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    Entries in workplace (108)

    Tuesday
    May222018

    Learn a new word: Introvert Hangover

    I've had two solid weeks of business travel, events, a ton of meetings, interviews, podcasts, some personal travel and more and by the end of that run, last Friday or so, I was feeling really burned out. Not exactly 'tired' even though I was definitely tired, but more like I just needed a break from people - interacting with them, being in a crowd, making small talk at dinner, even dealing with the hundreds of emails that have piled up, a fair number of text messages and looking a backlog of Twitter mentions and messages. I just needed some time to step back from what seemed to be just a relentless, suffocating sense or feeling that 'someone wants your attention' that has not let up in some time.

    And while I have, from time to time, had a similar feeling after a spate of travel, events, and meetings, I had never known that for folks like me this feeling of being burned out and needing a break from people, from social settings, even from electronic communications actually has been given a term - an Introvert Hangover.

    From a piece over the weekend on Business Insider explaining the phenomenon:

    If you identify as more of an introvert than an extrovert, you'll know that means you are more energised by spending time on your own, or in very small intimate groups of people you trust. It doesn't mean you are a hermit or dislike social situations — you just often need time to recharge alone after them.

    This time to regroup is sometimes called an "introvert hangover" because after a lot of social stimulation, whether that's in a small group or a noisy overstimulated context, an introvert's nervous system gets overwhelmed.

    Essentially, an introvert brain functions differently than an extrovert brain. An extrovert has a very high threshold for dopamine, so they require constant stimulation. An introvert has a very low threshold, so they reach their limit much sooner.

    Also, while an extrovert can approach an event objectively, an introvert has a lot more going on internally. For example, they notice all sorts of details, are self-conscious about themselves and the mistakes they are making, and draw a lot from their long-term memory bank when speaking. All of this is emotionally exhausting, so it's no surprise they need to take some time to regroup afterwards.

    But an introvert hangover isn't exactly a bad thing. For most, it means curling up with a book or a film, or doing a relaxing hobby like drawing

    I know that this idea, this concept of an Introvert Hangover could sound kind of silly to some folks, I would argue that those folks are either extroverts, or are introverts that have managed to architect their lives so that they don't often run into extended periods of over stimulation, or near constant contact with other people and social settings. After thinking about how I felt this past weekend, and other times in the past where I have had long runs of 'public' activities, I kind of think this Hangover idea is a real thing. It's definitely not the same as being just tired. It's more, 'I need some time to take care of my own stuff, I need to not have to talk to anyone for a little bit, and I need to re-charge, not just physically, but emotionally too.'

    Why bring this up?

    Well, besides being a really apt and accurate description of what i was going through, it also serves as a great reminder to be aware and empathetic of other people at work, in our personal lives, even family members that also need a 'break' from people from time to time.

    It doesn't make them bad people, it doesn't even make them anti-social or unfriendly, it doesn't mean they don't care - it just means that for their own mental health they need to step back from time to time.

    So if you have one of these people in your life, try to understand that sometimes an unreturned text message or an email or phone call that isn't responded to right away isn't some kind of personal insult. It could be that they just need a little time-out, a little re-set, and the chance to get prepared to get back out there again.

    That's it - have a great day!

    Tuesday
    May012018

    Emotional surveillance - coming to a workplace near you?

    I am going to submit today's dispatch from the HR Happy Hour Home Office without much commentary, as like many tech-driven developments we hear about, this one is probably too extreme to have much of an effect in the US or any of the other places where readers of this blog reside, (Hi Canada!).

    From one of my favorite sources on all things going on in business in China, the South China Morning Post, here is a little bit of a piece titled 'Forget the Facebook leak: China is mining data directly from worker's brains on an industrial scale':

    Workers outfitted in uniforms staff lines producing sophisticated equipment for telecommunication and other industrial sectors.

    But there’s one big difference – the workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves, data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company.

    The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

    Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

    Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

    The technology is in widespread use around the world but China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry and to maintain social stability.

    Wow, pretty wild, fairly extreme - even by the looser standards for what is ok and not ok in the workplace that still prevail in most of China.

    But here's the interesting thing, we all have already come to accept certain kinds of monitoring in the workplace. We make hourly workers punch in and punch out every day, (and remind them to be sure to punch out before taking lunch). All kinds of call center representatives have their calls and interactions with customers reviewed and even listened to in real time by supervisors. Warehouse workers are often subjected to really close and detailed kinds of monitoring - how fast they find items for an order, how many errors they make per shift, and how closely they achieve "goal" performance each week.

    Ever white collar jobs are subject at times to really close monitoring and supervision. Most lawyers and consultants are still billing by the hour, so they must keep and have reviewed detailed time and activity logs. Many organizations require receipts for every dollar spent on employee travel in order for the employee to get reimbursed. Are you sure you had that Dunkin' coffee for $2.65? Even the rise and increasing popularity of workplace chat apps like Slack have created more environments where your 'status', i.e. are you currently working, is visible to everyone and monitored by most.

    The point being that sure, this idea of monitoring employee brainwaves in real time, or as one Chinese official described it, conducting 'emotional surveillance' seems ludicrous, it can also be seen as just the next, tech-enabled step on a path that lots of organizations are already walking. And the deployment of these kinds of technologies for workers in dangerous, important roles like airline pilot or high-speed train operator could offer another level of safety for the public - a pilot judged to be in an emotional state prior to takeoff could be pulled from the flight as a precaution.

    I don't have a great, insightful conclusion to this story at the moment only to say that while it is inevitable that technologies will continue to advance, and offer better, more, and more personal information about workers, it is (hopefully), going to be the role of smart HR people to help guide organizations as to the best, fairest, and 'right' use of these kinds of tool. The pilot on the above flight is not just a pattern of brainwaves after all. He/she is an actual human.

    Have a great day!

    Friday
    Apr272018

    In praise of the ordinary job ad

    We are probably all a little tired of or at least raise a cynical eyebrow when we see yet another job posting advertising an amazing work culture, fast-paced environment, incredible colleagues, and off the charts compensation and perks. We all know that every job ad is a kind of marketing message, so a little bit of hype and exaggeration is kind of a given and kind of expected and accepted. But at the same time most all of us with even just a little bit of work experience know that not every workplace can be a Top/Great/Awesome/Admired place to work, not every job is actually a great opportunity, and not every workplace is blessed with a great, supportive culture.

    Sometimes a job is just a job. And there is nothing wrong with that. Beats watching Cable news all day.

    And in the spirit of the acknowledgement that sometimes a job is just a job, even one that seems as cool an opportunity as being a teacher in a university, I want to share this story, seen on the excellent Sixth Tone site, of how one average university in China has decided to advertise on very average job opportunity.

    From the piece on Sixth Tone:

    A recruitment notice from a university in southwestern China impressed readers with its bluntness on Tuesday, and has been shared on social media as “the most honest job ad.”

    The ad from Xingyi Normal University for Nationalities in Guizhou province seeks teaching staff who hold doctoral degrees in languages and linguistics. It begins by introducing the college as a “very, very ordinary” institution that is not part of any prestigious national tertiary education leagues and describes the salary and conditions as simply “standard.”

    The perk, however, is that the role is fairly undemanding. “There’s not too much pressure and no research obligations; it’s entirely up to you whether you want to apply for projects or publish articles — if you just want to teach classes, that’s fine,” the advertisement says, adding: “The students here are comparatively unsophisticated … don’t teach anything too esoteric that they might not be able to absorb.” The post also includes some attractive features about the city of Xinyi — such as the low price of beef - 35 yuan a pound cheaper than in other cities.

    I have to admit I love this ad for its bluntness and self-awareness.

    An 'ordinary' institution offering a 'standard' job with 'average' compensation, but having the benefit of being 'undemanding' and serving 'unsophisticated' customers/students.

    While on the one hand you would think a job ad of this type would only attract 'B' or 'C' type candidates, (and you could also argue that any 'A' player or top talent would not be happy in a role like this), the University has actually reported that the responses so far to this honest, ordinary ad have been really positive.

    According to reports, the Dean of the University had received many inquiries, including ones from graduates of some of China's top schools.

    So maybe this honest job ad, seeking candidates for an average job at a standard rate of pay where the successful candidate won't have to work too hard might just achieve for the University just exactly what any job ad is meant to do. Attract not necessarily the 'best' candidates, but rather the 'right' ones.

    Do your job ads manage to accomplish that?

    Have a great weekend! 

    Wednesday
    Apr252018

    The downside of performance transparency

    Openness, transparency, shared and socialized goals - and progress towards attainment of those goals are all generally seen as positive influences on workplaces, organizational culture, and individual performance. We seem to value and appreciate a better understanding of what other folks are working on, how our own projects fit in with the overall organization, and probably more than anything else - we like the idea that performance management, ratings, promotions, and compensation are, above all else, "fair". And when we have that better sense of what people are working on, how much progress is being made, who in the organization is succeeding, (and when we believe the metrics that define success are also clear and visible), it seems logical that it will translate to increased engagement, productivity, and overall positive feelings about work and the organization.

    But, (and you knew there had to be a but), sometimes, openness, transparency, and increased visibility to employee performance and the ability to compare employee performance can drive undesired and even detrimental employee behaviors. And a combination of performance visibility along with the wrong or even misguided employee goals can lead to some really unfortunate outcomes.

    Example: What happened when surgeons in the UK began to me measured primarily on patient mortality and these measurements were made much more visible. 

    From a 2016 piece in the UK Telegraph:

    At least one in three heart surgeons has refused to treat critically ill patients because they are worried it will affect their mortality ratings if things go wrong.

    Patients have been able to see league tables showing how well surgeons perform since 2014.

    But consultant cardiac surgeon Samer Nashef warned that increased transparency had led to doctors gaming the system to avoid poor scores.

    Just under one third of the 115 specialists who responded to Nashef's survey said they had recommended a different treatment path to avoid adding another death to their score. And 84 percent said they were aware of other surgeons doing the same.

    So to re-set - UK surgeons were measured on surgical patient mortality outcomes. These outcomes were highly visible in the industry and by the public. And, as humans always seem to learn really quickly, surgeons began to 'game' the system by increasingly avoiding riskier surgeries for the sickest, neediest patients so as not to negatively impact their own ratings. So the sickest patients, with the most difficult cases found it harder to get the treatment they almost certainly needed. And the best, most talented surgeons, who should have taken up these complex cases, learned to avoid them, or pass them off to other, less talented doctors.

    So the combination of the wrong, or at least imperfect performance metric, (surgical mortality), with the desire (however well-intentioned) to make doctor performance against this imperfect metric more transparent and visible serve to incent the wrong behaviors in doctors, and reduce the overall quality of care to patients - particularly the ones who were in the most dire circumstances.

    The lessons or takeaways from this story?

    Be really careful when making employee performance measurements open and transparent across the organization and beyond.

    Be even more careful if you decide to focus on a single performance metric, that the metric is actually one that is meaningful and relevant to your organization's customers (and isn't one that can be gamed).

    And finally, before you do either of the first two things, you spend some quality time with your organization's best performers to figure out what it is they focus on, how they measure themselves, and how they make sure they are providing the best service possible.

    Chances are, in the UK surgeon case, none of the best surgeons would have said they became great surgeons by avoiding the most difficult cases.

    That's it, I am out - have a great day.

    Monday
    Apr232018

    Best practices are not always what they seem: Amazon meeting edition

    If Amazon isn't the world's most closely watched mega-organization, (due to all their data security drama, I think Facebook might tip them here), it is certainly in the top three or four. From their massive growth, increasing market share and market cap, dominance over such differing businesses as retail e-commerce and enterprise cloud computing, their massive lead in voice assistant technology - every day Amazon provides something about which to opine on for bloggers and podcasters and reporters.

    And I didn't even mention their incredibly covered and public search for their new headquarters location, HQ2, and their founder Jeff Bezos' side projects like reusable rocket ships, drone-based delivery, and even the Washington Post.

    So with any giant, powerful, and influential organization like Amazon, HR and workplace types like me, also like to look at the principles, culture, and approaches to human capital management and even the day-to-day practices of companies like Amazon, to see if there is some kind of 'secret sauce' that can be understood and perhaps even copied. Since Amazon is so successful, they must be doing something right, in terms of how work is organized, how people are managed, and how their culture translates into innovation and productivity. This kind of examination isn't new to Amazon of course. Companies like Google, Netflix, even Jack Welch's GE back in the day have all been scrutinized and dissected by outsiders in order to try and cherry pick HCM programs and strategies to be used in other firms.

    But I think the problem with this kind of approach, the modern spin on the 'best practices' method of improving workplaces and business outcomes is that outsiders often miss the real purpose, goals, and intent of another organization's strategies and practices. After all, the nature of being on the outside suggests that we can't really know everything about how an another organization operates, and how their internal programs support their culture and business strategies. We can guess, sometimes make an educated guess, but usually we can't know for sure.

    Which brings us back to our pals at Amazon, and one of their peculiar and unique workplace practices that has been reported before, and made the rounds again last week as a result of some comments Jeff Bezos made in an interview.

    Amazon, it seems, starts internal meetings with everyone in the group reading a 6-page memo about the subject of the meeting that has been prepared in advance, and sets the tone for the impending discussion. Here is some of what Bezos had to say about this practice, taken from a piece on Business Insider:

    "For every meeting, someone from the meeting has prepared a six-page, narratively structured memo that has real sentences and topic sentences and verbs. It's not just bullet points. It's supposed to create the context for the discussion we're about to have."

    Everyone then sits and reads the memo silently, which often takes a good half-hour. And then they discuss the memo.

    Think about that for a second - first, when was the last time you sat down and wrote 6 pages worth of anything? That is a lot of words. A standard memo, using a normal font size, margins, and spacing will run about 500 words per page. So 6 pages gives you about 3,000 words give or take. Trust me, as a blogger who has written probably too many words over the last decade, crafting 3,000 words is not easy.

    And Amazon seems to understand that too. According to Bezos, "A great memo probably should take a week or more to write". Think about that - a week for someone to prep for a meeting. When was the last time you spent more than 15 minutes prior to a meeting going back through an email chain or searching for some PowerPoint presentation on the file server to make sure you knew what the meeting was really about and you were prepped.

    But the reason I was interested in this approach to meetings was not just because it (seems) to be an interesting and novel way to make sure that everyone in the meeting is prepared to have a productive discussion, each armed with at least a common, baseline understanding of the subject. It is also interesting to me because their is, I think, another, more subtle takeaway from reviewing this 'best' practice.

    And it is this:

    Amazon is not successful because they hold better meetings, my guess is that they are successful because they likely hold fewer meetings than other comparable organizations. When the barrier to having a meeting, a week of effort to craft a 3,000 memo, is high enough, then I suspect that Amazon finds better, and more productive ways to avoid meetings in the first place. Maybe it is a phone call to the right person. Maybe it is more clear lines of accountability and decision making. Or maybe it is just, 'Gosh, who wants to spend a week writing about this before we can decide, let's just decide and move on.'

    My takeaway from this 'best practice' isn't 'Let's have better meetings.' It's 'Let's have fewer meeetings.'

    And while the 6-page memo idea probably wouldn't fly in most workplaces, having fewer meetings overall is probably something just about everyone would embrace.

    Have a great day!

    Note - this post is about 885 words by the way.