Working Smarter

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

The 6 Skills You Can't Live Without

Posted by Joe Robinson

dance class

Despite all the classes we take, degrees we get, documentaries we watch, many of us never get the word about a remedy as key to health and happiness as watching cholesterol or eating the right food. It's the invisible cure for a host of our problems, from stress to obesity to loneliness: leisure skills.

What's that? Microwave popcorn popping? Isometric finger exercises for the remote? Actually, what we do with our time off-the-clock has a lot to do with our satisfaction with life and work, too, since life is the engine of our energy, creativity, and productivity. Knowing how to participate in engaged recreational activities is also one of the best stress management tools and guarantees that we have work-life balance in our lives.

When we don't have leisure skills, what do we do? Flip on the TV. The average state of someone watching TV, though, is a mild depression, reports Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow and the pioneering authority on optimal experience. Considering what's on the tube -- Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos -- that's no bulletin.

GET ON UP

A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems. A recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that men who spend 23 or more hours a week sitting, watching TV or glued to car seats had a 64% greater chance of fatal heart disease than those who only logged 11 hours or less per week in seated mode.

That could well be a bigger problem, since some 78 percent of Americans over age 30 don't get any exercise, according to Census Bureau statistics and Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland.

The root of the problem? Missing leisure skills, something we don't know we need. The assumption is that leisure is a vegetative condition, and therefore there are no requirements aside from batteries for the remote. But it's actually the exact opposite. As Aristotle saw it, the non-work arena is a realm of engagement, of self-fulfillment and learning. 

In one of the not-so-great ironies of the modern world, we are trained to make a living, but not how to do the living we're making. We wind up without the skills to do what is essential for physical and mental health -- participate in our lives through engaged experiences.

WORLD'S HAPPIEST PLACE

The link between active leisure and health is plenty clear to researchers. Leisure experiences have been found to reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms. They also build self-esteem and confidence and improve mood through increased self-control and social support.

Aerobic exercise and vacations have both been shown to reduce depression. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Iso Ahola.

Passions and the active leisure skills that create them work wonders for your health and outlook because they satisfy core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connection with others. Yet this power of this health resource doesn't filter down to us because we are using the wrong skill-set to access it.

THE LIFE SKILL-SET

You can’t play hopscotch with a flowchart. The work skill-set is the opposite of what’s needed to activate your life. On the work side, the objective is results, output. On the life side, it’s about the experience itself, not where it’s going. On the work side, it’s about control and micromanaging; on the life side, risk-taking. On the work side, it’s about the familiar; on the life side novelty and challenge.

It takes another skill-set to create a fulfilling life outside the professional world. Here are some of the key leisure skills that get your life going:

1. Intrinsic motivation. Pursuing and enjoying experiences off the clock takes a different motivation: intrinsic motivation. You do it for the inherent interest, fun, learning or challenge. Research shows we enjoy what we're doing more when the goal is intrinsic. Expect no payoff, and you get a big one, internal gratification.

2. Initiating. We have to break out of spectator mode and self-determine our lives to feel gratified. We need to research and plan activities, seek out and try new things, invite others to get out and participate -- and if they don't reciprocate, go alone.

3. Risk-taking. The real risk is not risking. Security is a red flag for the brain, which is built to seek out novelty and challenge. Make the risk intrinsic (the result doesn't matter), and you're able to venture much more because, instead of having anything on the line, you're just exploring.

4. Pursuit of competence. Since competence is one of your core needs, it's a handy thing to build and sublime to feel. The idea here is that you want to get better at something -- not to show off, not for anyone else but for your own gratification and mastery need. Pursuing competence leads you to build your skills at an activity to the point where it can become a passion. It's a fabulous happiness-building skill. Having a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week.

5. Attention-directing and absorption. The key to optimal experiences is being 100 percent engaged in what you're doing now. That means losing the electronic devices and distractions and putting all your concentration on the activity at hand. The more absorbed you are, the more your thoughts and deeds are the same, and the happier you are.

6. Going for the experience. Observation and hanging back don't satisfy the engagement mandate of your brain neurons. To activate a fulfilling life, we have to participate in the 40 percent of our potential happiness  we can actually do something about -- intentional activities. That's the realm of experience. Experiences make us happier than material things because they can't be compared with anyone else's experience. They don't lose value through social comparison. They are personal events that engage our self-determination needs.

These skills take us inside the participant dynamic essential to a healthy and extraordinary life. They show us that the good life comes from a place quite a bit different than we thought, and only we can make it happen, nobody else. Life's out there, if you are.

 

Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, life satisfaction, life coach, life skills, happiness speakers, happier life, work to live, work life balance programs, work life balance

5 Ways to Manage Crazy-Busy Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

 Crazy_guy.jpg

Brian, a VP for a large tech firm in San Diego, gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and spends two hours plowing through messages at home before he goes to work. “It just seems futile some days,” he says. “Like I can never dig out.”

It’s a feeling that cuts across many organizations today. I heard a lot of similar stories from executives at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I gave a workshop on how to deal with the central fact of work-life these days: Crazy-Busy Work. The executives I spoke to, from Safeway to Starbucks, were drowning in email, interruptions, and trying to do multiple things simultaneously.

Crazy-Busy Work isn’t just a problem for individuals, it’s a major productivity issue for organizations, since it drives disengagement, burnout, shrinking attention spans, poor decision-making, and creates a style of work based on autopilot reflex, action before thought. When we operate in defensive mode, reacting to the incoming, instead of managing the practices that drive overload, it takes longer to get the work done and we make a lot of mistakes.

DIGGING OUT

The truth is, the way we work isn’t based on what the science says, or anything at all. Most of us are simply reacting to people and devices all day. The number one productivity goal of every organization should be to use the data on what works to help teams dig out from under the siege of devices, interruptions and information overload.

It may seem hopeless, but it’s not. A series of adjustments to work style and how we manage demands, from devices to multitasking and stress, can turn it around, so that we are less crazed and more productive. As the mariners say, we can’t control the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

 

If your organization would like to rein in Crazy-Busy Overload and the reduction in productivity that comes with it, here are five keys to getting it under control:

1. Control Time Urgency.  The unconscious habit of rushing is the “Crazy” in Crazy-Busy. It drives frenzy and false emergency, making your team think every minute of the day is an emergency. It has been shown by researchers to be a heart attack and burnout risk even for people in their thirties. Speed isn't the key factor; velocity is, conscious movement in the right direction.

Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. It’s a speed trap easy to get caught up in, since time panic and the stress it sets off is very contagious. We are hardwired to pick up on the emotions, facial expressions, and tone of voice of others. It’s part of our social bonding equipment, but it’s destructive in this case. We have to opt out of the frenzy, and ask when we’re rushing, is it an emergency or is it a speed trap?

2. Set the Terms of Engagement with Devices. An unbounded approach to devices, allowing messages to avalanche in at any time, is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back. The average corporate user today gets 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages per day.

The solution lies in adjusting how we respond to email. Instead of allowing devices to set the terms of engagement, we have to do it, by checking email at designated times and keeping mail software and noisemakers turned off unless they're in use, and by doing what some leading companies are—mandating less email and more phone messaging. An email etiquette handbook or norm guide is a great way to make sure that humans are setting the terms of engagement.

3. Increase Attention. The chief productivity tool, attention, is under siege these days from interruptions, devices, and multitasking, which researcher David Meyer at the University of Michigan says slows you down. The result is shrinking attention spans that can’t find the space to concentrate. That means it takes longer to get the job done, and there’s more sense of overwhelm as the devices and their “bottom-up” attention make our days feel out of control.

The more you check email, the more you have to check it. Impulse control is eroded by interruptions and the increased stress they trigger (up to 105% more annoyance, a study by Bailey and Konston showed). Strategies to build attention and manage interruptions are essential to keep fractured brains focused on task.

4. Set Boundaries. Technology has blurred perimeters and boundaries and created the illusion that we can do it all because we have our digital friends at our side. The reality is that this is an illusion. Brains go down well before the body does, brain scientists tell me, and take the work down with them.

We are not hard drives with hair, and when we try to be, productivity and health suffers. Harvard researchers Nash and Stevenson say that boundaries are a success tool, something we can all get better at. What boundaries does your team need, and how can they make them more effective? Our productivity program gives you a batch of tools to choose from.

5. Refuel Energy. Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, humans need to be refueled on a regular basis. In fact, the source of productivity in the knowledge economy is who has the freshest brain. When we pay attention to the brain’s natural 90-minute alertness cycle, the need for cells to refuel after activation through oxygen and glucose, and the power of energy-creating breaks during the day, productivity soars.

Your organization can put an end to the siege of Crazy-Busy Work by reining in devices, interruptions, multitasking, and information overload. The research shows that productivity is not a function of how fast you can go or how many things you're doing at one time. It’s about informed performance, thinking before we act, and managing demands, instead of being managed by them. 

If you would like more details and pricing information on our time management and productivity program, "Managing Crazy-Busy Work," click the button below.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, work productivity, multitasking and productivity, employee stress management, crazy busy, increase productivity, work life balance programs, burnout

Guilt and Perfectionism: Opting Out of Burnout for Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

 Driven by guilt to overdo it

As if there aren’t enough stressors in the workday, here’s one more you may not have been aware of that is a very effective driver of pulse rates: guilt. Specifically, work guilt, a condition that drives perfectionism, employee friction, low job satisfaction, and bad work-life balance. It makes people do more than they can do well, put their health at risk, and undermine productivity. 

Unlike engaged employees, who willingly bring extra effort to the job, with vigor, absorption, and dedication, people driven by guilt do the work unwillingly, because they “should,” not because they want to. They bring resignation, resentment, and self-defeating heroics to the task and cause others to do the same, setting off conflicts with colleagues who feel they have to go beyond what’s productive to keep up. These are not hallmarks of engagement, which is characterized by self-driven, self-propelled effort.

Perfectionists spend longer than they have to on a given task, reducing performance, and have a hard time delegating, because no one can do the job as well as them. Not trusting others results in slower turnarounds, more burnout, and resentment.

UNREAL GUILT

Work guilt falls into the category of what psychologists call “unreal” guilt. You haven’t punched anyone in the face or slashed their tires, committing real harm. Like the imagined dreads of a blind date, unreal guilt is an anticipatory anxiety.

“Most of our guilt is a result not of fear but anxiety,” say Lucy Freeman and Herbert Strean in Guilt: Letting Go. “No one menaces your life when you feel anxious. There is only ephemeral danger, one that does not exist in the real world but in your fantasy.”

We wind up at the mercy of unreal guilt because we get it confused with the other brand of guilt, “real” guilt, which forms the basis of the conscience we need to be able to function in society, something selected out by nature to prevent us from making mistakes. Real guilt helps you to be trustworthy and not strangle parking ticket officers.

But unreal guilt is a pretender, passing itself off as bona fide as it inflicts your life with needless and time-consuming agonizing. The guilt feels like it’s coming from your true inner compass, but it’s actually a composite of the nags in your life commanding that you “should” or “should not” do a given thing and that, if you don’t follow the badgering then you’ve committed an infraction.

PRODUCTIVITY IS THE LOSER

Bosses get it as bad as employees. One CEO of a major media firm told me that at the end of the day he’s waiting for his staff to leave so he can leave, and they’re waiting for him to leave, so they can leave. It’s a standoff. And productivity is the loser.

Guilt can drive people to go beyond the usual cues of mental and physical fatigue, increasing stress, myopic decision-making, and heath problems, such as burnout, which is seven times more costly to treat than the average workplace malady.

These are a few of the reasons smart managers have told me they don’t want their talent flaming out from guilt-driven overperformance or driving colleagues bonkers. The most effective approach with staff is to encourage quality and excellence for its own sake, for intrinsic goals, not for the external goal of perfection, which fuels insecurity, dissatisfaction, and low work-life balance survey scores.

THE THOUGHT-AS-DEED WHAMMY

To understand how unreal most guilt is, it helps to know the bizarre way some of these bouts of optional angst come to us. One of the quirks of the way the mind works is that it interprets thoughts or wishes as if they were deeds. As far as your brain is concerned, if you think it, it happened.

This comes from way back on the human tree before the species had rational thought. For the earliest humans, action immediately followed thought. Random thoughts—eat acorn, kill stranger—became instant deeds. Though evolution moved on, one corner of our minds didn’t, leaving us with the thought-equals-action, guilt hangover. We feel as guilty at the wish to do what we shouldn’t than if we actually did the deed.

Most of the guilt we lug around is not based on what we’ve done, but what we wish. We are being manipulated by a mind that thinks it’s the year 150,000 BC. A more up-to-date and engaged employee actually wishes to do the work.

INHERENT INTEREST BEATS PERFECTIONISM

There are two ingredients in getting the guilt down and the quality of engagement up: intrinsic motivation and choice. A study by Harackiewicz and Eliot found that intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they are doing. People whose goals are the inherent interest of the work itself—or excellence, challenge, craft—are absorbed in what they’re doing, like it more, and remember it better, the research shows.

Those who are driven by external approval are in it to please someone else, not to have 100% attention on what it is they’re doing.

The guilt that drives burnout and non-awareness of healthy limits is fueled by decisions made by others. The voice in our head we think is ours telling us we have to keep at something well beyond the point of the task being finished is actually somebody else’s. It’s a byproduct of the “shoulds” that have come our way via parents, bosses, teachers, peers, coaches, and culture over the years.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

 

THE POWER OF CHOICE

When we go along with this pass-along guilt without making a decision of our own, we agree to be manipulated by the guilt-inflictor. The way out of the cycle is to make the decision you want to make. You do it or not because you consciously choose to.

This shift in thinking puts you in control of your decisions. You opt out of the guilt-resentment cycle with choice. 

If a friend invites you to a party, and you don’t want to go but you show up, you’re going to feel resentful being there because it’s something you were commanded that you “should” do. However, if you make the decision, tell yourself out loud I’m going to that party to support my friend even though I would prefer not to, you’re not going to feel resentful. You made the decision.

If you stay home from that party, the “shoulds” will make you guilty as charged. If you say, ‘I’m staying home because I’m exhausted, went to a party of hers recently, or just prefer not to for this reason,' you won’t feel the automatic guilt, and the stress that comes from it.

Choice destroys guilt. It says, “I choose,” instead of “I lose” with the decisions of others. Making sure employees are working for the right reasons is not something a lot of management is concerned with. But they should be, because the difference between engaged and unengaged and/or burned-out staff is at least 28% more effort, according to a Gallup survey. Not getting that kind of effort is something to, well, feel guilty about.

Tags: guilt, work guilt, perfectionism and work, guilt and stress, employee engagement, work life balance programs, burnout, work stress, chronic stress

Work Overload: Speaking Up about Boundaries

Posted by Joe Robinson

Boundaries are key to work-life balance

Alarmed that marathon workweeks were driving out too many talented people, the Boston Consulting Group created a program to head off the problem. Called the Red Zone, it flags employees who log more than 60 hours a week for five weeks, citing their exploits on reports seen by partners and managers. “A hero is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night,” says Kermit King, the firm’s head of recruiting for the Americas.

A Red Zone event triggers a meeting with a Career Development Committee sponsor to find out what’s causing the pattern. The manager reviews the project to see where adjustments can be made to prevent an expensive burnout.

Solutions can range from reprioritizing duties, to adding more resources, to changing the timeline and better time management. The program lays down a marker that pushing to the brink isn’t a smart way to work. The Red Zone has increased the number of consultants who feel their job is manageable and, as a result, boosted the number of people who say they want to stay at the company and improved work-life balance. 

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THE GREAT UNMENTIONABLE

Unfortunately, few organizations are aware of the importance of clear boundaries on their bottom lines or talent. One tech firm bases promotions on how much weekend time you work—while struggling with a growing retention problem.

A Red Zone program could have saved Karen Walker, a marketing exec for a large Silicon Valley firm, from herself. An intense case of workaholism drove her to 90-hour weeks, as well as chronic hives, hair loss, and thyroid medication. “I will work something till I feel it’s worthy of the company’s name,” she told me, a dictum that overtook her health.

A few sensible boundaries can save a lot of turnover and medical bills. There’s a reluctance to go there, though, because a very powerful myth makes us think that success requires going to the absolute breaking point. Yet the research and case studies are unequivocal: success depends on boundaries.

Researchers at Harvard Business School found that the key component for successful business executives that gave them true satisfaction was “the deliberate imposition of limits.”

AVOIDING THE INFINITE MORE

“It allows them to say I don’t need to work away at this particular thing until I’m satiated and hate the very sight of it,” said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, authors of "Just Enough," in the Harvard Business Review. “This is ‘just enough.’ They recognize the importance of setting their own standards for ‘enough.’ And not falling prey to the lure of the infinite ‘more’.”

That’s what Susan, a Denver financial advisor I coached, discovered when she got to the end of her rope with 70-hour weeks. “I was hating work that I love and, by driving myself harder and harder, I had started to hate myself and my life,” she says. “My productivity was at a standstill, and I was always angry at myself for not accomplishing more."

The problem, she came to see, was that she was trying to be the best, an external goal, instead of focusing on doing her best, which is where the more important internal rewards come from. After shifting her outlook and revamping her schedule, she was able to set boundaries and improve her performance at the same time.

When a client recently asked her to do another loan report after she’d just finished one for this customer, she did something she never did. She said No. “I knew I had done enough,” she says. The client was initially unhappy, but called back the next day and apologized for being out of line.

“It feels great to know you can say you’ve done enough,” says Susan.

Research by Stanford Medical School’s Mark Cullen has uncovered something very revealing about the impact of overperformance on job satisfaction. Even if you love your job, if you do too much of it, you’ll hate it. Overly tasked people, says Cullen, don’t like what they’ve done at the end of the day. It turns out that too much work strips all the accomplishment, and fun, from what you’re doing.

THE SUCCESS TOOL

Over the last couple decades we have become more and more hesitant to set boundaries, but that’s no longer tenable in a 24/7 world. It’s time to reclaim boundaries and see them for what they are, the most basic management tool, a key to work-life balance that allows us to work more effectively. They are also an essential stress management tool.

A small but growing number of companies are recognizing that operating without limits is hurting bottom lines and retention. Two maladies associated with long-hours schedules, stress and depression, are five to seven times more costly to treat than other workplace illnesses. 

We all work more productively when we have a chance to think, plan, and organize. We get that from boundaries. A report out of Harvard on speaking up in the workplace called the word No the “voice-oriented improvement system.” Things get better for employee and employer when we find out what's not working and don’t do more than we can do well.

This same report said that people are speaking up at work—they tend to be extroverts—and there is not the negative repercussions to it that are feared. People live to talk about it.

SPEAKING UP AND LIVING TO TELL ABOUT IT

I do an exercise in my workshops where people who set boundaries share with those who don’t what happens when boundaries are verbalized. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes static, but often the boundary sticks and the person is actually respected more for it. They are not sent to the gulag.

Oftentimes, managers don’t know how many things you’re working on. Clarify. with them the tasks you’re doing. Your duties and schedules can help him/her see that it doesn’t make sense to have you do an excessive number of things poorly that don’t reflect the real priorities.

Most people today are in retaliatory mode all day, simply reacting to devices and what comes at them. That drives a lot of action and assignments without thought. You can bring that thinking into the equation by asking questions and offering more productive solutions than the task or the schedule that takes you beyond the capacity of physiology and excellence.

Boundaries give everyone a clear picture of where things stand, which is what you want to be able to do at the end of the day. 

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Tags: overwhelm, work overload, workaholism, setting boundaries at work, overtime costs, work life balance programs, burnout, chronic stress

Work-Life Balance: A Break Dance for Brains and Bodies

Posted by Joe Robinson

Multitasking.jpg

A few people perform fabulously in a trance, like the Whirling Dervishes, the dizzying Turkish dancers who spin themselves into human tops, but for most of us a trance-like, mechanical work style doesn't deliver a transcendent outcome. It produces a a rote commotion and busyness that fuels stress, undercuts productivity, and keeps work-life balance on the sidelines.

Nonstop motion makes everything seem urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. Mindless frenzy is not the same as forward movement and mobility. The default is to acting before we think, kicking decisions down to the rote parts of the brain that don't have our full attention. 

The mechanical momentum, can't-stop-for-a-second approach, plays to the autopilot of stress, which is itself all about reflex action before thought. The more we are driven by default behavior, the less control we have and the more stress. 

With the proliferation of devices and information overload, it’s easy to wind up on mechanical output, devoid of the input needed to tailor the right effort to the job. Just because there’s activity doesn’t mean it’s the right activity. Most of the action in this state is reflexive, coming from a defensive posture. That’s not a prescription for critical thinking. 

In the tunnel vision of reaction, there’s no time or inclination for proactive managing, planning, or even the upkeep of health. We get so far on task that there is little maintenance of the equipment. 

ARE YOU A HARD DRIVE WITH HAIR?

And there needs to be, because our physiology prepared us for hunting and gathering, not for hours on end at workstations. Sitting at a computer monitor for eight to ten hours a day is an act loaded with reasons to take a breather. Repetitive motion injuries—carpal tunnel, back problems, neck problems, stress—thrive on the continuous motion loop. Unlike the computer we're working on, we don't have Pentium procesors.

A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that brief but frequent breaks can reduce the risk of a host of injuries. Four five-minute breaks a day for walking or stretching resulted in less discomfort in the neck, arms, shoulders, and back for study participants. Workers also reported less eyestrain. Short walks at regular intervals buoyed energy and helped people recover from fatigue, which enhanced performance.

Cutting stress and improving work-life balance is a "break" dance, knowing when to step back and energize on a regular basis to charge up full engagement.

Time-outs rejuvenate brains and break up rigid postures. They can help prevent an assortment of back injuries, from bulging discs to lumbar strain. Medical experts advise frequent breaks and exercise to prevent and treat carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful and sometimes disabling inflammatory disorder that affects wrist, hands, and fingers, now an epidemic among office workers.

COMPUTER VISION SYNDROME

Another injury triggered by unbroken sessions at the keyboard is computer vision syndrome, a complex of eye and vision problems caused by staring for hours at computer monitors and screens. The syndrome afflicts 90% of people who use a computer for more than three hours a day, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chances are very good that includes you. 

The problems include eyestrain, dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, change in color perception, excessive fatigue, and double vision. Sitting at the computer for hours can also aggravate existing conditions, such as farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. Scientists have found that we blink less when we’re zoning into the glow, which creates dry-eye problems.

Since humans were designed to spot dinner on a savanna off in the distance, not Internet fine print, the muscles of the eye are in their most relaxed state when looking at faraway objects. The eyes need to stretch, which is why excessive close-up duty can disrupt distance vision. People who have been in a submarine for a while have trouble with distance vision when they emerge from close quarters. Their eyes have adjusted to see only short distances.

Ergonomic experts recommend frequent brief breaks for those with intensive computer usage—30 seconds every 10 minutes, or if you can’t do that, five minutes every hour. One study showed that microbreaks every 15 minutes were very effective in reducing physical discomfort at computer monitors (Balci, Aghazadeh). During the breaks, get up and move around, gaze out the window, do some stretches, walk down the hallway. Once your body starts aching, you concentration has already left.

POPPING BLOOD VESSELS

The traditional approach to fighting mental fatigue has been to press harder and pop those blood vessels to the finish line. But the evidence shows that brains don’t respond well to this approach. On study found that mental fatigue took hold after three hours of continuous attention (Boksem). Mistakes and false alarms increased with time on task, and goal-oriented planning decreased. Other studies show that too much time on task reduces the ability to prepare future actions.

Jim Goodnight, CEO of North Carolina software giant SAS Institute, believes software developers can’t do more than two hours of great work a day. As mental fatigue increases, so do the number of errors.

As logic would have it, the way around the fatigue factor is to step back and recharge the spent mind with a Strategic Pause. Never fear, it’s only a “pause,” not a dereliction of duty. You are coming back to the action, refueled.

Since physical movement drives energy and creativity, it’s important to get away from the desk and out of the office to get the most out of your Strategic Pauses. Take two 10-15 minute pauses in the morning and two in the afternoon. Use the time to make a mental break from the work. Walk a few blocks. Listen to some music you like, plan your weekend. These are energy opportunities to fortify flagging gray matter.

Recharging throughout the day increases vitality and productivity. Studies show that breaks from a few seconds on the assembly line to 15 minutes to vacations increase productivity. Response times go up and fatigue goes down. 

It's easy to get caught up in the action and forget that we're not on a sprint to the death. It's a marathon. We have to allow bodies and brains to refuel regularly to avoid breakdowns and brownouts. 

Tags: increasing productivity, breaks and productivity, carpal tunnel, work stress burnout, work life balance programs, work life balance, burnout, stress management programs

Beat Email Overload with the Email Etiquette Rulebook

Posted by Joe Robinson

Caffeine break to fuel more email triage

There are a lot of reasons why email has overwhelmed capacity to deal with it, but the main one is that it’s easy. It’s easy to click the send button, easy to not get up from your seat, easy to avoid speaking with someone in person about an issue. But that convenience is an illusion, because we don’t see the cumulative blowback. As we discussed in the Working Smarter blog last week, every email results in six emails—three going, three coming back, so we need a few more gallons of caffeine every day to triage through the mess. 

Cutting email tonnage, not only opens up more time to get our work done, it also reduces the damage to the chief productivity tool: attention. Managing email is really about managing the interruptions that fracture attention, as we’re forced to shift from primary task to secondary items, most of the time unrelated to what we’re doing.

The inability to keep attention on a task for longer than a nanosecond, not surprisingly, affects the quality of our work. Distracted minds don’t see the big picture, make decisions too quickly, send curt messages, can’t focus enough to produce innovative solutions, and have little semblance of work-life balance.

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Growing stacks of unread email also fuel overwhelm and a belief that things are out of control. That drives a perception you can’t cope with the avalanche, which sets off the stress response. Taking back control over email shuts down the feeling of chaos and with it, stress that drives poor decisions and health problems. So controlling email is a key stress management strategy.

SET THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

We can get control back by choosing when we interact with email—by setting the terms of engagement with our devices, by checking email manually and turning off all the dingers and noisemakers. That means creating some boundaries—rules in a world where there are none. The way forward is determining limits/norms for information management in every team, department, and organization.

Unlike the telephone, which was adopted over a long enough period that we were able to develop rules for how to use it, e-tools arrived so suddenly and overwhelmingly that they were running the show before anyone knew how to use them effectively. But the good news is that, since there are no rules, they’re up for grabs. That means we can set some.

It’s amazing what can happen with a little law and order. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow did an experiment with a software company whose employees were working nights and weekends to get products completed on time. She instituted a program there called Quiet Time. For four hours a day, two in the morning, two in the late afternoon, there was to be no messaging, so people could concentrate and get their work done. The rest of the day people could revert to messaging as usual. The program resulted in productivity increases of 59% and 65% in the two message-free zones, and jumped 43% even in the period with normal interruptions, because minds were more focused and less harried. The company was able to complete a new product in record time without staff needing to work nights and weekends.

THE SECOND LAW OF EMAIL REDUCTION

Last week's blog introduced the first Law of Email Reduction ("Spay and Neuter to Cut Volume"): Do more in-person messaging. Our second email law is:

Rules for etool use control the abuse of email.

It holds that rules for e-tool use rein in the chaos and reduce the amount of time blown on messaging. It’s not hard to come up with ideas for email rules. We all know the stuff that drives us crazy about email. When I asked what rules they would like to see placed on email usage, managers at a large aviation firm licked their chops and gave me this list, which you may want to take some notes on:

• Deactivate the ‘reply-all’ function

• Develop a weekend code of ethics restricting email to emergencies

• Disable the ghost email alert notification

• Never expect an immediate response from an email

• Pick up the phone and call

• No emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Only send email if there’s an action required

• Don’t send one-line “thank you” and “got it” messages

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF EMAIL MANAGEMENT

No doubt, there are more than a few rules on that list you’d like for your own e-tool handbook. Here’s one of the most important rules that should be a part of any email etiquette book:

Keep email software turned off and check messages manually at set schedules.

There’s no reason to have computers and devices chiming like deranged glockenspiels all day, or blinking those annoying notifications in the corner of your monitor. Turning off message software will shut down the sound and light circus and keep intrusiveness to a minimum. You choose when you’re going to be interrupted, rather than leaving it to anyone with a random thought.

Some 68% of folks keep Outlook or Entourage on autocheck all day, checking continuously. One study (Jackson, 2003) found, that if you keep your system on autocheck every five minutes, you have a potential of 96 interruptions in the course of the day! You can slash that down to 11, if you check mail manually every 45 minutes.

That’s still a lot of checking. You can put a fence around email by restricting yourself to a few retrieval and sending times each day. Manual checking at specific schedules offers the least interruptions and maximum productivity. Try using what researchers have identified as the most optimum email schedules. Holding email to two checks a day results in significantly fewer hours worked daily compared to processing email continuously (Trafton, 2003, Jackson 2003). The most productive schedule is twice or four times a day, according to researchers at Oklahoma State.

When we control the checking, we stop the anarchy. There are a number of other rules that can be easily implemented in any team, department, or organization.

If you would like more rules to help manage email and are interested in an information management workshop at your organization, click the button below for more details. And send me your thoughts on email rules you would like to see.

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There is light at the end of the email in-box.

Tags: email overload, productivity and email, email and stress, email and work-life balance, information management programs, information overload, work life balance programs

Email Overload: How to Cut the Volume Now

Posted by Joe Robinson

Down for the count with email overload

The confessions began to tumble out. One woman at a work-life balance workshop I was leading in New York raised her hand and said sheepishly, “I take my smartphone to bed.” 

“So do I,” chimed in another consultant quickly. “I’ve been sleeping with my phone for years,” offered a third woman.

This is what I call unrequited love. You give your devices undivided love and attention, and what do you get for it? The attention span of a gnat. Constant interruptions. And chronic stress that suppresses your immune system and takes your body down.

No matter what line of work you’re in these days, chances are good there’s only one business you’re really in—the clicking business—checking, sending and receiving piles of email from anyone with a random thought in their heads. How many hours of your day are sucked up by out-of-control messaging?

SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR EMAIL

It’s worth doing the calculating, because your best years are disappearing down the black hole of unbounded email. The average corporate user burns up three-plus hours a day on email, 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages. That adds up to a total of 100 DAYS a year doing nothing but email. That spills over into the nights and early mornings, making any semblance of work-life balance a mirage.

And then there’s the financial cost of email overload—all that lost productivity. Intel estimates that for a company with 50,000 knowledge workers the tab is $1 billion in lost productivity from email overload. Intel, along with Google, Microsoft and Xerox, formed the Information Overload Research Group to fight what they call “email pollution,” a good term for this blight blocking out work and life and cranking up stress.

The approach to email overload so far has been to just react to all the incoming. Get up earlier, stay later. But that’s not viable in a 24/7 world where the avalanche keeps on coming. As any engineer could tell you, we have structural limits.

To cut down on the deluge, you have to make changes that will actually reduce the volume of email. Email is the electronic rabbit, multiplying like oversexed cottontails. Every email has offspring, and they have offspring. A single message creates six messages—three going, three coming back, say researchers. Even at the standard rate of three minutes an email, that’s 18 minutes down the tubes for every email you send. Add it up. We have to spay and neuter our email.

I talked to a VP at a major technology firm in San Diego who gets more than 250 emails a day. He starts at 5 in the morning with two hours of email at home before going to work, then spends several hours more on message duty after he gets into his office. “It just seems like I can never catch up,” he told me, looking completely drained.

The sooner we can see email for the rabbit it is, the quicker we can keep the population down. Email plays on the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, even if it’s just a canned reply-all mail or spam on the other end of the line. We have to understand how we are being played by this dynamic and use but not abuse the technology.

THE MORE YOU CHECK EMAIL, THE MORE YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT

In a study on email addiction, Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter found that technology can be just as addicting as chemical or substance abuse. Have you ever had that feeling that you have to check email though you just checked it five minutes ago? That’s your impulse control out of control, thanks to the interruptions, which erode a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulsivity. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

With friends like yourself around, who needs enemies?

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To actually cut the volume of email, we have to start reducing the tonnage. There are three ways to do that. We’ll cover the first law of email reduction in this blog.

Email Law # 1: Do More In-Person Messages

More phone and face-to-face contact seems like heresy, but the evidence at companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U. S. Cellular, which are mandating less email and more phone and face-to-face messaging, shows that reduced email increases productivity and builds rapport and relationships. Even former email addicts have come around to become true believers and are increasing their productivity through in-person messaging with co-workers.

Email is a handy tool to set up a phone conversation, in which you can handle all the issues in one go, instead of going back and forth in the usual volley of trying to extract the piece of information you need from someone who keeps sending fragments of the answer you’re looking for. You fire off an email to coordinate a time to speak on the phone or meet live. You can mention, if you like, that you’re on an email reduction drive and that this is a way to save both of you multiple emails.

This method combines the best of both worlds, using email for a specific and limited reason, and the phone to nail down all the back and forths that would normally be perpetuated by the email cottontails. You are respecting your colleagues’ time this way, and they will appreciate it.

RISING TO THE IMPORTANCE OF A PHONE MESSAGE

Email has overwhelmed our lives because it’s convenient. We don’t have to physically interrupt someone with a call or pop-in. In the old days, the message had to rise to the importance of a phone call before it entered the universe. It helped to limit messages to the most important ones. There are zero inhibitions to clicking email.

A manager at an aerospace company told me at a work-life workshop I conducted that he’s gotten his email-checking down to twice a day, while colleagues are indulging 20 times that often. He makes it clear that his preferred mode of communication is the phone and that an email needs to be worth sending before clicking. When he volunteered his solution before a group of fellow managers, their jaws hit the floor. He looked calm, unbeleaguered, in control of his destiny. He’d reined in the abuse with boundaries that worked.

If most of your mail is coming from outside your office, add “No Reply Necessary” to the subject line or body of the message to let the other person know they don’t have to get back to you. If the bulk of mail is coming from your team or department, use the 100-Foot Rule. Get up from your desk and deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of your desk, and then expand it to 200 or 500 feet for a little extra exercise.

For every email you don’t send, you save 18 minutes (at the standard rate of three minutes an email). How many messages can you resist sending today and much time can you save?

If you'd like to know more about email management programs that can help your or your organization control information overload, click the button below:

 

Tags: email overload, productivity and email, too much email, information overload, work life balance programs

Work Life Balance Taboo: Speak Up About Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Highly stressed employee

When I lead work-life balance programs for organizations across the country, I invariably meet folks who take me aside to tick off a litany of meds and health conditions — all due to something that is highly preventable: chronic stress.

A manager at an aviation company told me about the heart attack he'd had five months earlier. A woman at a drug company in the prime of her life listed seven meds she was on, for everything from depression to insomnia. I met a woman in her twenties at a government agency who had the ailments of a 70-year-old.

It's tragic, and none of these health issues had to happen if the individuals knew how to manage stress and communicate about it, and if the organizations knew how costly it was to their bottom lines, so it was permissable to resolve it when it popped up. Health costs for employees with high stress are almost 50% higher. Unmanaged stress costs employers $5,000 per employee.

Yet the cost of a stress management or work-life balance program for the whole staff is less than the stress costs for one employee. The hurdle is getting around the taboo about talking about the issue. If the condition were the flu or a knee injury, it could be shouted from the rafters, but stress, which is many times more dangerous than those conditions, feels like a personal failing or a not sufficiently rugged individual. The reality is that the people most susceptible to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, are the hardest workers.

When we don't talk about stress, that actually inflames the catastrophic thoughts behind it because then we think about it and ruminate. Rumination leads to locking in the false beliefs of the stress response. 

The result: lost health, money, productivity, and sometimes lives. More than three-quarters of the 956 million visits to physicians every year are estimated to be the result of stress-related problems. Job-related stress costs American business more than $400 billion a year, according to U. C. Irvine researcher Peter Schnall. Chronic stress kills more people every year than traffic accidents, nicotine, or alcohol yet we hear next to nothing about it —no anti-stress ad campaigns like the anti-smoking spots.

ITS THE REACTION

A massive stress education program could go a long way toward addressing the problem and letting everyone know that we hold the key to creating stress or dumping it. Yes, there are plenty of demands in a warp factor 9 workplace, but it's not the deadline, what a customer says, or the conflict with a colleague that's causing your stress. It's the story you tell yourself about the negative event or the stressor that's causing the stress. We all have the ability to change the stories that create our stress, if we know how the dynamic works.

The problem is a design flaw in our brains that leaves us prone to false emergencies. We were made for life-and-death struggles on African savannas, not overflowing in-boxes or sales quotas. That's especially true for the part of your brain that sets off the stress response, the amygdala, a hub of the emotional brain, the ancient limbic system, which ran operations before we evolved the higher brain organs that can make decisions based on reason and analysis, not raw emotion.

In times of perceived danger the amygdala hijacks the 21st century brain and takes the helm again. This ancient alarm system is as good at measuring threats in the workplace as a yardstick is at calculating the distance to the sun. A hundred and fifty emails a day is a hassle, but it's not life-or-death. But if an overloaded inbox makes you feel you can't cope, off goes the signal that sets off the stress response, which floods your body with hormones that suppress your immune system to help you fight or run ... away from your computer?

CONTROLLING THE STRESS RESPONSE

Researchers have discovered that there are a couple of keys to controlling the stress response (which can be shut off in four minutes, as soon as the brain can see the danger is over): increasing "latitude," the amount of control you have in your work — possible through changes in how you do your tasks — and the story you tell yourself about the problem.

The first story we get when the stress response goes off is supplied by the caveman brain, the amygdala. Since it thinks those 150 emails will overload our coping ability, it interprets the matter as life-and-death, unleashing the stress response and the panicked thoughts that come with it. The initial thoughts of a panicked brain are exaggerated. We get swept away by a surge of emotion from these distortions, buy the false beliefs, and go down the irrational track, causing any number of consequences, all based on a fantasy.

Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis and inhibits things that can reduce the stress, such as relaxation and recreation. Stress shuts off diversions, leaving us to obsess about the perceived emergency. 

We're never taught to speak up about stress, or to contest the distorted beliefs of stress, so the catastrophic stories stick. If we don't dispute them with the 21st century brain, the stress response spirals in intensity, locking in a false crisis mentality. Since the process suppresses the immune system, we become vulnerable to any number of health problems — adrenal dysfunction, back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension.

THE HEALTH THIEF

The biochemical changes increase the bad cholesterol and decrease the good kind. The stress response steals from various body systems to pump more blood to your arms and legs to fight and run. It was intended to last for the minutes or perhaps hours it took to get out of harm's way, not to pump 24/7, day after day, month after month, as it does with modern, chronic stress.

We can exit the stress trap by identifying the triggers, getting it out into the open by speaking about it with a supervisor or family member, by increasing control over the work environment through adjustments that make us less stressed, and by changing the false story of the caveman brain to one based on the facts of the situation.

There are a number of great techniques that reframe the stress story and reduce the anxiety. Some processes, which involve deep breathing and reframing, are good for situational stress. They let you step back when the going gets tense and create counter-stories that can stop the stress spiral in its early stages, before the catastrophic thoughts become entrenched. The stress spiral is weakest at the very beginning of the cycle, so that's when you want to contest it.

It takes time and effort to change reflex behaviors, but we can learn to reframe stressful situations. We can build in the thinking and catch ourselves before we rush headlong down the irrational track. But it all starts with a refusal to take stress and a commitment to speak up, and for organizations, a proactive approach to rooting out this talent and productivity killer.

If you'd like more information on how to keep stress at bay for your company or yourself, click one of the buttons below for information on my stress management and work-life balance programs

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Tags: stress workshop, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs, work stress, chronic stress

How Optimism Boosts Productivity and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mountaintop guy41409253_l

Oscar Wilde once said the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole. 

Seriously, though, there’s a big difference in these two viewpoints, one that can have a huge impact on your work, health, and life. Research shows that optimism can prevent depression, increase social connection, boost performance on the job, increase success, and make you more resilient in the face of setbacks.

That's not bad. Pessimism does have its place, since we don’t want to be Polyannas, but too much negativity can undermine work, friendships, and health. And dwelling on the negative, a specialty of humans, increases stress. The recipe for depression is pessimism meeting failure and then ruminating endlessly about it.

Who would you rather work with or hang out with, someone who lightens up the day and supports you, or someone who habitually complains and blames?

It's no wonder then that a more positive approach fuels more positive results. It energizes, broadens opportunities, uncovers solutions, vastly improves work-life balance, and, best of all, makes you feel a lot better.

THE DARK SIDE

Unfortunately, this common-sense mode is not our natural wont. Humans are born with a default to find the negative. It’s a survival instinct, the reason the species is still around. We survived because of a well-developed impulse to look out for trouble. Today, though, it’s no longer life-or-death every day, so we need to make some adjustments to bring our ancient brains into the modern world. 

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

The good news is that we don't have to be at the mercy of reflex funks and slides after setbacks. We can adjust how we think about what happens to us. It’s a talent that can come in handy, since we have to negotiate a mood roller-coaster every day. We’re up, then down, up, down throughout the day, throughout the week. It’s part of the normal rhythm of emotions.

Negative mood, such as sadness, guilt, and hostility, is highest on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Positive mood rises on Thursday and is at its highest point on Friday and Saturday.  

Then there’s mood variation over the course of the day. Positive affect, the sign of optimism in our demeanor, is lower in the morning and rises to a peak throughout the day, then weakens at night. Mood is better the more energy and alertness we have.

Mood also rises and falls based on our 90-minute alertness cycle, known as the ultradian rhythm. When we’re at the beginning of that cycle, we are in a better mood, feel like initiating things and attack the to-do list. At the end of the period, we feel sluggish, lose focus, and the minds wanders.

THE MOOD DANCE

Most of the mood dance is out of our consciousness. We are tugged this way and that without really steering the course. But we don't have to be bystanders to our minds. We can take charge of the ebb and flow of emotions, because nurturing the positive and warding off the negative can have a big effect on our careers, especially for anyone who is involved in sales, and our lives too.

Researchers have found that positive emotions can dramatically improve the decisions we make, the opportunities we pursue or not, the people we connect with or don’t, the direction of our careers, the sales we're making, the work-life balance we feel we’re achieving, and the level of performance at work.

A study by mathematician Marcial Losada looked at the effect of negative emotions in the work setting. Losada and his team observed behavior in company meetings behind a two-way mirror. He measured positive v. negative statements, self-focused or other-focused, or people who favored inquiry or advocacy.

HIGH PERFORMERS ARE OPTIMISTIC

He found that high-performance teams have a 6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative statements, while low performing teams were under 1 to 1. That gap makes a huge difference to the organization and the individuals in them. The best performers scored high on profitability, customer satisfaction ratings, and evaluations by others.

High performance teams were more flexible, resilient, and not stuck in self-absorbed defensive behavior. High performance teams asked questions as much as they defended views and had attention outward as much as inward. Low performance teams had lower connectivity, asked no questions, and had almost no outward focus.

Negative teams got stuck in negative, self-absorbed advocacy. Negativity causes teams to lose good cheer, flexibility, and the ability to ask questions. Each person defended their views and became critical of all else.

We get very rigid when we’re in a negative or pessimistic state. Negativity constricts thinking, puts us in a defensive crouch, and prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

Positive emotions broaden and build. Negative emotions hold you back. Positive emotions make you more curious. You explore more, take more initiative. You’re looking outward, open to connection and trying new things and interacting with others. Negativity constrains your experience. A negative frame of mind puts you in “leave me alone” mode, bunker mode. You’re on alert. 

Negative emotions change the way you feel about the world, interact with others. They reduce your possibilities and undermine esteem. They also affect your relationships in a big way. When you’re irritated and grumpy, you get less interest in your ideas, cooperation, and support.

THE 3-TO-1 RATIO

The negative side is much more powerful than the positive, so we have to be proactive about bringing the positive forward. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has found that we need three positive to one negative event to stay in the positive camp and flourish. Only one in five people meet the 3 tio 1 ratio. In relationships it's five-to-one positive to negative.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous or jump into something new.

How can we shift our moods so that we can limit the negative sway over our thoughts and emotions? We can do it by:

1) reducing the negativity in our lives

2) changing the way we react to events

3) having more positive experiences

4) choosing intrinsic goals that bring the most satisfaction

Reducing negativity is the fastest way to increase your positivity ratio. Some negativity keeps us grounded, but we don’t want it locking us into incessant cogitating over problems. As Mark Twain once put it, “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles...by the ears, by the heels, or any way you can manage it.” 

Negative emotions tend to overwhelm the rational brain with raw emotional power. The tendency is to ride the emotional wave without questioning whether the belief driving the negativity is valid. Stress sets off false beliefs constantly that appear to be a threat but aren’t.

AVOID RUMINATION

We have to learn how to dispute negativity and stress and not reflexively buy in on autopilot. When negative thoughts pop up, dispute them like a good lawyer would. Are they based on anything valid, or it just "awfulizing"? Is the thought useful? Accurate? Round up the facts and put them to the test.

When you fail to dispute negative thinking, the false beliefs become entrenched and can lead to days or weeks of ruminating over a setback or comment. Rumination is dangerous. You go over and over the same story, locking in a false belief as well as negativity, which then dredges up other negative thoughts.

You can exit the rumination track by avoiding replay mode and letting go of the thought loop.

DISTRACT YOURSELF. Find healthy distractions—the gym, meditation, music—that force you to focus on something else. 

MINDFULNESS. Learn to accept a thought as just a thought. You observe without judgment and refuse to grab the thought just because it’s in your head. Thoughts aren't real. Only experience is real.

REFRAME PROBLEMS. Reappraisal is the secret of people who can keep setbacks from turning into prolonged blues. The choice is yours: half-full or half-empty.

Increasing the positive in your day doesn’t happen on its own. You have to consciously deflect the negative, let it go, and do positive things, from hobbies to exercise, recreation, listening to or playing music, and reaching out to others.

We may not be in charge of much in an unpredictable world, but we can control our minds and how we think about what happens to us. And that controls everything.

If you are interested in bringing the power and science of optimism and the high performance that comes with it to your organization, please click the button below for details on my work-life balance trainings and keynotes.

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Tags: optimism and productivity, optimism and work, work life balance programs, work life balance, positive emotions and productivity, stress management, reducing stress, stress management programs

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