Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

Hippos Need a Devil’s Advocate

Hippo II, by Andrew Moore
Hippo II.  Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore.
Hierarchy is the enemy of information-sharing.

In this Linkedin article by Benard Marr the author identifies that people are extremely reluctant to express views contrary to Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion, or HiPPO for short.  Marr cites the book Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, by Avinash Kaushik, in which that author describes the dynamic;

“HiPPOs usually have the most experience and power in the room.  Once their opinion is out, voices of dissent are usually shut out and in some cases, based on the culture, others fear speaking out against the HiPPO’s direction even if they disagree with it.”

Marr references the Milgram experiment in 1963 in which obedience to an authority figure overpowered peoples’ personal conscience.  There is an additional study that finds that projects led by senior leaders fail more often, because employees “…didn’t feel as able to give critical feedback to high-status leaders.”

What is the solution?  Marr asserts that relying on data is critical; we must line up the data to inform a decision prior to gut decisions being expressed by high-ranking people.  There is also an example of Alfred Sloan of General Motors who insisted that a decision should not be made until people have considered that the decision might not be the right one.  Sloan fosters the devil’s advocate in the process of decision-making.

I think this critique and the related research implies that modesty is mission-critical.  It’s an important contrary idea because it implies that confidence might not be a leading indicator of effectiveness.  We wish our leaders were strong and brave and looked the part, but it’s far better when our leaders are right… because they thought twice, and waited for new information, and new opinions, from people with less status.

I also think that a properly organized social network of knowledge is usually superior to the thoughts of any one individual.  With education and access to information, it should become evident that you barely know one percent of what could be known.  However, if you aspire to having a diverse network of people with different backgrounds, contexts, professions, and knowledge, you can bundle together better insights from those who each know a different one percent.

Finally, a pro-social spirit of dissent is key to getting the information moving.  When information goes up the hierarchy there are problems of posture, reprisals, hubris, and corrosive office politics.  If you love knowledge, you should develop a sense that all those things are silly little power games that have nothing to do with wisdom or effectiveness.  To be good at your job, is to regard your superiors as capable agents of decision-making who are morally your equal.  And it’s your job to make them stronger, whether they like it or not.

It’s a troublesome attitude, but that’s part-and-parcel of disrupting decision-making with new and relevant information.

Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

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.

Everything Causes Everything Else

catfight. By Dennis Carr
Catfight. Photo courtesy of Dennis Carr.
Do you need to be engaged at work to be effective?  Sure, maybe.  But maybe not.

A provocative article by Alec Levenson from 2015 argues that Employee Engagement Does Not Cause Performance.  Levenson says the notion that employee engagement causes performance “makes intuitive sense yet does not hold up empirically.”  He argues that the link between engagement and performance is correlation, not causation.  Or rather, if there is causation it is probably the reverse; better corporate performance probably causes higher employee engagement.

I think this interpretation is consistent with the idea that a thriving and growing organization will tend to be in hiring mode and have a larger number of new hires who are in a high-engagement honeymoon phase.  Thriving businesses have newer machinery and newer buildings, and employees are subjected to endless compliments from family and friends for getting a good job at a winning company.  These factors may drive engagement regardless of the work experience.

Levenson notes that the statistical models are troublesome as they can confirm causation in either direction.  It’s a real problem in statistics.  Sometimes the causation can go in both directions or in a circle.  I exercise, so I sleep well, therefore I eat well, and – behold – I have energy to exercise.  Hiring is down, so consumer confidence is down, thus consumer spending is down, and hiring drops further.

Often there is a third factor causing everything else to happen.  Two major drivers of engagement are a collaborative workplace culture and pro-social front-line managers who make positive interventions.  Yet those items can drive productivity directly and engagement directly, resulting in a spurious correlation.

Within the economics field, there is a dirty little secret that everything causes everything else.  Economies are incredibly complex, and economic models often get more accurate as you add a larger number of variables.  Usually the biggest drivers of the economy are things like oil prices, interest rates, housing starts in the US, and consumer spending in China.  When you throw those major drivers into any cause-and-effect model, you usually discover that your personal project is not such a big deal.

However, I think the debate about the direction of causation is moot.  The world is a big, hot mess of major forces driving success and failure, and every now and then someone is able to make the case that they themselves caused everything to happen.  So what should you do?  Give appropriate thanks and move on with your own contribution.

As for the statistical causation, just take your placebo.  Take vitamins, drink that one glass of red wine per day, show up, answer the phone, and go with the flow.  After all, it’s really about your personal engagement, isn’t it?  And maybe the people working next to you.  So help them out, too.  Maybe you can help build team spirit and create a little spurious correlation while you’re at it.

Leadership is the Act of Learning

Portrait Of A Female Student

Are the best leaders currently excellent?  No, they are not.  The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.  Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:

  • “First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
  • “Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
  • “Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights form the results of their experimentation.”

The authors identify several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality that are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.”  Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders; how useful is this information if you can’t see an upward trend?  If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules?  Surely the best leaders are the one who can move upward and onward from any new starting point, regardless of how excellent their performance is currently.  You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders.

Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems.  Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators and anoint those at a high performance level as those worthy of recognition.  But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes.  Especially if they were learning and leading along the way.

Leadership Development, Workplace Engagement, and the Learning Organization

My personal interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is just the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace with a learning-organization mindset.  That is, if you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel.  And when they excel, the business will perform better.  So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.

Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace culture of high trust and two-way communication.  Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders.  Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.

It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence.  Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.

Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set.  But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.