Working Smarter

Increase Employee Engagement with the Most Potent Performance Tool: Self-Motivation

Posted by Joe Robinson

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POPEYE HAS SPINACH. Managers and leaders have something that bulks up employee effort, except they don’t know it. It’s the hidden potential that lies within each employee when self-motivation is turned up to warp factor eight, something that happens with employee engagement.

When employees are engaged, they are willing to put out effort beyond the call of duty without anyone badgering them to do it. Work units in the top quarter of employee engagement in a Gallup meta-study of 192 firms and 1.4 million employees had 21% higher productivity outcomes, 22% higher profitability, and a 25% lower probability of high turnover. 

ENGAGEMENT IS NOT ABOUT PING-PONG TABLES

In my experience leading employee engagement training programs, engagement is something every leader wants, but few know how to get it. That is because it involves an approach to leadership that is the opposite of the norm—command-and-control, rewards-and-punishment. The carrot-and stick-approach has long been thought to be the only motivational model. Want more sales? Offer a bonus. Want more engagement? Provide a perk.

Motivation research pioneered by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, shows, though, that external rewards only motivate a need for more rewards. External payoffs are ephemeral, because they are about what others think. That doesn’t last.

It turns out that the most potent motivation comes from a burning core within, from intrinsic motivation, acting for the inherent interest in the activity itself, not for a result. Employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing, because they are driven by goals such as excellence, challenge, or craft that place the emphasis on the activity for its own sake.

Intrinsically motivated people have been shown to be more persistent and will stick with difficult tasks longer, because their aim is the task, not to get done with it.

Employee engagement “is not about pay or ping-pong tables,” says Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules and strengths-based strategy book, StandOut. Buckingham tracked engagement at Gallup for two decades and now heads his own consulting firm, TMBC. “It’s employees asking, Do I have a chance to use my strengths every day? It’s about getting to know your people and focusing on them every week.”

THE JIU-JITSU OF GETTING PEOPLE TO DO WHAT YOU WANT

Dwight Eisenhower once said that, “leadership is the art of getting someone to do what you want, because he wants to do it.” Employee engagement is a kind of jiu-jitsu in which leaders unleash the energy of others and get out of the way. Engagement can’t be commanded, only enabled, because the discretionary effort that defines it has to be self-generated by the employee.

The shift from commanding employees to enabling their intrinsic engines doesn’t come automatic for leaders brought up on motivating through external metrics—promotions, money, bonuses. “They think motivating is something management does to employees,” says Deci, author of a great Penguin paperback, Why We Do What We Do, and a psychology professor whose research led to a new framework for motivation and need gratification.

“Motivation is something that employees do to themselves. The job of managers is to create the conditions so employees will do that.”

What makes employees want to work harder than they have to for no external gain? Researchers have found many engagement levers, from open communication with managers, to employee development opportunities, to trust, a chance to contribute, and recognition. In a nutshell, people are engaged when they feel valued and a have a sense of purpose in what they’re doing.

HIGHER NEEDS SATISFACTION

Employee engagement has three main dimensions: vigor, dedication, and absorption or focus, which are the opposite of burnout’s chief qualities—exhaustion and cynicism. If you want to kill the productivity and profitability gains of engagement, burn out employees.

Engagement goes beyond mere job satisfaction. You can like your job, but that alone is not enough to generate effort beyond the call of duty. In fact, studies show there is a low correlation between job satisfaction and performance.

The trigger for engagement is another order of satisfaction—“higher needs satisfaction,” as Deci describes it, something that is rooted in participation and involvement, not just a job title, and that is self-propelled when leaders allow employees to satisfy certain basic psychological needs.

For millennia, humans haven’t had a clue as to what we really need. We’ve had to rely on peers, desires, and billboards, which has led to a lot of heartburn. Deci and Ryan’s breakthrough research, though, uncovered three specific psychological nutriments that everyone needs, as opposed to desires, to thrive—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or social connection with others. “They have to be met for people to perform optimally,” says Deci.

Each of these needs can only be gratified if the goal behind the activity is intrinsic, a force potent enough that it has been called Motivation 2.0. All three are realized through initiative and involvement, keys to engagement, and help people feel as if they are determining the content of their life.

Known as self-determination theory, or SDT, the basic needs framework developed by Deci and Ryan means that we all have a need to write our own script. It’s also a universal human need across cultures, races, and continents. Your employees also need to feel a sense of choice and have opportunities to demonstrate initiative and competence.

HAVE AN AUTONOMOUS DAY

Leaders can help employees gratify their basic needs through a model Deci created to take SDT into the workplace: autonomy support. How can employees feel autonomous working for someone else? “A lot of people take the word autonomy as independence, as doing something on their own. In SDT what autonomy means is a sense of volition, willingness, that, yes, at this moment I choose to be doing the activities I am doing,” explains Deci.

That feeling comes in the work setting from the autonomous decisions employees can take in how they do their job, process it in their minds, and communicate with their supervisors. Autonomy support is a style of managing in which leaders understand and acknowledge the employee perspective and encourage self-responsibility and initiative in goal-setting, decision-making, and work planning.

Autonomy support encourages free flow of communication between employees and leaders and has several main components: offering a sense of choice within limits, giving people a rationale for doing a task, and letting employees acknowledge feelings about a task. 

EXPRESSION ACTIVATES AUTONOMY

When you hear a rationale for doing something, it helps you feel like you are part of the team, more autonomous, competent, and connected to others. You internalize the reason, and the task becomes more important as a result, triggering buy-in/choice. The same thing happens when you are able to acknowledge how you feel about a task, even if it’s not positive. The expression of your view activates a sense of choice and autonomy and you are inclined to do it more willingly.

Key to autonomy support is communication and language. Everyone is encouraged to speak up and leaders try to make dialog more informational than controlling. “Stop using words like should, must, and have to,” says Deci. “Don’t tell them they did just what you expected.” That doesn’t go to their competence need. Instead, say ‘I like the way you did this.’"

Deci has demonstrated how autonomy can get employees more involved and engaged through interventions with companies such as Xerox, and  studies measuring self-determination theory in the workplace have found similar results.

One, led by Fordham’s Paul Baard, measured SDT in workers at an investment banking firm. They found that autonomy supportive managers activated employees’ intrinsic need satisfaction, which in turn resulted in the best performance and performance reviews.

“When managers are more autonomy supporting, employees are more engaged in their work, get better evaluations, are better adjusted psychologically on the job, and are sick less often,” says Deci.

AVOIDING MANAGER DEFAULT MODE

Nihal Parthasarathi, CEO and co-founder of Coursehorse.com, a portal for arts, business, and recreation classes in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, found that he needed to change his management approach when the company went from six to 12 employees. He wanted to build a company he would want to work at, where people had the freedom to solve problems and not be micromanaged.

“Managers default to telling other people what to do,” says Parthasarathi. “It’s easier, but it leaves a lot on the table in terms of human potential.”

After talking with his employees and advisors in the tech world, he and his partner, Katie Kapler, decided to make autonomy and self-responsibility the core of a management style designed to motivate and clear obstacles out of the way. Each employee decides the work they’re going to do on each goal and how they’re going to do it, which builds autonomy and competence.

There’s a high level of transparency, with performance metrics they can check every day to see how they and everyone else are doing. If someone isn’t hitting targets, they work with the founders to realign the goal. “They absolutely set their own agendas,” says Parthasarathi.

FEELING A BIGGER IMPACT

Since he rolled out the autonomy program, his staff “feel like they’re having a bigger impact. They’re happier when everyone shares autonomy. It’s like everyone has each other’s backs. The quality of engagement is much better.”

Another reason every company needs engaged employees is that the talent pool is shrinking and very used to having autonomy in the digital era. The biggest employee demographic, millennials, are accustomed to doing things on their own through apps or startups.

They want to know, “Are you going to help me achieve my dreams and goals?” says Bill Jensen, a management consultant and author of Future Strong. “If not, I can go to Kickstarter and start my own company.”

Jensen says only about 10% of employees at small companies feel they can achieve their goals. Across all companies, only 31% of employees are engaged, according to Gallup. Millennials are the least engaged demographic, at 28%. Jensen says managers need to engage their people with training and development programs that help them grow and give employees a cause or mission to believe in. That is crucial to develop intrinsic goals of purpose and meaning.

“Silicon Valley sets the standard on this. They get people to work very hard because they want to achieve the goals of the company.”

For those of you who think you don’t have enough time, that excuse won’t cut it. It’s about seven to eight minutes per person per week, says Buckingham. It boils down to two simple habits, listening and support, repeated on a weekly basis. “Check in with every employee every week. Ask, What are you working on and how can I help.”

If you would like to learn more about unleashing employee engagement on your team and how to roll out the motivational power of autonomy support, click the button below for details on my employee engagement training.

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Tags: intrinsic motivation, employee engagement, Edward Deci, self-determination theory, autonomy support, leadership

6 Ways to Value Employees, Spark Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IT'S THE METRIC at the heart of every company: valuation. Corporations and startups alike battle the competitive marketplace every day to increase the estimate of their brand or service’s monetary value. There are legions of financial experts, management teams, investors, entrepreneurs, pundits, and small business owners assessing financial worth, but there’s another valuation that doesn’t attract much attention: that of the human resources behind those companies and their prices.

On the balance sheet, in fact, employees are viewed as liabilities, as an external element to the operations, part of accounts payable or wages payable. Clearly, there would be no company but for all the people who make it fly, which makes them very valuable—indeed, invaluable to any organization. Studies show the more we can communicate employee value, the more the monetary yardstick will grow.

FROM PAYCHECK TO PARTNER

This is because the most important key to employee engagement is a sense of being valued by the company. Call it the Worth Ethic. When employees feel valued, their motivation changes, from collecting a paycheck to partner in the mission. That makes them want to go the extra mile and expend the definition of engagement, discretionary effort.

The shift from external motivation (paycheck) to internal goals (service, excellence, challenge) means that effort no longer has to be whipped up from the outside; it’s self-generated, the only way you can have engagement, anywaty, which has to be come from within.

Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have documented that the usual external reward system motivates effort only when there’s a reward. When you run out of pay raises and promotions, there’s nothing left to incentivize, since external rewards motivate only the need for more external rewards, whose effects are ephemeral. You get a quick bump in happiness, and then it’s gone,

The real motivator is internal motivation, which satisfies core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. Those are the ultimate arbiters of self-value. They gratify self-mastery needs that are self-generating and self-propelling.

How do we unleash this self-propulsion engine? Consistent and a new kind of communication, development programs, and words and especially deeds that show employees they are appreciated and an important part of the organization. Let’s take a look at some of the most effective ways to increase employee's sense of feeling valued and the job satisfaction that follows.

SIX KEYS TO EMPLOYEE VALUATION

1. Offer development programs. The first step for clients I work with is a work-life balance program, one that shows staff you care and want to help them grow. When people are given tools to work smarter, manage stress, and feel like they are taking care of their personal responsibilities too, they feel valued. Learning and progress gratify their core needs and increase the value of their skill-set.

More effective, confident, less stressed minds change attitudes. And company value. In one study of large companies (Arthur) work-life balance initiatives were shown to increase shareholder value by some $60 million per company. No doubt, that is because more discretionary effort leads to increased productivity. A Federal Reserve study found that work-life balance policies boosted productivity 10.6%, while a report on telework saw a gain in productivity of 30% (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta).

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Development programs are a signal that you want to solve bottlenecks and create more effective work practices. Turning down the pressure and increasing skill-sets makes the team feel you are looking out for them. Beyond that, employee training is one of the key levers of employee engagement. When employees are given opportunities to learn and better their craft, they reciprocate with more commitment and performance.

2. Meet with employees one-on-one more often. Everyone is busy, but making time to connect with staff is essential. People who are the least engaged say their managers have no time to meet with them. Among engaged employees, 87% know their managers well. Drop by and find out what’s going on with your employees. What are the pressing issues? How’s life outside the job? What are they excited about in their life?

3. Recognize skill and competence. Saying thank you more often is great, but it’s even more effective when you recognize the skills of the person that were brought to bear on the task. As we have learned, competence is a core need in everyone. We have to feel effective, and when we do, we feel great.

When you want to give someone props for something, tell them you really like the way they did that project. That goes to the mastery drive and encourages more of it. You can vary your delivery methods for this message by using handwritten thank-you notes from time to time, targeted to their competence and effectiveness. The personal touch has even more salience in a tech world.

4. Speak a different language. When you look at the science of engagement and intrinsic motivation, it’s easy to see why only 32% of the workforce is engaged, according to Gallup. Most managers are too busy to speak to employees and when they do, they use the wrong style of language to evoke engagement—controlling language, using pressure and threats.

That is the opposite of the autonomy need and makes people feel forced and controlled. To unleash engagement, the language has to be more informational, promoting choice, offering rationales for tasks, and providing positive feedback.

5. Solicit participation, ideas, and solutions. The overarching need of humans on this planet is participation. We are not here to be spectators. We are here to be a part of things.

Lack of involvement in the organization drives boredom, learned helplessness, and a withdrawal to presenteeism, in which someone is physically present but mentally AWOL. Encourage employee ideas, feedback and solutions. Companies who invest in employee involvement had a return on investment of 19% in a study by USC’s Edward Lawler.

6. Use active listening and constructive responding. No one is going to feel valuable if you’re talking to them while gazing obsessively at your phone. Leave your devices behind or turn off the sound on them before you meet with your colleague or staffer.

Use active listening techniques, such as making sure you are facing the person, making eye contact, and listening intently, to let them know you are focused on them and what they have to say. When it comes to responding, avoid the active destructive mode of pointing out the negative or passive constructive mode of responding in generalities.

Opt for constructive responding by asking questions and offering authentic, enthusiastic support. Yes, there are times to point out negative issues, but that can be done while reinforcing the overall positive trajectory and what can help that going forward.

Expressions of value have to be consistent and convicing, so let them know more than once a year that you like the job they are doing and why. A little acknowledgement goes a long way to increasing the valuation that's most important to all who can affect the bottom line. And that's priceless.

Tags: employee engagement, communicating with employees, intrinsic motivation at work, work-life balance training, development programs and job satisfaction

How to Get Employees to Buy In to Change Because They Want To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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For all its myopia, homo sapiens has stuck around for millennia because of its ability to survive all sorts of environments, climates, skullduggery, and duress. We have a talent for adapting and bending to new circumstances, matched only by how we resist the new world initially.

We can go from hating kale to almost liking it, because it’s good for us. We can be convinced that a haircut that shaves one side of the head is not the unfortunate result of brain surgery, but is stylish.

REFLEX RESISTANCE

We are the adaptable species that doesn’t like to change but will— given an appropriate amount of reasoning or adoption of the new thing by others. In fact, as much as most of us like to hang on to the old way, our real nature is change. We’re changing from our toes to the tips of our hair every day we are alive. The world and people around us are changing. The work we do changes, and we have to adapt, or get left behind.

Teams and divisions get consolidated, shrunk, merged, purged. People who have been doing things one way now have to do them another. The reflex is to resist the new way. What is it that unsettles your team about change? Are there ways to get sign-on to new policies and systems without an insurrection? How do minds come to accept a shift away from what's always been done?

The surprising key for anyone involved in change management is that we are all of distinctly two minds. The defensive equipment in the brain wants things to stay the same. There’s less chance of something calamitous happening that way. On the other hand, our brain neurons want two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge, both of which have to do with stepping into the unknown and unpredictable.

It’s a battle the defensive brain usually wins, at the cost of growth and moving forward invidually and employee engagement and employee morale at the organization level. To get people to sign on to change, we have to appeal to the higher realms of the brain that want to learn, take initiative, and make progress. That’s something we can do when we get them involved in the process and understanding the rationale behind the changes.

THE RATIONALE FOR CHANGE

The research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows that when you give someone a reason for doing something, they’re more inclined to do it willingly. Even if they don’t want to do it, if you give them a rationale for why they should, they internalize the task, which increases its importance and, as a result, the willingness to do it. It’s like the kale. People buy into the health argument, and suddenly, it’s less like chewing alfalfa and more digestible.

Letting people know why they have to do things is essential to digesting change. This is because the higher brain equipment that seeks challenge and growth wants us to satisfy key psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, that require we be more than mannequins. Commands and control may get acquiescence but not agreement, and that fuels disengagement, the opposite of what both manager and employee want.

We are all designed to be engaged, to make choices and be involved in things that affect our world, job, life. When we feel self-responsible and a participant in the change, that activates the core needs that make us feel true to our aspirations and goals. We feel part of the change, instead of part of the order-taking.

Since we have the equipment built-in for change with our latent desire for novelty and challenge, all we have to do is appeal to it by seeking out the input and assessment of those who are going to experience changes. The more transparent about the change we can be, the better. Have everyone make suggestions about how to implement the changes. Get them to help chart the path forward.

This creates the perception of choice, and with that, resistance turns into shared redesign. Use the opportunity to ask for thoughts on other changes that could help the work process move smoother. They can win new process improvements, and you get people feeling a part of the team enough to help move the change forward.

I’ve found that work-life-balance trainings are a great way to introduce process upgrades and fixes that make everyone feel they are, not only a part of the initiative, but also being listened to and valued during the process of change. Our work-life balance trainings, for instance, help people embrace change, because they see the concrete benefits that come from them, making work and life less difficult. This paves the way for the larger change issue or reinvention. Doing them in tandem builds trust.

CHALLENGE DRIVES SATISFACTION

The language of change is critical. The phrasing should be informational, not controlling. Instead of relaying an edict and that you “have to” do this, lay out the scenario and ask the team for their suggestions. How can the new situation move us all forward? How do we implement it?

Progress is one of the key levers for employee satisfaction, so people want to move in that direction. They just need to feel they play a part in making it happen. That’s the autonomy piece.

The fear of change, is, of course, about security, ego, doing new things that you might not have done before, exposing a learning curve. Try to move the issue from the personal to a group participation project. Have everyone contribute something to the process, so everyone is learning and a part of charting the new course.

Research shows that development programs are one of the big levers for employee engagement, no doubt because of the novelty and challenge mandate of our brain neurons. Satisfaction, brain scientists say, is a byproduct, not of doing what’s easy, but of doing things that make us stretch. We can’t satisfy our need for competence by doing what’s easy.

Since it comes with challenge, change, then, can be a key route to job satisfaction—when people know why they’re doing it and that through their active participation they are the change they are making.

If changes are affecting engagement for your team, click the button below for details on our work-life balance training or employee engagement programs, which can turn attitudes and engagement around and open the door to change.

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Tags: employee engagement, employee morale, change management, managing change, work-life balance training, participation and morale

The Best Retention Tool on the Planet

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Anyone who has ever waded through scads of resumes or interviewees to fill a position knows something most of us don’t: Talent doesn’t grow on trees. Finding the right skills combined with the right fit can be like staring at a fitting room mirror and wondering whether the new shirt or dress will work on you, or whether you’ll be back in a couple days to return something you have no idea why you bought.

There’s a lot on the line to get it right the first time, every time. Hiring the best talent is a painstaking art, and it’s expensive, replacing the most valuable people even more so. The costs run from recruiting and training to lost productivity while the position in unfilled. The tab to replace an employee earning under $50,000 is 20% of salary, reports a study by the Center for American Progress that examined 31 company case studies.

TURNOVER CONTAGION

It’s a bigger hit when it comes to hiring a new executive. The Center for American Progress found that it can run 213% of an executive’s salary to put someone new in a management chair.

High-turnover companies hemorrhage cash, but they rarely take into account the cost of the revolving door. Poor retention doesn't just hurt the bottom line, it also affects employee morale and commitment, as trusted colleagues leave. It can become a contagious, toxic cycle. 

The way out: Keep your people in the fold. Doing that isn’t rocket science. In fact, we have more knowledge than ever before about job satisfaction and how to keep employees happy—and better than that, engaged. 

First, there are companies that have already solved the retention issue, organizations whose employees love being there and seldom leave. The common thread at these firms is one consistent habit: Companies that take work-life balance seriously and walk the walk don’t have turnover problems.

SAS Institute, a $3 billion software company in Cary, North Carolina, has long topped the best places to work charts. Their turnover rate has ranged from 2% to 5% over the last four years in an industry that averages more than 16%. How do they do it? With exceptional work-life balance policies—37.5 hour workweeks, three-week vacations, on-site fully-paid daycare so you can have lunch with your kids, and on-site fitness center. You would have to have your noggin examined to leave a company like that.

WORK-LIFE FLEXIBILITY = INCREASED COMMITMENT

Policies that help employees take care of their responsibilities on both sides of the work-life ledger make people very loyal. It’s why study after study shows that flexible work programs increase satisfaction and engagement.

Researchers in several studies (Aryee, Luk, Stone; Halpern; and Houston, Waumsley) found that work schedule flexibility resulted in increased organizational commitment and reduced turnover intentions. Teleworkers are so happy with having some control over their schedules that they work longer than colleagues at the office and are 10% to 30% more productive (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta, 1991). People who love their jobs do more willingly. That’s the definition of employee engagement.

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Modeling the behavior of companies that have great retention numbers can help improve loyalty, as can bringing work-life balance programs and practices to your organization, something we do here at Optimal Performance Strategies. The vast majority of management and staff have never received training in how to work in a way that aids work-life, and as a result operate in a retaliatory, reflex mode, which drives the opposite of engagement, stress and burnout.

Human nature is the same at every company. We feel appreciated and grateful when we feel valued. That’s what good work-life balance practices do. They tell employees the organization cares, and, as a result, so do employees.

ASK FOR NO PAYOFF, AND YOU GET ONE

Valuing employees brings us to the second strategy available to help keep talent on board—the science of human need gratification. It’s not widely known, but over the last couple of decades researchers have decoded the mystery of motivation. What makes people want to achieve? What makes them satisfied? If you know the answers to those questions, you're going to have happy employees. 

For a long time, it was thought that motivation was a simple carrot-and-stick affair. Offer an incentive, a bonus or promotion, and people would do what you want them to.

It turns out that, yes, people like money, but monetary and external rewards are not an engagement driver—because they are very ephemeral. The money wears off quickly, since we are all built with a been-there, done-that inner curmudgeon called habituation. We adapt to the new circumstance and get tired of it. The thrill is gone for a job promotion in two weeks, the research shows. Then you have to get another external boost to stay pumped up. Promoting people every two weeks would be great for business card printers, but not so much for the company.

There’s another kind of motivation, though, that lasts, and it’s one of the keys to employee gratification and effort: intrinsic motivation. You do something, not for an external gain but for an internal one—excellence, fun, learning, challenge, service, craft. When employees are intrinsically motivated, they are continuously interested in the work they are doing (Harackiewicz, Elliott).

UNLEASHING SELF-MOTIVATION

This is where human aspiration and company goals come together in work-life balance and engagement. As the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented in their pioneering work, we all have three core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others. We can only satisfy those needs if we have the right goal, an intrinsic goal.

Help employees satisfy those needs at work with an intrinsic approach, and you have staff more than satisfied; they feel gratified and aligned with aspirations at a core level. They won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

This is something we help organizations do through our employee engagement programs. We show how to unleash the most potent motivation in your employees through the science of intrinsic motivation. We build the behaviors that make people feel valued, engaged, and competent—self-responsibility, initiative, shared decisions, perceived choice, and internalizing the meaning behind tasks.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows employees to gratify core needs like autonomy and competence. By tapping the needs of employees and communicating in a less controlling and more informational way, we can get employees to do what we want—because they want to do it.

Retention problems flourish when folks are too busy to do any managing or when the managing is based on the opposite of what motivates people. It all boils down to understanding what it is people really want, and the right way to communicate to them and empower them so that they are getting what they’re here for. And what’s that? Participation and involvement. They are not here to spectate.

Great work-life balance unlocks employee engagement, and great employee engagement opens the door to work-life policies that let people feel they can manage the full spectrum of their lives. That gratifies autonomy and competence in a big way, something that touches off satisfaction and its chemical victory dance by the brain’s party drug, dopamine. It's a sensation that makes them think it would be crazy to work anywhere else.

If you would like to find out more about our work-life balance and employee engagement trainings, click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee retention, employee turnover, employee engagement, job satisfaction, human resources

How Cynicism Undermines Health, Earning Power, and Productivity, and Work-Life Balance Trumps It

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THERE ARE SOME LIINES OF WORK where it pays to be a cynic—journalism, law, private investigating, car repossession. But when it comes to teams or organizations, cynicism doesn’t work so well. It’s the off-switch for effort and trust and spreads highly contagious negative affect like a virus.

Humans are designed to pick up on the emotions and expressions of others, thanks to the handiwork of mirror neurons in our brain, and that’s particularly true with negative emotions. We are wired to err on the side of the negative to begin with—a survival instinct—so it doesn’t take much to steer us in the direction of fear, betrayal, or ulterior motives. It takes three positive events to one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful, the University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has reported.

COOL TO NOT CARE?

A cynical attitude is easily passed along to colleagues and customers. Misery loves company, after all. "Cynical employees tend to be less motivated, grumpy with customers, maybe rude to their boss. They’re bitter employees who don’t want to be there," says George Banks of Longwood University, a co-author of a study (Chiaburur, Peng, Oh, Banks, Lomeli) showing that cynicism reduces job performance.

We live in an era rife with distrust of institutions and anyone trying to sell us anything. It’s easier than ever to be a cynic, memes of which flow from TV, cable, movies and politics. It’s has become cool not to care.

That’s dangerous for individuals and the organizations they work in, since it makes people do exactly what their brains and leaders don’t want them to—which is to give up on effort, participation, and growth. Core needs such as autonomy and competence require that we be proactive and involved. Our brains want novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment. That requires curiosity and initiative, signs that you have interest, which the shield of cynical beliefs precludes.

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Cynicism is a force field of suspicion that appears righteous—you won’t get fooled again—but is actually self-defeating on many levels. It’s an easy blanket indictment of everything, which writes off opportunities, people, and potential progress with the same stiff-arm. Suspicion undermines connection and health. One study that examined 97,000 women (Tindle, Chang et al) found that high levels of cynicism are associated with higher rates of mortality, heart disease, and cancer.

IN MORE EARNING POWER, WE TRUST

Another study found that cynical beliefs reduce earning power (Stavrova, Ehlebracht). People who are more trusting make more money, because they are open to collaboration and help from others.

Suspicion obviously isn’t the ticket to an engaged team. Instead, it creates just the opposite—the why-bother stance of presenteeism. Research shows that cynicism in the workplace leads to decreased job satisfaction and commitment, and increased motivation to leave the company (Dean, Brandeis, Dharwadkar).

Even though it has a big impact on organizations, cynicism is an issue almost universally avoided, because it brings up uncomfortable acknowledgment that something isn’t working in the culture, which can be hard to face. Yet employee engagement depends on facing it and understanding what is causing it. Willing effort to go the extra mile and deliver its dividend of 28% higher productivity will never happen in a cynical environment. It can only come from people who believe in their leaders and mission and feel trusted by them.

ENERGY SQUELCHER

Suspicion creates active disengagement. It undercuts individual competence and the organization’s bottom line. It fuels withdrawal and depersonalization, some of the same characteristics associated with burnout. And it drives negative affect, a state of grievance and grumpiness that drags in colleagues and customers.

Most of us aren’t aware of our “affect,” the way we broadcast our mood to others, but it’s clear that others get the message. When there’s high positive affect, people are enthusiastic, active, and alert, say researchers. With low positive affect, the mood is lethargic. Negative affect, meanwhile, prompts even lower energy. Which affect do you think would get more done and make people feel better about doing it?

Some people have a disposition or personal history that lends itself to pessimism and a route down the track to cynicism. Yet many others begin their jobs feeling positive and looking forward, but wind up in the defensive posture of cynicism as a result of organizational factors. Promises aren’t kept. Support never appears. Layoffs have left a bitter taste.

Where there is high overload, people can wind up feeling unfairly treated, which can lead to a cynical attitude (Banks, Whelpley, Oh, Shin). Those conditions also usually lead to stress, which specializes in driving false beliefs that lead to intense emotions and ruminating over them. There is also a connection between emotional exhaustion, a marker of burnout, and organizational cynicism (Johnson, O’Leary-Kelly).

The antidote to negative affect and cynicism is, not surprisingly, positive affect. It’s been shown to reduce organizational cynicism (Treadway). How do you encourage that shift? A company comedy troupe? A video game room?

The weapon is trust, the very thing that cynicism destroys, delivered by the antithesis of suspicion: engagement. Engaged employees exhibit the exact opposite trait of cynicism: dedication (Maslach, Leiter). 

EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS PICK THE LOCK

Work-life balance programs and employee engagement traiiangs are an excellent way to build trust, dedication and a more supportive culture. They help pick the lock on employee attitudes. I have seen it time and again in work-life balance training programs for clients, when you provide tools to people to work with less difficulty and more support and provide opportunities to contribute, self-manage, and recharge, the walls recede and minds open.

It’s my experience that people are not as hard to reach as we think—and are secretly waiting to be released from their boxes of suspicion. They want to believe in what they’re doing. Provide them with a credible and sustained demonstration that shows them they are valuable, and many will respond.

They want to contribute, be recognized for what they do, have resources to do their jobs, know what to expect—all levers of employee engagement—because that is what their brains are designed for: participating, not the spectating of cynicism.

Besides training and development, managers also need to build trust at the personal level with their staff. Among engaged employees, 87% know their manager well and have frequent communication with that person. When you give people a rationale for doing assignments, for instance, and include them in a more collaborative way in solutions, you can change how they think about their work and their role in it, and they can go from active disengagement to engaged.

All it takes to get that extra effort is a little effort. It’s there waiting to be unleashed.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, employee engagement, leadership, cynicism and productivity, cynicism and stress

Leadership: How to Get People to Do What You Want Because They Want to Do It

Posted by Joe Robinson

Happy_Employees.jpg

YOU CAN LEAD a horse to water, but, as we all know, you can’t make them drink the stuff. Like animals, people also have minds of their own. Getting them to do what you want can be dicey. Compulsion and nagging can fail miserably on humans, but there is something that is highly persuasive: giving them a rationale for why they need to do what you want them to.

Research from the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan has shown that we are much more inclined to buy in to doing a task when we feel as if we are part of the process. Give an employee a reason for why something has to be done, and you sidestep the default resistance adults have to being told what to do and activate a key lever of employee engagement, choice.

AGENT OF ENGAGEMENT

Offering a rationale, instead of just telling someone what to do, plays to one of our core psychological needs: autonomy. We all have a strong need to feel that we are freely choosing things and not being forced and controlled, says Deci. How do leaders gratify that need when it’s the job of employees to do what others want? Through the agent of autonomy in the workplace, choice, in how the job is done—not what is done. We all have a job we have to do. How we do it is where we can build in choice, within limits, of course.

When you let someone know why he or she is being told to do something, it enables that person to feel autonomy by offering a sense of choice. Let them in on the purpose behind the action, and it makes them feel more a part of the team, more responsible, and a part of the decision to move forward. It’s a kind of jiu-jitsu that helps them feel they are doing the task because they want to.

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That’s been the goal of leadership for a long time. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “Leadership is the art of getting someone to do what you want because he wants to do it.” Now we have the science to tell us how and why this most potent of motivational systems works, whether on the job, at home, or anywhere you have to get folks to work with you. You let them satisfy core needs, they reciprocate.

The dynamic at the heart of autonomy and employee engagement is participation. Involvement gratifies two other core psychological needs—competence, or feeling effective, and connection with others. When all three needs have a chance to be expressed, people respond in a more participant way—taking initiative, more responsibility, going the extra mile willingly, which we know from the data on engaged employees can make them 28% more productive (Gallup).

SHIFTING LANGUAGE

Autonomy supportive leadership has been shown to increase trust, teamwork, and performance, Deci’s work and that of other psychology researchers show that, by turning loose the engines that motivate our deepest needs and drives, which come, not from external approval—the carrot-and-stick approach that runs counter to autonomy needs—but from goals such as excellence, craft, service, and learning, people are willing to do more, stick with it longer, and like what they’re doing more.

It’s a big shift from the command-and-control style of leadership we’ve all grown up with. For leaders, it requires a different language, less controlling, more informational. The idea is to forego the usual “have to,” “need to” phrasing and present tasks or issues in a way that allows others to play a role in the decision-making.

Getting a rationale for why something needs to be done allows the person to internalize the event, which creates a sense of importance and belief in the task. That holds true even if someone doesn’t want to do what he or she is being asked to do. When that is the case, letting someone express feelings about the task also results in a sense of autonomy through the act of expression, which makes the person more willing to do the task.

In this new world of leadership, the carrot and stick is supplied by the employee, enabled by the manager, just as Eisenhower observed decades ago. That is the definition of employee engagement—volitional extra effort, not because anyone demands it. We can’t command engagement, only enable someone else to unleash it with the proper tools, something our employee engagement training programs teach your team.

You can’t turn on the spigot of effort without filling up the tank with the juice—enfranchised people driving themselves with proactive involvement for goals that satisfy inner needs. Follow the trail of motivation blazed by Deci, Ryan, and their colleagues, and you discover there is a better way to engage employees through strategies that make everyone a driver of both their own, and your, bottom line.

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Tags: employee engagement training, employee engagement, work motivation, leadership

Why Brain Neurons Seek Novelty and Challenge in 2016

Posted by Joe Robinson

New year's dawn for resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are like any other new behavior. We are of two minds about them. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh/discipline is weak. Part of our brain, the higher floors, is gung-ho. Yes! Let’s do it. Eat healthier. Get more exercise. Be more productive at work.

The second mind, located in the lower rungs of the brain, has other ideas. The fear hub of the amygdala, constantly on the alert for danger and risks to life, ego, and pride, says, “Why bother?” “Too hard.” “Would look foolish.”

NOVELTY VS. FEAR

It’s a titanic struggle that goes on throughout our lives between the forces of growth and progress versus the lizard brain’s fear of venturing outside the comfort zone. We know who usually wins that battle. The default button is to do nothing. Doing something requires proaction, and that requires self-regulation, or discipline.

The science shows that the effort is worth it, because we satisfy our higher aspirations when we go beyond the autopilot. This is the best time of the year to make a new course happen, when receptivity is at its highest and we are willing to exert ourselves to try a new direction.

Embarking on a new path is no less than a physiological and psychological imperative. The research of brain scientist Gregory Berns has shown that the two key factors in life fulfillment are novelty and challenge. Both require us to move off status quo, or face the consequences—boredom, cynicism, life unlived.

Humans are programmed to seek out the new. It’s what got our hunter-gatherer forebears to venture beyond the next ridge to find new food sources. The need for novelty is so strong that even the anticipation of something new, before we have even experienced it, sets off the brain’s party drug, dopamine, which makes us feel good and encourages us to take on more new things.

BRAIN NEURONS DON'T LIKE RERUNS

Our brains seek out new data so insistently that when our neurons get the same information over and over, they literally stop noticing it. This is why you can drive to work without remembering passing the last five exits. Your brain neurons have been there, done that. They’re not paying attention anymore.

We all have certain core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that also depend on us engaging with the new. We satisfy these needs through acts of initiative and challenge, by going beyond our normal routines.

With so much in our biology nudging us to try a new course and feel the satisfaction from doing so, you would think it would be a little less like pulling teeth to get us to take on a new resolution—and stick with it. But that doesn’t take into account the other mind, the security-fixated default that holds you back. It doesn’t want to change anything. It might be risky, hard. You might fail. Isn’t there an easier option?

We have to overcome that static and take the very first step in the new direction. Then the next. Otherwise, we wind up doing more than we do well at work and not managing the demands coming at us. On the life side, we get locked into stale routines. Our brains were made for participation, not vegetation.

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GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

The battle between our two minds happens by rote, outside consciousness, so bringing awareness forward on the importance of trying new things is a great place to start. Change is not something to be feared. It is the fuel of fulfillment. Our autonomy and competence needs demand that we stretch, go the extra mile.

At work, this is the definition of employee engagement, bringing extra discretionary effort to the table. Employees are willing to do that (increasing productivity 28% in the process, according to the Conference Board) when they are able to demonstrate initiative and involvement in how they do their work.

The need to grow and take on challenges is what makes training and development such a key lever in employee engagement. Surveys show employee training in the top tier of factors that drive engagement, along with mentoring and managers who have open door policies. When people get skills and strategies to be more effective and manage demands better, they respond with greater engagement.

RESOLUTION: TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT IN 2016

We can satisfy the personal growth mandate of our brain neurons as well as organizational change and process improvements with a New Year’s resolution for employee training. Change becomes, not something to fear, but a part of the innate drive we all have for self-improvement and competence. When employees get tools to work smarter, manage interruptions, eliminate overwhelm, and control stress, as they do in my Work-Life Balance, Stress Management, Information Management, and Managing Crazy Busy Work trainings, there’s an immediate reward in energy and initiative, as people feel they have strategies and support to do their jobs.

As I mentioned in my last post, “The Three Things We Don’t Know We Need to Be Happy,” the most potent motivation is self-generated through what is known as intrinsic motivation. That comes when we act for internal reasons, not for an external payoff. Key intrinsic goals include learning and challenge, exactly what employee training brings to the table. As one study reported, “employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing” (Elliott, Harackiewicz).

This new year, seize the opportunity to grow and increase productivity by initiating an employee training or development program, wherever you are on the organizations chart. On the life side, find the one thing that can make your life more fulfilling, and take the next step to make it happen.

Let the higher brain win in 2016. The glow of satisfaction from taking on a challenge will tell you that you made the right choice.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, happiness, employee training, employee development programs, life fulfillment, life satisfaction, employee engagement, work life balance programs, fear and risk-taking, novelty

7 Surprising Ways to Boost Employee Morale and Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee_Engagement

With only 29% of American employees engaged at work, it may be time to take a page from professional sports teams to boost morale. Hire a composer to write a company fight song. Deploy cheerleaders to the hallways and lunchroom. A bucket of chilled Gatorade over the head of someone who’s done especially good work might stimulate team spirit. Or might not. 

The sports world seems to know how important it is to keep the troops’ morale high, the business world less so. Aside from the rare thank-you note or gesture of appreciation, there isn’t a lot of thought put into building employee value, motivation, and commitment. If there is a focus, it’s on the wrong kind of motivation—carrot and stick, proven by a host of researchers, such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, to be demotivating.

The cost of the morale problem is huge, $300 billion in lost productivity every year, according to Gallup, not to mention the impact it has on retention, customer relations, innovation, and internal conflict. When engaged employees go the extra mile, they are 28% more productive, one of the many reasons employee engagement training programs, such as our program, "Supercharging Engagement," are so crucial. Studies show people can go from active disengagement to full engagement when you change how they think about their work.

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EXTERNAL IS EPHEMERAL

There are plenty of reasons for sagging morale—undelivered promises, lack of support, absentee managers—but the main reason is that few know where good morale comes from. Most of us have been operating in the dark when it comes to human motivation and need gratification, what it is that people need as opposed to want.

That’s not a surprise, since the culture tells us there is only one choice for motivation: the external kind—money, success, promotions, status, popularity. All of these intensely sought-after goals are based on the approval of others. They give us a quick bump in satisfaction before it vanishes like the last bite of cheesecake.

External motivation doesn’t last because it doesn’t validate us internally. It’s about what other people think, not you, and that’s very ephemeral. Opinions can change from moment to moment. You might get raves today, static tomorrow.

Research shows that the thrill of a job promotion, for instance, only lasts two weeks. Sorry about that. Then you return to however you felt before the promotion. We habituate to the new status, it becomes normal, and then we want more. It’s called hedonic adaptation. We are born to tire of even the best of fortunes and changed circumstances. Lottery winners revert to how they felt before they won the money (Diener).

What really drives humans is the self-propulsion engine driven by what is known as intrinsic motivation, acting for no outer payoff or pat on the back. The reward of intrinsic motivation is felt internally in the act of the experience itself. Deci, Ryan and a host of colleagues around the world have shown that intrinsic motivation is the most potent motivation and the one every manager and employer should want to stimulate.

ACTING FOR DEEPER GOALS

Why is intrinsic motivation so effective at increasing employee morale? Numerous studies in cultures across the globe have found the power of intrinsic values to increase self-esteem, well-being, positive mood, and vitality, all of which lead to more engagement.

Vitality is the key dimension of engagement: physical energy. Act for internal purposes and you get the best return of all, satisfaction, says Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri. He calls that dividend “self-concordence,” when we are acting for deeper goals or aspirations that are aligned with who we are. 

Intrinsic motivation is subtle, but it’s not completely out of our orbit. It’s the basic urge behind anything we do for fun, to learn, or challenge ourselves. When people operate from intrinsic goals—inherent interest, excellence, craft, challenge, learning, not for an outside payoff—they like what they’re doing more, remember it longer, and have full engagement in what they’re doing, research shows. One study found that “intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they’re doing” (Harackiewiez and Elliot).. 

What kind of difference could that make for your organization if everyone was absorbed in what they were doing? One of the most powerful elements of intrinsic motivation is its staying power. Studies show that if you are involved in anything that’s difficult or that requires persistence, intrinsic motivation is more effective in keeping you at it. Intrinsically motivated musicians and dieters who are in it for learning, the music itself, a healthier life and personal growth, not because others are forcing them to do it, stick with it.

CHANGING HOW WE THINK ABOUT WORK

Intrinsic motivation is powerful because it goes to the heart of human need satisfaction. What do we need? For most of human history, we haven’t had a clue, but over the last three decades researchers have found that when we act for goals that help us feel self-driven, competent, and connected to others, we feel gratified. People want to have a sense of choice in how they do their work, the opportunity to take on challenges that make them feel effective, and to collaborate with others for a larger purpose. 

Employees want to participate and contribute because they have to. It’s in the genes, part of a powerful self-initiative drive that will be left on the table if it isn’t coaxed out. How do you unlock this morale-booster? You can’t command employee engagement. You can only enable it by unleashing the employee’s own inner drive to excel, learn, and make a difference without regard to external payoff. It’s a process of changing how employees think about the work they do, and that requires a more collaborative approach. Here are a few tips on how to build morale through intrinsic engagement:

1. Increase choice in how people do their jobs. Choice makes people feel more autonomous and effective, which boosts satisfaction and commitment. We all have a job we have to do. How we do it, though, leaves room for adjustments. Let employees suggest ideas for improving bottlenecks, information overload, and task processes. Delegate decisions, not just minor ones.

2. Meet staff regularly. Employees with the worst engagement have managers with no time for them. On the other hand, 87% of those with the best engagement know their managers well (Blessing White).

3. Encourage innovation, input, and other viewpoints. Allowing employees to generate new ideas, even setting aside time to work on extra projects of interest (as Google employees do), and open communication let people feel they are contributing and are a valued part of the team.

4. Promote meaning. Why is your staff doing what they’re doing? Who is the customer and what’s the value that employees are providing? Detail the vision behind the work, the larger purpose, and build a noncynical climate. 

5. Find ways to keep people learning and growing. Development programs are a key lever of employee engagement and morale. Give staff time to learn new things and improve knowledge through employee trainings, and they can feel something at the top of the job satisfaction charts—progress. We are programmed to learn.

6. Offer positive and informational feedback. Pressure and threats make people resist, which isn’t conducive to extra effort. Language that reflects options and offers positive feedback helps employees feel self-responsible. Offer rewards as appreciation, not incentives. Acknowledge skills, which is a big nod to the person’s competence need—I like the way you did this/solved this.

7. Encourage staff to set challenging goals and the latitude to accomplish them. The more you can harness self-initiative, the more you increase the sense of value employees feel, which is great for morale.

Building employee morale is about allowing staff to feel enfranchised and involved in the pursuit of goals that tap into the intrinsic engine within us all that wants to do better, dig deeper. Harness it, and your employees get an internal bucket of Gatorade to celebrate progress and success. 

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Tags: employee engagement programs, employee productivity, employee development programs, increase productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, job satisfaction, employee morale, increase employee morale, improve employee morale, intrinsic motivation, employee motivation

A New Productivity Model Based on Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Optimal_PerformanceSmall-1

The traditional measuring stick of productivity has been, let’s face it, a rather masochistic metric—whoever can work the longest or send emails at 2 in the morning. It’s also dead wrong. It’s based on a flawed notion that in the knowledge economy where brainpower rules that a fatigued brain is where it’s at for getting things done.

In fact, MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. The chief productivity tool is attention, and that goes AWOL after three hours of continuous time on task, studies show (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist). 

PREREQUISITE OF PERFORMANCE

Productivity comes from a very different place than burnout and fatigue, from the opposite place than we have been led to believe—from brains that are refreshed and energized. And where do those come from?

The data tells us from organizations that take work-life balance seriously. It turns out that work-life balance is much more than a check-off box on an employee survey. It’s the prerequisite for performance and engagement. It gives employees the tools and encouragement to work more effectively, to take care of their health, improve skills, and work in a way that makes them feel valued.

People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, reports the Corporate Executive Board, which represents about 80% of the Fortune 500. Gallup found that engaged employees are 28% more productive than those who aren't engaged. But only 29% of workers are engaged. American businesses leave more then $300 billion on the table in lost productivity every year due to disengaged employees.

Naturally, every company wants employee engagement, which means that employees put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty. What makes an employee do more than what's necessary? Certainly not a fatigued brain. The key dimension of engaged employees is energy, vigor.

That can’t come from people who are burned out. You will never have engaged employees, if they are caught up in the Burnout Model of productivity. The main marker of burnout and chronic stress is exhaustion, the polar opposite of engagement. All energetic resources have been depleted—mentally, physically, emotionally.

THE EFFECTIVE MODEL

It’s time for a new performance model, one that’s actually based on what the science says works. Let’s trade exhaustion for the Effective Model. The goal is to eliminate the bottlenecks that drain attention and engagement through things like interruption and information management, make operations more effective and less aggravating with better time management, manage demands, refuel the brain, and allow employees the sense that they can take adequate care of responsibilities outside the office. 

In other words, make work-life balance an integral part of the operations and workflow of the team or organization. When the goal is working in a way that strengthens attention, well-being, trust, communication, wellness, and value, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to see that people are more inclined to give not just their all, but more than that, the discretionary effort of employee engagement.

Work-life balance sets the stage for engagement, making employees feel valued, competent, trusted, and that they are a part of the mission, participants, not just cogs. Companies with high participation levels have a 19% higher return on investment, a study by Edward Lawler found.

Every company should want their employees to have better work-life balance, since that leads to the energy, commitment, and involvement that creates engagement. Every company should want their employees to have better self-management and be more proactive. When they are, we can delegate more, more ideas come forward, better communication reduces conflict, and we eliminate stress levels that fuel turnover (40% of people who quit cite stress as the main factor in leaving) and bad decisions.

THE MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE

The Burnout Model leads to ill and drained employees who are there physically but mentally depleted—the condition known as presenteeism, which costs U.S. companies more than $150 billion per year. The Effective Model produces team members whose brains are energized and focused on going the extra mile. Which is the better choice?

As a new generation that prizes work-life balance starts to play a bigger role in the workplace, the timing has never been better to integrate a comprehensive work-life program in every organization. There is a tectonic shift in corporate culture under way led by millennials and their values, and the Effective Model of work-life balance can lead the way. It’s a no-brainer for millennials—for productivity, commitment, wellness, and satisfaction.

How do you get started? Start with our comprehensive employee Work-Life Balance training that brings the strategies of the latest science to help your team work smarter and live better. We also offer a follow-up program that sustains the new behaviors, builds in new protocols and norms, and identifies challenges and solutions. Aftwards, everyone wonders why they didn't do this years ago. Let common sense and work-life balance demonstrate that there's another road to success, instead of one that is best described by an old Monty Python routine, "Being Hit on the Head Lessons."

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Tags: work-life balance training, presenteeism, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and employee engagement, work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and millennials, millennials

The Unspoken Key to Work-Life Balance: Stoplights

Posted by Joe Robinson

Traffic_Light_Small

I wouldn’t want to live in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, or any other city without traffic lights. The roads are crazy enough as it is, but without rules of the road, you’ve got anarchy. Yet that is the situation we face at companies large and small these days.

The anarchic flow of messaging and interruptions pour in without rules or any kind of traffic management, causing massive tie-ups that lead to always-on availability, disruptions and distractions that torpedo productivity and drive overwhelm and unbalanced characters.

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN

The pattern operates unchallenged, devices calling the tune, with the humans caught up in a kind of learned helplessness. The unbounded pattern runs the show because of one basic behavior: silence. We don't address the elephant in the room and so it proliferates.

When vagueness rules, so do lack of boundaries, constant device-checking, and expectations of instant response. Researchers say this doesn’t make sense, because it’s highly counterproductive. An  unbounded world shreds working memory and attention, drives stress and burnout, and leaves staff disengaged and cynical. But there's a lot we can do to bring traffic management to work.

DEFAULT TO YES

I led a half-day work-life balance program last week for a global organization facing many of these issues. The group of managers, hailing from China to the U.S., to England and Germany, were highly committed to their work—and, prompted to zero in on hurdles, turned out to be hungry to talk about ways to manage competing demands and time zones and carve out better boundaries and work-life balance.

My experience is that it’s not lack of interest on the part of managers that keeps the cycle going. In the course of our session, the consensus was that in the scramble of information overload and exploding to-do lists, there has been a default to take on more than we can do well. Too many of us don’t pause long enough to reflect if we can really take on one more thing right now. 

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Traffic management in the working world is handled through boundaries. Speaking up about them and identifying bright lines is as logical for business as it is for work-life balance, research shows. Boundaries build focus and attention, chaos delivers the opposite.

One Harvard report found that people who have true satisfaction in their working lives are good at recognizing the "just enough" point on a given project or day. The number one factor in that satisfaction was the "deliberate imposition of limits."

ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES COMMUNICATION

If we knew how important communication is for employee engagement, there would be a lot more talking. Studies show that the worst engagement is for employees whose managers never have time to meet with them, while 87% of engaged employees know their managers well.

When no one has a second to communicate, we don't ask questions, prioritize, and work effectively. Collaboration is the most effective leadership model for employee engagement, and that comes from communication, something that satisfies core psychological needs that make people feel valued. Feeling valued is the driving force behind the discretionary effort of engagement, something that can make employees 28% more productive, according to Gallup.

Reining in the unbounded world can start in any department and organization with a conversation about task bottlenecks, deadlines, overcommitment, and the work-life challenges that come from letting devices and blind frenzy call the shots. The humans can install traffic lights, using the most basic management tool: boundaries.

And that is how the global company I’m working with is proceeding, moving forward with a new handbook on effective work norms to provide best-practice guidance for regulating devices and interruptions as well as understandings about availability and emergencies.

Solving the traffic-light problem solves many others in the process, increasing productivity, morale, and engagement, as it reduces stress and helps everyone find the space to strike a better work-life balance. Isn’t that worth stopping the traffic for a second so we can go forward without crashing?

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Tags: employee engagement programs, interruptions and productivity, information overload programs, employee productivity, avoiding burnout, increase productivity, employee engagement

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