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

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

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

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

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

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

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

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

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

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

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

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

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

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

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

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

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

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

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

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

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

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

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

Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

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

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Thoughts and Feelings Should Be Best Friends

girl-2047482_1280 cc pixabay

Do you think of yourself as a logic person or an emotion person?  Well, it’s far more comfortable being both.  A series of collective mistakes have encouraged people to think of themselves as being good at thinking and bad at emotion, or vice versa.  But polarized thinking is aimlessly judgmental, causing us to often miss the mark.  And one of the biggest drivers of this false dichotomy is the world-famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

How Robust is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?

Dr. Adam Grant is the author of Give and Take and also the host of the exceptional podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant.  In a Psychology Today article from 2013 Grant describes two contradictory MBTI scores that he got within a short time frame.  His first test said that he was a master-scientist type, the second said he was the care-free life of the party.  Luckily for us, he’s an industrial psychologist and he has words to say about this.

Grant asserts that in social science, a test must be “reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive.”  And Myers-Briggs does poorly on all fronts.  The test is unreliable, with three-quarters of people getting a different score when tested at different times.  The validity is poor, providing very little indicator of future behaviour.  The test is not comprehensive, glossing-over major predictors of behaviour such as our ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

The criticism that most resonated with me was that Myers Briggs is not independent.  The test should assess different traits separately from one another.  My personal journey right now is that I have often thought I had a high-functioning logical brain, but that my grasp of emotion and social interactions could use a bit of work.  I test as a “T” or thinker, which implies that I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum of those who test as an “F” or feeler.

Grant asserts that “…research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.”  I can think of one example.

When to Take Women’s Opinions Seriously

When I was staff at a labour union, one time I was in a hotel room with a dozen colleagues drinking late into the night.  That part was normal, almost mandatory.  I was thirty, and I was talking to a serious woman who was older than me.  She made a bold statement, and I started joking about whether she was serious.  The joke was that of course she’s serious so me asking if she was serious was the ridiculous comment.

The woman interpreted that I was making fun of her credibility, and her voice became stern. She cautioned that she had a lot of seniority, and that I was only temporary staff, and that if I crossed her she would break me in two.  It seemed like bullying, and after she went on like this for several minutes I committed not to trifle with her.

The next morning, we were all sober and showered, and I met her at the coffee station.  She was sheepish and asked if she owed me an apology.  I said it depends.  I asked her if twenty years ago, did men using humor to keep women down?  Yes, she said, that used to be very common and it still happens to this day.  Then I asked, did she think that’s what I was doing?  Yes, she said, that was her concern.  I commented that she was a good-looking blonde woman in her forties, emphasizing that I wasn’t coming on to her.  So, she would have been a very good looking blonde woman in her twenties, trying to be taken seriously, in the 1980s when all of the harassment rules were still being sorted out.  Was that tough for her?  Yes, she said, it was, and she was one of the ones sorting out the rules.

I clarified that I was not trying to make her less important than me and I understood why she reacted the way she did.  I asserted that she had given me helpful feedback, and an apology wasn’t warranted.  As for the harsh tone, we would chalk it up to the drinking.  From then onward I was respectful and formal with her, and she was a little more relaxed when we talked. A few years later she was in charge of the entire office.

Logic and Emotion Are a False Dichotomy

It may seem like I was being socially-aware.  However, I had read hundreds of pages of case law in graduate school about harassment in the workplace, mostly describing mishaps from prior decades.  And I know from observing social criticism that jokes are troublesome between people who are sorting out who is in charge, with joking put-downs being particularly painful.  In order to get along we need to perceive power imbalance, develop a sense of fair-play between unequals, and be sincere in our efforts.  My mental processing was logical.  Or rather, I think I was logical.

If we apply judgmental filters to everything we see, we will usually see a lot more of that one thing we’re looking for.  When you’re in a crowd looking for a family member who is “wearing yellow” you see yellow garments everywhere.  The same also goes for judging social interactions on a logical filter or an emotional filter.  It’s not always true that we make things more human by putting more emotion into them.  Our circumstances, our personal history, and our amount of spare time can have an outsized impact on how we react and interact.  Filters limit our perceptions and reduce our flexibility to decide what to change.

In your adventures as a people leader, a non-judgmental mindset can open you to analytics that offer a steady stream of logical insights.  But I assure you, the logic only gets you so far until you stumble onto the stories, the feelings, and the many universes of unique individuals.  To get the most out of people and make them feel right about it, let them tell you their facts and feelings.  But remember, you don’t need to categorize their hopes and dreams.  You need to cherish the whole person who delivers their best, while they’re just being themselves.

It feels better that way.  That’s what the research would say… I think.

What If You Can Do It All?

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Costumes. Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer.

Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand.  And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits.  There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best.  That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability.  Maybe you can join me?

The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.”  Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing.  Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart.  But that style doesn’t work for everyone.

For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning.  Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:

  1. Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
  2. Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
  3. Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.

Idea Synthesis

I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017.  Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work.  Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour.  Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.

At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines.  In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon.  I find that common language is particularly interesting.  I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue.  I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.

Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.”  She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.

Adaptability and the Growth Mindset

Adaptability is becoming an critical skill.  Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.”  Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.

Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company.  By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth.  People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow.  In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”

Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.

How Fast Can You Learn?

Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.  I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on.  If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic.  Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking.  Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill?  Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours.  But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.

  1. Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct.  In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
  4. Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours.  Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going.  In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.

Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time.  He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good.  Well done!

For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films.  I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings.  The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation.  They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.

Then they’re done.  And onward to the next adventure.  Onward to the next obsession.

Workplace Wisdom Needed in This Day and Age

Landscape. byi Rosmarie Voegtli
Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rosmarie Voegtli.

What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed.  When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point.  As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older.  Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point.  If only things were more transparent.

What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?

Developing Positive Attitudes About Older Workers

Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers.  Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.

Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School.  The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers.  Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information.  One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.

The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning.  This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly.  But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place.  Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.

Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones.  For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop.  He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago.  His advice kept me out of trouble.

Older-Worker Programs Require Good Practices Generally

The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace.  High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added.  Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:

“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)

As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements.  These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”

Knowledge Management Harnesses Older Workers’ Knowledge

Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…”  They have no age limit for their apprentice program.

“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”

I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best.  You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it.  Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.

Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers.  But both types are beneficial:

“Both types have been shown to improve job performanceincrease promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)

Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security.  As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management.  They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.”  This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.

Flexible Work Arrangements Have Diverse Benefits

Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements.  Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.

When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.”  This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.

“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities.  …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)

As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement.  But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective.  (See how that works?)

Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking.  Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40.  If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48.  I’m going to rock forever!

Your Ideal Self Will Assign You Meaningful Work

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

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

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

Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State

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

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

Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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