Working Smarter

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

The Scientific Link That Drives Employee Engagement and Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN YOU ARE HAVING a bad day at work, chances are very good you are also having an unproductive day. Things like verbal cage matches with colleagues and visits from Mr. Murphy and his famous law impact how we think, and, as a result, how we use our thoughts to perform tasks.

Negative mood, stress, and anger are hazardous to performance. They undermine attention, close off the big picture, and keep minds ruminating off topic from the task at hand.

MOOD IMPACTS OUTPUT

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions broaden minds, build interest, and energize, while negative emotions restrict thinking, and discourage receptivity to new things and initiative. It stands to reason, then, that employees with a more positive outlook, more satisfied with their work, would tend to be more productive.

And they are. In a study where researchers observed employee behavior in meetings for months (behind a trick wall where they could observe the proceedings), Marcial Losada found that people who used more positive language, who were open to the opinions of others, and who didn’t retreat into defensive and pessimistic postures had higher sales, were more productive, and had better rapport with their colleagues.

One of the things that makes people feel positive at work is work-life balance. People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, according to a survey from the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies. That extra effort is the definition of the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. This is why employee development programs, such as our work-life balance program, Work Smarter, Live Better, and our engagagement training, Supercharging Engagement, are so valuable for talent and the bottom-line.

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Contrast that with the negative effect work-life conflict has on employee performance—reduced work effort and performance and increased absenteeism and turnover (Anderson, Coffey, Byerly, 2002), reduced health and energy (Frone, Rusee, Barnes, 1996), and increased stress and burnout (Anderson et al, 2002). 

WORK-LIFE ENGAGEMENT

There is a direct and much overlooked link between work-life balance and employee engagement. People who feel they have some flexibility in how they do their tasks and take care of their home and life responsibilities respond in a proactive way that mirrors the engagement outcome every organization wants. They do more.

At work here is something called social exchange theory in the academic world. The organization offers something that benefits the employee, and the employee reciprocates in the form of going beyond the call of duty. 

“When treated favorably by the organization, employees will feel obliged to respond in kind, through positive attitudes or behaviors toward the source of the treatment,” explain T. Alexandra Beauregard and Leslie Henry in a meta study on the link between work-life balance and organization performance. “Using the provision of work-life balance practices as an indicator of favorable treatment, employees will reciprocate in ways beneficial to the organization – increased commitment, satisfaction with one’s job, and citizenship behaviors,”

Those behaviors are straight out of the employee engagement handbook, producing two of the main domains of engagement—dedication (commitment) and vigor/energy (citizenship behaviors), which drives the initiative of discretionary effort. They are highly sought-after traits, since, as Gallup reports, engaged employees are 28% more productive and the vast majority of people are unengaged. Only 31% of employees are engaged, with 51% not engaged and 17.5% actively disengaged.

THE VALUE OF CHOICE

In my employee development programs I see companies that want to increase engagement but don’t quite know how. I have found that work-life balance programs can provide the initial spark, swinging the door wide open to the conditions that prime engagement behaviors.

One of the most powerful factors in engagement is having a sense that you are valued and trusted. Work-life programs that allow flexibility in how tasks are done, where they are done, or when they are done give employees that sense of value with the vote of confidence that comes with choice, options, and responsibility.

Given a choice in how they work, people can work at time of peak productivity and alertness to maximize their productivity (Shepard et al, 1996), freeing up more time for other responsibilities and needs, or they can work more during the company’s crunch time, with a payoff of schedule flexibility later.

UNLEASHING COMPETENCE

We know from the research on human motivation that promoting choice and self-responsibility satisfy deep psychological needs, such as autonomy. That makes people feel competent and want to do more. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says that the root of satisfaction comes from doing things that make us stretch or challenge us. The reward of a job well done is the brain’s party drug of dopamine, the chemical signature of satisfaction.

The payoff of a more engaged workforce is greater effort that leads to increased performance. That should lead to higher output that increases company value. Research shows just that. Work-life balance can have some pretty amazing effects on the bottom line. One study (Arthur, 2003) found that after companies started work-life initiatives, shareholder returns increased $60 million per firm in the study. That’s a WOW, ladies and gentlemen. And, like they say on the infomercials, there’s more!

A meta study that looked at the effect of one work-life practice, telework, on performance (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta, 1991) found that productivity went up 10% to 30%. Reason: People worked more hours at home than in the office but enjoyed it more because they had more control over their time. Another report (Perry-Smith and Blum, 2000) analyzed performance at 527 U. S. companies and found that firms with a wider range of work-life practices had greater performance, profit-sales growth, and organizational performance.

RECIPROCAL PAYOFFS

Attitudes drive effort or the lack of it, no doubt along the same positive v. negative track of openness and initiative v. cynicism and disengagement. Studies show a connection between work schedule flexibility and satisfaction. Gaining more control over work-life conflict makes people feel less stressed, less guilt, and, in turn, grateful to the company. The reciprocation comes in the form of increased organizational commitment and reduced turnover intentions (Aryee, Luk, Stone, 1998; Halpern, 2005; Houston, Waumsley, 2003). People also want to make sure they stay at a company with a good work-life policy, so they put in extra effort to remain there.

Hopefully, the research will help more leaders to see the real connection between work-life balance practices and employee engagement. Work-life balance practices are a statement to any firm’s most important asset, its human capital, that, yes, they are valued and trusted.

It’s a no-brainer that people feeling good about themselves and their work are going to be more committed and engaged. When they have options to work more effectively, tools to manage demands and devices, and schedules that allow for flexibility to minimize work-life conflict, they go beyond the call of duty. And no one has to tell them to.

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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

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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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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

When Working Memory Is Overwhelmed, You Are Too

Posted by Joe Robinson

Overwhelm and working memory

Everybody hates a nag, and that especially goes for the one inside our heads that keeps bugging us about all the to-do’s that have to be tackled NOW. The unfinished items swirl around and around, like a cloud of flies orbiting the cranium, interrupting focus and helping to fuel a belief that we are overwhelmed.

Productivity is a function of how much attention we have on a single task at a time, so any time our thoughts are straying to other projects or hurry-worry to get to the next task, we’re not paying full attention, and that undermines performance. The human brain was designed to do one thing at a time, to use our brains as processing centers, not storage devices.

THOUGHT LIMITS

One of the keys to getting anything done is working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is a temporary holding pen for ideas/thought “chunks” that we are actively using to complete an action at any given time. It has very limited storage capacity over a very brief period of time, thought to be a matter of seconds. It was once thought that we could keep seven thought “chunks” in the brain at one time for working memory use, but researchers now believe the real capacity is three to five items, a core known as the central working memory faculty.

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In a study examining how much subjects could retain in short-term memory in a visual test of shapes and squares, researchers J. Scott Saults and Nelson Cowan (2007) found that subjects could hang on to no more than four items at a time. It’s important to point out that we are not talking about the capacity to do four separate actions at one time, as in multitasking, which is impossible for mortals, but merely to hold that many thought elements in mind while at work on a task.

Researchers aren’t sure why working memories are so limited, but theorize that it was too expensive, in both energy and time, to have excess information getting in the way of processing and action. Evolution appears to have selected out the reverse of information overload—focused selection—as a survival instinct.

Of course, just about everything these days is conspiring against focus, from information overload to stress, which can seriously reduce working memory performance by sidetracking your immediate attention to a perceived emergency.

THE INCOMPLETE LOOP

With working memory so constrained, it’s easy to see how the to-do nag can interfere with the task at hand as it interrupts short-term memory and plays havoc with recall of our primary task. Productivity guru David Allen noticed that “incompletes,” as he calls them, were a big drag on performance, and it led to the central principle of his “Getting Things Done” organizing system. He observed that unfinished tasks will harass in a constant loop unless the item is finished—or the brain is persuaded that you are on the way to completion.

It was the inspiration for his concept of the “next action.” The best way to keep to-do nagging at bay, he argues, is to let the mind know you’re on the case by jotting down the next physical action for each item on your list, breaking tasks down into a series of specific steps. That stops the loop and the brain lets go.

In recent years Allen’s gut instinct was confirmed by science. Florida State University researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks and that writing down plans to finish a task released subjects so they could do their jobs undistracted by to-do nags.

Improving time management has a lot to do with how we manage short-term memory, that brief period of focus within which we get stuff done. That means sealing it off as much as possible, not just from our own incompletes, but also from the siege of electronic intrusions and interruptions, which studies show fracture working memory, and, therefore, productivity.

Interruptions blow up the tenuous hold we have on the three to five items in working memory. We forget thought associations we had before the interruption, or where we were going.

AVOIDING DISRUPTIONS

This is known as a ‘disruption,” when performance plummets because it takes longer to complete the task as you try to piece together the vanished items that were in short-term memory. Think how many disruptions you go through in a day and the downtime and mistakes that result when you try to piece together again what you were doing. 

If you have to take an interruption, finish the task or thought you are on first, and make a note about where you are going with the thought train. That prevents disruptions and helps you get back to where you were without a long backtrack.

Other keys to retaining working memory and avoiding overwhelm are setting the terms of engagement with devices—checking manually at set times, turning off noisemakers and notifications—as well as keeping distractions, such as that bowl of Haagen Dazs or the conflict you had with someone out of your precious few-second realm of working memory. 

When we break away from distractions and intrusions through better planning, organizing and prioritizing and dive deep into the absorption of the moment, we find a realm of focus far from the frazzle of overwhelm and self-badgering where we can be on the same page with, well, ourselves.

If your company would like to avoid the frenzy and frazzle of overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

 

 

 

 

Tags: stress management and change, employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, managing interruptions, email management, employee training, stress, information overload, productivity, stress management

Employee Training Drives Number One Motivator: Progress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee training programs build morale

Raise your hand if you like feeling stuck. Let’s hear it for going nowhere! What, no takers? I thought so. Humans don’t particularly like suspended animation. Boredom isn’t high on the to-do list. Instead, our brain neurons crave movement, learning, and growth.

One multiyear study measuring employee motivation found that the number one factor in driving effort was progress, tangible movement on a project, a sense that you’re making headway, even if incrementally, on your work. Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer analyzed daily reports from hundreds of workers and discovered that forward motion, such as getting closer to completion on projects and removal of obstacles, was the top component in motivating performance. Small wins yield a big payoff in morale and satisfaction.

THE MOTIVATOR OF COMPETENCE

The need to see progress also extends to skill-sets. One of the consistent top levers of employee engagement, for instance, is employee development—right up there with managers who have an open door policy and communicate expectations, according to data from the Corporate Leadership Council.  

People want to improve their skills, learn new ones, and when they do through mentoring or training programs, it feeds a core psychological need: competence. The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth and to satisfy what brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge.

We are programmed to search out and explore new horizons, so much so that just the anticipation of something new sets off a chemical reward in our brains in the form of the chemical dopamine. We feel good when we increase knowledge and capabilities, which make us want to acquire more information and new experiences—evolution’s built-in incentive to improve ourselves, and our odds of survival. 

TRAINING PROGRAMS INCREASE ENGAGEMENT

Employee training programs provide one of the most concentrated doses of learning in the workplace, and play a key role in boosting engagement levels. A Corporate Leadership Council survey found that general skills training programs can increase the discretionary effort of engagement by 17.5%, more than 7% to 10% higher than on-the-job learning opportunities. How much of a difference could an additional 17% of effort make for your team or organization? What could that mean for productivity and project completion speed, since engaged employees bring with them more attention, focus, and dedication?

The Corporate Leadership Council reports that employee training programs send “a message of credible commitment to employees.” Development programs back up organizational goals for engagement or work-life balance with action, with tools and strategies that employees can use to make their workday more effective, less stressful, more manageable, and more successful. Employees reciprocate with their own demonstration of commitment, going beyond the call of duty in the effort department.

Progress in the workplace is usually seen as a metric of job titles and positions. I spoke with the CEO of a large tech firm, who has to get very creative to keep coming up with job titles that indicate movement upward for his millennial staff, who expect advancement every few months. Everyone wants to move up, but there are a limited number of rungs at the top. 

POWER OF INTERNAL YARDSTICKS

The possibilities for advancing skills, though, are limitless. Employee training programs can have a bigger impact on competence and self-esteem than job titles, because they are internal metrics, which research shows is more powerful than the external yardsticks.  They gratify those brain neurons that want challenge and align with the intrinsic need to feel effective.

Employee training programs are a very cost-effective way to provide the tools that make staff feel competent, supported, and engaged. You make big gains in skills and enthusiasm very quickly.  When was the last time your team had a training session? What kind of training could your team benefit from right now? Time management? Interruption management? Stress management? Productivity training? Email and information management? Reining in crazy-busy time urgency?

Our training programs provide tools to handle all of the above, to help employees help themselves through better self-management, and in the process provide the spark of progress for individuals, the team, and the whole company.

Something happens when people stop growing. They stop caring. Training programs let employees and managers know that the organization cares, by providing skills to to ease burdens, simplify processes, self-manage any challenge. Learning is its own reward, one that promotes the best engagement resource: our own competence and need for mastery.

If you would like more information on our training programs, please click the button below for more details on programs ranging from productivity, to work-life balance, employee engagement, stress management, and email management.

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Tags: work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, employee training, employee training programs, employee development programs, motivating employees, employee development, corporate training, employee trainers, training programs

The 3 Engines of Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

optimal_performancesmall.jpg

FOR MOST OF the lifespan of the field of psychology, scientists focused on the dysfunctional, the haywire, and failings of the psyche, but a few decades ago some researchers said, Hey, enough already. What about the other side of the ledger? What makes things go right? If we know the answer to that question, there’s liable to be fewer of us on the fritz.

The positive psychology movement changed the one-track focus from doom and gloom and reactivity to the building blocks of well-being and effective functioning. A similar switching of lens happened in the work realm, as researchers began to investigate what led to flourishing employees, instead of burned-out ones.

Researchers Wilmar Schaufeli, Arnold Bakker, Marisa Salanova, and Vicente Gonzales-Roma set out to find a measurement for employee engagement by exploring the positive antithesis to burnout. The key markers of burnout—exhaustion and cynicism—it turned out, are the opposite of two of the three dimensions the scientists found that mark the state of engagement: vigor and dedication.

BURNOUT KILLERS

Flipping the emphasis relieves the rear-guard action of trying to prevent the negative (fatigue, pessimism). Instead, smart managers can go on the offensive by creating conditions that allow positive burnout killers to thrive. It’s the difference between waiting for the roof to fall in and making that roof invulnerable to sudden collapse.

Schaufeli and company defined engagement as a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Absorption is the third element of engagement, which has a strong component of attention and focus.

The resulting high morale isn’t a momentary affair that can fade in a blink. Engagement is a broad and persistent engine that has staying power even amid setbacks.

Learn the 5 Keys to Engagement

Let’s take a look at the three main dimensions of engagement, how they operate as an antidote to burnout, and how they trigger the extra effort that can increase productivity by as much as 28%, according to Gallup.

1. VIGOR. It’s the veritable definition of an engaged and proactive person—someone who has not just the willingness, but the physical energy to go the extra mile, or, as it’s known in the trade, “discretionary effort.” The key element here is vitality, or energy available to the self, as the University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan has called it. When you have it, you have interest and aliveness, and feel the well-being that triggers positive affect, a magnetic force that can propel you and others beyond obstacles. You are willing to draw on that energy to go beyond the normal level of effort.

This is the polar opposite of the chief marker of burnout—exhaustion, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Someone with energy and vitality can’t be burned out because there are energetic resources to replace those that are used. Keeping the physical energy up, through strategies that help brains and bodies recharge on a regular basis, is an automatic hedge against fatigue and resource overload.

Getting regular exercise and enough sleep, 7 to 9 hours a night, is essential to refueling energy and, researchers are finding, cleaning out the toxic junk—beta-amyloids and tau—left over from the day’s mental workouts.

2. DEDICATION. This is the commitment piece of employee engagement. You want to do more because you are enthused about the organization, its mission, and your ability to make a contribution to the team and larger goal.

It’s the opposite of the cynicism that comes from burnout, which sees any self-initiative as futile and naïve. Burnout can’t coexist with the passion and loyalty of dedication.

The need to feel effective is critical to self-worth. Dedicated employees feel valued, because they have opportunities to contribute and make a difference. They feel a sense of significance, and as a result, derive meaning from what they do, and that intrinsic reward makes them want to do more.

Feeling effective counters another burnout characteristic, lack of efficacy. Employees who are committed to what they’re doing will keep at it, even if it’s challenging. They have internalized the importance of the product or service to the client or customers. As a result, they find satisfaction in handling difficult assignments.

3. ABSORPTION. When someone is engaged in their work, they are engrossed in it. Engagement brings another gear of concentration to the task, powered by intrinsic motivation, inherent interest in doing the task. The goal is not to get done with the work as soon as possible, but to do it in the best possible way.

Some researchers think that engagement is more about proactive attention than anything else. It’s a decision to immerse yourself in the task for its own sake, not for any external reward. The more attention you have on what you’re doing, the more you like it, remember it, and derive intrinsic pleasure from it, say researchers. 

Absorption is the definition of optimal experience, also known as flow. When your skills meet a challenge in the moment, there’s a sense of mastery, a loss of self-consciousness, and a clear focus, not to mention a sense of competence and autonomy, and that satisfies two core psychological needs.  

Detachment and withdrawal are hallmarks of burnout. There’s no detachment when you have full absorption in the task at hand, making it a bulwark against burnout behavior.

Burnout is extremely costly to organizations, from lost productivity, to absenteeism and medical bills. And it leaves nearly a third more performance on the table. Managers can inoculate themselves and their organizations against the downward spiral of chronic stress and burnout with the antidote of engagement, the vaccine of effort.

Our employee engagement programs can help you unleash the three engines of effort. If you would like information on our programs, click the button below for more details and rates.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, employee engagement training, employee engagement, work life balance programs, burnout, work stress

Attention and Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Focused team demonstrates employee engagement

With the growing advances in brain research, we’re getting a much better picture, literally, of when our command center works and when it doesn’t. Researchers say MRI scans of fatigued brains show so little activity, they look like they are sound asleep.

I’m sure you know that feeling around 4 p.m., when it seems like you’re swimming in molasses, and you have to expend twice the effort to get something accomplished that you need when you are fresh. The reality is that there is a limited period that the brain can stay focused without wandering or going into brownout mode. Researchers say 90-minutes to three hours of time and task, and the brain has to step back from task to reset.

The instinct to never pause and go to the mental wall may be admirable, but it’s not productive—and it’s one of the best ways to kill employee engagement. Studies show that engagement is not so much an attitude as a state of motivated attentiveness.

FULL ABSORPTION

One of the key hallmarks of engagement is absorption, full concentration in the moment. Pushing gray matter to the edge insures there won’t be much of that. Fried, overloaded brains are characterized by tension, inability to focus, slower processing, and an inability to handle complex tasks.

Even if dedication and commitment are there, engaged employees can’t deliver extra effort when mental resources are spent. Fatigue and exhaustion also undercut another key metric of engagement, the physical, energetic resources of vigor.

There is a fallacy in the knowledge economy that, because we are just sitting on our behinds, that the brain is a kind of unlimited well. We’re not being physically taxed, so the mind can just keep going. Brain scientists I’ve spoken with have told me that the brain goes down well before the body. That means, so does the chief productivity tool, attention, and the prospects for engagement.

FRACTURING FOCUS

Any organization that wants engaged employees has to have attentive employees, yet everything about the nature of work today undermines that—unbounded interruptions, information overload, social media intrusions. It’s not how much volume we can cram into our heads, but how we manage demands that leads to the focus necessary for engaged performance. Yet few organizations have tied shrinking attention to engagementm si more and more intrusions pour in.

It’s often thought that engagement can be measured by the amount of commitment to the organization, but that’s not enough to drive engagement, which is a function of the specific effort an employee brings to the task. As Alan Saks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto put it in one study, “Engagement has to do with how individuals employ themselves in the performance of their job,” not attachment to the organization.

It’s great when people are dedicated to the cause, but, if they have the attention span of a gnat, there won’t be much in the way of engagement. Disengagement is more like it, and, in fact, that is the trend these days as attention spans shrink, thanks to nonstop interruptions and information overload.

Leaders need to be alert for the signs of disengagement—withdrawal, absenteeism, personal conflicts, falling behind schedule, burnout—when attention vanishes in the face of excessive demands without compensating latitude or choice. Researchers say that burnout is a marker for the opposite of engagement’s dedication, absorption and vigor. Instead, there is estrangement from the goals of the organization and a downward spiral of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and futility.

THE OPPOSITE OF BURNOUT: ENGAGEMENT

That leads to the logic that less burnout can promote more attentive employees who have the potential to be engaged. What areas do organizations have to adjust to reduce the burnout track and promote more focus? Saks points to research from burnout scholar Christina Maslach and associates. “Job engagement is associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work.”

People who have a sustainable workload are naturally going to be able to bring more focus to the task than if they have depleted their coping resources. Choice and control keep stress away, which prevents the brain from having focus constricted to the narrow fixation of a perceived false crisis. Recognition and supportive work means that attention is appreciated and nurtured, while fairness and meaningful work internalize the importance of doing quality, attentive work.

So much of the way we work today is simply autopilot, reflexively responding to the demands without managing them. The research shows that engagement, and productivity, are not the result of brain drain, of cognitive feats of endurance, but the opposite, promoting behaviors and policies that allow minds to find the space to focus.

That’s hard to engineer when most people are in a state of triage all day. Yet there are other choices than triage, other approaches to the way we do our work that are actually based on the evidence of what has been proven to be productive. From no-interruption zones to email management to the power of full-absorption goals, there are a wealth of tools that can bring about the gains in commitment, attention, and motivation that prime the pump for engagement.

This is where development programs can make a big difference, providing a path out of reflex mode to practices that are the most engaging and productive. If you are interested in increasing the attention, engagement, and productivity of your employees, click on the button below for more details.

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Tags: increasing productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, information overload, employee engagement speakers, employee engagement training, employee engagement programsburnout

Employee Engagement: The Secret of Involvement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee engagement delivers attentive troops

IF THERE'S A SECRET to the universe that's not generally known, it's that the magic in work and life comes, not from being a spectator, but from being a participant. You'd never know it, of course, given how much time we spend staring at digital screens.

The consensus of behavioral scientists is that humans are designed for action. The two key elements for long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. No wonder, the average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, as research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found—especially given what’s on TV, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos. Depression is more than a natural reaction to superb fare like this.

Nobody wants to sit at the office and watch others participate or be a cog in a wheel. Everyone wants to feel like they can use their talents to achieve results, be effective, and have a sense of contribution. We were not born to sit on the bench. Our brain neurons are designed for us to be in the game and contributing. When we participate, we satisfy core psychological needs crucial for gratification. Lack of involvement fuels boredom, cynicism, and learned helplessness. 

INVOLVEMENT INCREASES PROFITS

Management studies testify to the importance of employee involvement. USC’s Edward Lawler studied the performance of a number of large firms and measured them on various financial indicators—from sales and equity to assets and stockholder investment. He found that companies that invested in employee involvement had a return on investment of 19.1%, higher than any other metric. Greater employee involvement also increased job satisfaction and work-life effectiveness.

Lawler wrote that, “Employee Involvement, if well implemented, changes the fundamental relationship between individuals and the organization they work for. It really builds [employees] in as a business partner, so they know more and they do more to make the organization successful, particularly in industries where the human component is important—most knowledge work, high-tech, and many kinds of service industries."

When people participate, they feel a part of the process and team. They feel trusted and valued, which are key to employee engagement, which is another way of saying employee involvement. With a vested interest and more self-initiative, the effort level increases and along with it performance. Data from Gallup, which has been tracking engagement metrics meticulously for a number of years, shows that engagement can result in employees being  28% more productive. 

LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE

Yet few organizations encourage employee involvement or engagement. Lawler estimates that only 12% of employees are highly involved in their work. The command-and-control style of management still predominates when the research shows the opposite, that collaboration, self-responsibility, and self-initiative are much more effective at generating employee engagement.

Over the last two decades scientists have discovered that the most potent motivation is not fear, external payoff, or even bonuses, but something completely different, intrinsic motivation. That comes from within, as does the discretionary effort of engagement. Intrinsic motivation can’t be commanded; it can only be enabled and encouraged through involvement and internal goals such as excellence, service, challenge, learning, or inherent interest.

EFFORT DRIVES SATISFACTION 

Researchers Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they’re doing. When employees feel they have a stake in the process and can make contributions, they are self-motivated, self-managed, self-propelled. That satisfies core needs such as autonomy, feeling that you are not being forced and controlled, and competence, a sense that you can be effective. Satisfaction is not something that comes from doing something easy. It’s the result of effort. Participation sets up a cycle of effort followed by the internal payoff of satisfaction.

How can managers unlock the power of intrinsic motivation and create more employee involvement and engagement? The answer lies in promoting more self-responsibility and self-assessment, including employees in on decisions, and providing feedback that satisfies the competence need. It’s not “great job,” but “I love how you did that project,” which plays to their effectiveness.

Allowing for more choice in how people do their work invites more involvement. We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it can tap the autonomy need as it creates a feeling of competence for doing tasks or projects in a smarter way.

MULTIPLY PROBLEM-SOLVERS

Managers don’t give up final decision-making power. They simply spread the wealth around to bring in contributions across the company that can help create better outcomes. How much better off, nimbler, and quicker, is a company with a highly skilled roster of people at all positions capable of making decisions, instead of having everything left to a handful of overstretched executives?

Every company’s main resource is its people. Unleashing them to participate to the fullest degree is the best long-term strategy for increasing productivity, sales, innovation, and retention. Otherwise, there’s a lot of money and effort left on the table. Gallup estimates American businesses drop $300 billion a year in lost productivity due to unengaged personnel.

If you would like to activate the untapped power of an engaged staff, click the button below for rates and details on our engagement programs. 

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Tags: increase productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, employee productivity, employee involvement, employee engagement training

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