterns driving things, rather than deliberate and malevolent racism and sexism.  You can make one step forward by not being a jerk, but take two steps backward on something called cognitive bias.  And everyone does cognitive bias, not just the man.

Over at Better Humans, they have created a Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.  Personally, I have been trying to stay on top of cognitive bias since it was revealed to be a major driver of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the subsequent Great Recession.  Cognitive bias is overwhelming, and that’s illustrative of what the real problem is.  The world just gives us too much information to process, so we make shortcuts in our thinking to make sometimes-accurate judgments.  In the language of behavioral economics, prejudice is largely the advancing of skewed thinking based on cognitive bias shortcuts.

Information Overload – Are Machines Better Equipped Than Humans?

The big deal with big data is that machines are supposed to help us overcome the over-abundance of information.  Sure, we can find patterns and dig up nuggets that are buried in a mountain of data.  But if we are also making judgment calls using cognitive shortcuts because the human brain can’t handle the volume, there is the opportunity to use the machine to allow us to make judgments using all of the information.  We can create algorithms that are larger and more complex, bypassing the constraints of cognitive bias, and produce recommendations that are far less biased than those produced by humans.

We don’t entirely have the option of just turning the machine off.  Going off-grid just sends us back to biased decisions made by humans on gut instinct.  Think of who you know, and consider that not all luddites are champions of equality.  Right now, we are just getting past the first wave of machines imitating our own sexism and racism.  We now have the option of telling the machines to stop doing that, and then building new algorithms that meet our own purported standards of neutrality.

But this will happen if and only if we choose to name our biases, talk openly about them, measure them, make decisions to reverse them, and keep improving the algorithms such that everyone has a fair shot at the good jobs.  And even then, we still can’t trust robots to decide where to seat people on the bus.  We must forever be vigilant, and stay human.

Loving Math, Caring About Peers

Nerd. by David Nichols
Nerd. Photo courtesy of David Nichols

Some time has passed, so let’s calmly reflect on the anti-diversity manifesto that got a software engineer fired from Google in August of 2017.  James Damore, the author, has to be the unluckiest person on earth.  Not only did he lack the genetics and environmental upbringing to be compassionate about the emotions of others (he might be on the autism spectrum), but he also wrongly attributed his career difficulties to the ascent of workplace diversity initiatives.

He delivered his critique via the alt-right media one week prior to the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.  That incident provoked corporate executives, top-ranking generals, and mainstream Republicans to denounce the rally and distance themselves from Donald Trump’s muddled sympathies in the aftermath.  Damore and his fans have left no opening for a nuanced discussion about the effects of diversity initiatives on those with developmental disorders, a potentially meaningful topic of debate.

In this article in the New York Times, author Claire Cain Miller proffers a critique of the role of emotional intelligence in the modern world of information technology.  It turns out that technology has a massive overlap with social and emotional context.

Emotional Intelligence in Workforce Analytics and Computer Programming

For deep evidence, the article cites 2015 research from David Demming that finds job growth and wage growth are highest among roles that use both math skill and social skills.  The idea is that workers “trade tasks” with one another, to allow specialization of talents and improved efficiency when work duties are shuttled back and forth.  Those who trade tasks more effectively through the use of social skills are more productive; hence more jobs and higher pay.

This double-barreled skill set is abundantly obvious to those in workforce analytics.  We spend half our day figuring out cool formulas and novel discoveries.  But the other half of our day is spent interpreting client need, negotiating resource priorities, wordsmithing data definitions, developing interpretations that are suitable to context, and showing compassion while we advance disruption.  However, my field is new.

When computer programming was new it was originally considered highly social work.  There was an abundance of women working in the field.  Through some office-culture twists and turns, things changed.  Boys and men who weren’t as clever at the social skills self-selected into programming.  It worked out for a lot of people.  But there’s a problem; at some point in someone’s career their next chance for a promotion is contingent on social skills.  Those who are lacking in this area see their careers stalled.

Examples abound of coding projects with male-dominated teams who lacked context, who missed an important detail about women’s perspectives.  Apple’s original health app tracked everything except menstrual cycles, the most-tracked health data point amongst women.  Google Plus obliged users to specify their gender and provide a photo, exposing women to harassment.

The Times article also cites research from 2010 by Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll showing that gender stereotypes about skills and performance are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s not true that women are naturally bad at math, but it is abundantly true that women who are told they are bad at math will under-perform and rate themselves more harshly.  The struggle about this stereotype has played out in dramatic ways over the years.

How to Improve Workplace Culture to Ensure Equality for Women

In terms of what to do about this, Correll advises that we:  1) ensure there are no negative gendered beliefs operating in the organization, 2) ensure performance standards are unambiguous and communicated clearly so that sexism does not fill the vacuum, and 3) hold senior management accountable for gender disparities in hiring, retention, and promotion.  That third item is metrics-based accountability, which means that business performance, diversity, and workforce analytics are fundamentally entwined.

The times article notes that “one way to develop empathy at companies is by hiring diverse teams, because people bring different perspectives and life experiences.”  While we might perceive that equity and inclusion efforts come from an activist base, there is a corporate interest in fostering inclusion.  High-performance workplaces need an environment where tasks and diverse views are shuttled back and forth, with ease and good manners.

As for white white males who desperately struggle with emotional intelligence, their voice will have to wait another day.  And probably wait for another leader.

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.