Category Archives: corporate culture

Psst … Gossip Isn’t All That Bad

More than a few times in your career, I’m sure you’ve walked by the watercooler and witnessed two folks talking in a whisper. Were you to assume the participants were engaging in some gossip (hopefully not about you), you’d probably be right. We all know gossip is one of the most popular of sports—one most of us have engaged in at some point in our working life (perhaps more times than we’d like to admit).

148242887Gossip, typically, is seen as something that’s unhealthy and counterproductive—and therefore something that should be discouraged. (Remember, no one likes a gossip, right?) But I recently ran across a just-released study (published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) suggesting that being on the receiving end of gossip can actually be beneficial, helping individuals adapt to their social environments, illustrating how they can improve or revealing potential threats.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers at the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) conducted two studies. In one, they asked participants to recall an incident in which they received either positive or negative gossip about another individual. They then were asked questions intended to measure the self-improvement, self-promotion and self-protection value of the received information.

It turned out that the individuals who received positive gossip had increased self-improvement value, whereas those who received the negative gossip had increased self-promotion value. (Negative gossip also increased self-protection concerns.)

In the second study, participants were assigned the role of a sales agent and given either negative or positive gossip about another’s job performance. (Not boring you with the details, this study specifically looked at the differences between those with a “salient performance goal” and those with a “salient mastery goal.”)

Like the first study, positive gossip in the second study had more self-improvement value, whereas negative gossip had greater self-promotion value and raised self-protection concerns. Negative gossip, meanwhile, elicited pride due to its self-promotion value since it provided individuals with information that justified their self-promotional judgments.

The researchers said they figured the participants would be more alert after receiving positive rather than negative gossip because they might find positive gossip provides a source of information they can learn from. But to their surprise, alertness was high in both positive and negative gossiping situations, probably because both forms of gossip are highly relevant for the receiver.

In a press release on the findings, lead researcher Elena Martinescu also noted some gender differences in the studies. “Women who receive negative gossip experience higher self-protection concerns, possibly because they believe they might experience a similar fate as the person being the target of the gossip, while men who receive positive gossip experience higher fear, perhaps because upward social comparisons with competitors are threatening.”

Of course, no one, including myself, is saying employers and HR leaders might start to design workplace initiatives that encourage gossiping. (I’ll leave it to you to imagine what such an initiative might look like.) But Martinescu and her colleagues suggest that we might want to be more open-minded about such behaviors, noting that being on the receiving end of gossip about other people might provide a valuable source of knowledge about ourselves.

Richard Marcus, a business psychologist and executive coach based in Philadelphia (who I recently shared the two studies with), agrees the findings offer a few insights worth considering, including the notions that discussion about an individual’s performance could have a positive value whether he or she is there or not;  informal communication about performance could help to raise the bar by getting everyone involved and staying focused on performance; and that indirect criticism could have value both for the individual who is the subject of the criticism and those around him or her.

But Marcus also adds that the findings don’t diminish the fact that gossip can also have some obvious negative consequences, including putting too much focus on the individual and not the team; breeding distrust among co-workers; and wasting energy worrying about how individuals are being perceived and judged.

All points that are also well worth considering the next time you head in the direction of the watercooler.

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Lutz on Leaders: Why So Nice?

happy leaderRetired automotive executive, former Marine and best-selling author Bob Lutz is also fluent in several languages. And he’s probably pretty outspoken in all of them.

Never known for holding his tongue, the former vice chairman of General Motors took part in a Q & A with the Washington Post earlier this week. And he offered up his usual, unvarnished take on subjects ranging from Mary Barra’s performance as GM’s chief executive so far (“too early to tell,” but “the early signs are outstanding”) to the increasingly guarded stance taken by executives when addressing the public (“nobody is speaking clearly anymore”).

Lutz also spoke at length about what makes for a great leader. While he praised the “quiet, somewhat low-key, persuasive and very effective” style that Barra has displayed at the helm of GM, Lutz seemed to suggest the leadership model prevailing at many organizations in 2014 is, well, a little soft.

When asked to name the best leader he’s ever worked for, Lutz went all the way back to his high school days in Switzerland, calling teacher—and future member of the Swiss National Council—Georges-Andre Chevallaz “an extremely effective individual” who could “convince intellectually, and … had the ability to motivate positively. You never wanted to let him down.”

The corporate community could use a few more like Georges-Andre Chevallaz, according to Lutz.

Today’s leaders “follow a politically correct line and listen to all the 1980s Total Quality Management consultants who say you should always respect everyone, that there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” he told the Post. “Of course we all know that’s hogwash. Good leaders have to be able to criticize constructively. We just have too little of that in American business now. Everybody is way too nice to everybody.”

A dearth of constructive criticism aside, Lutz sees something else lacking in the workplace: Fear.

“I can’t tell you how essential that is: a fear of consequences, of messing up, of letting the team down, of doing something unauthorized,” said Lutz. “That fear has to be there; otherwise the place is out of control. All of the consultants who say you’ve got to take fear away in a corporation don’t know what they’re talking about.”

While he may espouse some old-school ideals when it comes to leadership style, Lutz also warned that too much of the same old, same old can actually damage an organization’s culture; a lesson he says he learned decades ago.

Looking back at his stint as head of product development with Chrysler in the 1970s and ’80s—when the company was integrating an influx of talent from Ford and GM to go along with “the old Chrysler guys”—the culture at Chrysler “was a ragtag bunch of misfits,” he said. “At Chrysler, everybody was from somewhere else. It made for a very interesting environment, because there was no dominant culture. What you rarely heard in meetings was, ‘You can’t do that, because we’ve always done it this way.’

“It was messy,” he continued. “But it was very effective and everybody had a lot of fun. The nice thing about an enduring culture is that you have stability. But stability in a rapidly changing environment can be a very bad thing.”

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Cannabis Business Charges Full Steam Ahead

It came to my attention recently — actually in the writing of a news analysis last month — that there’s a big business growing around 465923899 -- cannabismarijuana, with 23 states now allowing for its medical use and two, Colorado and Washington, allowing for its recreational use.

(For the record, here’s that Sept. 29 news analysis — which actually aired Sept. 30 — examining the issue and what employers can really expect as more laws are passed. It was written just before the Colorado Supreme Court was to hear the case of Coats v. Dish Network and the issue of whether the plaintiff’s positive drug test should have been allowed under the state’s medical-marijuana statute. The court has yet to decide.)

With a keener understanding of this railroad coming down the tracks that is marijuana legalization and the business opportunities on board that train, I took special notice of the Hartford Courant‘s recent coverage of callback selections for a new web series called “The Marijuana Show,” aimed at giving specially selected and very “lucky ganjapreneurs” the chance to become “the next marijuana millionaire,” as the story puts it.

I also happened to notice in the piece that a handful of even-luckier finalists just finished participating in “an intense three-day business boot camp” that ended last Sunday, Oct. 12, prior to the finalists then pitching their marijuana-money-making ideas to investors in hopes of receiving financing, mentorship and attention on the show after the entire process has been filmed. (Here, too, is the Cannabis Business Times’ version of all this.)

So I reached out to co-producers Wendy Robbins, also the show’s director, and Karen Paull, to find out what I could about the boot camp. Their comments did nothing to quell the notion that there’s a most-definite marijuana-business movement afoot.

The camp, says Robbins, included “attorneys, an accountant [and] a branding expert [among others, and focused on] financial help with valuations, regulations, business-plan help, pitching advice and [of course] social media too.” Five out of the 10 finalists were even offered financing and some got mentoring help with their ideas — which ran the gamut from cannabis retail or leisure outlets to supply and distribution centers to growing establishments.

“Most shows have one winner, so we were blown away that half of the contestants got some sort of deal,” Robbins says.

“This is not a scripted show, nothing is predetermined,” adds Paull. “It’s a very organic process.” Indeed.

Looks like airing begins in December.

My story in September also references a Cannabusiness Accelerator job fair held in Seattle Sept. 19, “with the support of the [fast-growing marijuana] industry’s leaders to serve as a locus of networking and informational know-how [for job seekers], as well as a showcase for program partners, all suppliers to the new industry,” according to that company’s release about the event.

But the story does also include employment attorneys’ cautionary comments about the need for employers to not get too worked up. They needn’t, they say, ready themselves for all this marijuana-legalization and cannabis-business momentum to lead to across-the-board pot-induced workplaces (though statistics do show more employees are showing up for work under the influence).

Marijuana, they say, is still against federal law and employers still have every right, and responsibility, to maintain zero-tolerance policies because of that, and for safety and productivity reasons.

As Mark A. de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace and a Reston, Va.-based senior partner at Jackson Lewis, told me for that piece:  “This is not a crisis for employers. Their backs are not up against the wall.”

Not yet anyway, legalization supporters and cannabusiness entrepreneurs would probably say.

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Get Outta Here!

leaving officeMany contend that the unique perks the Googles and the Qualcomms of the world offer employees—on-site dry cleaners, pet-friendly workspaces, employer-hosted farmers markets—are as much about keeping people at work as they are about making their lives easier.

So it was interesting to read this recent Washington Post article, which highlighted a few companies that seem intent on helping their employees actually stay away from the office, and remain disconnected from their work after punching out for the day.

For instance:

  • Redwood, Calif.-based software company Evernote offers employees a $1,000 stipend for taking a full week away from work.
  • FullContact, a Denver-headquartered provider of contact-management software, gives employees $7,500 a year if they take time off of work. According to the Post, use of vacation time among the firm’s employees shot up after the policy was introduced.
  • Dutch design firm Heldergroen makes it impossible—or at least pretty uncomfortable—for workers to hang around the office past 6 p.m., when employee desks are lifted to the ceiling via steel cables, and all furniture is cleared from the floor.
  • Menlo Innovations opts not to offer technological tools for remote work. No employer-provided laptops, no virtual private networks and no remote-access software. The message to employees is clear, according to Richard Sheridan, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software design firm’s CEO. “You can’t take work home with you,” Sheridan told the Post.
  • Quirky, a crowd-sourced consumer product maker with headquarters in New York, takes things a step further, shutting down completely for four weeks out of the year. Founder and CEO Ben Kaufman began the practice in early 2013, closing Quirky’s doors the first week of every new quarter.

Yes, most of these and the other examples cited in the Post piece are smaller and/or start-up type tech companies. But, with larger, more traditional-minded organizations always looking for ways to help employees strike that ever-elusive work/life balance—and position themselves as “cool” places to work—wouldn’t it be interesting if we started to see more Fortune 500 firms co-opt this piece of the freewheelin’, forward-thinking start-up culture?

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Men, Women, Competition and Cooperation

Common stereotypes may tell us that men are more competitive and women are more cooperative, but researchers at Aalto University in Finland recently studied the physiological responses to both competitive and cooperative play in order to investigate respondents’ emotions to see how males and females are motivated to behave in these situations.

So, what did the researchers find?

While males did enjoy competition more than cooperation, females enjoyed both competition and cooperation equally.

(The results of the research were published in an article in the international science journal PLOS ONE.)

“Although there is a lot of research on gender differences, nobody has studied the emotions – the physiological mechanism that steers our behavior – of competitive and cooperative activities in males and females before. This gives a better insight into why people behave the way they do. You may unconsciously give false information about your motivations, but your body doesn’t lie,” said researcher Matias Kivikangas.

Kivikangas also said the results suggest that parts of the common stereotypes are untrue, at least in that women are not enjoying cooperation any more than competition.

And, he added, “it seems that the fact that men do enjoy competition more than cooperation might actually be a consequence from gender expectations rather than innate differences.”

According to the press release announcing the findings, the two studies employed cooperative and competitive digital games to test the responses. While this makes the responses more natural than a contrived experimental procedure, the intrinsically motivated nature of the activity limits the generalizability of the results.

‘Neither males or females experienced notable differences in negative emotions, indicating that only positive emotions are relevant in motivating competitive behavior. However, separate studies with other activities should be carried out as well, because I’d suspect that competition that the individual has not chosen themselves might elicit different emotional reactions’, Kivikangas added.

The implications of this study could indeed have some far-reaching  consequences in the workplace, especially in terms of how work groups are organized (i.e. competition-based vs. collaboration-based).

But for this admittedly male writer, the findings only confirm what I already learned from my childhood experiences playing (and losing) board games with my mom and sister: Women can be just as competitive — if not moreseo than — men.

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About to be Asked for a Raise? Feed the Source

A paper is being presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Philadelphia, which ends tomorrow, that I thought you might find interesting.

167422861 -- crazy hungryIt seems, according to researchers Emily Zitek of Cornell University and Alexander Jordan of Dartmouth College, the hungrier an employee is, the more entitled he or she feels and the more effective he or she can be in asking for a raise.

Their study, I Need Food and I Deserve a Raise, based on two experiments involving about 270 college students, finds that “hunger leads people to feel more entitled,” according to the report. “Hungry people think about themselves instead of others and focus on their own needs, which leads them to feel and act entitled,” it states. (Here’s the AOM press release about the study.)

The paper, according to the release, “defines psychological entitlement as ‘the feeling that one is more deserving of positive outcomes than other people are,’ and explains that ‘entitled individuals pay attention to themselves and the special treatment that they should receive over other things.”

While research “has tended to focus mainly on social and cognitive causes of increased entitlement, such as recalling an unfair event,” the report states, “the authors posit that it can also be driven ‘by amplified levels of a basic physiological drive — hunger — which may cause people to turn their focus inward and place their needs above those of others.’ ”

The authors’ advice? Feed them. It’ll help you in the raise discussion and can smooth some other workplace rough edges as well.

As the AOM report puts it:

… for the edification of bosses, the researchers observe that ‘entitlement can cause big problems in the workplace, so managers might want to provide food to employees or wait to schedule potentially contentious meetings until after lunch.’ They go on to note that, ‘although certainly due to a host of factors, organizations with readily available food, such as Google, are also known for having unentitled, grateful and satisfied [digestively and otherwise] employees.”

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A Collective Approach to Time Management

time and teamsHow can you get a team to manage its time more efficiently and productively? Give them a time-off goal.

That’s according to Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, who writes in the June edition of Harvard Business Review (subscription required) about her work introducing time-based interventions at various companies in a range of industries, from consulting to pharmaceuticals. Given the modern workplace’s emphasis on connectivity and collaboration, she writes, the problem isn’t how individual employees manage their time — instead, it’s how employees manage their collective time in working together to get the job done. Often, Perlow writes, teams will — in the course of their work — stick to tried-and-true processes that are inefficient, simply because, well, that’s the way things have always been done.

Perlow cites the example of a large pharmaceutical firm she was advising, in which an “overly collaborative culture” resulted in constant meetings throughout the workday that got in the way of employees getting their work done during regular hours and necessitated them having to take it home or work weekends. The team Perlow was studying at this company decided to rally around the time-off goal of one meeting-free day a week. During that day, the team members worked from home and conference calls and other virtual meetings were banned. The day was a success: saved from constant interruptions as well as commuting time, the team members dubbed it their Enhanced Productivity Day.

The EPD was also effective in that it served as a “forcing mechanism” in getting the team to rethink its need for meetings and their duration, Perlow writes. As a result, meetings became smaller, shorter, more focused and less frequent — and, as the EPD concept spread to other teams in the company, managers reported that employees were more focused and producing higher-quality work.

Team time management can mitigate the problem of overworked and overstressed employees, Perlow writes:

To help workers manage their time, we should stop telling individuals to change themselves and start empowering them to act together to change the way they work. Small steps can make a big difference. By rallying around a modest time-off goal, teams can develop a new capability: managing their time as a team.

 

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Turning Employee Cynicism into Trust

Employee trust. It’s a subject most of us steer clear of around here. Too hard to define. Too hard to measure. Impossible to teach or train.

78459275 -- smug businessmanBut Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard has taken a stab at breaking down that nebulous force called trust, and its nebulous nemesis, cynicism. In his new book, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success, he offers 10 strategic steps toward reconfiguring the latter around the former. Here is the recent release, via the Alister & Paine website, about his book, and those steps.

I like some of his comments, including this one:

Mocking irony, snark and cynicism are very much in vogue, but they are also toxic to your company’s culture. Once cynicism gets a foothold in your culture, it spreads — just like an ill-advised tweet or blog post. You need to proactively fight it.”

And this:

Cynicism is the defense mechanism of people who feel unsafe and powerless. It’s an expression of the uncertainty that comes from working in an environment where ethics are lax, employees don’t feel valued and information is withheld. When it thrives in an organization, it signals a lack of employee trust — a problem that’s gotten significantly worse over the last generation.”

And just for the record, here are the steps in as much of a nutshell as this posting will allow:

1) Know that trust has two dimensions, external and internal. External is between an organization and its customers; internal is between employees, managers and top-level management, and it’s here where Karlgaard says you should start. If employees “don’t feel that they can trust your company with their careers,” he says, “you’re in trouble.”

2) Get clear on what a culture of trust and earnestness looks like.  Hold a company-wide trust summit where everyone can share their opinions about trust within your company. In addition, Karlgaard says, “identify the ways cynicism manifests — for instance, through snarky comments, manipulating customers, talking behind co-workers’ backs and so forth.”

3) Then, get the “rules” in writing. Put the results of your trust summit in writing and ask all employees to sign the document. Creating an official “standards of behavior” document helps too. I happen to know some companies are doing this now — documenting desired behaviors, then hiring and managing for them — including Starbucks, which I recently wrote about in this HRE feature.

4) Let only “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts” lead. The key here is to hire and promote leaders who truly do live the values your company espouses.

5) Never lie or hide the truth. Even in the case of very bad news, tell them anyway. ” … [P]eople should never feel they’re being kept in the dark,” says Karlgaard. “Transparency and trust must co-exist.”

6) Show employees that you care. When people don’t believe their leaders care about them, not just as workers but as human beings, trust can’t thrive.

7) Aspire to predictability. “[E]mbrace innovation to your heart’s content in areas such as product development and marketing campaigns,” he says. “Just don’t be unpredictable in your behavior, priorities and values.”

8) Make it safe to speak up. Bottom line, there’s no such thing as a dumb idea and when your employees make honest mistakes, let them admit to them without being scolded and belittled. “Either trust rules your organization, or fear rules it — you have to choose,” says Karlgaard.

9) Celebrate grit and gumption. Basically, reward, reward, reward. Or, as he puts it, “notice and celebrate the behaviors you want more of … . Engagement and cynicism can’t co-exist in the same moment.”

10) Lastly, constantly drive home the “meaning” of the work people do. I know we’ve all been hearing this, probably too much, that each employee needs to understand his or her link — his or her line of sight — to the top, to the whole organization. What I like about Karlgaard is his focus on the actual narrative; the story about your business that you need to be infusing into your entire workforce. He calls it your “true north.”

“My point?” he asks. “Figure out what meaningful things your company provides customers, whether that’s peace of mind, easier lives, reliable support or something else, and look for ways to convey that purpose at your company.

“It’s hard to be cynical about your work and your customers,” he adds, “when you actually do believe in what you’re doing.”

Again, maybe stuff you’ve heard, but not quite like this:

 The next time you’re considering how to make your organization a better place to work, think beyond an in-house masseuse, climbing walls, and free fresh-baked cookies. While employees will certainly appreciate ‘fun’ perks like these, they don’t mean anything if your culture isn’t grounded in trust.”

 

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Want This Job? Audition For It

auditionThis month’s edition of the Harvard Business Review (subscription required) includes a profile of the hiring process at Automattic, a tech firm that’s behind the free, open-source software platform WordPress. Founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg wasn’t happy with the traditional recruiting process (resume screening, in-person interviews, taking candidates out to lunch, etc.) his company was using, he writes:

As we considered the situation, it became clear that we were being influenced by aspects of an interview — such as someone’s manner of speaking or behavior in a restaurant — that have no bearing on how a candidate will actually perform. Some people are amazing interviewees and charm everyone they talk to. But if the job isn’t going to involve charming others, their interview skills don’t predict how well they’ll do as employees. Just like work, interviews can be “performed” without real productivity.

The more he and his team thought about it, Mullenweg writes, the more they recognized that there’s no substitute for actually working alongside someone in the trenches. Thus began Automattic’s “auditions” for job candidates, in which those who’ve made it through the firm’s resume-screening process (which it retained) work for the firm on a contract basis for three to eight weeks, 10 to 20 hours per week, performing real tasks alongside the folks they’d be working with if they’re hired. Candidates (regardless of the position they’re auditioning for) are paid $25 per hour and, thanks to the firm’s highly flexible work arrangement, can work nights or weekends so they don’t have to quit their existing jobs during the audition period.

The tasks candidates perform depends on the jobs they’re auditioning for: a customer-service candidate would interact with customers, an engineer would write code and a business-development candidate might run the numbers on a business proposal. The goal, Mullenweg writes, is to assess whether having the person work at Automattic would be a mutually beneficial relationship: The company can evaluate the candidate while the candidate evaluates Automattic.

Candidates are provided with feedback during the audition, Mullenweg writes — in some cases, if it becomes clear things aren’t working out, the company calls an end to the process as quickly as possible “out of respect for everyone’s time.” The auditions require a substantial investment of time from Automattic employees as well as candidates, he notes — in the engineering department, for example, four engineers oversee auditions for their department. The final step in the process is an interview with Mullenweg. Ninety five percent of the people who make it to that stage end up getting hired, he writes.

The extra scrutiny afforded by the auditioning process is important for Automattic because — unlike many software companies — the firm wants employees who will build long-term careers there and it needs to ensure employees will be able to handle its flexible-hours, limited-supervision work culture. About 40 percent of audition candidates are hired by the company, writes Mullenweg. The process has proven successful so far, he says: Of the 101 people hired last year, only two ended up not working out.

Although auditioning may not be ideal for every company, Mullenweg writes, it could be useful as an augmentation to a firm’s existing hiring process. It’s worth considering because so much is at stake, he writes:

Nothing you do for your company has as much impact as putting the right people around the table. The aphorism is true: You can’t manage your way out of a bad team.

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Innovation Central

One of the most dynamic sessions at this year’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference was the “Ideas and Innovators” session, in which experts from a variety of fields give five-minute presentations summarizing their thoughts on what HR leaders should do differently with regard to benefits.

Here’s a sampling of what some of them had to say: Lindsey Pollak, a millennial workplace expert and spokeswoman for The Hartford insurance company, called on companies to encourage mentoring between baby boomers and millennials. “Ninety percent of the millennials we surveyed said they appreciated guidance from boomers,” she said. “Millennials are digital natives, so they can mentor boomers in the use of technology.”

Millennials want the ability to customize their benefits, she said: “Millennials weren’t given teddy bears as kids; they were taken to Build-a-Bear workshops — they’re used to having things tailored for them.”

The same Hartford survey found that 70 percent of millennials consider themselves leaders, whether in their families, workplaces and communities. Companies can harness this leadership spirit for health and wellness, said Pollak — yet must keep in mind that millennials have also proven to be slow to sign up for benefits such as disability insurance. “Millennials aren’t taking advantage of these benefits — you must reach them on this.”

Brian Poger, founder and CEO of consulting firm Benefitter, urged employers to consider getting out of the business of providing health benefits (perhaps an odd thing to hear at a conference devoted to employee benefits). “Most employee raises are being absorbed by rising healthcare costs,” he said. “Why not offer cash instead of health benefits?”

Poger cited a McKinsey survey that found 85 percent of employees would stay with their employer even if they stopped offering health benefits. Many employers are charging signficantly higher premiums for spousal and family coverage or dropping it altogether, he said, which can be a major hardship for families earning the U.S. median household income of $51,000 a year. “Giving employees cash to purchase a family policy on the exchanges may be a better deal for them,” he said.

Lexie Dendrinelis, health promotion and wellness leader at manufacturing firm Barry-Wehmiller Cos., discussed how her company has made leadership and culture — rather than exercise and eating well — the centerpiece of health and wellness. “People can’t focus on their personal health if they’re stressed out about an unsafe workplace,” she said. “Building trustworthy leaders and cultures is the best intervention.”

At Barry-Wehmiller, the company has committed to building a “caring culture” where “we are committed to sending our friends home safe, well and fulfilled.” The company uses incentives and rewards to highlight positive behaviors and takes a “holistic approach” to caring for its employees and families, said Dendrinelis. “We are looking at creating a thriving culture that will bring down healthcare costs.”

 

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