Even the best office relationships hit a rut, but if it’s your relationship with your boss that’s suffering, work can be especially challenging. Maybe you’ve lost their trust, or you haven’t been seeing eye to eye lately, or maybe you’ve never really gotten along. Whatever the reason, how can you build a connection that’s more than “just OK”? What steps can you take to improve your interactions? And are there times when you have to accept that the relationship may never get better?
What the Experts Say Having a positive, productive, and healthy relationship with your boss is critical to your professional success, says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Being on great terms with your manager helps you “stay aligned with the priorities of the organization, understand its constraints, and get access to the resources you need to get things done,” she says. Work is not a popularity contest, but “the reality is, your boss’s opinion of you matters,” says Jean-François Manzoni, professor of management practice at INSEAD. It matters for “functional reasons” because of the “control or influence your boss has over rewards like special assignments, your visibility, and compensation.” But it also matters for psychological reasons. “We are wired to please authority figures,” he says. “When your boss doesn’t like you, it’s painful.” Here are some strategies for interacting with your manager to get what you need, support your boss’s success, and excel at your job.
Diagnose the problem — if there is one If you have an inkling that your boss isn’t keen on you, the first question you need to ask, according to Manzoni, is whether you’re sure the problem is you. “Maybe your boss is cold, distant, or a more contained individual who doesn’t convey much positive affect,” he says. He suggests you “try to figure out whether there is specific annoyance directed at you.” If your boss interacts with you differently from your colleagues, then yes, “it probably is something about you.” In this case, he says, you need to ask yourself: Am I working on the issues that my boss wants me to be working on, in the way they want me to be working on them? Have I been disregarding their feedback? Have I done something to lose their trust?
Take responsibility If you have done something to undermine your boss or lose their trust, it’s up to you to take responsibility. According to Hill, “you need to be the one to own it.” Acknowledge that you’re at fault and apologize. The good news is that even strained professional relationships can be repaired. The key is to “assure your boss that you want to work on” things and “ask for help in getting back on track,” says Manzoni. Be patient, he adds — it will take time to win back his good opinion. “Most bosses appreciate employees who work hard, mean well, ask for help, and follow through,” he says. “The worst employee is a gifted individual who doesn’t give their best.”
Align on goals After identifying the problem, you now need to work on a solution. If you’re “unsure of what your boss expects, it’s time to clarify,” says Hill. “We want our bosses to be proactive,” but the onus is on you to “establish a two-way conversation” that aligns their priorities with your own, she says. “It’s a partnership.” The trouble comes when you think their expectations are unreasonable, says Manzoni. “Sometimes there’s a sense that bosses are not fighting the right battles, so we dislike them.” Instead of dwelling on that, you should try to see things from their perspective. Think about the “world in which your boss is living, where these priorities make sense.” And then “signal to your boss” that you’re “getting with the program.”
Focus on the positive Aligning yourself with your boss’s agenda might require an attitude adjustment on your part. Chances are you’re not hiding your “negative emotions,” says Manzoni. “Your boss knows you don’t like him. Maybe not the extent of your disdain, but he knows it.” The more you obsess over your boss’s irritating habits and tendencies, the more the relationship will suffer. Manzoni suggests deliberately changing your mindset by “trying to find the positive.” Focus on the strengths your boss has, not her weaknesses. In addition, “do your best to reduce the intensity of your annoyance or antagonism.” Here, again, it’s helpful to empathize, says Hill. “Try to step into the shoes of your boss and see the world from his point of view,” she says. “Understand her priorities” and the demands she faces. It’s important to remember that “your boss is human too.”
Connect Another way to build rapport with your boss is to connect with them on a human level. Manzoni suggests talking to manager about topics beyond work. “Find a subject that would create a bond,” he says. “Try to figure out what your boss cares about.” Is it a sports team? Stamp collecting? A particular music group? You don’t need to feign interest if you genuinely have none, but learning about who your boss is as a person and finding genuine overlaps in interests will give you a deeper understanding into what makes them tick, says Hill. “Ask her to coffee or invite her to lunch,” she says, so you can get to know each other on a personal level. That said, if a personal relationship isn’t easy, don’t force it, says Hill. “It’s okay if you don’t have chemistry.”
Seek your boss’s counsel “Asking for advice is a good way to improve a person’s opinion of you,” says Manzoni. “It shows you respect their judgment and their intellect. It also increases their investment in you.” But asking your boss for advice or help is a delicate matter, says Hill. “You don’t want your boss to think you’re delegating back up or putting the problem back on them,” she says. “Make sure the boss knows you’re paying attention to the pressures he’s under.” Phrase your request as “asking their guidance” to “help you think things through.” Show that you’re still willing to do the work. “Say, ‘This is how I’m thinking about things. These are the trade-offs I’m considering.’” Bear in mind that once you ask for advice, you have to follow through on it.
Make your boss look good The best way to have a strong relationship with your boss is to do your job and do it well, but that may not be enough, says Hill. Go further by anticipating your boss’s needs and pitching solutions to problems. This will make their life easier. While sucking up is not advised, it’s “always smart to make your boss look good,” says Manzoni. Compliment your boss in front of colleagues. Demonstrate loyalty to your boss’s vision. Don’t be a sycophant and don’t be dishonest. If you’re singing your boss’s praises or rushing to her defense during watercooler chat, “you have to mean it,” he says.
Consider moving on…or not Working for a boss you don’t like is “demotivating and de-energizing,” says Hill. “People describe it as a crucible experience.” When your relationship with your boss seems beyond repair and you’ve done everything in your power to make it better, consider looking for a new job — or at least a new manager. “If you can’t trust your boss, it may be time to get yourself out from under that person,” she says. Though “it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the company.” Alternatively, says Manzoni, “you could develop a slightly thicker skin and think, ‘This too shall pass.’” After all, “bosses come and go,” and it’s “good training” to work with a difficult personality. “You will find out how to operate at your peak despite a sub-optimal relationship with your boss,” Manzoni says. “You will develop resilience.”
Principles to Remember
Empathize with your boss in order to get a clearer understanding of their priorities and the pressures they’re under
Build a personal relationship with your boss by engaging them in conversation topics beyond work
Ask your boss for their guidance and counsel; this shows you respect their judgment and intellect
Assume your boss’s attitude toward you is personal. Figure out the extent to which your boss behaves differently with you than with other people.
Harp on your boss’s annoying habits. Focus on his positive traits.
Give up and look for a new job too soon. Working for a difficult personality helps you build resilience.
Case Study #1: Empathize with your manager’s perspective and ask for their guidance When David Naylor worked at a marketing company, a new manager, Al (not his real name), was brought in to lead the sales team. The two didn’t hit it off right away. “He seemed a bit adversarial and unwilling to listen to suggestions — mine or others,” says David.
Rather than get annoyed, David did his best to empathize with Al. “I recalled what it is like moving to a new organization, feeling like you were being judged, and wanting to make a statement that hiring you was a good decision.”
David asked Al for his advice. “Good people generally respond positively and less defensively when they feel they are helping you,” he says. David told Al that he wanted to help him drive his agenda for the team, but he was struggling with the best way to do it, and he needed guidance. “I asked him about what he saw as [the team’s] current struggles and strengths. I asked him what he felt were the biggest things holding us back,” he says. “Next, I asked him about what he wanted to accomplish.”
The two talked about what David could do, including the role he could play in influencing the team to reorient its focus. “It was amazing how Al’s attitude, perspective, and even his body language changed as we progressed through this conversation,” he says.
After that talk, David made sure Al knew he was committed to executing the strategy. “Every time I made progress, I would tie it back to our previous discussion and say something like, ‘One more step in the master plan done.’ I think those types of comments gave him the reassurance that I was still aligned with him.”
When the opportunity arose, he supported Al by agreeing in front of colleagues when Al said “something of merit.” David believes it’s “very important to publicly align with” and support the person you report to. “So many perceptions are shaped in those public forums; it is not the place to create negativity.”
Today David is the executive vice president at 2logical, the mindset development training company based in Rochester, New York. He says he remains friends with Al. “Our lives have moved in different directions, but when I see him out, I still give him a hug. And we get dinner or lunch a few times a year.”
Case Study #2: Anticipate your boss’s needs and look for ways to build a personal connection Charlie Leeds, a product manager at Powerlinx, the online network that helps small and midsize businesses find trading partners, reports directly to the company’s head of product. Charlie says his relationship with his boss, Yoni, “started out OK,” but he was determined to “make it better.”
The first thing Charlie did was ask Yoni if they could meet for brief check-ins every two weeks. Their first meeting was “a good talk” that lasted about 15 minutes. “Yoni gave me constructive criticism that I immediately started applying to my work, and we discussed what my next two-week goals should be and how they would play into our larger plans,” says Charlie. “The result benefited both of us: I knew what to focus on, and Yoni knew what he could expect to see.”
During these ongoing conversations, Charlie says, he tries to be mindful of the pressures Yoni is under. He always asks if there is anything he can take off Yoni’s plate. “He’s usually either happy to give me something or wants me to keep going on what I’m already doing. I simply try to make his life easier,” says Charlie.
Over time, Charlie has built a rapport with Yoni by asking about his family. “I don’t have kids, but it’s not hard to ask about someone else’s,” he says. He’s also looked for things that Yoni seems to enjoy doing. For example, he knows that Yoni likes to read. “We both like books you can learn from, so we’ve been able to bond over that. I just loaned him my copy of Jonah Berger’s Contagious.”
Charlie feels his connection with Yoni is solid. “Building a relationship with your boss is less challenging if you actively look for ways to do it,” he says.
Something is rotten in the U.S. economy. Poor men without a college degree are disappearing from the labor force. The share of prime-age men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s.
The U.S.’s labor participation rate for this group of men is lower than every country in the OECD except for Israel (an outlier, because of the high number of non-working Orthodox Jewish men) and Italy (an economic omnishambles). Today, one in six prime-age men in America are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether—about 10 million men.
So, this is the 10-million-man question: Where did all these guys go?
According to a report from White House economists released last week, non-working prime-age men skew young, are less likely to be parents, are disproportionately black and less educated, and are concentrated in the South.
In the last few years, several writers and economists have suggested that many of them are in school, on disability, or in prison. More optimistically, some said that men are more likely to help their spouses with raising children and cleaning the house. But upon investigation, none of these answers fully explains the disappearance of prime-age men.
1) Are they in school?
This would be one of the most benign—or even hopeful—reasons for the drop in male participation. Alas, it doesn’t seem to explain much.
Since 1990, the number of men over the age of 25 enrolled in a post-secondary institution has increased slightly, from 2.5 million to about 3 million, most of which was an increase among people enrolled part-time. Overall, a jump of 500,000 accounts for just a fraction of the growth of non-working men. (If the male participation rate hadn’t changed since 1990, there would be about 3 million more men in the labor force.)
The men most likely to drop out of the labor force today are those who never started college. This is a remarkable shift. Fifty years ago, college graduates and high-school dropouts were similarly likely to work, as one can see in the graph below. Today a high-school graduate who has never gone to college is four times more likely to drop out of the labor force than he was in 1964.
Men between 25 and 54 are much better educated than they were in 1964. That fact alone should have predicted a rising participation rate, since college graduates are more likely to work. Instead, the least educated men are abandoning the work force more than ever. That is the real mystery.
2) Are they on disability?
This is another common explanation for the drop in male participation. But again it doesn’t explain more than a fraction of the phenomenon.
There’s not much doubt that Social Security Disability Insurance takes people out of the workforce, often by inelegant design. In order to qualify for disability payments, people typically have to prove that they cannot work full-time. SSDI critics say this policy sidelines many people who might otherwise be able to contribute to the economy.
But how many people does SSDI really remove? From 1967 to 2014, the share of prime-age men getting disability insurance rose from 1 percent to 3 percent. There is little chance that this increase is entirely the result of several million fraudulent attempts to get money without working. But even if it were, SSDI would still only explain about one-quarter of the decline in the male participation rate over that time. There are many good reasons to reform disability insurance. But it’s not the singular driving force behind the decline of working men.
3) Do stay-at-home dads account for the change?
This is an easy one: no.
First, married men are more likely to work than non-married men. Second, fathers have stayed in the workforce more than non-fathers. Third, more than 75 percent of prime-age men not in the workforce do not have a working spouse. Fourth, time-use surveys of non-working men have found that they are less likely to be caring for household members than working men. They do, however, watch more than twice as much television.
4) Are they in prison?
This question requires the most complicated answer. Technically, the 1.1 million prime-age men in prison aren’t hurting the participation rate among men, because they aren’t being counted as participants or non-participants. The government omits prisoners before it makes labor-force calculations.
But that’s not even close to the full story. The more meaningful and troubling statistic is that about 9 million prime-age men have been incarcerated. “These men are substantially more likely to experience joblessness after they are released from prison,” the White House economists reported, “and in many states [they] are legally barred from a significant number of jobs.”
There have been several attempts to measure the cost of prison on subsequent employment. A 2010 analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts found that incarceration reduced the average work time of a typical 45-year-old man by 19 percent. Another study estimated that people who go to prison are 30 percent less likely to subsequently find a job than a non-incarcerated person of their age.
There is no question that it’s harder to find a job after somebody gets out of prison. But even if one makes the most aggressive assumptions about the cost of incarceration to unemployment, America’s prison and ex-prison population only explains a fraction of the disappearing male workforce.
It is conceivable that, by degrees, each of these variables is eating away at prime-age male participation rates. Men who leave prison during a time of historic incarceration have had a hard time finding steady work; some men have turned to disability payments to disengage from a workforce that offered poor pay; some adults have returned to school; and a few (perhaps very few) fathers are staying home while their spouses work.
But behind all of these trends, there is a larger story: the decline of sectors dominated by male workers. In 1954, the highwater mark for male participation, the manufacturing and construction sectors accounted for nearly 40 percent of all jobs. Now, after the long decline of manufacturing and the end of the housing bubble, they account for just 13 percent. These are jobs that men without a college degree can count on, and they're much rarer than they used to be. The White House report notes that "when the share of state employment attributable to construction, mining and to a lesser extent manufacturing are higher, more prime-age men participate in the labor force.” In other words, men are more likely to work in areas where the state directly subsidizes employment in male-heavy occupations.
But the private sector is shifting toward work that has historically been done by women. There are four occupations expected to add more than 100,000 jobs in the next decade: personal care aides, home health aides, medical secretaries, and marketing specialists. All of them currently have more female workers than male. "Some of the decline in work among young men is a mismatch between aspirations and identity," Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University, told me last year. "Taking a job as a health technician has the connotation as a feminized job. The growth has been in jobs that have been considered women’s jobs—education, health, government."
Perhaps the United States needs some sort of massive national building project to put these men back to work in jobs that they would be proud and willing to do. The promises of Donald Trump to the contrary, the United States is not poised to bring back manufacturing jobs.
But what about construction jobs?
Several weeks ago, Conor Sen, a portfolio manager and a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote a widely shared essay predicting that housing would become the dominant economic story of the next five years. Sen worried that it would be hard to find enough workers (mostly men, since construction employment is about 90 percent male) to build the requisite number of houses. After all, construction skews young and less educated, and the U.S. is getting older and more educated. "If we had to find 500,000 construction workers tomorrow, from a math standpoint it would be impossible," he wrote. "The slack isn’t there.”
But the slack is there. Millions of able-bodied men have dropped out of the labor force, mostly because they have stopped looking for work. Many of them badly need to leave their neighborhoods in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and the Deep South, where the rate of non-working men often hovers around 40 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. needs more affordable housing construction, particularly in its richest and most populous metro areas.
The White House report lists several ways to raise the employment level of male workers, like criminal justice reform and removing occupational licenses. But here is a bolder plan: A state-and-federally funded voucher program that moves men from economically stricken areas toward metros in need of construction workers.
This plan would require heroic (and heretofore unprecedented) participation from all levels of government. Metropolitan areas might have to rezone neighborhoods to provide for more low-income housing, and the GOP Congress would have to agree to what is essentially a multi-billion dollar stimulus package, which it has repeatedly said it will never do.
Although abrupt moves can be especially socially disruptive for families with young children, the non-working male population skews young, single, and childless. They are already unmoored, untethered from the economy. In this case, encouraging men to dislocate might move them closer to a job and social network that would bring them meaning and community, above and beyond the obvious benefits of a steady paycheck. This could be a way to bring millions of men back from the brink.
A rotor for the i-DCD drive motor, using rare earth metal-free magnets. (credit: Honda)
Honda said on Tuesday that it had created the first commercial hybrid-electric vehicle motor without using any heavy rare earth metals. (Rare earth metals are often divided into “heavy” and “light” categories.) Working with the expertise of Daido Steel Co., Honda’s new motor will appear in this year’s Honda Freed, a hybrid minivan sold in Japan.
Rare earth metals are essential to making a plethora of items, including smartphones, laptops, missiles, and electric cars. Unfortunately, that group of elements are at risk of shortage, and many of them are mined predominantly in China, adding a special political flavor to ensuring a global supply for industry. In 2009, Reuters reported that Toyota, maker of the popular hybrid-electric Prius, risked suffering at the hands of a rare earth metal shortage. And in 2010, China temporarily banned exports of rare earth metals to Japan during a standoff over territory.
The Japanese automaker bristled at that turn of events. Although Honda told Reuters that it started looking into ways to reduce rare earth metal use a decade ago, the recent risk of shortage and the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles spurred the company to look more seriously into ways to "avoid resource-related risks and diversify channels of procurement,” according to a Honda press release.
Most large organizations today are looking for leaders who can easily and effectively move between countries and cultures, taking on expat assignments, understanding disparate markets, and managing diverse teams. Where can they find such talent?
My advice is to look to a group of people I call “global cosmopolitans”— highly educated, multilingual professionals who have already lived, worked, and studied for extensive periods outside their home regions. Whether their international exposure started in their childhood or later, as a result of relocation for education or work, my experience and research confirms that these people often possess five key characteristics that leave them better equipped to tackle complex challenges than their less-global peers:
They consider change as normal, positive, and a source of opportunity.
They rely on creative, outsider thinking and adaptation to confront new situations.
They are able to reinvent themselves and experiment with new identities as they move into new settings.
They become experts at the subtle and emotional aspects of transition.
They easily learn and use new ways of thinking, taking risks that lead to self-efficacy.
Global cosmopolitans don’t need training in cultural competence. They have already developed an awareness of their own cultural worldview, a positive attitude toward cultural differences, knowledge of different cultural practices and the ability to understand and communicate with people whose backgrounds differ from their own.
How can organizations find these individuals and keep them engaged?
Identify.Conventional CVs may not reveal the depth of experience accrued in early mobility. Find out who in your organization or applicant pool has lived abroad and take the time to ask about and listen to the story of their journey. Prompt them to assess and discuss the knowledge and skills they acquired through those experiences. You might even help them identify some strengths they didn’t even know they had. Even when international activity is listed on a resume, you’ll want to explore the exact nature of the personal and professional experience.
For example, having worked in China tells only a part of the story. You need to understand what the person did there. Did he launch a business or turn a struggling initiative around? What was the nature and depth of the contact she had with the culture and the people? Did the person travel there, live and work alone there, or manage a team and family there?
Retain.Global cosmopolitans can feel misunderstood and poorly managed. They will be loyal to an organization that provides them with opportunities to use and be recognized for their multicultural skills, but they have a low tolerance for boredom. So give them work that keeps them intellectually stimulated and feeling appreciated – for example, frequent rotation into new and different expat assignments or leadership roles on cross-cultural teams. As they become more senior and choose to settle down in one place, you might also consider asking them to serve as a bridge and translator between headquarters and subsidiaries, relaying demands from above while validating local competence and managing potential conflict.
Remember to think creatively: for global cosmopolitans assigned to HQ, managing a virtual cross-cultural team, taking frequent business trips or presenting at international conferences can help to keep them engaged. As you see what they can do, also look at roles not obviously related to culture in which they might thrive. Their skills can be extremely valuable during any period of change or crisis.
When we see two people meet, we can often predict what happens next: a handshake, a hug, or maybe even a kiss. Our ability to anticipate actions is thanks to intuitions born out of a lifetime of experiences.
Machines, on the other hand, have trouble making use of complex knowledge like that. Computer systems that predict actions would open up new possibilities ranging from robots that can better navigate human environments, to emergency response systems that predict falls, to Google Glass-style headsets that feed you suggestions for what to do in different situations.
Trained on YouTube videos and TV shows such as “The Office” and “Desperate Housewives,” the system can predict whether two individuals will hug, kiss, shake hands or slap five. In a second scenario, it could also anticipate what object is likely to appear in a video five seconds later.
While human greetings may seem like arbitrary actions to predict, the task served as a more easily controllable test case for the researchers to study.
“Humans automatically learn to anticipate actions through experience, which is what made us interested in trying to imbue computers with the same sort of common sense,” says CSAIL PhD student Carl Vondrick, who is first author on a related paper that he will present this week at the International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR). “We wanted to show that just by watching large amounts of video, computers can gain enough knowledge to consistently make predictions about their surroundings.”
Vondrick’s co-authors include MIT Professor Antonio Torralba and former postdoc Hamed Pirsiavash, now a professor at the University of Maryland.
How it works
Past attempts at predictive computer-vision have generally taken one of two approaches.
The first method is to look at an image’s individual pixels and use that knowledge to create a photorealistic “future” image, pixel by pixel — a task that Vondrick describes as “difficult for a professional painter, much less an algorithm.” The second is to have humans label the scene for the computer in advance, which is impractical for being able to predict actions on a large scale.
The CSAIL team instead created an algorithm that can predict “visual representations,” which are basically freeze-frames showing different versions of what the scene might look like.
“Rather than saying that one pixel value is blue, the next one is red, and so on, visual representations reveal information about the larger image, such as a certain collection of pixels that represents a human face,” Vondrick says.
The team’s algorithm employs techniques from deep-learning, a field of artificial intelligence that uses systems called “neural networks” to teach computers to pore over massive amounts of data to find patterns on their own.
Each of the algorithm’s networks predicts a representation is automatically classified as one of the four actions — in this case, a hug, handshake, high-five, or kiss. The system then merges those actions into one that it uses as its prediction. For example, three networks might predict a kiss, while another might use the fact that another person has entered the frame as a rationale for predicting a hug instead.
“A video isn’t like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book where you can see all of the potential paths,” says Vondrick. “The future is inherently ambiguous, so it’s exciting to challenge ourselves to develop a system that uses these representations to anticipate all of the possibilities.”
How it did
After training the algorithm on 600 hours of unlabeled video, the team tested it on new videos showing both actions and objects.
When shown a video of people who are one second away from performing one of the four actions, the algorithm correctly predicted the action more than 43 percent of the time, which compares to existing algorithms that could only do 36 percent of the time.
In a second study, the algorithm was shown a frame from a video and asked to predict what object will appear five seconds later. For example, seeing someone open a microwave might suggest the future presence of a coffee mug. The algorithm predicted the object in the frame 30 percent more accurately than baseline measures, though the researchers caution that it still only has an average precision of 11 percent.
It’s worth noting that even humans make mistakes on these tasks: for example, human subjects were only able to correctly predict the action 71 percent of the time.
“There’s a lot of subtlety to understanding and forecasting human interactions,” says Vondrick. “We hope to be able to work off of this example to be able to soon predict even more complex tasks.”
While the algorithms aren’t yet accurate enough for practical applications, Vondrick says that future versions could be used for everything from robots that develop better action plans to security cameras that can alert emergency responders when someone who has fallen or gotten injured.
“I’m excited to see how much better the algorithms get if we can feed them a lifetime’s worth of videos,” says Vondrick. “We might see some significant improvements that would get us closer to using predictive-vision in real-world situations.”
The work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, along with a Google faculty research award for Torralba and a Google PhD fellowship for Vondrick.
by Theodore Kinni. Theodore Kinni is a business journalist, author, and ghostwriter. He blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management and tweets @tedkinni.
Imposing order on the morass of people analytics: HR execs are being bombarded with sales pitches for people analytics that promise to improve every aspect of workforce management from recruiting to what HubSpot’s execs so charmingly called “graduation.” But how do you weave this rather bewildering assortment of digital tools together in a way that is aligned with and supports your talent and corporate strategies?
Jean Paul Isson and Jesse S. Harriot, respectively VP of business intelligence and predictive analytics and former chief knowledge officer at Monster Worldwide, take a good shot at answering that big-picture question in their new book, People Analytics in the Era of Big Data. The authors encapsulate their approach in a framework that organizes people analytics into 7 “pillars” that are broadly based on the responsibilities of the HR function: workforce planning; sourcing; acquisition/hiring; onboarding, culture fit, and engagement; performance assessment and development; churn and retention; and wellness, health, and safety. “The ultimate goal of this framework,” they write, “is to focus your organization’s attention on those areas that are keys to talent analytics success and will lead to greatest return on investment.”
As you might expect, a comprehensive overview of people analytics leads to a pretty thick and sometimes dense book. But the authors ground the pillars in practice using case studies and interviews. One of them describes how Société de Transport de Montréal, the city’s public transport agency, which serves 2.5 million riders per day, is implementing and using people analytics. It is featured in the excerpt below.
Interview with Christophe Paris, Human Resources Business Intelligence Manager, Société de Transport de Montréal
by Jean Paul Isson and Jess S. Harriott
Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), or the Montreal Transit Corporation, is a public transport agency that operates transit bus and rapid transit services in Montreal, Canada. STM has more than 9,500 employees with an average daily ridership of 2.5 million passengers.
JP Isson had the opportunity to interview Christophe Paris and his team members Josée Gauvreau and Cedric Lepine to discuss how they have been leveraging data analytics in human resources management, such as workforce planning at STM.
Isson: Why did STM decide to invest in workforce planning analytics?
Paris and team: It all started a few years ago when our CEO came to us with a specific set of business questions, including:
What is the business value of the human resources department?
Are we making the right business decisions?
How many employees we will need in the future to deliver optimal service to our customers?
What critical roles will we need in the future?
Can we predict our employees’ turnover?
We then realized that we didn’t have enough insights to answer his questions. And this was really the overarching point from which our People Analytics journey started. We knew that we absolutely had to look into our databases to find out what talent data or information we had available, and we started analyzing and interpreting our employee data. That was the starting point of our People Analytics.
Isson: What type of analytics did you use, and what were the beneﬁts for your company?
Paris and team: We started to build HR dashboards, HR key performance indicators (KPIs), and HR scorecards. We also started doing some deep-dive analyses of our employees by occupational category, by experience, by profile, and by skill set. The analysis by critical roles was important because there are some critical roles that pertain to really hard-to-fill positions and some that do not. So having that segmentation approach helped us to prioritize based on our company’s business goals and the market conditions.
We were able to provide a diagnosis of our employee population and start addressing questions such as:
Where is our talent mix?
At what stage is our talent in the overall talent life cycle?
When will our employees leave for retirement?
How will our talent behave in the future? (Will they leave? Change jobs? Continue working despite retirement?)
When will they formally leave?
How many will leave at the retirement time? How many will formally retire in the next 3, 5, or 10 years?
To answer the aforementioned questions, we were lucky enough to have a lot of employee data and information from the get-go. It was information that we collected and used to report on and communicate for legal purposes and transparency.
We started by looking at some correlations analyses. We were wondering if there was a significant correlation relationship between some of our employee data and our key business challenges. We then explored hundreds of variables and found out that the number of kilometers traveled was highly correlated with the number of resources. And the correlation was pretty high, about 96 percent.
We explored the relationship between the variation in the amount of employee overtime and the number of kilometers traveled by a bus or subway driver, and found that there was a strong correlation. Based on the correlation, we then built a predictive model. This helped us to determine how many people we needed to deliver service and keep our level of productivity and customer satisfaction high. The model helped us to determine how many resources we would need by occupational category, skill set, and experience.
The findings also provided our senior management team with actionable insights for their strategic planning, and were of tremendous value for our overall workforce planning. They also helped us with our recruitment strategies, as we were able to identify how many new employees we needed in the future for each functional group, as well as:
How many employees we would need to replace due to retirement.
How many employees we would need to add due to our service expansion (when servicing more territory and more people).
How many resources we would need due to macroeconomic conditions and company business plan.
The overall correlations and predictive model were driven by the exploration of 10 major factors, such as overall spend, the number of drivers, the number of resources, the number of customers who commute, the overall traffic patterns, and so forth.
We then created a second predictive model called the “retirement predictive model,” which we built to help us to anticipate when our employees will leave for retirement. This model helped us to identify which of our employees were candidates for retirement and who exactly will leave on their retirement date. It also helped us identify employees who are more likely to continue working for an additional three to six years.
In the upcoming year, we will have nearly 2,000 people qualifying for retirement, so as an operational business, it is paramount for us to anticipate which employees will leave and when. With this in mind, we built a model for each category of occupation, from managers and support and maintenance staffs to bus and subway drivers and auto mechanics. The key learning from these models was that there is no single, one-size-fits-all People Analytics model. We needed to go local — by category of occupation, critical roles, and experience.
Additionally, there is about a 20 to 30 percent group of employees who, even if they qualify for retirement, can and will still continue to work three to five years later. To understand this employee segment, we were able to build retirement curves and models to anticipate what is coming and get ready by putting proactive strategies in place to mitigate the risk.
Isson: Did you use any speciﬁc tools to build your models?
Paris and team: The beauty of this project was that everything we leveraged was from our internal HRIS [human resources information system] and Microsoft Excel spreadsheet data. So, for a company like STM that is very operational and business driven, having a fast turnaround and leveraging low-cost software was very well received. It also helped us to quickly showcase the value; for instance, our employee retirement predictive model immediately helped us to anticipate and plan for the future.
The power of the models we developed was based on the fact that we could analyze data at a category level, as well as an employee level. This enabled us to develop macro and micro strategies when approaching our employees, and talent acquisition and retention strategies. It also enables us to understand our workforce planning from employee segments to the individual level.
Isson: Were you able to provide employee retirement break-downs by vertical?
Paris and team: We are now able to provide future employee retirement ﬁgures by occupation, by location, and by skill set. We can predict and indicate which employees might leave in the next three, four, or ﬁve years. This helps the business to ﬁgure out how to best bridge the resource gap and continue delivering high-quality service without impacting operations.
We were able to deliver solid, easy-to-understand data, and we challenged the old adage about HR not being data driven. We are gradually changing that every day with the work we do. We were able to wow our customers, which is great, and we did this by building up our data intelligence and sharing it with senior management, as well as with all our hiring managers to ensure they have all the insights they need to proactively take action. This helped us to anticipate what trends are coming, how many resources we will need to hire, train, and onboard, and, more importantly, to become true strategic business partners within the company.
Isson: What would be your advice to someone new to work-force planning analytics?
Paris and team: It’s paramount to understand the top business questions the company aims to address. For our company, it was retirement planning and workforce planning. It is imperative to keep your business question in mind when you build HR scorecards or dashboards so the business value can be easily connected to the data.
From the data perspective, you have to look at what you already have available; for instance, what data is easily accessible, available, and good? Data integrity, data visualization, and storytelling using this information should be front and center, as it will be the way you communicate the findings and success criteria for your analysis. You have to wow your customers, both internal and external. And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to share all pieces of data you’ve found. You have to keep it simple, make it easy to understand, and just keep to the most relevant data that helps you to convey the message and key findings. And, most of all, keep in mind that workforce planning analytics is a journey; it takes baby steps and is a matter of testing, learning, and sharing. Your input and insights will provide the business with valuable foresight, helping the organization anticipate talent behavior and help your HR team to become real strategic business partners.
A cost-benefit analysis of virtual shareholders’ meetings: As much fun as Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ weekend seems, you have to wonder why the 5,300 or so annual shareholders’ meetings held in the United States haven’t gone virtual. Actually, 90 companies did in 2015, according to NYT's Deal Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, including Intel, GoPro, SeaWorld Entertainment, PayPal, Fitbit and Yelp.
“Not one shareholder showed up to Intel’s shareholders’ meeting last week. In person, at least,” writes Solomon in an NYT “DealBook” column. “Instead, Intel’s annual meeting was entirely virtual. There was no in-person gathering site, the questions were submitted in advance, and management and the board made all of their presentations online.”
Solomon, who also teaches law at UC Berkeley, goes on to list the many advantages of virtual shareholders’ meetings. Lower costs, higher attendance, more accurate tracking — to say nothing of the opportunity to better “manage troublesome shareholders and their often uncomfortable questions,” and eliminate protests and PR debacles.
Sounds good, right? Not so fast, says Solomon. He thinks the in-person interaction of the traditional shareholders’ meeting is the only chance shareholders have to engage management — and put execs on the spot. “And in difficult situations, the repeated resistance of shareholders can make a difference,” he writes. He also suggests that such meetings are a chance to win over investors and build brands — a finding that Warren Buffett would surely second.
So Solomon gives virtual shareholders’ meetings a thumbs down, even though there seems to be no reason why virtual shareholders’ meetings couldn’t be designed in ways that enhance both attendance and participation. The problem, of course, is that management must want both.
The robotic workforce is here and now: There’s been a lot written about workers being displaced by robots, but a lot of what’s written is written in the future tense. Suddenly, however, the future — which is typically portrayed as dystopian — seems more like the present.
For instance, Apple supplier Foxconn reportedly already replaced 60,000 workers with robots, according a story by Mandy Zuo in the South China Morning Post. “The Foxconn factory has reduced its employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000, thanks to the introduction of robots. It has tasted success in reduction of labour costs,” said a government spokesperson in the province of Jiangsu.
(Update: Reports about Foxconn replacing 60,000 workers appear to be mistaken, per more recent stories.)
Meanwhile, in Crain’s Chicago Business, Micah Maidenberg reports, “This year, Wendy's might roll out customer-facing ordering kiosks in as many as 6,000 stores around the U.S., while McDonald's and Panera Bread are experimenting with them.”
Finally, in Fast Company, Sean Captain writes about Siemens spider bots, which work autonomously in teams to learn and complete tasks in and out of factories. “The spiders know their capabilities and limitations,” explains Captain. “Each is fitted with three gyroscopes and accelerometers, plus actuators in the legs that measure force — all in order to determine the spider's position and how it is moving from one spot to the next. The team can even figure out how to cover for a robot if it breaks down or its battery dies.”
It’s interesting that companies seem to be looking for excuses for replacing people with robots. Foxconn’s move is linked to the safety of Chinese workers, and in the U.S. quick-service restaurant sector, it’s all about those draconian minimum wages. In any case, if the job apocalypse is closer than we thought, it may be that more execs need to be considering a near-term plan for employing the fast-growing robotic workforce.
by Theodore Stank. Theodore Stank is a professor of logistics and supply chain management at the Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee, Knoxville and immediate past Chairman of the Board of the Council of SCM Professionals.
At many companies, sales generation activities have become disconnected from the operational activities required to fulfill that demand — resulting in conflicting objectives and foregone business opportunities. Bringing the supply-and-demand sides of an enterprise together can represent a significant opportunity for efficiency and value creation.
On May 12, 2016, Professor Theodore Stank, co-author of “Integrating Supply and Demand” from MIT SMR’s Summer 2015 issue, joined contributing editor Steven Paul to present his research on how some companies have bridged the perennial divide between demand generation and the supply chain in a way that maximizes the value to their customers and to themselves.
The webinar covered, through real-life examples, the five stages for successful supply and demand integration:
What makes you, you? Psychologists like to talk about our traits, or defined characteristics that make us who we are. But Brian Little is more interested in moments when we transcend those traits -- sometimes because our culture demands it of us, and sometimes because we demand it of ourselves. Join Little as he dissects the surprising differences between introverts and extroverts and explains why your personality may be more malleable than you think.
Sometimes the searches that lead here give us interesting questions.
While simple on the surface, this question takes us in all kinds of interesting directions.
Actually the simplest answer is this: You can’t. Not from takt time alone.
Takt time is an expression of your customer’s requirement, leveled over the time you are producing the product or service. It says nothing about your ability to meet that requirement, nor does it say anything about the people, space or equipment required to do it.
Cycle time comes in many flavors, but ultimately it tells you how much time – people time, equipment time, transportation time – is required for one unit of production.
Takt time and cycle time together can help you determine the required capacity to meet the customer’s demand, however they don’t give you the entire story.
In the simplest scenario, we have a leveled production line with nothing but manual operations (or the machine operations are trivially short compared to the takt time).
If I were to measure the time required for each person on the line to perform their work on one unit of the product or service and add them up, then I have the total work required. This should be close to the time it would take one person to do the job from beginning to end.
Let’s say it takes 360 minutes of work to assemble the product.
If the takt time says I need a unit of output every 36 minutes, then I can do some simple math.
How long do I have to complete the next unit? 36 minutes. (the takt time)
How long does it take to complete one full unit? 360 minutes (the total manual cycle time)
(How long does it take) / (How long do I have) = how many people you need
360 minutes of total cycle time / 36 minutes takt time = 10 people.
But this isn’t your labor cost because that assumes the work can be perfectly balanced, and everything goes perfectly smoothly. Show me a factory like that… anywhere. They don’t exist.
So you need a bit more.
Planned Cycle Time (a.k.a. Operational Takt Time and “Actual Takt”)
How much more? That requires really understanding the sources of variation in your process. The more variation there is, the more extra people (and other stuff) you will need to absorb it.
If we don’t know, we can start (for experimental purposes) by planning to run the line about 15% faster than the takt time. Now we get a new calculation.
85% of the takt time = 0.85 x 36 minutes = ~31 minutes. (I am rounding)
Now we re-calculate the people required with the new number:
360 minutes required / 31 minutes available = 11.6 people which rounds to 12 people.
Those two extra people are the cost of uncontrolled variation. You need them to ensure you actually complete the required number of units every day.
“But that cost is too high.”
Getting to Cost
12 people is the result of math, simple division that any 3rd grader can do. If you don’t like the answer, there are two possible solutions.
Decide that 360 / 30 = something other than 11.6 (12). (or don’t do the math at all and just “decide” how many people are “appropriate” – perhaps based on some kind of load factor. This, in fact, is a pretty common approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well for some reason.
Work to improve your process and reduce the cycle time or the variation.
Some people suggest slowing down the process, but this doesn’t change your labor cost per unit. It only alters your output. It still requires 360 minutes of work to do one unit of assembly (plus the variation). Actually, unless you slow down by an increment of the cycle time, it will increase your labor cost per unit because you have to round up to get the people you actually need, and/or work overtime to make up the production shortfall that the variation is causing.
So, realistically, we have to look at option #2 above.
This becomes a challenge – a reason to work on improving the process.
Really Getting to Cost
Challenge: We need to get this output with 10 people.
Now we have something we can work with. We can do some more simple math and determine a couple of levers we can pull.
We can reverse the equation and solve for the target cycle time:
10 people x 30 minute planned cycle time-per-unit = 300 minutes total cycle time.
Thus, if we can get the total cycle time down to 300 minutes from 360, then the math suggests we can do this with 10 people:
But maybe we can work on the variation as well. Remember, we added a 15% pad by reducing the customer takt time of 36 minutes to a planned cycle time (or operational takt time, same thing, different words) of 30 minutes. Question: What sources of instability can we reduce so we can use a planned cycle time of 33 minutes rather than 30?
Then (after we reduce the variation) we can slow down the process a bit, and we could get by with a smaller reduction in the total cycle time:
(See how this is different than just slowing it down? If you don’t do anything about the variation first, all you are doing is kicking in overtime or shorting production.)
So which way to go?
We don’t know.
First we need to really study the current process and understand why it takes 360 minutes, and where the variation is coming from. Likely some other alternatives will show themselves when we do that.
Then we can take that information, and establish an initial target condition, and get to work.
You can’t use takt time alone to determine your labor cost. Your labor cost per unit is driven by the total manual cycle time and the process variation.
With that information, you can determine the total labor you need on the line with the takt time.
None of this should be considered an unalterable given. Rather, it should be a starting point for meeting the challenge.
And finally, if you just use this to reduce your total headcount in your operation, you will, at best, only see a fraction of the “savings” show up on your bottom line. You need to take a holistic approach and use these tools to grow your business rather than cut your costs. That is, in reality, the only way they actually reach anywhere near their potential.
In the name of employee wellness, and in response to insurance company demands, corporations are offering well-being initiatives with financial incentives. Complete this cholesterol screening, say, and you’ll get $100 added to your paycheck; participate in some number of wellness programs, and you’ll receive another bonus. In this quest to increase employee wellness, however, organizations are often unwittingly making things worse. Is it any surprise that initial studies on wellness programs are showing they don’t lead to any visible results?
At best, these initiatives are nothing more than lip service or PR. But at worst, they actually cause more stress. Having to jump through hoops, do cholesterol blood tests, and fill out well-being questionnaires is just one way that these programs can add yet more to-dos to an already full schedule. As one employee shared with me, “I feel like my workplace wants me to take care of my wellness yet pressures me with such tight deadlines that I barely have time to eat lunch at my desk. I know it would be good for me to attend, but I also feel anxious when my manager and colleagues frown at me leaving my desk to go stretch. What’s more, at the end of the day I feel guilty because I didn’t take care of my well-being and attend the yoga class.” Well-being becomes not a needed break from the pressures of work but just one more job requirement.
When you look at the data, employers seem to be missing the point. It is not by obligating employees to participate in these kinds of classes or screenings that well-being will improve, nor is it by providing material perks; a revealing study showed that employees actually prefer a happier workplace to a fatter paycheck anyway.
So what leads to employee happiness? A workplace characterized by humanity. An organizational culture characterized by forgiveness, kindness, trust, respect, and inspiration. Hundreds of studies conducted by pioneers of positive organizational psychology, including Jane Dutton and Kim Cameron at the University of Michigan and Adam Grant at Wharton, demonstrate that a culture characterized by a positive work culture leads to improved employee loyalty, engagement, performance, creativity, and productivity. Given that about three-quarters of the U.S. workforce is disengaged at work — and the high cost of employee turnover — it’s about time organizations start paying attention to the data.
Research suggests that the most powerful way leaders can improve employee well-being is not through programs and initiatives but through day-to-day actions. For example, data from a large study run by Anna Nyberg at the Karolinska Institute shows that having a harsh boss is linked to heart problems in employees. On the other side of the coin, research demonstrates that leaders who are inspiring, empathic, and supportive have more loyal and engaged employees. So checking in with employees about their families once in a while may help more than offering a mindfulness class at lunchtime.
Leaders set the tone for their organization, and their behavior determines whether interactions in their organization are characterized by trust, forgiveness, understanding, empathy, generosity, and respect. For example, one Fortune 500 corporation in the Bay Area has a system in place whereby the CEO is immediately informed if an employee comes down with a major illness or has experienced a personal tragedy. Within 15 minutes, no matter how busy he is, the CEO makes time to call that person and offer his support.
We have forgotten that organizations are first and foremost places of human interaction, not just transaction. Research shows that our greatest need after food and shelter is social connection — positive social relationships with others. If we create work environments characterized by these kinds of positive and supportive interactions, we create organizations that thrive. Organizations with very low turnover. Organizations that inspire. And organizations that enjoy superior results for employees and employers alike.
This is not to say that leaders and managers should be too “soft,” nor does this mean that an organization becomes a place that is too “nice.” You can still lead powerfully, you can still exert authority, you can still influence, and you can still communicate frankly while remaining courteous, empathic, and understanding. Rather than adding more and more wellness initiatives and material perks, employers can actually do something much simpler — not to mention cost-effective — that will have much greater results. By creating a values-based culture characterized by humanity, they can create an organization with true workplace well-being.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is on quite a run, from Google’s AlphaGo, which earlier this year defeated Go world champion Lee Sedol four games to one, to Amazon’s Echo, the voice-activated digital assistant.
The trend is heating up the sales field as well, enabling entirely new ways of selling. Purchasing, for example, is moving to automated bots, with 15%–20% of total spend already sourced through e-platforms. By 2020 customers will manage 85% of their relationship with an enterprise without interacting with a human. Leading companies are experimenting with what these technologies can do for them, typically around transactional processes at early stages of the customer journey.
For example, AI applications can take over the time-consuming tasks of initiating contact with a sales lead and then qualifying, following up, and sustaining the lead. Amelia, the “cognitive agent” developed by IPsoft, can parse natural language to understand customers’ questions, handling up to 27,000 conversations simultaneously and in multiple languages. And because “she” is connected to all the relevant systems, Amelia delivers results faster than a human operator. Of course, there will be occasions when even AI is stumped, but Amelia is smart enough to recognize when to involve a human agent.
The technologies and processes that are transforming companies.
As we learned from researching our book, Sales Growth, companies that have pioneered the use of AI in sales rave about the impact, which includes an increase in leads and appointments of more than 50%, cost reductions of 40%–60%, and call time reductions of 60%–70%. Add to that the value created by having human reps spend more of their time closing deals, and the appeal of AI grows even more.
Clearly, AI is bringing big changes. But what do they mean for sales — and the people who do it? We see two big implications.
The Sales Role Is Going to Change Completely
The “death of a salesman” is an overplayed trope, but the road ahead does mean significant changes for how sales work is done. The changes are primarily focused on automating activities rather than individual jobs, but the scale of those changes is likely to profoundly disrupt what sales people do.
We analyzed McKinsey Global Institute data on the “automatability” of 2,000 different workplace activities, comparing job requirements to the current capabilities of leading-edge technology. We found that 40% of time spent on sales work activities can be automated by adapting current technologies. If the technologies that process and understand natural language reach the median level of human performance, this number will rise to 47%.
Pity the parts salesperson, an occupation where 85% of all activities have the potential to be automated with today’s technology. Gathering customer or product information to determine customer needs, processing sales or other transactions, taking product orders from customers, and preparing sales or other contracts collectively account for approximately three-quarters of a parts salesperson’s time — and all can be automated. On the other hand, most of a sales manager’s activities, which involve strategic decision making and employee supervision and coaching, cannot be automated.
Sales People Will Need to Develop “Machine Intelligence”
Much of the focus on AI and automation has been on which jobs or tasks will be replaced. That’s understandable, of course. But it’s clear, if less explored, that sales leaders and reps will continue to be crucial to the sales process even as they adapt to working with machines.
The “human touch” will need to focus more on managing exceptions, tolerating ambiguity, using judgment, shaping the strategies and questions that machines will help enable and answer, and managing an increasingly complex web of relationships with employees, vendors, partners, and customers.
Machine learning and automation tools, for example, will be able to source, qualify, and execute far more sales opportunities than reps can keep up with. Sales leaders therefore need to develop clear escalation and exception protocols to manage the trickiest or most valuable situations, making sure a sales rep keeps a robot from losing a big sale.
While machine learning will continue to evolve, for the foreseeable future senior executives must point the technology in the right direction. They’ll have to think about a number of questions: What sorts of decisions should be automated? Which kinds of automation will help deliver on strategic growth goals? What are the legal and risk implications? How will vendor and technology relationships need to be managed and integrated to create the greatest competitive advantage?
There are implications too for the hiring and managing of sales reps. An empathetic personality will still be important, but beyond their relationship skills, reps will succeed based on their ability to understand and interpret data, work effectively with AI, and move quickly on opportunities. That’s a very different sales profile from the one many companies recruit for today.
Machines are already doing many sales jobs more effectively and efficiently than their human counterparts, and boosting customer satisfaction in the process. How sales leaders respond will determine what the future of sales looks like — and how well it works.
Your most valuable employee is someone who holds significant worth at your company. It’s easy to see which salesperson sells the most, but is that person truly the most valuable? It may be the receptionist who holds the foundation of the company together or the custodian who found a way to cut utility costs last year.
How do you identify the most valuable employees and hire others just like them? Ken Sundheim at Forbes identified 15 traits of the ideal employee. We’ll focus on four: intelligence, ambition, culture fit and hard work.
Intelligence can be difficult to identify, but you can look at how your employees handle challenges. Do they offer solutions to problems? Do things run better when they are around? You might think, “He’s just an admin,” but if he came up with a new way to organize paperwork and increased your efficiency by 20 percent, he might be more valuable than you thought.
Even decades after the Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted, employers are still making basic mistakes, such as presuming that an employee who wants FMLA leave has to use the word “FMLA,” failing to properly calculate FMLA allotment or use, and disparaging those who take leave. Perhaps managers find some provisions unclear or simply need a refresher. Along those lines, here are 10 “takeaways” from recent court decisions over alleged FMLA mistakes.
1.When calculating FMLA entitlement, include overtime and “working lunches.” An employee’s actual workweek is the basis for determining FMLA leave entitlement. This means overtime and breaks that were spent working must be included when calculating an employee’s FMLA entitlement. In one recent case, the Eighth Circuit held that, although a tire manufacturing employee had the choice of whether to put his name down for certain overtime shifts, the overtime became mandatory once he did that and was selected for a shift, so the overtime should have been included in calculating his allotment of FMLA leave for the year. Given that his overtime hours varied from week to week, the employer should have calculated his leave in accordance with 29 C.F.R. §825.205(b)(3). Instead, the overtime hours were not considered at all. His FMLA interference claim would therefore go to trial.
In another case, a corrections department counselor claimed understaffing kept him from eating in the employee lunchroom and he had to eat where inmates congregated. This, ruled a federal court in Illinois, raised a question on whether his lunches were spent predominantly benefitting his employer and should have been included in calculating whether he met the 1,250-hour requirement. Also at issue was whether the employer knew of his working lunches: 29 C.F.R. §785.11 states that unrequested work is work time if the employer “suffer[s] or permit[s]” the work and “knows or has reason to believe” the employee is working.
2.In calculating amount of leave used—don’t include days an employee is not scheduled. Be careful in calculating how much FMLA leave has been used—FMLA leave may be taken in periods of weeks, days, hours, and sometimes less than an hour. The employer must allow employees to use FMLA leave in the smallest increment it allows for other forms of leave, as long as it is no more than one hour. When calculating the amount of leave used, exclude days an employee would not be working (e.g., weekends, temporary plant closures, holidays).
One employer faces trial for including weekends in calculating an employee’s FMLA usage (she worked Monday through Friday) and firing her when it thought her leave was used up. The company thought it was “simple math” that her periods of leave in 2013 totaled 12 weeks (84 days) as of December 15, but a federal court in Tennessee disagreed. Weekends were not to be counted, so the total was 60 days and she had not exhausted her FMLA leave by December 15. Also rejected was the employer’s argument that the plant closes for the holidays so she would have soon exhausted her leave anyway. “If the employee is not scheduled to report for work, the time period involved may not be counted as FMLA leave,” the court noted, quoting the DOL’s response in the Federal Register to a comment.
3.Neither a medical emergency nor a request using the word “FMLA” is required. One employee won summary judgment as to her employer’s liability for FMLA interference after a federal court in Pennsylvania rejected the employer’s argument that FMLA leave is limited to medical emergencies. The court found it undisputed her parents had a serious health condition and she was entitled to family care type leave to make arrangements for their transition in care. It also found that her need for leave was unforeseeable and she was only required to give notice as soon as practicable—it was enough that she said her “dad was ill, and she had to get the house ready for him to come home” from the “hospital.” If the employer wanted more information on her parents’ health, it could have asked.
As to notice of the employee’s own health condition and need for leave, if there is a known history and the employee shows symptoms at work, that could be enough under the FMLA. It is up to the employer to learn more. For example, an employee with a history of migraines avoided summary judgment after a federal court in Missouri found that a sick log stating she was absent for “headache” may have triggered the employer’s duty to investigate; instead, it fired her under its attendance policy. In another case, a truck driver receiving treatment for high blood pressure had chest pains and, believing he might be having a heart attack, asked a coworker to tell the manager he was leaving. He was considered a “voluntary quit” since he failed to notify the manager himself, but a federal court in Maryland found triable issues on whether he provided sufficient notice of the need for FMLA leave.
4.Give employees a chance to provide certification. Employers may require employees to provide a medical certification of the need for FMLA leave, but lawsuits often arise if the certification is found deficient. The Second Circuit recently revived an employee’s FMLA claims against an employer and an HR director responsible for a communication breakdown that led to the employee’s discharge. The employee provided certification that she needed to care for her son who was hospitalized with diabetes. After he broke his leg, she sent a new FMLA request for leave through July 9 and repeatedly asked if more information was needed. She heard nothing until she received a July 17 letter stating her paperwork did not justify her absences. She sent emails asking what “paperwork” was needed, but the HR director simply sent a DOL brochure and refused to let her return absent proper documentation. She was fired for job abandonment. To the appeals court, a jury could find the employee made good faith efforts and was thus relieved of her duty to provide certification.
In a case out of Illinois, a staffing agency was denied summary judgment on an FMLA interference claim because it fired the employee one day after requesting her medical certification. An employer may deny leave absent timely certification, explained the federal court, but 29 C.F.R. §825.305(b) defines timeliness to be 15 calendar days from the request for certification. It also requires the employer to warn the employee in writing of the consequences of failing to timely return a certification, and that was not done here.
5.Communicate with employees. As indicated by the HR director’s inadequate responses to an employee’s questions in the Second Circuit case above, it is important to keep a dialogue with employees who request information about their FMLA obligations. It is also important to communicate regarding their job status or what they can expect to change due to their absence. For example, a federal court in Arizona held an employer liable for liquidated damages under the FMLA because it failed to answer a pregnant sales rep’s questions about how her accounts and commissions would be handled during her maternity leave. By not responding to repeated inquiries over seven months, the company essentially forced her to guess as to the professional consequences she would suffer in terms of lost commissions and transferred accounts, reflecting a lack of good faith and willful indifference to the FMLA.
6.You can require the use of customary notice procedures for absences, but with caveats. Cases regularly crop up where employees have been denied leave or disciplined for not following call-in procedures for potentially FMLA-qualifying absences. Employers need to consider if the need for leave was unforeseeable. If it was unforeseeable, employees need only provide notice of the need for FMLA leave “as soon as practicable,” though employers may generally require them to follow normal call-in procedures. In one case, an employee’s bipolar medication interfered with sleep and she overslept, failing to call in an absence before her morning shift. In the opinion of a federal court in Kansas, a jury could find that calling in late was “as soon as practicable” and that the employer interfered with FMLA rights by firing her for tardiness and absences.
In other cases, where employees have no excuse for failing to follow call-in procedures, their FMLA claims usually fail. For example, a Michigan welder had his FMLA claim tossed because he had no good reason for not calling in his late arrival. The federal court found that his deposition testimony providing only “conjectural justifications” such as he was probably suffering an anxiety attack at the time, were not enough to avoid summary judgment. The result was the same for a Delta flight attendant based in Utah who was fired for violating airline policy by accepting an assignment and then canceling without sufficient notice.
7.Avoid derogatory remarks about those who take leave. If there’s one thing that’s going to make a plaintiff’s case easier in proving unlawful intent, it is a manager’s or decisionmaker’s derogatory remarks about a statutorily protected activity. In one case from a federal court in Indiana, an employee was previously disciplined for excessive absences and was subject to a last chance agreement, but he still survived summary judgment on his FMLA claims, which were supported by his supervisor’s disapproving remarks about his need for leave, including that he was on “thin ice” and was “burying himself.” In a federal case out of Illinois, a car salesman who was fired 13 days after returning from FMLA leave for heart surgery won an extra $308,240 in liquidated damages on his FMLA retaliation claim after the employer failed to show it acted in good faith. Significantly, his visible heart pack was treated with open disdain by his supervisor, and he was told “don’t die at the desk or I am going to drag you outside and throw you in the ditch.” He was also threatened with demotion.
8.Be consistent in your treatment of employees before and after leave. A change in the way an employee is treated after FMLA leave may be considered evidence that the leave was a negative factor in any disciplinary action. In one case, an employee claimed that as she took more FMLA leave, her new supervisor began to “watch her like a hawk,” then gave her warnings for allegedly violating attendance and personal phone usage policies, eventually placing her on two performance improvement plans and firing her. This was enough, ruled a federal court in Illinois, to state a plausible FMLA retaliation claim. In another case, a federal court in Michigan denied summary judgment based largely on evidence that an employee received a positive performance review before her FMLA leave, but afterwards was disciplined and terminated for poor performance, along with evidence that the employer skipped a step in its progressive discipline policy and created an after-the-fact paper trail documenting misconduct that purportedly occurred months earlier.
9.Adjust goals downward for employees who take FMLA leave. While it is important to be consistent in how you treat an employee before and after FMLA leave–and as compared to others, it is also important to adjust time-sensitive goals for those who take FMLA leave. For example, evidence offered by an account executive that her company didn’t adjust her sales targets to account for her intermittent FMLA absences and then fired her for failing to meet her goals raised an issue for trial on whether she was actually fired for taking FMLA leave, ruled a federal district court in New Hampshire. Similarly, a court in Tennessee denied summary judgment on FMLA claims by an employee who took intermittent leave to care for her daughter, based in part on evidence that the employer refused to let coworkers help her meet her goals, nitpicked her work, faulted her for missing goals when she took leave, and treated similarly situated employees who missed goals better than it treated the employee.
10.Not every deviation from what you expect of a seriously ill person suggests FMLA abuse. It’s one thing if an employee posts Facebook pictures of his vacation in St. Martin during FMLA leave—a federal court in Florida held that an employee who did just that failed to show he was fired for taking FMLA leave rather than for his conduct while on leave. Usually, though, suspected FMLA abuse isn’t so clear, so employers must tread carefully. In one case, a kitchen manager told his employer he was ill with blood in his stool and planned to go to the hospital or health department. Instead, he walked to a diner, had coffee, then drove home, contacting the health department the next day (he was diagnosed with colitis and diverticula and was treated for two years). Though he was fired for walking off the job, a federal court in Tennessee found triable questions on whether he gave notice of an FMLA-qualifying condition and triggered a retaliatory action. In a case out of Maine, a long-time employee approved for intermittent leave due to chronic anxiety told his employer he was taking the rest of the day off. He ran into a coworker and they had lunch. Coworkers notified HR, which had him watched. He was suspended for “possible FMLA fraud” and then fired. The federal court held that he stated a plausible FMLA retaliation claim.
Other recent developments of note. In terms of case law, a recent ADA case bears mentioning because it highlights the confusion experienced by some employers concerning the potential overlap in their obligations under the ADA and the FMLA when an employee requests medical leave as an accommodation. In particular, it is important to note that an employee who has exhausted his or her FMLA leave may still be entitled to medical leave under the ADA. As explained by a federal court in Florida, granting the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave may not satisfy an employer’s independent duty to accommodate an employee’s disability under the ADA, such as through additional (though not indefinite) medical leave. Thus, the FMLA does not supplant the ADA when it comes to granting medical leave as an accommodation.
Agency developments should also be noted, including the Department of Labor’s announcement of a new FMLA notice poster that employers will be required to post in their workplaces and a new employer guide designed to provide essential information on FMLA obligations. The DOL also recently issued a fact sheet on the joint employment relationship and the corresponding FMLA responsibilities of primary and secondary employers, including both an example and a chart to illustrate specific responsibilities. More information is available on the Department of Labor’s website, including posters; e-Tools; and fact sheets on employee notice requirements and how to calculate FMLA leave, rules for military family leave, and other topics.
Today we dispatched the second edition of our Leadership That Works Newsletter, a curated monthly digest of the very best leadership links from around the web (compiled by the enthusiastic leadership wonks at ConantLeadership). In the event that youare not subscribed to our mailing list but still have an unquenchable thirst for leadership knowledge – we’ve also compiled the 10 articles from our newsletter letter right here for your reading enjoyment. This month’s links touch on productivity, decision-making, credibility, and much more. Enjoy, and stay curious! (And if you like what you see, you can sign up to receive leadership insights from ConantLeadership here).
ThisHarvard Business Review article shows why your purpose, like you, is always evolving. Therefore, you need practices for ensuring your work stays meaningful in the long-term, not just in the present.
In this excellent Strategy+Business article, author Augusto Giacoman tells you exactly why you must put credibility first if you want to get anything substantial accomplished as a leader. And he tells you precisely how to do it.
“A common misconception is that simply because someone excels in the current role, that success will automatically translate to the next level” writes Marty Fukuda in this Entrepreneur article that spells out four compelling reasons to make investing in leadership development a top priority.
Bridging the US gender gap in work entirely would produce an estimated $4.3 trillion in additional GDP in 2025″ finds McKinsey & Company in this fascinating, research-backed article that puts the cost of the gender gap in the workforce (and the enormous economic opportunity to be found in fixing it) in stark terms.
“As important as trust is and as much as we talk about it, the problem is we are not always talking about the same thing” writes Jesse Lyn Stoner in this helpful post that explains in detail the four different dimensions of trust. Stoner encourages people to be more specific when gauging and evaluating trustworthiness in ourselves and others.
But you still have to make decisions in a timely manner, given the information available to you. Mickey Addison, in this General Leadership article, paints decision-making as an art that gets better with practice; the more you do it, the better you can strike the balance between decisive and hasty.
“What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel impacts our actions” writes Leigh Stringer in this Quiet Revolution article that outlines ways we can change our environment to “nudge” ourselves towards better habits. What’s most interesting is that “biophilia” – or humans’ innate preference to be around natural splendor — can be leveraged for higher productivity by incorporating natural elements like water and plant life into our work environment.
What leadership links did you discover this month that challenged, intrigued, or inspired you?
Last week I watch a TED presentation by Angela Duckworth who discussed her findings in a 2013 TED Talk, where she defined grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. I realized this was a hot topic when I saw her presentation had 8.5 million views.
Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied people in challenging settings, including contestants in the National Spelling Bee, salespeople new to their positions, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods, and cadets at West Point and discovered that one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. It was grit.
So what is grit? I tend to think of it as courage and resolve; strength of character. Is grit the secret sauce that drives success? More important than both talent and intellect? What are the limits of grit and how far can it take you in life and at work? More important, how can you attain a level of grit that gives you an edge over others who don’t have it and what might you expect at the end of the road?
Grit is the new buzzword for success. The research shows that grit really does matter after all. More than intelligence. More than talent. Even more than hard work. It’s a combination of unshakable motivation, persistence, and determination. And the belief that improvement is always possible.
Other research has also pointed to a potential downside to grit. Like stubbornness, too much grit can keep us sticking to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned. We may be unable to give up on an idea and even become obsessed with its completion. In this case too much grit can be unhealthy. Like most things in life a balance needs to be struck between perseverance and knowing when to cut your losses and move on to the next challenge.
Psychologist Gale Lucas and her colleagues found in one experiment that gritty individuals will persist in trying to solve unsolvable puzzles at a financial cost. And that’s a limitation of grit: it doesn’t give us insight into when it will help us prevail and when it will keep us stuck in a dead-end.
Grit is more than work ethic. A strong work ethic is a necessary but insufficient condition for grit to prevail. You might stay at work two hours extra every day and work on weekends but that doesn’t mean you’ll have the courage to resist pressures to do something wrong, such as those encountered in workplace situations. In fact, you may be tempted to take a shortcut if it gets you to your goal quicker, especially when you have doubts about getting there.
So, ethics is also an integral part of grit. Just as one has to want to do the right thing and has the skills to carry it out, even in the face of counteracting forces, true grit requires a dogged mentality informed by following a righteous path, something I call virtuous grit.
Virtue requires integrity. Integrity is the basis for all ethical action. Principled people are motivated to act in accordance with their values regardless of the personal cost or cost to one’s employer if it is done to protect the public interest. This is no more obvious than for auditors who render an independent opinion on a client’s financial statements.
To be gritty, Duckworth said, we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.
That’s good news for those of us who have tasted defeat. We should dust ourselves off, get back on our feet, and strive to do better, work harder and smarter, and act ethically when confronting the new challenges of the day.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 17, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.
by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden. Catherine Bailey is a professor in the department of business and management at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K. Adrian Madden is a senior lecturer in the department of human resources and organizational behavior at the business school of the University of Greenwich in London.
Meaningful work is something we all want. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously described how the innate human quest for meaning is so strong that, even in the direst circumstances, people seek out their purpose in life.1 More recently, researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, opportunities for promotion, or working conditions.2 Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.3 But, so far, surprisingly little research has explored where and how people find their work meaningful and the role that leaders can play in this process.4
We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual;5 it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work; instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.
We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not.6 Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.
We also expected to find a clear link between the factors that drove up levels of meaningfulness and those that eroded them. Instead, we found that meaningfulness appeared to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of “Why am I bothering to do this?” strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.
About the Research
Meaningful work is a topic that is receiving increased attention. However, relatively little empirical research investigates in depth what meaningful work actually means to individuals. To address this, we undertook an extensive review of the literature on meaningful work from various fields, including psychology, management studies, sociology, and ethics. Drawing on these findings, we defined meaningful work as arising “when an individual perceives an authentic connection between work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.”i
To conduct our research, we wanted to garner insights from people in a wide range of work situations. We interviewed 135 individuals in 10 very different occupations and asked them about times when they found their work meaningful or meaningless. The occupational groups we studied were: retail assistants, priests from various denominations, artists (including musicians, writers, and actors), lawyers, academics from science disciplines, entrepreneurs who had started their own business, nurses in an acute care hospital, soldiers, conservation stonemasons who were working on the preservation of an ancient cathedral, and garbage collectors. All data were collected in the U.K. We transcribed the interviews and coded them by theme to uncover patterns in how people view their work.
The Five Qualities of Meaningful Work
Our research aimed to uncover how and why people find their work meaningful. (See “About the Research.”) For our interviewees, meaningfulness, perhaps unsurprisingly, was often associated with a sense of pride and achievement at a job well done, whether they were professionals or manual workers. Those who could see that they had fulfilled their potential, or who found their work creative, absorbing, and interesting, tended to perceive their work as more meaningful than others. Equally, receiving praise, recognition, or acknowledgment from others mattered a great deal.7 These factors alone were not enough to render work meaningful, however.8 Our study also revealed five unexpected features of meaningful work; in these, we find clues that might explain the fragile and intangible nature of meaningfulness.
Individuals tended to experience their work as meaningful when it mattered to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent. Although it is not a well-known fact, the famous motivation theorist Abraham Maslow positioned self-transcendence at the apex of his pyramid of human motivation, situating it beyond even self-actualization in importance.9 People did not just talk about themselves when they talked about meaningful work; they talked about the impact or relevance their work had for other individuals, groups, or the wider environment. For example, a garbage collector explained how he found his work meaningful at the “tipping point” at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling. This was the time he could see how his work contributed to creating a clean environment for his grandchildren and for future generations. An academic described how she found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony, a tangible sign of how her own hard work had helped others succeed. A priest talked about the uplifting and inspiring experience of bringing an entire community together around the common goal of a church restoration project.
The experience of meaningful work can be poignant rather than purely euphoric.10 People often found their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness. People often cried in our interviews when they talked about the times when they found their work meaningful. The current emphasis on positive psychology has led us to focus on trying to make employees happy, engaged, and enthused throughout the working day. Psychologist Barbara Held refers to the current pressure to “accentuate the positive” as the “tyranny of the positive attitude.”11 Traditionally, meaningfulness has been linked with such positive attributes.
Our research suggests that, contrary to what we may have thought, meaningfulness is not always a positive experience.12 In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy. The most vivid examples of this came from nurses who described moments of profound meaningfulness when they were able to use their professional skills and knowledge to ease the passing of patients at the end of their lives. Lawyers often talked about working hard for extended periods, sometimes years, for their clients and winning cases that led to life-changing outcomes. Participants in several of the occupational groups found moments of meaningfulness when they had triumphed in difficult circumstances or had solved a complex, intractable problem. The experience of coping with these challenging conditions led to a sense of meaningfulness far greater than they would have experienced dealing with straightforward, everyday situations.
A sense of meaningfulness arose in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seemed that no one could find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work was meaningful arose at peak times that were generative of strong experiences. For example, a university professor talked of the euphoric experience of feeling “like a rock star” at the end of a successful lecture. One actor we spoke to summed this feeling up well: “My God, I’m actually doing what I dreamt I could do; that’s kind of amazing.” Clearly, sentiments such as these are not sustainable over the course of even one single working day, let alone a longer period, but rather come and go over one’s working life, perhaps rarely arising. Nevertheless, these peak experiences have a profound effect on individuals, are highly memorable, and become part of their life narratives.
Meaningful moments such as these were not forced or managed. Only in a few instances did people tell us that an awareness of their work as meaningful arose directly through the actions of organizational leaders or managers. Conservation stonemasons talked of the significance of carving their “banker’s mark” or mason’s signature into the stone before it was placed into a cathedral structure, knowing that the stone might be uncovered hundreds of years in the future by another mason who would recognize the work as theirs. They felt they were “part of history.” One soldier described how he realized how meaningful his work was when he reflected on his quick thinking in setting off the warning sirens in a combat situation, ensuring that no one at the camp was injured in the ensuing rocket attack. Sales assistants talked about times when they were able to help others, such as an occasion when a customer passed out in one store and the clerk was able to support her until she regained consciousness. Memorable moments such as these contain high levels of emotion and personal relevance, and thus become redolent of the symbolic meaningfulness of work.
In the instances cited above, it was often only when we asked the interviewees to recount a time when they found their work meaningful that they developed a conscious awareness of the significance of these experiences. Meaningfulness was rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people were able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.
One of the entrepreneurs we interviewed talked about the time when he was switching the lights out after his company’s Christmas party and paused to reflect back over the year on what he and his employees had achieved together. Garbage collectors explained how they were able to find their work meaningful when they finished cleaning a street and stopped to look back at their work. In doing this, they reflected on how the tangible work of street sweeping contributed to the cleanliness of the environment as a whole. One academic talked about research he had done for many years that seemed fairly meaningless at the time, but 20 years later provided the technological solution for touch-screen technology. The experience of meaningfulness is therefore often a thoughtful, retrospective act rather than just a spontaneous emotional response in the moment, although people may be aware of a rush of good feelings at the time. You are unlikely to witness someone talking about how meaningful they find their job during their working day. For most of the people we spoke to, the discussions we had about meaningful work were the first time they had ever talked about these experiences.
Other feelings about work, such as engagement or satisfaction, tend to be just that: feelings about work. Work that is meaningful, on the other hand, is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences. We found that managers and even organizations actually mattered relatively little at these times. One musician described his profound sense of meaningfulness when his father attended a performance of his for the first time and finally came to appreciate and understand the musician’s work. A priest was able to find a sense of meaning in her work when she could relate the harrowing personal experiences of a member of her congregation to her own life events, and used that understanding to help and support her congregant at a time of personal tragedy. An entrepreneur’s motivation to start his own business included the desire to make his grandfather proud of him. The customary dinner held to mark the end of a soldier’s service became imbued with meaning for one soldier because it was shared with family members who were there to hear her army stories. One lawyer described how she found her work meaningful when her services were recommended by friends and family and she felt trusted and valued in both spheres of her life. A garbage collector described the time when the community’s water supply became contaminated and he was asked to work on distributing water to local residents; that was meaningful, as he could see how he was helping vulnerable neighbors.
Moments of especially profound meaningfulness arose when these experiences coalesced with the sense of a job well done, one recognized and appreciated by others. One example of many came from a conservation stonemason who described how his work became most meaningful to him when the restoration of a section of the cathedral he had been working on for years was unveiled, the drapes and scaffolding withdrawn, and the work of the craftsmen celebrated. This event involved all the masons and other trades such as carpenters and glaziers, as well as the cathedral’s religious leaders, members of the public, and local dignitaries. “Everyone goes, ‘Doesn’t it look amazing?’” he said. “That’s the moment you realize you’ve saved something and ensured its future; you’ve given part of the cathedral back to the local community.”
These particular features of meaningful work suggest that the organizational task of helping people find meaning in their work is complex and profound, going far beyond the relative superficialities of satisfaction or engagement — and almost never related to one’s employer or manager.
Meaninglessness: The Seven Deadly Sins
What factors serve to destroy the fragile sense of meaningfulness that individuals find in their work? Interestingly, the factors that seem to drive a sense of meaninglessness and futility around work were very different from those associated with meaningfulness. The experiences that actively led people to ask, “Why am I doing this?” were generally a function of how people were treated by managers and leaders. Interviewees noted seven things that leaders did to create a feeling of meaninglessness (listed in order from most to least grievous).
1. Disconnect people from their values. Although individuals did not talk much about value congruence as a promoter of meaningfulness, they often talked about a disconnect between their own values and those of their employer or work group as the major cause of a sense of futility and meaninglessness.13 This issue was raised most frequently as a source of meaninglessness in work. A recurring theme was the tension between an organizational focus on the bottom line and the individual’s focus on the quality or professionalism of work. One stonemason commented that he found the organization’s focus on cost “deeply depressing.” Academics spoke of their administrations being most interested in profits and the avoidance of litigation, instead of intellectual integrity and the provision of the best possible education. Nurses spoke despairingly of being forced to send patients home before they were ready in order to free up bed space. Lawyers talked of a focus on profits rather than on helping clients.
2. Take your employees for granted. Lack of recognition for hard work by organizational leaders was frequently cited as invoking a feeling of pointlessness. Academics talked about department heads who didn’t acknowledge their research or teaching successes; sales assistants and priests talked of bosses who did not thank them for taking on additional work. A stonemason described the way managers would not even say “good morning” to him, and lawyers described how, despite putting in extremely long hours, they were still criticized for not moving through their work quickly enough. Feeling unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unappreciated by line or senior managers was often cited in the interviews as a major reason people found their work pointless.
3. Give people pointless work to do. We found that individuals had a strong sense of what their job should involve and how they should be spending their time, and that a feeling of meaninglessness arose when they were required to perform tasks that did not fit that sense. Nurses, academics, artists, and clergy all cited bureaucratic tasks and form filling not directly related to their core purpose as a source of futility and pointlessness. Stonemasons and retail assistants cited poorly planned projects where they were left to “pick up the pieces” by senior managers. A retail assistant described the pointless task of changing the shop layout one week on instructions from the head office, only to be told to change it back again a week later.
4. Treat people unfairly. Unfairness and injustice can make work feel meaningless. Forms of unfairness ranged from distributive injustices, such as one stonemason who was told he could not have a pay raise for several years due to a shortage of money but saw his colleague being given a raise, to freelance musicians being asked to write a film score without payment. Procedural injustices included bullying and lack of opportunities for career progression.
5. Override people’s better judgment. Quite often, a sense of meaninglessness was connected with a feeling of disempowerment or disenfranchisement over how work was done. One nurse, for example, described how a senior colleague required her to perform a medical intervention that was not procedurally correct, and how she felt obliged to complete this even against her better judgment. Lawyers talked of being forced to cut corners to finish cases quickly. Stonemasons described how being forced to “hurry up” using modern tools and techniques went against their sense of historic craft practices. One priest summed up the role of the manager by saying, “People can feel empowered or disempowered by the way you run things.” When people felt they were not being listened to, that their opinions and experience did not count, or that they could not have a voice, then they were more likely to find their work meaningless.
6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships. Feelings of isolation or marginalization at work were linked with meaninglessness. This could occur through deliberate ostracism on the part of managers, or just through feeling disconnected from coworkers and teams. Most interviewees talked of the importance of camaraderie and relations with coworkers for their sense of meaningfulness. Entrepreneurs talked about their sense of loneliness and meaninglessness during the startup phase of their business, and the growing sense of meaningfulness that arose as the business developed and involved more people with whom they could share the successes. Creative artists spoke of times when they were unable to reach out to an audience through their art as times of profound meaninglessness.
7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm. Many jobs entail physical or emotional risks, and those taking on this kind of work generally appreciate and understand the choices they have made. However, unnecessaryem> exposure to risk was associated with lost meaningfulness. Nurses cited feelings of vulnerability when left alone with aggressive patients; garbage collectors talked of avoidable accidents they had experienced at work; and soldiers described exposure to extreme weather conditions without the appropriate gear.
These seven destroyers emerged as highly damaging to an individual’s sense of his or her work as meaningful. When several of these factors were present, meaningfulness was considerably lower.
Cultivating an Ecosystem For Meaningfulness
In the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg showed that the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same as those that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction.14 It seems that something similar is true for meaningfulness. Our research shows that meaningfulness is largely something that individuals find for themselves in their work,15 but meaninglessness is something that organizations and leaders can actively cause. Clearly, the first challenge to building a satisfied workforce is to avoid the seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.
Given that meaningfulness is such an intensely personal and individual experience that is interpreted by individuals in the context of their wider lives, can organizations create an environment that cultivates high levels of meaningfulness? The key to meaningful work is to create an ecosystem that encourages people to thrive. As other scholars have argued,16 efforts to control and proscribe the meaningfulness that individuals inherently find in their work can paradoxically lead to its loss.
Our interviews and a wider reading of the literature on meaningfulness point to four elements that organizations can address that will help foster an integrated sense of holistic meaningfulness for individual employees.17 (See “The Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem.”)
The Elements of a Meaningfulness Ecosystem
Individuals can derive meaning from their job, from particular tasks in their work, from interactions with others, or from the purpose of the organization. Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningfulness at work in terms of just one of the four elements, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one is present in a job, and these four elements can combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness.
1. Organizational Meaningfulness
At the macro level, meaningfulness is more likely to thrive when employees understand the broad purpose of the organization.18 This purpose should be formulated in such a way that it focuses on the positive contribution of the organization to the wider society or the environment. This involves articulating the following:
What does the organization aim to contribute? What is its “core business”?
How does the organization aspire to go about achieving this? What values underpin its way of doing business?
This needs to be done in a genuine and thoughtful way. People are highly adept at spotting hypocrisy, like the nurses who were told their hospital put patients first but were also told to discharge people as quickly as possible. The challenge lies not only in articulating and conveying a clear message about organizational purpose, but also in not undermining meaningfulness by generating a sense of artificiality and manipulation.19
Reaching employees in ways that make sense to them can be a challenge. A clue for addressing this comes from the garbage collectors we interviewed. One described to us how the workers used to be told by management that the waste they returned to the depot would be recycled, but this message came across as highly abstract. Then the company started putting pictures of the items that were made from recycled waste on the side of the garbage trucks. This led to a more tangible realization of what the waste was used for.20
2. Job Meaningfulness
The vast majority of interviewees found their work meaningful, whether they were musicians, sales assistants, lawyers, or garbage collectors. Studies have shown that meaning is so important to people that they actively go about recrafting their jobs to enhance their sense of meaningfulness.21 Often, this recrafting involves extending the impact or significance of their role for others. One example of this was sales assistants in a large retail store who listened to lonely elderly customers.
Organizations can encourage people to see their work as meaningful by demonstrating how jobs fit with the organization’s broader purpose or serve a wider, societal benefit. The priests we spoke to often explained how their ministry work in their local parishes contributed to the wider purpose of the church as a whole. In the same way, managers can be encouraged to show employees what their particular jobs contribute to the broader whole and how what they do will help others or create a lasting legacy.22
Alongside this, we need to challenge the notion that meaningfulness can only arise from positive work experiences. Challenging, problematic, sad, or poignant23 jobs have the potential to be richly generative of new insights and meaningfulness, and overlooking this risks upsetting the delicate balance of the meaningfulness ecosystem. Providing support to people at the end of their lives is a harrowing experience for nurses and clergy, yet they cited these times as among the most meaningful. The task for leaders is to acknowledge the problematic or negative side of some jobs and to provide appropriate support for employees doing them, yet to reveal in an honest way the benefits and broader contribution that such jobs make.24
3. Task Meaningfulness
Given that jobs typically comprise a wide range of tasks, it stands to reason that some of these tasks will constitute a greater source of meaningfulness than others.25 To illustrate, a priest will have responsibility for leading acts of worship, supporting sick and vulnerable individuals, developing community relations and activities, and probably a wide range of other tasks such as raising funds, managing assistants and volunteers, ensuring the upkeep of church buildings, and so on. In fact, the priests were the most hard-working group that we spoke to, with the majority working a seven-day week on a bewildering range of activities. Even much simpler jobs will involve several different tasks. One of the challenges facing organizations is to help people understand how the individual tasks they perform contribute to their job and to the organization as a whole.
When individuals described some of the sources of meaninglessness they faced in their work, they often talked about how to come to terms with the tedious, repetitive, or indeed purposeless work that is part of almost every job. For example, the stonemasons described how the first few months of their training involved learning to “square the stone,” which involves chiseling a large block of stone into a perfectly formed square with just a few millimeters of tolerance on each plane. As soon as they finished one, they had to start another, repeating this over and over until the master mason was satisfied that they had perfected the task. Only then were they allowed to work on more interesting and intricate carvings. Several described their feelings of boredom and futility; one said that he had taken 18 attempts to get the squaring of the stone correct. “It feels like you are never ever going to get better,” he recalled. Many felt like giving up at this point, fearing that stonemasonry was not for them. It was only in later years, as they looked back on this period in their working lives, that they could see the point of this detailed level of training as the first step on their path to more challenging and rewarding work.
Filling out forms, cited earlier, is another good example of meaningless work. Individuals in a wide range of occupations all reported that what they perceived as “mindless bureaucracy” sapped the meaningfulness from their work. For instance, most of the academics we spoke to were highly negative about the amount of form filling the job entailed. One said, “I was dropping spreadsheets into a huge black hole.”
Where organizations successfully managed the context within which these necessary but tedious tasks were undertaken, the tasks came to be perceived not exactly as meaningful, but equally as not meaningless. Another academic said, “I’m pretty good with tedious work, as long as it’s got a larger meaning.”
4. Interactional Meaningfulness
There is widespread agreement that people find their work meaningful in an interactional context in two ways:26 First, when they are in contact with others who benefit from their work; and, second, in an environment of supportive interpersonal relationships.27 As we saw earlier, negative interactional experiences — such as bullying by a manager, lack of respect or recognition, or forcing reduced contact with the beneficiaries of work — all drive up a sense of meaninglessness, since the employee receives negative cues from others about the value they place on the employee’s work.28 The challenge here is for leaders to create a supportive, respectful, and inclusive work climate among colleagues, between employees and managers, and between organizational staff and work beneficiaries. It also involves recognizing the importance of creating space in the working day for meaningful interactions where employees are able to give and receive positive feedback, communicate a sense of shared values and belonging, and appreciate how their work has positive impacts on others.
Not surprisingly, the most striking examples of the impact of interactional meaningfulness on people came from the caring occupations included in our study: nurses and clergy. In these cases, there was very frequent contact between the individual and the direct beneficiaries of his or her work, most often in the context of supporting and healing people at times of great vulnerability in their lives. Witnessing firsthand, and hearing directly, about how their work had changed people’s lives created a work environment conducive to meaningfulness. Although prior research29 has similarly highlighted the importance of such direct contact for enhancing work’s meaningfulness, we also found that past or future generations, or imagined future beneficiaries, could play a role. This was the case for the stonemasons who felt connected to past and future generations of masons through their bankers’ marks on the back of the stones and for the garbage collectors who could envisage how their work contributed to the living environment for future generations.
The four elements of the meaningfulness ecosystem combine to enable a state of holistic meaningfulness, where the synergistic benefits of multiple sources of meaningfulness can be realized.30 Although it is possible for someone to describe meaningful moments in terms of any one of the subsystems, meaningfulness is enriched when more than one or all of these are present.31 A sales assistant, for example, described how she had been working with a team on the refurbishment of her store: “We’d all been there until 2 a.m., working together moving stuff, everyone had contributed and stayed late and helped, it was a good time. We were exhausted but we still laughed and then the next morning we were all bright in our uniforms, it was a lovely feeling, just like a little family coming together. The day [the store] opened, it did bring tears to my eyes. We had a little gathering and a speech; the managers said ‘thank you’ to everybody because everyone had contributed.”
Finding work meaningful is an experience that reaches beyond the workplace and into the realm of the individual’s wider personal life. It can be a very profound, moving, and even uncomfortable experience. It arises rarely and often in unexpected ways; it gives people pause for thought — not just concerning work but what life itself is all about. In experiencing work as meaningful, we cease to be workers or employees and relate as human beings, reaching out in a bond of common humanity to others. For organizations seeking to manage meaningfulness, the ethical and moral responsibility is great, since they are bridging the gap between work and personal life.
Yet the benefits for individuals and organizations that accrue from meaningful workplaces can be immense. Organizations that succeed in this are more likely to attract, retain, and motivate the employees they need to build sustainably for the future, and to create the kind of workplaces where human beings can thrive.
(English and Chinese Version) The prevalent use of social media during employment may create potential risks for companies ranging from information leaks to reputation damage. DLA Piper discusses possible supervisory measures for employees and... By: DLA Piper
I’ve never worked with an organization that said they didn’t care about performance. Quite the contrary, I’ve always worked with organizations that cared about performance. A lot. Specifically, they wanted high-performance. In individuals and in teams.
They have their own system. Whether it’s a morning routine, a mindfulness ritual, a bullet journal, etc., HiPo employees have their own way of staying grounded and organized. It helps them stay focused on what’s important, so they can perform.
They listen to others – for feedback, suggestions, and proven strategies. High performing employees take-in information. It could be about their performance. Or a speaker during a conference with a tip or resource. Possibly a co-worker explaining a strategy that worked for them.
They hold themselves accountable. Always focused on quality, HiPo employees keep their word. If for whatever reason, they cannot deliver, then they renegotiate the deliverable. People who work with high-performers know exactly what to expect.
They are focused on the positive. This isn’t to say that everything around them is always positive. But when given a choice between celebration or cynicism, they find a way to look on the bright side. This outlook helps HiPo employees stay engaged with their work.
They will accept a challenge. And often don’t need to be told. High performing employees are willing to take on tough tasks. They are ready to solve problems. Many times, they are the employees bringing you the problem and the solution.
They set their own goals. Along with stretch goals. HiPo employees have goals. Not only the goals that the company sets for them. They have their own goals. In addition, high-performers set stretch goals. Maybe to finish the project early or under budget. They look for opportunities to exceed expectations.
They learn from their mistakes. Speaking of accomplishments, HiPo employees don’t always achieve their goals. But they do use those moments to reflect and learn from the situation. They don’t view the moment as failure. It’s an opportunity (see Habit #4.)
They know how to manage their time. This ties into Habit #1. HiPo employees are able to perform at their level because they understand their personal working style and how to get things done. This includes saying “no” at times so they don’t disappoint. Or negotiating commitments and setting clear expectations.
They’re committed to their own personal development. High-performers are not complacent when it comes to new skills. HiPo employees learn something every single day. It doesn’t need to be a breakthrough discovery. They understand that learning takes place in small iterations.
They’re highly engaged and willing to commit to the organization. Several of these habits point to an individual who is happily engaged with their work and the company around them. They perform at a high level because the organization is invested in their success. HiPo employees build a working relationship based on trust and respect.
While it’s important to keep the entire workforce engaged, it’s particularly important to keep high performing employees engaged. High performing employees are often selected for the company’s succession plan. Research from CEB shows that organizations with strong leadership can double their revenue and profits. So those HiPo employees are the key to future business growth.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued its controversial final rule on Wednesday to expand electronic recordkeeping requirements for workplace injuries and illnesses and make such records publicly available.
A staggering 88% of companies listed in the 1955 Fortune 500 are nowhere to be found in the same list today. They have gone bankrupt, merged, or simply shrunk off the list. Half a century ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Now it’s less than 15 years.
Box 1: Manage the present at peak efficiency and profitability.
Box 2: Escape the traps of the past by identifying and divesting businesses and abandoning practices, ideas, and attitudes that have last relevance in a changed environment.
Box 3: Generate breakthrough ideas and convert them into new products and businesses.
To endure, companies must excel at all three boxes, or their success could be very short-lived. In our work, many leaders tell us that Box 2—destroy the obsolete—is the most challenging; they find it hard to let go of the past. And yet without Box 2, organizations don’t truly transform; they persist in limiting ways of operating.
So, how do you build Box 2 muscle? How do you build a company that’s able to routinely toss what no longer works? One effective way is to work on culture. Box 2 muscle requires a culture where honest Box 2 questions are encouraged. Here are three things leaders can do to create a culture that is good at escaping the traps of the past:
Create a collective narrative that helps people understand why shedding the past (Box 2) is part of doing business and how to do it.
On the first day of his new job as CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella sent a powerful message to his employees. The message was intended to inspire new energy in the company at a pivotal time:
“While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more. Our industry does not respect tradition—it only respects innovation.”
Nadella was sending a clear message to look past the “sacred cows” of the organization and pursue an agenda of innovation over orthodoxy. Later that year he reinforced the message:
“We must each have the courage to transform as individuals. We must ask ourselves, what idea can I bring to life? What insight can I illuminate? What individual life could I change? What customer can I delight? What new skill could I learn? What team could I help build? What orthodoxy should I question?”
In these two emails, Nadella introduced a new Box 2 narrative into Microsoft’s culture by openly calling into question the status-quo.
Looking at Nadella’s communications, you may consider what new narratives could you introduce to create a Box 2 culture in your company?
Role model Box 2 decisions, implicitly giving permission for others to do the same.
The CEO of a prominent Silicon Valley company, let’s call him Peter, got to unexpectedly act as a role model for Box 2 decision making at a recent off-site. In the middle of passionately advocating the development of a line extension for a current product, we’ll call Product X, Peter was interrupted by a colleague: “Given that we’re phasing out Product X and launching a much better product, Product Y, does it make sense for us to now develop Product X version 2?” The tension in the room was palpable.
Peter paused and looked down at the table. The room quieted even more. A moment later Peter looked up and smiled. “Yes, you’re right, that doesn’t make any sense.” He continued, “let’s not launch Product X version 2 and instead focus all our efforts on Product Y.”
There was a collective sigh of relief with the realization that no further effort would be directed towards a product that was seen as obsolete. After the meeting, one colleague pointed to Peter’s decision as a key turning point: “Peter’s willingness to change his mind in public was huge progress for us in establishing a strong Box 2 culture.”
What decisions could you make that set a Box 2 tone in your organization?
Make symbolic bets to remind people that the Box 2 culture is here to stay.
Some innovation leaders make Box 2 symbolic bets that send powerful ripples throughout their organizations. Symbolic bets are highly meaningful and visible actions that touch people’s hearts, let them know the new way of doing business is here to stay and have real business impact.
Former GE boss Jack Welch was a master at using symbolic bets to coach GE to have the culture he wanted to achieve his strategic goals, to be #1 or 2 in every market they were in. He recounts one such example in his autobiography Jack: Straight from the Gut:
“In those days I was… trying to blow up traditions and rituals that I felt held us back. In the fall of 1981, [I challenged] the Elfun Society, an internal management club at GE….It was a networking group for white-collar types.”
In his characteristic style, Welch blasted the Elfun Society at their leadership conference. He saw the club as a symbol for “superficial congeniality.” In his address he described them as an “institution pursuing yesterday’s agenda” and told them “he could never identify with their recent activities.” His Box 2 speech had an impact within Elfun and its turnaround became a symbol of transformation for GE as a whole:
“…Today  Elfin has more than 42,000 members, including retirees. They volunteer their time and energy in communities where GE has plants and offices. They have mentoring programs for high school students….Elfin’s self-engineered turn around became a very important symbol [of reducing bureaucracy]. It was just what I was looking for.”
As humans, we remember symbols—Jack Welch was a master in creating them that inspired many to think and be bigger. Imagine Jack looking at your organization. What symbolic bets would he make to remove unproductive vestiges of the past and create a powerful Box 2 culture in your organization?
It’s important to remember that Box 2 is part of a road that is endless. Innovation leaders are fascinated with that road. We can call it a hero’s journey: mindfully maintaining what serves, courageously letting go of what doesn’t, and purposefully creating what will.
Late last week, Uber announced it had reached a settlement with California and Massachusetts drivers over their classification as independent contractors. The settlement calls for drivers to remain independent contractors, although Uber will change... By: Zelle LLP
The U.S. Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of the Treasury (collectively, the “Departments”) have jointly issued a new set of answers to frequently asked questions about the Affordable Care Act (the... By: Franczek Radelet P.C.
When you’re looking for a job or exploring a new career path, it’s smart to go out on informational interviews. But what should you say when you’re actually in one? Which questions will help you gain the most information? Are there any topics you should avoid? And how should you ask for more help if you need it?
What the Experts Say “Informational interviews are essential to helping you find out more about the type of industry, company, or role you’re interested in,” says Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking. “You may think you already know all about a certain position, but speaking to someone directly gives you the opportunity to test your assumptions.” John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of The Success Code, agrees. Informational interviews “give you exposure — a way to get yourself known in the hidden job market,” he says. “The visibility may put you straight onto a short list, even if a job isn’t advertised.” They can also be a great boost to your self-esteem. “You get to wear smart business clothes and visit places of work, which maintains your confidence levels in a job search,” he explains. So whether you’re actively trying to change roles or just exploring different professional paths, here are some tips on how to make the most of an informational interview.
Prepare and practice Informational interviews are, according to Clark, “a safe environment to ask questions.” But that doesn’t mean you should go in cold. After all, your goal is to come across in a way that inspires others to help you. So do your homework. Study up on industry lingo. Learn who the biggest players are. Be able to talk about the most important trends. You don’t want to waste your expert’s time asking Google-able questions. “You will come across as a more serious candidate if you are familiar with the jargon and vocabulary,” says Clark. Lees concurs. “Showing that you’ve done your background research plants the idea of credibility in the other person’s mind,” he says. Work on your listening and conversation skills too. Lees suggests that you practice “asking great questions and conveying memorable energy” with “people who are easy to talk to, such as your family, your friends, and friends of friends.”
Keep your introduction short “What frustrates busy people is when they agree to an informational interview, and then the person seeking advice spends 15 minutes talking about himself and his job search” instead of learning from them, says Lees. It’s not a venue to practice your elevator pitch; it’s a place to “absorb information and find stuff out.” Clark suggests preparing a “brief, succinct explanation about yourself” that you can recite in three minutes max: “Here’s my background, here’s what I’m thinking, and I’d like your feedback.” People can’t help you unless they understand what you’re looking for, but this part of the conversation should be brief.
Set the tone “You want to leave people with a positive impression and enough information to recommend you to others,” says Lees. At the beginning of the interview, establish your relationship by revisiting how you were connected in the first place. “Ideally, this person has been warmly introduced to you” — perhaps you have a friend or colleague in common or you share an alma mater — so remind them, he says. It’s also a good idea to state at the outset that “you’re interested in talking to 10 or 15 industry experts” during your information-gathering phase. “That way, the person will start to process the fact that you are looking for additional sources early on. If you wait until the end to ask for other referrals, she might be caught off guard.” Ask about time constraints up front too, says Clark. “If, at the end of the time allotted, you’re having a good conversation, say, ‘I want to respect your time. I would love to keep talking, but if you need to go, I understand.’ Prove you’re a person of your word.”
Think like a journalist Prepare a list of informed, intelligent questions ahead of time, says Clark. “You don’t necessarily need to stick to the script, but if you’re unfocused and you haven’t planned, you risk offending the person. Lees recommends approaching your interview like “an investigative journalist would.” You’re not cross-examining your expert, and you certainly don’t want to come across as “pushy or difficult,” but you should “gently probe through curiosity, then listen.” He suggests a framework of five questions along the lines of Daniel Porot’s “Pie Method”:
How do you get into this line of work?
What do you enjoy about it?
What’s not so great about it?
What’s changing in the sector?
What kinds of people do well in this industry?
You can adapt these questions to your purposes; the idea is to help you “spot the roles and fields that match your skills and experience and give you an understanding of how top performers are described.”
Deliberately test your hypotheses Your mission is to grasp the reality of the industry and the job so you can begin to decide if it’s right for you. So don’t shy away from sensitive topics. “You want to hear about the underbelly,” says Clark. She suggests questions “designed to elicit the worst information,” such as:
What are the worst parts of your job?
What didn’t you know before you got into this industry that you wish someone had told you?
Some topics, such as money, may seem taboo but can be broached delicately. “Don’t ask, ‘How much money do you make?’ Instead, say something like, ‘I’ve done some research online, and it seems that the typical salary range is this,’ so you’re just asking for confirmation of public information,” says Clark.
It’s also okay to ask for advice on “how to position yourself” for a job in the industry by making your experience and skills sound relevant. She recommends saying something like, “Based on what you know about my background, what do you see as my weaknesses? And what would I need to do to allay the concerns of a potential hiring manager?” If the feedback is negative, consider it valuable information but get second and third opinions. “One person’s word is not gospel,” she says. “You may not be qualified, but you also may have spoken to a stick-in-the-mud who discourages everyone. Don’t let him limit your career options.”
Follow up with gratitude, not demands While thanking the person for their time via email is a must, Lees recommends also sending a handwritten note to express gratitude right after you meet. “It will help you be remembered,” he says. Your thank-you letter needn’t be flowery or overly effusive; instead, it should describe how the person was helpful to you and, ideally, that her guidance led to “a concrete outcome” in your job search.
Whatever you do, don’t immediately ask for a favor, adds Clark. Not only is it “considered bad manners,” but it’s also practically “an ambush because you barely know the person.” That said, “If, a couple of weeks later, a job opens up at the person’s company, you can tell the person you’re applying for it and ask if she has any quick thoughts on professional experiences you should play up in your cover letter.” If she takes the ball and runs with it and offers to put in a good word for you, that’s great. But do not ask for it.”
Play the long game The real purpose of informational interviews is to build relationships and “develop future allies, supporters, and champions,” says Lees. So don’t think of them as one-off meetings in which “someone gives you 15 minutes of his time.” Take the long view and think about ways to cultivate your new professional connection. Forward him a link to a relevant magazine article, for instance, or invite her to an upcoming conference or networking event. In other words, be helpful. “You want to be seen as giving, not constantly taking,” Lees says. Clark notes that it can be a tricky proposition when there’s a wide age or professional gap between you, but if you focus on keeping the person “apprised of your progress” — perhaps writing him a note saying you read the book he suggested or that you joined the professional association he recommended — “it shows you listened and that his advice mattered.”
Principles to Remember
Your homework. You should do enough background research before going in that you sound like a credible candidate who’s committed to moving into a new sector.
Prepare a succinct explanation about your background and what you’re looking for
Send a handwritten thank-you note. It’s good manners and makes you memorable.
Go in cold. Practice doing informational interviews with friends and family so you get used to asking great questions and listening.
Let one negative informational interview sour you on a job, company, or career path. Solicit other opinions.
Ask for favors — it’s unseemly. Instead, ask for advice on how to position yourself in the job market.
Case Study #1: Prepare and be gracious Two years ago, Matt McConnell, who lives in southern California, wanted to move from finance to marketing. He wasn’t entirely sure of his direction, so he began using informational interviews to learn about other peoples’ careers in the hopes of narrowing his focus. “I was also using the interviews to learn more about other organizations to see whether they might be places I’d want to work,” he says.
His first informational interview didn’t go very well, and Matt takes full responsibility. “I didn’t prepare,” he recalls. “He could tell, and he told me that I was wasting his time.”
Matt learned an important lesson. “I’ve never made that mistake again. I now always overprepare,” he says.
To get ready, he reads people’s LinkedIn profiles, does a Google search on their careers, and checks out their company’s website. He tends to ask the same questions, usually in the realm of how the person got started and how they ended up in their current role. “But I also make notes about particular questions I want to ask so that I have something to reference if the conversation stalls,” he says.
Matt also has a post-meeting routine. “I ask for a business card and immediately send a handwritten thank-you note. The thank you is typically three lines long, and I always mention one specific thing from our meeting that resonated with me so they know I was listening and found their time valuable,” he says.
“Early on in my career I worried that I didn’t have anything to offer anyone in return. [But] I learned that people enjoyed sharing their experiences and offering advice, so I make sure to communicate my sincere gratitude.”
Matt eventually had an informational interview with a marketing head of a quick-service restaurant group that yielded results. “After our meeting, the person called me and said her company was hiring for a role she thought I’d be perfect for,” he says. “She’d given my name to the HR department, and they were planning on calling me within the next 30 minutes to do a phone interview. That phone interview led to in-person interviews and eventually a job offer at that company.”
He worked at the company for a few years before moving on. He’s now the marketing manager for Astrophysics, a company that designs X-ray scanners for security screenings.
Case Study #2: Be respectful and don’t let negative feedback discourage you A few months ago, Susan Peppercorn, a career coach and founder of Boston-based Positive Workplace Partners, decided she wanted to write a book about work satisfaction. Trouble was, she had no experience in the publishing industry beyond blogging. To educate herself, she has been doing a lot of informational interviews.
“Some are with writers, others editors, and others published authors,” she says. “In each case, I think in advance about each person’s expertise and focus my questions on the areas where I think they might have the most valuable advice.”
Susan makes sure she is respectful of the other person’s time, never asking for more than 30 minutes and always meeting at the person’s convenience, not hers. Before each interview, Susan also considers how she might help the person with whom she’s meeting: she might have a contact she could introduce, for instance, or she could offer to look over a resume or cover letter.
One of her recent interviews was with a potential editor. Susan was excited, and she prepared by thinking about what this particular person would look for in taking on a client. She began the conversation with a two-minute description of her book idea. But during the discussion, it became apparent that the editor’s goals and hers were quite different. “He told me in a very nice way that I had virtually no chance of having a publisher accept my book proposal. My balloon was burst quickly.”
Still, after the initial disappointment, she found value in his advice. “I learned about the importance of having a platform before approaching a publisher, since they want to know in advance that your book will sell well,” she says. “That saved me a lot of time and effort trying to pitch to publishers and helped me look at the viability of self-publishing. It also made me realize that I had more work to do with regard to clarifying and communicating the value of my book.”
The experience also helped her hone her approach for subsequent informational interviews. Now she shares a brief outline of her book in advance, with a short paragraph on her motivation for wanting to write it.
One of her most recent meetings, with a published author, was extremely helpful. “He explained the concept of a platform and helped me brainstorm potential ones for my work,” she explains.
The biggest thing that gets in the way of our productivity is often ourselves. You can motivate yourself by thinking of the time you get each day as a "magic bank account" that refills each day, but if you don't use what's in it, you lose it.
According to a Gallup Poll taken in 2013, only 21 percent of people characterized business executives as having “high” ethical standards—a little above lawyers (19 percent), but below bankers (28 percent) and journalists (28 percent). Whether that’s deserved or not, it’s nevertheless true that executives set the ethical tone at their companies. But employees have the power to improve it.
Employees engage in unethical behavior from time to time: an employee takes home company supplies; a manager submits personal expenses for reimbursement by the company; a member of top management pressures accountants to manipulate the financial results. These are just a few of the violations of virtually all company codes of ethics. The question is why does it happen and can anything be done to prevent it?
Ethical behavior must be modeled by the leader of an organization. For me the issue is not so much a lack of business ethics but it is a lack of ethical leadership by management. Underlying all leadership characteristics is the need for a strong sense of ethics – right and wrong – to help those in the organization that look for moral guidance when difficult issues arise or workplace conflicts occur.
Leadership and management go hand in hand. They are not the same thing. But they are necessarily linked, and complementary. Any effort to separate the two is likely to cause more problems than it solves.
Still, much of organizational development writings have been spent delineating the differences. The manager’s job is to plan, organize and coordinate. The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate. In his 1989 book “On Becoming a Leader,” Warren Bennis composed a list of the differences:
– The manager administers; the leader innovates.
– The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
– The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
– The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
– The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
– The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
– The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
– The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.
In the new economy, where value comes increasingly from the knowledge of people, and where workers are no longer undifferentiated parts of an industrial machine, management and leadership are not easily separated. People look to their managers, not just to assign them a task, but to define for them a purpose. And managers must organize workers, not just to maximize efficiency, but to nurture skills, develop talent and inspire results.
The late management guru Peter Drucker was one of the first to recognize this truth, as he was to recognize so many other management truths. He identified the emergence of the “knowledge worker,” and the profound differences that would cause in the way business was organized.
With the rise of the knowledge worker, “one does not ‘manage’ people,” Drucker wrote. “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”
For businesses to become more ethical and inspire a new generation of leaders, the manager must share a vision of what it means to be successful in business. In the end it is not the bottom line profit, which is fleeting at best. It is the way that managers interact with people; how they treat their employees; how they deal with customers and suppliers; and whether they respect the accounting process and make decisions based on accurate and complete financial statements, not manipulated statements for short-term gain and to enhance one’s self-interests.
Managers and leaders are committed to ethical relationships and ethical decision making, and such decisions must be ingrained in the DNA of the organization.
It has been said that character is revealed over time and under pressure. Nothing could be more true than to observe how a crisis is handled by the management in an organization and whether underlying core ethical values are stressed (i.e., honesty, integrity, respect and responsibility), and not unethical values (i.e., profits, individual wealth, power and influence).
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 6, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.
The end of capitalism has often been imagined as a crisis of epic proportions. Perhaps a financial crisis will occur that is so vast not even government finances can rescue the system. Maybe the rising anger of exploited individuals will gradually congeal into a political movement, leading to revolution. Might some single ecological disaster bring the system to a halt? Most optimistically, capitalism might be so innovative that it will eventually produce its own superior successor, through technological invention.
But in the years that have followed the demise of state socialism in the early 1990s, a more lackluster possibility has arisen. What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is just met with a yawn? From a political point of view, this would be somewhat disappointing. Yet it is no less of an obstacle for the longer-term viability of capitalism. Without a certain level of commitment on the part of employees, businesses run into some very tangible problems, which soon show up in their profits.
This fear has gripped the imaginations of managers and policymakers in recent years, and not without reason. Various studies of employee engagement have highlighted the economic costs of allowing workers to become mentally withdrawn from their jobs. Gallup conducts frequent and wide-ranging studies in this area and has found that only 13 per cent of the global workforce is properly “engaged,” while around 20 percent of employees in North America and Europe are “actively disengaged.” They estimate that active disengagement costs the U.S. economy as much as $550 billion a year. Disengagement is believed to manifest itself in absenteeism, sickness and—sometimes more problematic—presenteeism, in which employees come into the office purely to be physically present. A Canadian study suggests over a quarter of workplace absence is due to general burnout, rather than sickness.
Few private-sector managers are required to negotiate with unions any longer, but nearly all of them confront a much trickier challenge, of dealing with employees who are regularly absent, unmotivated, or suffering from persistent, low-level mental-health problems. Resistance to work no longer manifests itself in organized voice or outright refusal, but in diffuse forms of apathy and chronic health problems. The border separating general ennui from clinical mental-health problems is especially challenging to managers in 21st century workplaces, seeing as it requires them to ask personal questions on matters that they are largely unqualified to deal with.
Lack of engagement from the workforce also registers as a problem for governments, inasmuch as it bites into economic output, and in doing so hits tax receipts. In societies with socialized health insurance and unemployment insurance, the problem is far more serious. There is a growing economic problem of individuals dropping out of work due to some often ill-defined personal and intangible problem, then gradually sinking into a more generalized inactivity. These people may show up at the doctor’s office on a regular basis, making complaints about undiagnosable pains and problems. This is often because they have nobody else to speak to and are lonely. Unemployment undermines their sense of self-worth, and inactivity brings various other psychosomatic problems with it. A general deflation of psychological and physical capacity is the end result, which in many societies produces costs for the state to pick up.
The causes of mental-health problems are obviously complex and do not lie simply in the economy any more than they do in brain chemistry. But it is the way in which these problems manifest themselves in the workplace, threatening productivity as they do so, that has placed them among the greatest problems confronting capitalism today. It is the principal reason that the World Economic Forum is now so concerned about our health the happiness industry and happiness. The murky gray area separating workplace disaffection from a clinical disorder has required managers, and the human-resources profession especially, to equip themselves with various new ways of intervening in the minds, bodies, and behaviors of their workforce. The term most commonly used to describe the goal of these new interventions is “well-being,” which encompasses the happiness and health experienced by employees.
There is a clear economic incentive for managers to consider the positive attitude of employees. Endless studies have shown that workers are more productive when they feel happy, possibly by as much as an additional 12 percent of output. And in workplaces where they feel respected, listened to, consulted, and involved, they are more likely to work harder, and less likely to take sick leave. Where employees have no say in how their work is organized, this is known to generate some of the psychological problems that now concern businesses, up to and including mental health problems. By emphasizing well-being, managers hope to turn a vicious circle of disengagement and ill-health into a virtuous one of active, fulfilling commitment.
It is tempting to be cynical about some of this: The manager is after all still attempting to extract effort from the worker. But why not also recognize the opportunity contained in this current business anxiety? If capitalism is being ground down by the chronic, unspecifiable alienation of those it depends on, then surely solving that problem may also open up possibilities for political reform? The hard economic costs that ennui now places upon employers and governments mean that human misery has shown up as a chronic problem that elites cannot simply shove aside. The question of what type of work, and what type of workplace organization, might generate a real sense of commitment and enthusiasm on the part of workers should not be abandoned altogether.
The difficulty is that the enthusiasm managers are seeking to promote is no less slippery than the psychosomatic problems they are seeking to avoid. A report commissioned by the U.K. government on the importance of employee engagement found it impossible to say exactly what this gaseous entity consists of. Expert insights that “you sort of smell it” and “know it when you see it” confirmed a shortage of objectivity on this particular issue. Managers and policymakers yearn for a hard science of workplace happiness. But it is with that sort of hard science that many of our problems begin.
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Confronted by other people’s problems which are both ambiguous and personal, senior decision-makers have a tried and tested coping method: bring in the external contractors and consultants. There is copious political and market demand for experts willing to pronounce and act upon the well-being of others, on the basis of some presumed scientific authority. These sit on a spectrum between qualified medical practitioner and ill-informed bully. When handling painful issues of other people’s health and happiness, outsiders have the great advantage of being able to duck full moral accountability and, if necessary, withdraw from the job altogether. Jeremy Bentham’s vision of a “National Charity Company,” a corporation established by the state to put people to work, foreshadowed today’s murky world of workfare that lies in the unaccountable gaps between market and state.
In its bid to push people off reliance on the welfare state and the happiness industry into the labor market, the U.K. government appointed the public service outsourcing company Atos to conduct individual “work capability assessments” of individuals. As this agenda was ramped up by the Conservative-led government from 2010 onwards, it led to a number of tragedies and acts of cruelty. These included the suicide of a 53-year-old blind and agoraphobic man, Tim Salter, only weeks after his benefits were stopped in 2013, following an assessment by Atos that he was able to work. Atos also found individuals suffering brain damage and terminal cancer to be “fit for work.” In 2011, Britain’s General Medical Council investigated twelve doctors working for Atos as disability assessors, due to allegations that they were not performing their duty of care towards patients.
When it comes to then motivating people to seek work, once again, the government also stands back, letting its contractors perform the most controversial psychological interventions. Those being forced to seek work are assessed, in terms of their attitude and optimism, and then have their motivation reactivated. The companies who carry out this task in the British context are A4e and Ingeus, who hold contracts with the government to get unemployed people into jobs. In the eyes of these contractors, unemployment is really a “symptom” of some broader personal malaise, which manifests itself in inactivity. The solution consists of a range of coaching programs, combined with “behavioral activation” courses, aimed at restoring the unemployed individual’s self-belief and optimism with ruthless efficiency. As one participant in an A4e course reported, they were shouted at by a self-help guru to “talk, breathe, eat, shit belief in yourself” and that “you are the product—you either believe it or you don’t.”
To close down every route for the avoidance of work, doctors have had to be conscripted into this policy agenda too. A U.K. government report published in 2008 complained that ‘the fallacy persists that illness is incompatible with being at work’, which doctors were guilty of peddling. A government campaign was launched to dissuade doctors of this, and their official “sick notes” (which were once signed by doctors to declare that an individual shouldn’t work) were replaced by “fit notes,” requiring doctors to describe the remaining ways in which an individual could still be employed, despite any illnesses or disabilities. Doctors were encouraged to sign a draft statement scripted by the state, agreeing that work is good for people.
At the opposite end of the labor market, things look a lot sunnier, but somehow no less brutal. While Atos, A4e, and Ingeus grapple with the apparent sluggishness and pessimism of the poor, high-end wellness consultants make large sums of money by teaching corporate elites how to maintain themselves in a state of optimal psychosomatic fitness. Classes such as Jim Loehr’s “Corporate Athlete Course” ($4,900 for two and a half days) introduce executives to elite “energy investment” strategies, which will enable them to achieve a high performance level of physical and mental wellness. The American productivity guru Tim Ferriss sells advice on how senior managers should best employ their own brains over the course of the working day, following an earlier career selling dubious brain-enhancing nutritional supplements.
This consultancy circuit moves seamlessly among various apparently separate domains of expertise. The psychology of motivation blends into the physiology of health, drawing occasionally on insights from sports coaches and nutritionists, to which is added a cocktail of neuroscientific rumors and Buddhist meditation practices. Various notions of fitness, happiness, positivity, and success bleed into one another, with little explanation of how or why. The idea which accompanies all of this is that there is one ideal form of human existence: hardworking, happy, healthy and, above all, rich. A science of elite perfectibility is built on the back of this heroic capitalist vision. The flip side of this, and the real driving force behind many executive wellness programs, is a set of well-researched risks run by highly competitive businessmen, colloquially known as “burn-out,” which includes higher chances of heart attacks, strokes, and nervous breakdowns.
Of course, the majority of adults living in capitalist societies lie somewhere between the purview of Atos et al. and that of the executive wellness gurus. Is there no scope for a less individualized vision of well-being across the middle swath of the labor market? Possibly there is. But here too are some brutally competitive injunctions offered to those managers worrying about worker disengagement and its impact upon productivity.
One of America’s leading workplace happiness gurus, entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, argues that the most successful businesses are those which deliberately and strategically nurture happiness throughout their organizations. Businesses should employ chief happiness officers to ensure that nobody escapes workplace happiness. But if this sounds like the recipe for inclusive community, it isn’t. Hsieh advises businesses to identify the 10 percent of employees who are least enthusiastic towards the happiness agenda, and then lay them off. Once this is done, the remaining 90 percent will apparently become “super-engaged,” a finding which is open to more than one psychological interpretation.
As the science of happiness has moved closer to the front line of profit-maximizing business, something curious has happened to it. For Bentham, happiness was something which resulted from certain activities and choices. But in the context of business consultancy and individual coaching, happiness looks altogether different. Suddenly, it is represented as an input to certain strategies and projects, a resource to be drawn upon, which will yield more money in return. The premise that money yields a proportionate quantity of happiness is spun on its head, suggesting instead that a quantity of happiness will yield a certain amount of money.
One of a new generation of positive psychology management gurus, Shawn Achor, outlines a range of data in his book, The Happiness Advantage, suggesting that happier people achieve more in their careers. They get promoted more, sell more (if they work in marketing) and enjoy better health. Happiness becomes a form of capital on which they can fall back amidst the turbulence of an uncertain economy. It is, as the title of his book suggests, a source of advantage in the battle to succeed. If this was the limit of his wisdom, Achor might sound like a fatalist: Optimists are just luckier in all regards than pessimists.
The crucial supplement to the data is that we are all, supposedly, capable of influencing our own happiness levels. Happiness, Achor tells us, is a choice. We can either choose to be happy (and consequently successful) or choose to be unhappy (and suffer the consequences). Neuroscientist Paul Zak, another leading speaker and consultant on these issues, suggests that we view our happiness like a “muscle,” which needs exercising regularly in order to keep it in full working order, for when we need it. Lurking within this highly individualized agenda is the capacity to blame people for their own misery and failure, both of which are matters that they have evidently failed to act upon adequately.
What does “happiness” even mean, once it is being conceived of in this way? It seems to imply a source of energy and resilience, but always directed towards goals other than being happy, such as status, power, employment, and money. In the face of workplace ennui and psychological stagnation, the motivational gurus simply demand more willpower. By this account, the activities that might result in happiness, such as socializing or relaxing, are only valuable to the extent that they might restore brain and body to a level of fitness, from which they can then be propelled forwards to the next business challenge. This particular version of utilitarianism means expanding corporate rationality further into everyday life, such that there is now even an “optimal” way of taking a break from work, and simply going for a walk can be viewed as a calculated act of productivity management. What is going on? The misery of working people is a serious political issue. How did it become captured in this way?
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In 1928, a researcher from Harvard Business School sat down with a young woman working in a telephone production plant in Cicero, Illinois, and asked her an unusual question: “If given three wishes, what would they be?” The woman paused to reflect before listing her answers. “Health, to take a trip home at Christmas time, and to take a wedding trip to Norway next spring.”
The reason the question was unusual was that the researcher was not, ultimately, interested in the woman’s life or wish fulfillment. He was interested in her productivity. The enthusiasm for the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, ostensibly the world’s first management consultant, had waned considerably since its heyday in the years prior to World War I, but Taylor’s basic scientific ambitions were still largely unquestioned among management theorists. Only in 1927 had Harvard Business School established a Fatigue Laboratory, containing rooms of various temperatures and state-of-the-art instruments to study the reactions of the human body to different types of work and recuperation. In an economy still dominated by manufacturing and physical labor, physiology and infrastructure seemed to hold the key to unleashing better workplace performance. Managers did not consider the Christmas or travel plans of their employees to be any of their business.
The man asking the questions in that telephone production plant was Elton Mayo, an Australian polymath of somewhat dubious scholarly provenance. He had dabbled in philosophy, medicine, and psychoanalysis, and was seduced by many of the doom-laden cultural critiques published in the years following World War I, such as Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Mayo was convinced that civilization was heading for a fall, and that industrial conflict would be its trigger. Trade unions and socialists were thus a threat, not only to management and capital, but to world peace.
In some of Mayo’s more outlandish theories, socialism was a symptom of physical fatigue and psychiatric illness. “To any working psychologist,” he asserted, “It is at once evident that the general theories of Socialism, Guild Socialism, Anarchism and the like are very largely the phantasy constructions of the neurotic.” He believed that the only solution lay in corporations coming to provide forms of psychoanalytic therapy to their employees, which would soothe them, bringing them closer into the arms of their employers. Employees who resisted the authority of their managers were in need of treatment.
Mayo's psychosomatic theories assumed that psychiatric problems in the workplace would show up not only in terms of low productivity and industrial unrest, but high blood pressure. Between 1923 and 1925, he toured manufacturing plants in the Boston area in the company of a nurse and a blood-pressure gauge, attempting to prove this link between the mental, the economic, and the physical, which he was convinced existed quite regardless of the evidence.
The psychological study of work was an emerging field during the 1920s, led by some of the same scholars who had previously pioneered the psychological study of advertising a few years earlier. But Mayo had some much more far-reaching theories regarding the ways in which the insights of psychology might fundamentally reform and rescue capitalism. By focusing on the entire person in the workplace, including all of their personal concerns and mental well-being, work might provide the laborer with their deepest source of meaning, and offset the risk of industrial upheaval once and for all. In 1926, Mayo was hired by the Harvard Business School.
The research in Cicero, Illinois, known as the Hawthorne Studies, after the name of the manufacturing plant where they were carried out, quickly became a landmark of management science. Mayo was one of the founders of the Fatigue Laboratory, but the impact of his work was to divert attention away from the working body and towards the mental happiness of employees. According to the mythology that now surrounds the Hawthorne Studies, Mayo’s main discovery was accidental. The working women who were chosen to be observed and interviewed were taken off the regular shop floor and into a test room, where they were able to relax and interact in a more informal and convivial atmosphere. This seemed to correlate with improved performance, and Mayo had an inkling of why: The study itself, including the interview process, was what resulted in the productivity increases, because the women had developed a higher sense of group identity with one another. Their enthusiasm for work had grown, as their ability to form relationships with one another increased. The general phenomenon, whereby research subjects respond to being studied, is now known as the “Hawthorne Effect” for this reason.
The lesson that Mayo drew from his repeated visits to the Hawthorne plant was that managers had to learn how to talk to their employees if they wanted to extract greater productivity from them. An unhappy worker was also an unproductive worker, and the unhappiness stemmed from a deep-seated feeling of isolation. They also had to understand the unique psychological properties of social groups, which were not simply reducible to individual incentives, as Taylorism and neo-classical economics had supposed. A thriving and collaborative group identity could do far more for an employee ’s happiness, and hence for the manager’s bottom line, than a pay rise.
There is some basis to doubt whether Mayo was really reporting on data acquired at Hawthorne or simply repackaging some theories that he’d long held about the future of capitalism. In fact, the productivity of the women did coincide with a pay increase in 1929, but Mayo was absent at the time and chose to ignore this in his analysis. Regardless of the scientific validity of his work however, Mayo’s impact on management thinking was profound and long lasting. Whenever we now hear that managers must focus on the “whole person,” and not just the “employee,” or that employee happiness is critical to the bottom line, or that we must “love what we do” or bring an “authentic” version of ourselves to work, we are witnessing Mayo’s influence. When managers strive for more laughter in the workplace, as some consultants now insist they must, or seek to transform its smell so as to optimize our subjective feelings, they are practicing what Mayo first preached.
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Within the longer history of happiness expertise, what is interesting about Mayo’s intervention is that he downplayed the more obvious material ways of tweaking the pleasures and pains of the mind. Neither money nor the physical body were deemed adequate for understanding or influencing levels of happiness, once the workplace came to be understood in terms of group psychology. Instead, talking to workers and facilitating their relations with one another became the main instruments for gauging and improving their happiness. Management, which originated as a technique for controlling slaves on plantations, and developed as a means of running heavy industrial corporations, had become a “soft” social and psychological skill.
While Mayo did not conceive of things in quite this way, this was a form of psychosomatic intervention, like a placebo. The aim of management in the 1930s was to increase output of physical produce. But now, rather than focusing on the physical and physiological work process, managers would focus on the social and psychological elements, in the expectation that this would yield behavioral, physical, economic improvements.
The term “psychotherapy” today refers to a range of treatments, ranging from more psychoanalytic, long-term relationships, to the quick fixes such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that are more akin to training or coaching. But the first known uses of the term referred to the “talking cures” offered by medical doctors in the late 19th century, who came to recognize that their patients often responded as much to the manner in which they were spoken to as they did to the medicinal treatment they received.
What Mayo was recommending was the industrial parallel to this. An open, conversational relationship could be conducted in such a way as to bring about a change in the worker’s mentality and a consequent change in their physical performance. Speech was instrumentalized, to make people feel better and, as a result, behave better. Once dialogue and co-operation become viewed as an essential element of economic production, one sees the glimmer of a more transformative economic democracy.
Yet the analogy to psychosomatic medical treatments would gradually become more telling as the post-war period progressed, for a couple of coincidental reasons. Firstly, the nature of work in the West became progressively less physical over the second half of the 20th century. By the 1980s, an employee’s customer care, service ethic, and enthusiasm were not simply mental resources that existed to help churn out more products: They were the product. The importance of employee happiness and psychological engagement becomes all the greater once corporations are in the business of selling ideas, experiences, and services. Businesses speak of “intangible assets” and “human capital” in the hope of capturing this amorphous workplace ethos, but in practice it is nothing which resembles either an asset or capital. Some other way of conceiving of work is required.
Secondly, the concept of health started to undergo some profound changes. In 1948, the newly founded World Health Organization redefined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being”—an almost utopian proposition that few of us ever attain for very long. Intangible aspects of health and illness came to the fore. This is partly a symptom of medical progress: As medicine becomes better at preventing death, so attention turns to the question of how well it is able to support life.
What does any of this have to do with management or work? The problem confronting managers and policymakers over the second half of the 20th century was that everything seemed to be evaporating into thin air at the same time. Work was becoming intangible as manufacturing went into decline. Illness was becoming intangible as mental and behavioral problems increased. Money itself was becoming intangible as the financial system globalized from the late 1960s onwards. Problems of activity and enthusiasm moved elusively between the domains of medicine, psychiatry, workplace management, and economics. The challenges of health care and those of business were becoming harder to disentangle, with the issue of mental health at the interface between the two. The job of management increasingly came to resemble psychotherapy in that original sense of “talking cure,” of propping up the well-being of individuals, in order to keep their enthusiasm for service-based jobs as high as possible.
And as the nature of work and management changes, so too does the nature of resistance. Opposition to management typically takes a form other than that preferred by the manager himself. The classical mode of opposition is for the worker to speak back or strike via a trade union. The manager, having ignored the feelings or desires of the worker, is told that they cannot do so any longer. As Mayo’s style of therapeutic management expanded over the post-war period, opposition to it began to take the opposite form. Gradually, as post-industrial workers were encouraged to be “themselves,” speaking openly and honestly to their manager, the sole remaining form of opposition was to return to the physical body once more. The only escape from a manager who wants to be your friend is to become physically ill. With the list of available diagnoses growing, and complete health becoming idealized, sickness became one of the dominant ways in which refusal to work came to manifest itself, especially from the 1970s onwards. Evidently, management could not only focus on relationships and subjective feelings, any more than it could only focus on the productive body. What it needed, if it was to ensnare employees thoroughly, was a truly psychosomatic science that could treat the mind and the body as an integrated part of a single system to be optimized. This brings us to a final character in the story of psychosomatic management.
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The history of utilitarianism is littered with dashed hopes that there might be a single measure of human optimization which could serve as the instrument through which all public and private decisions might be taken. This ideal rests on the hope that the ambiguity and plurality of human culture might be overcome through knowledge of a single quantifiable entity. Whether it is via the idea of utility, energy, value, or emotion, the project of monism always involves this form of simplification.
A monistic theory of general wellness was emerging. Until the 1940s, the term “stress” was used principally in reference to metals and was virtually unknown outside the worlds of engineering and physics. An iron bar becomes stressed when it is unable to cope with the demands that are placed on it. Hans Selye, an Austrian doctor, recognized that what engineers saw as “wear and tear” in, say, a bridge, was the same problem as what he had termed “General Adaptation Syndrome” in the human body. General Adaptation Syndrome was effectively an indicator of the “rate of wear and tear in the body.” In the aftermath of World War II, he re-christened the syndrome as “stress.” By the 1950s, this was a distinctive new field of medical and biological research.
Like Mayo, Selye never saw himself as an academic only: He was on a mission. According to his holistic understanding of illness, entire societies and cultures could become sick if they lost the capacity to cope with external stimuli and demands. Equally, they could slump into passive inactivity if they were never stimulated sufficiently. As he grew older, Selye developed this idea into something approaching an ethical philosophy, though a frighteningly egocentric one. A healthy society, he argued, is built around “egoistic altruism,” in which every individual sets about doing his utmost to win the adoration of others. This produces a form of natural equilibrium, in which the egotist becomes integral to his own social system.
Selye’s own biological research, and his macho libertarian politics, the non-specific nature of stress represented an opportunity which would eventually permeate into the world of management. Stress, as Selye had argued, is simply a particular type of reaction to any excessive demand. This was equally amenable to psychological or organizational forms of exploration. In fact, without using the term stress, the U.S. military had become aware of the same syndrome during World War II, in the common forms of psychological collapse experienced by soldiers who had spent too long in battle. The stressful demands placed on a human being are not merely physical, but social and psychological too. What went on between the demand and the response was open to a range of different scientific explanations beyond merely biological ones. The study of stress became an expressly interdisciplinary field.
As the study of how humans cope with physical and mental demands, it also lent itself perfectly to the study of work. By definition, stress is something we encounter without having chosen to, but cannot avoid. It often occurs when we are trapped in a certain situation, simply forced to react to it. The field of occupational health emerged during the 1960s to understand precisely how work impacts upon us, physically and mentally. Studying how different types of job demands produce different hormonal and emotional responses yielded a number of potentially transformative findings. It wasn’t simply that excessive demands were bad for people; insufficient workplace demands—or boredom—could also be unhealthy, as Selye had recognized. Our current concern with unemployment as a potential health risk is one manifestation of the latter anxiety.
Just as Mayo’s emphasis on dialogue created an opening for a more thoroughly egalitarian critique of business hierarchy, the study of stress in the workplace achieved something similar for a while. Work carried out by the psychologist Robert Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Michigan during the early 1960s highlighted the various ways in which power structures and work design impact upon the health of employees. Badly designed jobs and lack of proper recognition in the workplace were clear contributors to physical and mental ill-health. Lack of any influence over where and when one carries out a task is a stress factor, which takes its toll on both mind and body. A number of clear routes, between the injustices of hierarchical business and the vulnerabilities of the human body, were becoming apparent. One of the most important of these was the discovery that stress leads to the cortisol hormone being released into the bloodstream, hardening the arteries and increasing the risk of heart attack. Despite the high-profile obsession with executive burn-out, this form of stress is far more common for those lacking power or status at work.
By the 1980s, the non-specific syndrome that Selye had first identified in his lecture hall in 1925 had become one of the most pressing problems confronting managers in the Western world. They were now exhibiting a generalized deflation of activity, a form of psychosomatic collapse that we have come to identify with the concept of stress. In the U.K., stress overtook repetitive strain injury in 2012 as the leading cause of absence from work. This is not easily classified as either a physical illness or a mental illness. What prompts it may include work but may equally include other types of social, psychological, or physical demands that the individual simply can’t cope with.
The science of stress was of the utmost importance for managers worrying about the depletion of their workforce. It became one of the main preoccupations of the human resources profession, who sought out rudimentary wisdom on a wide panoply of “bio-psycho-social” complaints. The sheer breadth of contributory factors to stress—some tangible, others intangible—made it extremely difficult to achieve any control over it. This is in addition to the graver psychosomatic risks faced by those in precarious jobs, who move in and out of work, without even managers to support them from one month to the next. One conclusion to draw from this would be, as per the occupational health studies of the 1960s, that the fundamental politics of work had grown dysfunctional and needed a more wholesale transformation, and not simply piecemeal medical treatment. But would this be the lesson that was learnt?
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In 2001, Unilever’s senior management demanded a program to help them personally manage their own energy levels, as they feared the consequences of executive working lifestyles. Being in the industry they were in, there was ample expertise to help them design this. The “Lamplighter” health and well-being program was the result, tailor-made to help senior management keep up their performance levels and offset the risk of stress. The business benefits for Lamplighter quickly became clear, with evaluations suggesting that every £1 spent on the program yielded £3.73 in return. It was quickly rolled out across dozens of Unilever offices around the world before being extended to cover the rest of the workforce.
Programs such as Lamplighter are becoming more and more common. They seek to identify a wide range of health and well-being risks in their workforce, including the sporting activities of employees and their “mental resilience.” Lamplighter requires Unilever employees to be formally (albeit, confidentially) assessed in terms of a range of behaviors, relating to nutrition, smoking and drinking, exercise and personal stress. The state-of-the-art workplace of today has taken on features of the doctor’s surgery, just as the doctor has been required to take on skills of the motivational manager. What are referred to as “Health 2.0” technologies, such as the iPhone’s Health app, for the digital monitoring of well-being are often indistinguishable from productivity enhancements.
Many best practice employers now offer free gym membership to their most valued staff, and even free counseling. As the physical and the psychological character of work—and of illness—start to blend into each other, notions of health, happiness, and productivity become ever harder to distinguish from each other. Employers end up treating all three things as a single entity, to be maximized via a range of stimuli and instruments. This is the monistic philosophy of the 21st-century manager: Each worker can become better, in body, mind, and output.
The political hope that perhaps the human benefits of dialogue and workplace empowerment might be more thoroughly recognized turns into disappointment, as performance management and health care are fused into a science of well-being optimization. And yet there are radical political economists for whom the de-materialization of contemporary work represents an opportunity for a whole new industrial model. The shift towards a “knowledge-based” economy, in which ideas and relationships are key sources of business value, could be the basis of entirely new workplace structures in which power is decentralized and decisions taken collaboratively.
There are good reasons to suspect that such models might produce fewer psychosomatic stresses; in that sense, they may be more efficient than the status quo. If dialogue in the workplace is a necessary factor for productivity, why not grant it some real influence over how decisions get made, right up to the highest level? Rather than ironic management speak, which twists words to manipulate emotions in the expectation that this will yield greater output, a more honest reflection on the problems of occupational ill-health would question the hoarding of status and reward by a small number of senior managers. Instead, traditional forms of management and hierarchy are rescued by the new ubiquity of digital surveillance, which allows informal behavior and communication to be tracked, analyzed and managed.
Rather than the rise of alternative corporate forms, we are now witnessing the discreet return of the scientific management style, only now with even greater scientific scrutiny of bodies, movement, and performance. The front line in worker performance evaluation has shifted into bodily-monitoring devices, heart-rate monitoring, and sharing of real-time health data, for analysis of stress risks. Strange to say, the notion of what represents a good worker has gone full circle since the 1870s, from the origins of ergonomic fatigue studies, through psychology, psychosomatic medicine and back to the body once more. Perhaps the managerial cult of optimization just needs something tangible to cling onto.
As Piketty points out, there’s a historic disparity between making money from investments and making money from your day job that greatly favors the former. While the U.S. government will likely engage in political battles to move the needle for day-jobbers through initiatives like minimum wage hikes or tax breaks for the middle class, there’s renewed interest in making the other side of the equation, investing, more accessible to the 99 percent.
That’s where Aspiration, a financial services company that debuted today, comes in. Founded by Democrat wunderkind turned federal fraud prosecutor and business consultant Andrei Cherny, and advised by billionaire internet entrepreneur Jeff Skoll, Aspiration is already making waves with a business model that not only allows clients to choose their own fee (or none at all) for the services the firm provides, but one that donates 10 percent of its revenue to microloans for struggling Americans.
“Millennials are used to wanting to do business with companies that aren't just about profit, but are about a larger purpose as well,” said Cherny. “That is the way they shop, that is the way people exercise their decisions in all other aspects of their lives, and that hasn't been true in investment options.” While he acknowledges that socially responsible mutual funds have existed within major financial institutions for a long time now, he also points out that “nobody has really built a retail financial company with those kinds of values.”
At the heart of Aspiration’s online-based service is its commitment to making complex investment portfolio options more accessible to the masses. The first product, Aspiration’s flagship fund, relies on liquid alternatives. These funds, designed to hedge against the stock market by investing in nontraditional assets using sophisticated trading strategies, are all the rage on Wall Street right now, but, according to CNN Money, the average minimum investment is $6,000. Aspiration’s is $500.
To hear it from Cherny, Wall Street never made these types of tools available to the middle-class investor because it simply didn’t have to. “It's easier to find one person with $100 million than a lot of people with $1,000 or $10,000, so just from a business standpoint, they haven't had the need to do so,” he said.
But other investors and finance professionals consulted on this matter said there are also questions of risk and regulation to consider. While Aspiration’s flagship fund was created to be less volatile than the stock market on average, the Securities and Exchange Commission considers liquid alternatives to be part of its “heightened risk” examination priorities this year. Hedge funds, closely related to liquid alternatives, may seem reserved for the elite as a matter of smart business strategy, but they are actually required by law to only do business with “accredited investors”—meaning a minimum net worth of $1 million or a minimum annual income of $200,000 for each of the past two years. This regulation came about after the Depression not so much as a way to protect the wealthy from sharing the secrets to their financial success, but to keep regular investors, the type Aspiration hopes to attract, from losing their shirts.
Aspiration addresses this risk by capping the initial investment for their debut fund at $100,000. But the company also aims to empower investors to protect themselves via an educational component on the site.
“So much of what you see from the financial industry is charts and graphs and white papers,” said Cherny. “For some people, that’s great and that’s how they learn, but, for a lot of people, that is not only not how they learn but [it] is counterproductive and feels like math homework. People run in terror.” Perhaps that’s why a 2012 SEC report found that “studies show consistently that American investors lack basic financial literacy,” and that the problem is even worse among women and minorities, two groups also susceptible to poverty at greater rates. Another study showed that most Americans turn to their family for financial knowledge, giving those who come from strong investing backgrounds a significant leg-up when they decide to enter the market.
Aspiration aims to not only provide that necessary financial education, but hopes to make it more open and engaging. While most investment firms offer dry reports and often perplexing diagrams tracking an investment’s progress, Aspiration explains the basic premise behind its investment strategy in cute animated videos and Choose Your Own Adventure-type games. While this approach may induce groaning in seasoned investors, the vast majority of Americans who don’t understand basic investing principals (like compound interest and inflation) might rejoice.
“I've been trading from a pretty young age, in college,” said Aspiration’s vice president of product, Matthew Lee. “Seeing both friends and family around me, a lot of them are just financially illiterate. They have the desire and motivation to learn, but it was difficult for them because the financial language is cloaked in a lot of acronyms and hard-to-understand terms.” Aspiration seeks to create a friendlier approach to financial literacy based on narrative storytelling and gamification as a way to recruit a customer base from everyday Americans put off by traditional financial literature.
Cherny said that the educational components are “a big part of what we do and will always be a through-line in our approach.” To ensure their videos and games make sense and are engaging, Aspiration relies on extensive user feedback, including that of their lead designer Jess Brown, who is the first to admit that he has little background in the financial world. “For me, it was teaching myself through this material as well and feeling that I have a grasp enough to make these types of investments for myself,” he said of his design process. He helped come up with analogies like thinking of a diverse investment portfolio as a well-balanced diet. Now, Lee claims that even Brown’s young children can sit through the animated cartoons available on the site.
While providing explanations of financial mechanisms so simple a child could understand them has no correlation to a firm’s return on investment, it may help spark what Aspiration calls “a revolution” in wary, underserved potential investors, like young professionals, people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and women. It also serves Aspiration’s mission to create trust among its clients. “We were really trying to make it feel that this is not just the latest startup coming out of Silicon Valley,” said Brown. “These are real people that are really conscious of wanting to help better everybody's financial endeavors.”
For Cherny, a policy wonk at heart, this all goes back to creating a solution for the economic inequality so startlingly defined by Piketty. “What I didn't necessarily like about…what Piketty was arguing was that because of this mismatch of some people making their money off of investments and others off of labor, that's always going to be the case. What we're saying is that if you take that as being true, as opposed to being pessimistic and saying there's nothing we can do about it, the answer is give more investment opportunities to middle-class people so they can enjoy that rise up the income ladder, and wealth ladder as well.”