May 2021 – On what it takes for people to perform, invisible transitions, hiring well, and toxic workers

In a recent survey of 14,500 U.S. workers, employees report working to their full potential when:

  • They are clear about what they are expected to do.
  • They are willing to ask questions and feel safe doing so.
  • They are not overwhelmed with rules about how the work has to be done or with unproductive meetings.
  • Their organization supports creative problem solving (e.g., implementing employee suggestions for improvements) and provides rewards and recognition for jobs well done.
  • Supervisors notice and acknowledge employee feelings, understand how their decisions will impact employees, and help them manage their emotions.
  • They see purpose and meaning in their work and are committed to their organization. (HBR)

Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe

A high-octane post from Graham Duncan on hiring. Two samples:

The more I’ve done it, the more I realize that what most people think of as the hard parts of hiring—asking just the right question that catches the candidate off guard, defining the role correctly, assessing the person’s skills—are less important than a more basic task: how do you see someone, including yourself, clearly?

Seeing people clearly—or at least more clearly—matters not just when finding the “best” hire, but in identifying the best role for them.

Hiring can be an art form. When you see people clearly, you see the transcript of their conversation with reality up until that moment of your meeting, and you glimpse the horizon that stretches out ahead of them. And then sometimes you can help them overhear themselves and overhear what the world wants from them, whether or not that includes working in the role that you had initially imagined for them.

There are three parts to expanding your ability to see people more clearly: seeing your own reflection in the window, seeing the elephants in the room, and seeing the water.

Well worth reading… and pondering.

Some transitions are invisible

This is an important distinction that is too often overlooked. Any discussion about change should include this and all one-on-one performance conversations should address it.

Leadership transitions are either formal, with a change in job title and sphere of authority, or informal. Examples of formal leadership transitions include vertical transitions (promotions to a higher rank), lateral transitions (moving to a different part of the business), and geographic transitions (moving to a different country or market).

But managers often go through invisible leadership transitions, with additions to the nature or scope of their leadership roles without any changes in their official positions. This has been especially true during the COVID-19 crisis, with organizations under immense pressure to launch new business models and leaders taking on new tasks and obligations.

Job transitions have skyrocketed, and, for many, substantial role changes have taken place without changes in their job’s title, description, or authority. Transitions have become increasingly informal and invisible. (MIT)

If “less is more”, why do we overdo so much?

Leidy Klotz from his book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less:

In one study, recently published in Nature, we challenged participants to modify a sandwich-like structure made from Legos so that it was strong enough and high enough to hold a masonry brick above the head of a stormtrooper figurine. Each participant received a structure consisting of parallel horizontal Lego panels connected by a vertical column that narrowed to only one block wide where it connected to the top panel. We asked participants to: “Improve this project so that it can hold a brick above the storm trooper’s head without collapsing.”

And we offered an incentive: “You will earn one dollar if you successfully complete this task. Each piece you add costs ten cents.”

The best solution is to remove the single block forming the thin part of the column. The top panel can then be attached to the larger section of the column, which stabilizes the structure and still leaves enough clearance to avoid the storm trooper getting squashed by the masonry brick.

Subtracting one block was the fastest way to solve the problem. Plus, only subtracting allowed participants to earn the full dollar. And yet participants were still more likely to add than subtract. This was evidence that people add to their detriment—at least when trying to modify a Lego structure so that it can hold a brick safely above the head of a stormtrooper.

To try to override the greater accessibility of adding, we also gave some participants subtle reminders, or cues, that subtraction was an option. If those who received the cue subtracted more often, then that would indicate that those who didn’t receive the cue were overlooking subtraction.

The experimenter said to all participants, “You will earn one dollar if you successfully complete this task. Each piece that you add costs ten cents.” Participants randomly assigned to the cue condition heard one more instruction from the experimenter: “but removing pieces is free and costs nothing.”

In the no-cue group, 41 percent subtracted a block. In the cue group, 61 percent subtracted. Those who were cued took home an average of eighty-eight cents, 10 percent more than those who didn’t get the cue.

The simple and subtle eight-word cue showed people a profitable solution that they had otherwise been missing. It sure seemed like people who didn’t receive the cue were missing the subtractive option not by choice but because they couldn’t see it.

Speaking of subtracting… toxic workers

While there has been a strong focus in past research on discovering and developing top performers in the workplace, less attention has been paid to the question of how to manage those workers on the opposite side of the spectrum: those who are harmful to organizational performance. In extreme cases, aside from hurting performance, such workers can generate enormous regulatory and legal fees and liabilities for the firm.

A top 1 percent worker might return $5,303 in cost savings to a company through increased output, but avoiding a toxic hire will net an estimated $12,489. And that figure does not include savings from sidestepping litigation, regulatory penalties, or decreased productivity as a result of low morale.

The conclusion of this study of over 50,000 workers across 11 different firms:

Avoiding a toxic worker (or converting [them] to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker.

Why it pays to notice emotions in the workplace

Emotional acknowledgment is the simple act of noticing a nonverbal emotional cue — like a frown or grin — and mentioning it. This mention can be a question or a statement such as “You look upset,” or “You seem excited.” (…) this small act can have a powerful effect because it is read as a sign of genuine intentions.

In a work environment, a supervisor who shows concern for others’ emotional state is signaling a willingness to get involved in a potentially messy situation. “A leader could very easily see someone in distress and choose to ignore it,” Yu says. “But only a leader who truly is benevolent and cares about employees would risk getting involved by voluntarily acknowledging the distressed employee. Thus, employees might take this as a signal that this leader is someone who can be trusted with their well-being.”

In research across six studies, (…) participants reported higher levels of trust in people who engaged in emotional acknowledgment than those who did not.

This result aligned with the theory

Asking someone who seems unhappy about their emotional state engenders higher levels of trust because it is riskier and involves a greater investment of attention, time, and effort than asking someone who seems happy.

There was, in addition, an unexpected finding:

Acknowledging an employee’s emotional state is more powerful than only acknowledging the situation that produced the emotions. “It turns out that saying something like, ‘You looked upset after that meeting. How are you feeling about it?’ lands better than saying something like, ‘It looked like the meeting went poorly. How are you thinking about it?’ Yu explains.

“People trust the person who acknowledges the emotion directly more than the person who acknowledges the situation. There’s just something special and unique about emotions — they are really core to a person’s inner experience and sense of self. So when we acknowledge emotions, we humanize and validate the person being acknowledged.”

And another unexpected finding: you don’t even have to get it right

The trust-building effect of emotional acknowledgment is not always dependent on correctly interpreting emotions, particularly when positive feelings are misread.

But emotional support is not part of my formal job expectations as a manager!

If leaders want to signal care and build trust, they need to meet people where they are. The worst thing leaders can do when employees are feeling badly is to do nothing. Our research suggests one way to do that is by proactively engaging in emotional acknowledgment because it grants employees the space and license to share their emotions.

Thanks for reading!

Please share your thoughts by hitting Reply. I always appreciate reading your take on the items that I post as well as on the Book Updates.

I added the subtitle quote (“Success without community is absolutely meaningless”) at the last minute after seeing Jeremy Lin’s Class Day address. The end of that quote is “Getting somewhere without being able to bring someone up with you isn’t worth it.” Lin also said, as students get bombarded after graduation with questions asking what they’re going to do next,

The better question to ask yourself is, ‘Who are you going to be? Why do you do what you do? And who are you going to bring up with you along the way?’

I think the quote and the questions are excellent prompts for the thoughtful and discerning professional.

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