a monthly feature in Granted
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Each month, I answer a few fascinating questions from readers about work and psychology.
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I'll pick a few questions to answer each month. All topics are fair game, but if you're looking for shampoo recommendations, I can't promise I'll be all that helpful.
a monthly feature in Granted
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In the last couple of months I've seen your articles and blogs throwing shade on many past "you should do this" business ideas. A partial list:
Open offices = collaboration killers
Ditch the to-do list; spend time reviewing an accomplishments list
Bias for action usually produces worse results than pondering
“Follow your passion” leads to tunnel vision, discourages exploring new interests
Focus on building a personal brand makes you appear less authentic
Hiring to "culture fit" is a recipe for groupthink
Significant consensus is not necessary to change. Converting 25% can be a critical mass
Which currently hot business advice or trend do you think is suspect?
Disclaimer: all practices have unintended consequences. As a social scientist, I think it’s my responsibility to call attention to them, particularly when they’re overlooked.
One that terrifies me is strengths-based development. I’m all in favor of giving people feedback on their strengths so they can recognize them more clearly and use them more effectively. But I’ve been to at least three widely admired companies that have twisted strengths-based development into the ludicrous norm of prohibiting constructive criticism. What a brilliant way to stifle learning! We don’t let kids use “invented spelling” even if they demonstrate clear strengths in coloring. Even though Andre Drummond led the NBA in rebounding, he didn’t ignore his league-worst 38% free throw shooting; he worked on it for six straight seasons with the Pistons until he finally made a breakthrough and cleared 60% this past year.
We all have weaknesses that we need to face and overcome. As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write, only nurturing strengths “can produce deformations of character, like a body builder who develops gigantic arms… Though there is something to be said for having the world’s biggest biceps, overdeveloping some body parts and neglecting others will impair the functioning of the body as a whole.” We even need criticism on our strengths, because evidence shows that strengths become weaknesses when we overuse them. For more, see Stop Overdoing Your Strengths.
I would really love your perspective on this growing practice of 'mandated corporate fun' - the company trips to the bowling alley, escape rooms, wine tastings after work, etc. I quite like my co-workers, truly enjoy tackling the problems we face in our business and feel like we have a great, team-oriented, problem-solving culture. What I want to focus on when I come to work is ... call me crazy ... work!
However, my company puts on periodic 'play/fun' events (once or twice a month) where employees are strongly expected (but not forced) to attend. When these are held during the work day, I feel like they are a distraction from getting our jobs done. When these are held or extend to after-work-hours, I feel like these are robbing me of time with my friends, family and personal pursuits. How can I tell my company that I come to work to work ... I'm not coming to the office for a social life?
You’re not alone: Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard ran an experiment at a tech company suggesting that mandatory fun backfired, and Steve Fineman has reviewed a number of other studies along those lines. I’m not sure you want to raise those studies, but you could try introducing your colleagues to Dan Coyle’s distinction between shallow fun and deep fun. For example: I don’t love goofing around at social events, but I really like you all and I have a blast working on solving hard, important problems together. I hope you won’t take it personally if I miss some of the escape room and bowling alley trips—I promise to make up for it with my contributions and collegiality in projects. (And if you don’t support me, I might be forced to leave you in the escape room.)
Another approach would be to talk with them about Nancy’s studies of integrators and segmentors. I have a colleague who approached her team one day and said, “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we have a clear norm of blurring the lines between work and the rest of life, and I’m actually more of a segmentor—I like to maintain boundaries.” It turned out there were a few others who felt the same way, and they had a thoughtful discussion about the right number of social events to build cohesion without overwhelming segmentors. An integrator later thanked her for teaching him to set some boundaries.
I was wondering whether reciprocity styles of business entities also can be described in terms of givers, matchers and takers and how that would look.
Henk (The Netherlands)
I’d start by looking at the behavior of leaders. In taking cultures, leaders see employees as serving their own interests. Executive compensation dwarfs employee pay: leaders enrich themselves and exploit their people. Employees get hazed like a fraternity initiation from hell as leaders claim credit for collective achievements and wield blamethrowers to punish individuals for collective mistakes. A giving culture is the opposite: leaders give credit, take blame, roll up their sleeves, and go out of their way to support and reward the people below them. A matching culture falls somewhere in between: the norm is fairness or meritocracy.
There’s also the question of who you hire, fire, and promote: in taking cultures, people are valued solely based on individual results, whereas giving cultures pay as much attention to contributions to team success as personal accomplishments. I’d also look at norms throughout the workplace: how much time do people spend kissing up vs. helping down, and how often do they share vs. hoard knoweldge, credit, and connections? For more on gauging the culture of a company, see my NYT op-ed on the one question to ask about every new job.
You could also look at how companies treat customers. See this post by David Aaker at Prophet on how brands can be givers, takers, or matchers.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES
What are your thoughts on the typical annual “employee engagement” surveys. While what you do with the data is important, do you think they give insights worth the efforts?
(Ricardo, Basel, Switzerland)
Yes: here’s a post I wrote with the people analytics team at Facebook on why you still need to survey your employees.
Have you noticed that some leadership teams have an aversion to promoting from within? It is like the saying, "familiarity breeds contempt". Preferring a new hire, with strengths and weaknesses revealed selectively by them, to those already on the team whose strengths and weaknesses are known. What causes this phenomenon?
(Susan, Columbia, Missouri)
I fielded this one in a recent Work in 60 Seconds video. I think the main culprit is the preference for potential, which prevails when there’s uncertainty about what a role requires or how the world will change. Your leadership team might be interested in research by my colleague Matthew Bidwell, who finds that external hires are paid more but perform worse.
How do you shift the organizational mindset of Human Resources as a negative department that punishes/terminates staff to being a department that promotes the growth, development, and well-being of staff?
Should employers allow more flexibility for their employees to volunteer in the community? Does giving flexibility for employees to do things they enjoy outside of work lead to better productivity at work?
Yes and yes: Jessica Rodell has demonstrated that when employees volunteer, they’re more absorbed in their work—not less—and perform better. If our jobs lack meaning, employer-supported volunteering can be a powerful substitute.
I see that there are a lot of books about setting limits with children. But not many about the employee. Can you kindly recommend a book please for setting good boundaries with the employee?
(Serhat, Manisa, Turkey)
How effective is Servant Leadership in improving the financial performance of a company?
One of my favorite studies is by Suzanne Peterson and colleagues showing that when CEOs are servant leaders, tech companies have significantly higher returns on assets over the next nine months, even after controlling for prior returns.
One of the biggest struggles I think we have at work is maintaining focus and learning/acquiring information on the spot when undertaking a new project. Are there any tips you can share on how employees can learn faster and maintain focus?
(Anonymous, Manchester, UK)
Do you think you should hire only or mainly people who are aligned with your purpose?
If you don’t hire enough people who believe in your purpose, you’ll fall short on motivation and coordination—you get a workforce that lacks a sense of purpose or works at cross purposes. But I’m with Aristotle (and Goldilocks): as with just about everything in life, you can have too much of a good thing.
Hire too many people who are passionate about your mission, and you’ll end up more vulnerable to groupthink and tunnel vision, and more resistant to change. You get zealots and evangelists with blind faith in your purpose, who never question the side effects and unintended consequences. Take Philip Morris, a leading tobacco company: their home page announces their “dramatic decision” to a “smoke-free future.” If they had started hiring some anti-smoking advocates decades ago, would they have made this shift sooner?
Every workplace needs at least a handful of people who aren't committed to the organization’s mission. They’re the ones we can count on to anticipate the harm the mission might do—and take action to prevent it. I can’t imagine a more important role for disagreeable givers, original thinkers, and cultural misfits to play than calling into question the organization’s very reason for being.
How much, if any, actual risk is there to hiring new employees who have experienced non-trivial failure in their previous work lives?
Brian (Salt Lake City)
I worry about hiring people who have never failed—it signals that they’re setting their goals too low and avoiding taking risks that stretch beyond their comfort zones. It also makes me wonder whether they’ve faced enough adversity to develop resilience.
When I hire, the question isn’t whether someone has experienced a significant failure. The question is whether they’ve learned from the past and won’t repeat their mistakes in the future.
Take a study of over 10,000 people who were hired for sales and customer service jobs. Those with a criminal record actually ended up staying longer and were less likely to quit. And in customer service jobs, those with a criminal record weren’t any more likely to get fired. Even in sales jobs, just 5.9% of those with a criminal record got fired (compared with 3.1% of employees without a criminal record). If they get a second chance, the vast majority of ex-offenders make the most of it. Employers have both a responsibility and an opportunity to provide those second chances.
How do you realize your true calling through work?
Yvette (Washington, DC)
I think it’s a myth that anyone has one true calling—and people who believe in that myth are setting themselves up for misery. There’s evidence that searching for a calling can be unpleasant: it’s associated with feeling less comfortable with yourself, less clear about your identity, and more indecisive. We’re capable of developing a wide range of interests and strengths, and the odds that a single job is going to fulfill them all are fairly low. I’ve been involved in research suggesting that many of us have multiple callings, and we’re fully capable of crafting our jobs and our leisure time to incorporate them. For more on that, try out the Job Crafting Exercise.
Also, it’s worth remembering that a calling can be a double-edged sword. In studies of musicians and business students, those with a calling were less receptive to discouraging career advice, even when it came from a trusted mentor—they didn’t want to believe that their dream job might actually turn out to be a nightmare. And in a study of zookeepers, those with a calling experienced more meaning in their jobs and stronger identification with their occupations, but they were also more likely to sacrifice pay and personal time for their work. Mari Andrew captured it beautifully on Instagram:
For more, see Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk on why some of us don’t have one true calling and her book How to Be Everything. And on career paths, check out What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson, The Element by Ken Robinson, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and Tim Urban’s Wait But Why post on how to pick a career.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES
Wondering if you can recommend any newsletters or blogs you appreciate that are written by women and/or people of color?
(Michaela, New York)
Here are my top choices:
Is there any psychological instrument that measures a person’s integrity accurately?
If you’re in a toxic culture how can you help change it quickly? Or is there no hope!?
Is it my imagination, or does bullying in the workplace seem more prevalent today - or is it just that through increased awareness it is more frequently identified and discussed?
The jury is still out, but my read of the current evidence is that it might be a combination of both. See Mastering Civility by Christine Porath.
How do successful groups build and maintain a healthy sense of risk need for growth while allowing or even encouraging failure? How do they retain the authenticity, empathy, and logic to create the trust necessary for them to feel safe and thus be courageous in their work?
(Simon, Salt Lake City)
Your podcast, "When Work Takes Over Your Life" featured an interview with an FBI hostage negotiator who suggested that posing a question that elicits a "no" makes someone more persuadable. As a salesperson, I'm wondering if that works in closing a deal. I've hesitantly tried it out (and it certainly is counterintuitive) but my sample size is small because I don't want an experiment to throw off my sales activity at the end of the fiscal year. Do you think that the strategy of asking a question that elicits a "no" is helpful in sales?
(Jessica, Washington, DC)
It can be—see Cialdini’s work on rejection-then-retreat, also known as the door-in-the-face technique. Chris Voss, the aforementioned FBI hostage negotiator, gives some great sales examples in his book Never Split the Difference. Here’s one that he shared when I interviewed him:
“A potential client called us, and they're raving to us about our product. They wanted us to come to Europe and give a training session. They said, ‘So what's it gonna do for us if you come and train us? How is this gonna make us better as a group?’ I know what the guy's doing: he's trying to trigger the dynamic where he turns us into sell mode. So instead I just said to him, ‘Wow, it sounds to me like you guys just aren't sold on the value.’ And he went, "Oh, no no no! We know your stuff's really valuable.’ And I'm like, alright, fine, we just took care of that. I don't have to sell you.”
What’s going on when one person asks a specific question and the other person responds, unwittingly, as if they were answering a very different question?
There’s evidence for remarkable similarity between the fingerprints of humans and koalas.
I mean… see Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.
When calling references about a job candidate, what questions would you ask and why?
Leaders often tell me they struggle to get references to be honest about a candidate’s weaknesses. It’s usually well-intentioned advocacy, but sometimes it’s a dreaded case of foisting—where references are so desperate to get rid of a bad candidate that manufacture the perfect plan to convince you to hire them.
My favorite way to get references to tell the truth is to give them forced choices between two undesirable qualities. I tell them there are two kinds of weaknesses: areas where we lack strengths and areas where we overuse strengths. I’m curious about whether this candidate is more likely to be…
Too assertive or not assertive enough?
Too self-sacrificing or not self-sacrificing enough?
Overly anxious or not concerned enough?
Overly proactive or not proactive enough?
Overly detail-oriented or not detail-oriented enough?
It isn’t clear what the “right” answer is, so references tend to tell it like they see it.
Is employee engagement just another name for job satisfaction? And do we need to show a relationship between engagement and productivity or should we just be happy when we have an engaged workforce?
Eoin (Cork, Ireland)
I think the emphasis on employee engagement has been good for the quality of work life—and there’s a lot of evidence linking engagement to higher job performance.
But I think engagement is old wine in a new bottle. Engagement has cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components. Cognitive engagement is attention and absorption, emotional engagement is energy and enthusiasm, and behavioral engagement is dedication and persistence. We already have a name for those states: motivation.
It’s hard to imagine an employee who’s engaged and not motivated, or an employee who’s motivated and not engaged. A motivated workforce is an engaged workforce, so I don’t think we need the buzzword (and “employee engagement” sounds an awful lot like coworkers deciding to get married). Motivation also adds another layer of insight that engagement ignores: it raises the important question of what goals and values you’re motivated to pursue, not just how motivated you are.
Why does a person who wants a job get rejected for being “overqualified”?
Matt (Lancaster, New York)
I think it’s often a mistake not to hire overqualified people. Recent evidence shows that when people are overqualified, they not only get their core tasks done well—they also craft their jobs to give more and contribute creative ideas.
But like most things in life, overqualification follows the Goldilocks principle. It’s only beneficial up to a point: if the gap between skills and the job is too big, people are more likely to wind up feeling bored and devalued.
ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES
Now that I am no longer in the workforce, many of mine and several friends have to do with intellectual stimulation and meaning/worth after one retires. I am still teaching as an adjunct, but sometimes that not enough. I hear from friends of mine how bored they are and wish they could still be working. Any thoughts on this problem?
(Anthony, Mount Arlington, NJ)
See Chip Conley’s forthcoming book Wisdom at Work—he makes a strong case for encore careers. Also, check out the Purpose Prize, which has recognized over 500 social innovators for doing meaningful work post-retirement.
What is the best career strategy when you're curious about absolutely everything, but is just as quickly bored if not constantly being challenged?
People at my work often want to use the MBTI with their work groups for team building exercises. As a fellow Organizational Psychologist I understand how the test has validity and reliability concerns, but I often struggle with providing them a quick and compelling answer on why they may want to look elsewhere. Because so many companies use it, I feel like it’s a bit of an uphill battle to convince people to consider other personality assessments. Do you have any suggestions?
You might direct them to more rigorous alternatives like Hogan and HEXACO. If you really want to go deep, give them a copy of The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre. For my take, see my podcast episode Your Hidden Personality (audio / transcript); my breakup letter, Say goodbye to MBTI, the fad that won’t die; and the sequel, MBTI, if you want me back, you need to change too.
Is there any study about - being more professional makes one less human?
How can women avoid doing all of the emotional labor in the workplace (such as organizing birthday parties, circulating condolences cards) without being penalized? How do you make emotional labor more equitable instead of always being an expectation for female employees?
(Katherine, Oklahoma City)
What is the best way to handle staff members who are racist and sexist?
(Beth, West Bend)
Dolly Chugh offers excellent advice in her forthcoming book, The Person You Mean to Be.
Can you kindly recommend a book or two please for a workshop and facilitation on embracing diversity?
I teach at the college level and am wondering how to get student groups to engage in creative brainstorming. It's a diverse bunch with clear cultural differences. How can they learn to trust each other--and the process--in order to tap into their highest potential?
(Anonymous, BC, Canada)
See The Culture Code by Dan Coyle. Also, I covered some relevant principles in my podcast episodes on How to Trust People You Don’t Like (audio / transcript) and The Daily Show’s Secret to Creativity (audio / transcript).
What is it called when you try but don’t give your best?
(Matt, Lancaster, NY)
What’s the best process to get to know yourself?
(Yash, San Franscisco)
Read Insight by Tasha Eurich. I explored a few approaches to gaining self-awareness in my podcast episodes on How to Love Criticism (audio / transcript) and Your Hidden Personality (audio / transcript).
Read more in the Wondering archives