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Updated: 1 hour 21 min ago

A Game Plan for That Conversation You’ve Been Putting Off

April 12, 2017 - 11:00am

Have you been putting off an important-but-difficult conversation? Perhaps you just can’t bring yourself to share some negative feedback with a peer. Or maybe you are hesitant to admit to something you did wrong. Either way, your dread is probably growing over time as you imagine worse and worse scenarios for how the conversation will play out. Carrying an issue without resolution is like carrying debt. You’ll eventually have to pay the principal (by having the difficult conversation), but the longer you wait, the more interest you’ll pay in anxiety and dread.

If the idea of having to pay anxiety interest isn’t enough, consider the other reasons to have the difficult conversation sooner rather than later. First, the longer you put off the conversation, the more obscured the facts will become. Without objective examples, the conversation is more likely to stray into emotional and judgmental territory. That will make it more excruciating than if you can stick to the facts.

Also, as you get further out from the events in question, the conversation will get more awkward. Feedback delivered well after the fact is likely to yield a response of “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Similarly, if you put off admitting guilt, your failure to come clean quickly might allow things to get further off track and create a bigger hole to dig out of. Delaying might also look like you were covering something up. In any case, waiting to share a difficult message can erode trust in a relationship, whereas sharing a difficult message before it snowballs can enhance trust.

You and Your Team Series Difficult Conversations

One caveat: Although there are many good reasons to get a difficult conversation over with, there are a few situations where it might be best to wait. If the topic of conversation is an emotional one, it’s best to take some time to calm down and think through what you want to say. If you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to stall progress, wait until the immediate situation has passed, and then raise the issue with an explanation of your timing. For example, if you’re racing to meet a deadline, it might not be the time to give your colleague feedback that they are alienating everyone by being too direct. That feedback could wait until the urgent task is done, to avoid causing a blowup that takes everyone off track. But the deferral should be deliberate and temporary. In the majority of situations, you should have the difficult conversation as quickly as possible.

Before diving into your conversation, do a little soul-searching about what’s behind your procrastination. Often, you put off delivering a difficult message because you’re worried about embarrassing the other person or hurting their feelings. Here’s an example I like to use to demonstrate why that’s the wrong approach: If you see someone with spinach in their teeth and you refrain from saying something because you don’t want to embarrass them, you’ve set them up for more embarrassment as they go about their business. The kind thing to do is to casually point out the food lodged in their teeth. The same thing is true if your teammate is giving long-winded presentations, being too abrupt with others, or taking credit for someone else’s ideas. Not saying something allows the person to carry on damaging their brand, and possibly the team’s.

When you need to say something that will be uncomfortable for the receiver, focus your energy on delivering the message in the kindest way possible. If you demonstrate positive intent, deliver your message delicately, and leave room to hear the other person’s point of view, you’ll find that the conversation is less uncomfortable than you expected. Remember that withholding feedback that could help a coworker improve isn’t nice — it’s neglectful.

Another reason you might be avoiding the conversation is that you’re afraid of triggering an unpleasant defensive response. Fair enough. You can mitigate that risk by taking the time to plan what you want to say. Write down exactly how you would broach the subject, and then share your thoughts with someone you trust. As you reflect on your message, find ways to make it as objective as possible, so that you’ll be less likely to trigger defensiveness. Remove judgment-laden terms and stick to the facts. Replace “You were highly disrespectful of me in that meeting” with “You spoke over me on three occasions.” The more verifiable your position is, the more confident you can be that the conversation will stay professional.

Once you’re clear on your message, it might be worth giving the person a heads-up about what you’re planning to talk about. In my experience, people don’t like to be blindsided by difficult conversations. Send a brief message a couple of hours before you plan on raising the subject. You can say something as simple as, “I want to talk with you about your presentation on Tuesday.” Leave enough time for the person to collect their thoughts, but not so much that the person will catastrophize about what is to come. Removing the shock factor will reduce the chance of the conversation getting overheated.

It’s also important to boost your confidence by choosing a good spot for your difficult conversation. Although privacy might be your primary concern, there might be other considerations. If you’re worried about the person responding angrily, choose a meeting room with glass windows, so that you both will be visible to others. If you’re worried that one or both of you might become emotional, choose a location close to the restroom, so you can retreat and collect yourselves before returning to your desks. The same holds true for the timing of your message: When does it make the most sense to have the conversation?

When you get to the moment of truth, be as authentic as possible about your discomfort — your body language will tell the whole story anyway. You can say, “I should have shared this with you earlier, but I couldn’t find a way to say it without becoming upset.” You can also frame the conversation by saying, “I value you so much as a colleague and a friend, so I wanted to take the time to say this right.”

It’s possible that the difficult conversation will trigger an emotional reaction. That’s OK. If it happens, stay calm and take your cues from the other person. If your colleague starts to cry, offer a tissue and ask if it’s OK for you to continue. If the person gets angry, stay composed. As long as you don’t overreact, most people will prefer to carry on and get the uncomfortable conversation over with. In general, I don’t recommend that you call attention to the emotion directly. Instead, talk about the importance of the issue: “I know you care a lot about how the team perceives you. That’s why I wanted to tell you this.” If you let emotions derail the conversation, you’ll have to revisit it later, or live with an awkward silence as you try to pretend the conversation never happened. That just prolongs the agony you were trying to end.

Finally, the worst thing you can do after delivering an uncomfortable message is to end the conversation too quickly. If you leave while things are still fully charged, the dread will transfer to the next interaction. Let the conversation continue for a little while, until you’ve returned to a normal tenor.

Life is full of difficult conversations, particularly if you’re invested in having a great team at work. Postponing a difficult conversation only makes it worse. Get your head around what you need to say, be deliberate about when and where to have the conversation, and then keep calm and carry on. You’ll feel better once it’s over.

How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It

April 12, 2017 - 10:00am

The annual performance review already has many strikes against it. Harried managers end up recalling high and low points on the fly; employees often get unclear direction.

Here’s another flaw: Women are shortchanged by these reviews. In my forthcoming book on gender bias in the workplace, cowritten with journalist Kim Kleman, we present scores of successful interventions I have used in large domestic and international professional services firms to level the playing field for women in appraisals and promotions, among other areas. One of my findings, using content analysis of individual annual performance reviews, shows that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).

That’s because annual evaluations are often subjective, which opens the door to gender bias (“Tom is more comfortable and independent than Carolyn in handling the client’s concerns”) and confirmation bias (“I knew she’d struggle with that project”), among other things.

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I found that these biases can lead to double standards, in that­­ a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender. In one review I read, the manager noted, “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.” But a similar problem —­­ confidence in working with clients —­­ was given a positive spin when a man was struggling with it: “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.”

In another pair of reviews, the reviewer highlighted the woman’s “analysis paralysis,” while the same behavior in a male colleague was seen as careful thoughtfulness: “Simone seems paralyzed and confused when facing tight deadlines to make decisions,” while “Cameron seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and determined the most suitable one.” Double standards like these clearly affect women’s opportunities for advancement.

Likewise, it does your company no good when employees are overrated because of subjective biases, including leniency (for example, an employee dropped the ball, but “he had a lot on his plate”) and the “halo effect,” where one positive trait is assumed to be linked to others (“He inspires confidence, which goes a long way”).

My data also revealed that women got less constructively critical feedback. The objective of constructive feedback is to allow an employee to focus on the positives while identifying areas where there is room for growth. For example, such feedback might be, “Stephanie, your replies to partners about client matters are often not on point” rather than “Stephanie, you have missed important opportunities to provide clear and concise information, such as X. I have some thoughts on how you could prevent that from happening again, such as Y.” These findings are in line with research from my colleagues at Stanford University, Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, whose work suggests that women receive vaguer feedback than men do.

Finally, women’s performance was more likely to be attributed to characteristics such as luck or their ability to spend long hours in the office, perceived as real commitment to the firm, rather than their abilities and skills. As such, they often did not receive due credit for their work.

The good news is that the performance appraisal system can be fixed. By using more-objective criteria, involving a broader group of reviewers, and adjusting the frequency of reviews, it is possible to remove subjective biases that creep in.

Specifically, my field experiments at professional services firms suggest that the use of tailor-made, automated, real-time communication tools with instant feedback on employees’ weekly performance from supervisors, colleagues, and clients can have dramatic results for women.

As opposed to the traditional annual feedback system, these instruments were designed to remove bias from answers (e.g., the language of feedback options is gender-neutral) and help the reviewers to provide constructive feedback. The order of requested feedback was given careful consideration in the instruments’ design, all in an effort to create a level playing field.

Another benefit is that having more-frequent feedback gives opportunities to recognize different styles of leadership. As the seminal work of Alice Eagly at Northwestern University has demonstrated, there are differences in leadership styles among gender. Her work, followed by other researchers, has revealed that women’s leadership styles are less hierarchical and more cooperative, participatory, and collaborative than their male counterparts’.

Women’s strengths, such as their collaborative and participatory styles, were more easily recognized when using this new appraisal system. For example, instant feedback included: “The employee is a team player and understands how to help others in time of need” or “The employee contributes to the success of the team on a regular basis.” In other words, it resulted in the information used for developmental and assessment purposes being more accurate and gender-neutral.

Giving frequent feedback might sound like a lot of work, especially for large teams. It’s not. Feedback involves two to six reviewers per week, and takes each of them no more than 15 minutes.

One of the other benefits is that the clients who participated in these experiments were asked to evaluate the performance of the people who served them. The clients felt listened to and engaged in the process of providing constructive feedback on what they valued in the relationship and how they could be better served.

For example, colleagues might rate each other on the criterion “clear information is provided to the client during the call,” while clients are asked whether the employee serving them “addressed my concerns and showed interest during the call.” These evaluations are collected over time in a broader category called “client relationship.”

The responses are weighted by how much exposure the feedback providers have to the person they are rating. On a quarterly basis, the employee sits down with the manager for a check-in and goes over the results.

The advantages of this approach, compared with annual reviews, are myriad for managers:

  • They receive objective criteria to provide a comprehensive look at performance. Moreover, they get detail they’ve never had before: how constant employees’ performance is, how they grow over the course of the year (or the project cycle), how they respond to feedback over time, their weak and strong points, and areas where they excel.
  • They can observe the employee and value the person’s behavior in different contexts, as each reviewer provides input and expresses preferences for certain styles. Managers can see how various appraisers attach different weights to the same aspects of performance they experienced.
  • In turn, managers learn the kind of support and exposure they need to provide each employee for optimal performance with supervisors, peers, subordinates, and clients.

Employees being reviewed gain as well:

  • They’re evaluated for their actual performance and work relationships, not by their boss’s impressions. In my research, the likelihood of women receiving subjective feedback in the form of negative personality-based criticism disappears or significantly decreases with this approach.
  • They get a diagnostic instrument that facilitates self-management, because real-time reviews give examples of effective (or ineffective) behavior and convey information on what the individual must start, stop, or continue doing.

Companies can start leveling the playing field by redesigning their performance appraisal system with a few simple steps:

  • Invest in systems that crowdsource and continually collect data about the performance of people and teams. Crowdsourcing performance data throughout the year yields even better insights about your staff.
  • Train appraisers to give feedback about specific criteria that the employer and employee agree to. The resulting appraisal of the person on these criteria is then perceived as fairer.
  • Develop an appraisal scale that specifies what an employee must start doing, stop doing, or continue doing by tenure and project cycle.
  • Transform what feedback is meant to achieve, using a tool with gender-neutral criteria.

Advice on Running a Government Agency Like a Startup, from Someone Who’s Tried It

April 12, 2017 - 9:00am

The White House recently formed the Office of American Innovation, which has a stated focus on “implementing policies and scaling proven private-sector models to spur job creation and innovation.” It’s a familiar idea: A SWAT innovation team is created, ready to inject new thinking into a burdensome bureaucracy. It certainly sounds familiar to Greg Godbout, a former U.S. presidential innovation fellow and a cofounder of 18F, a digital services office within the U.S. General Services Administration. 18F was borne, in part, out of the Obama administration’s attempts to funnel startup-style ingenuity into the government, particularly after the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov. Godbout was executive director at 18F before departing to become chief technology officer for the EPA. He is now the CEO and cofounder of cBrain North America.

I asked Godbout about how innovation teams work in government. Following are excerpts of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

HBR: Often when you hear about an innovation team, in government or the private sector, there’s this impression that they’re going to come in like a whirlwind and straighten everybody out.

Godbout: I have yet to see the case study of massive change management of innovation where a group of people came in and, like a whirlwind, changed everyone’s thoughts and executed the whole thing themselves. It just doesn’t happen that way.

What you saw early on [with 18F] was a lot of friction around the messaging. Innovators were going to parachute in and save government. Every time I read that, I cringed. I thought, “Oh, that’s just put us back a year.” The reality is we had clearance from above to take more risks. Because of that, the people who were in government who couldn’t take risks could come to us, and we could collaborate on something. We became an idea channel.

It is unfortunate when the appearance is that somehow this person invented the idea, and they’re going to save government. That’s not how it works. Government’s going to have to save itself. It’s too big.

There are two different strategies here. There is your intervention strategy, which is what we started with. There were serious problems with Healthcare.gov, but frankly, to be fair, every agency had their own version. At that point people were coming in…with a firefighter mentality. But if they put that fire out in your house, your house is almost a total waste, because anything they saved is now drenched in water and ruined. So that is not a methodology to build buildings.

The real goal, the transformation goal, should be the larger service. This is where you take early adopters who want to make a change. They need some coaching, and they need some guidance as they start their own journey and learn. If we were using a military reference, your intervention team is like a SWAT team and your transformation team is building the standing army. And if you don’t have a standing army, none of it will last.

Do you think the U.S. government should be run like a business? 

I don’t think representative governments or democracies should be run like businesses. I think that they should be businesslike in the approach they take to prioritizing and bringing in efficiencies. It’s a little easier in profit-motivated situations to understand whether you’re delivering on your vision or not, because your vision of your product or service should be easily measurable by profits.

Government’s very different. I believe generally that government exists to take on common-good problems. These are public services. They aren’t owned. They belong to everybody.

I think that there is a hybrid model that we haven’t found. If you’re going to swing the pendulum, it would be nice to swing it in the business direction, because we need good practices. But there are plenty of examples of businesses that don’t do it well either.

It’s not as simple as when people say, “Oh, well, the citizens are our customers.” Not really. They’re also the stockholders. And which set of customers are you going to listen to? Which set of stockholders are you going to listen to the most?

Business schools should be teaching a public-sector version of processes and management and motivation and people. These all apply. They all work in government. We just need a hybrid model.

How did you define the mission at 18F?

We started with strategy. It’s hard to get a group of people to agree on the vision right away. What we all could agree on, which was borrowed from the UK government’s digital services, was that delivery was the strategy. It would be high-quality, rapid delivery of great services. If we could do that, we would solve all sorts of other problems.

As we brought more people onto the team, what evolved was the way government builds and buys digital services. But that goal wasn’t there up front, because when we started, people were telling us, you can’t hire quality people. You can’t pay for them. You can’t hire them fast enough. You can’t do acquisitions fast enough. You can’t do security checks on systems the way you work. In fact, we’re not even sure you can legally do Agile! There were all these you can’ts.

We built a team of people who could fix projects and deliver on those projects. But it became apparent within a few months that that was actually not the battle. The federal government has a broken marketplace. People [in government] have been wanting to work this way for years.

How did you recruit techies to take these jobs?

If you look at what motivates people, it’s mission, mastery, and autonomy. The idea was, if we could address all three, we could recruit anyone.

On the mission, we’ve got the government. Public sector’s got the best work. There’s mission in the hallway. It’s just everywhere.

Mastery was more of a problem. If you were going to come [from the tech sector] into government, it was likely you were going to be working with old tools. There was a risk there. So, we said, we’re going to be using the latest technologies and the latest tools. That was really important for people.

The hardest part is autonomy. In government, there are so many groups having a say on what a product and service should be. Government is very stakeholder-centric, and it should be more user-centric. If we could hire people who believed in user-centered design, or really human-centered design, then we could say to stakeholders within government, “Thank you for your input. It’s great. It’s helpful. But we don’t have any evidence to suggest this is the best way forward.” Or, “Good idea. Let’s try it, and if it works, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you pull it out.”

If you can get autonomy, and you can get mastery, and you can get mission, it’s very easy to get people to come work for you.

Did other offices within government imitate your methods? 

The majority of the good ideas we got came from innovators in government. So in sort of classic, innovative way, we became a very transparent and loud and proud innovator. And we attracted a lot of innovators from government to us because of that. They could teach us about the bureaucracy, and together we came up with a new way that was built upon what they had started.

I wouldn’t say we invented anything. It’s all innovation, which is borrowed ideas mixing together differently, and then watching people build upon those ideas and take off with them.

There have been recent government reports critical of 18F’s IT policies and planning.

There was a report that talked about the need for 18F to be cost recoverable and sustainable. And that’s true. That’s baked into the whole creation of 18F. It gets appropriated dollars from other programs that Congress has funded. 18F is working for those agencies and those missions. You don’t build a new entity and expect to make your money back right away. But you do ultimately expect it to make its money back. I have no doubt 18F is well on its way to becoming cost recoverable.

Inspectors general are great, because they’re there to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. But what if the waste is the fact that we’ve never changed our processes over 30 years? Why aren’t they calling that out?

And then there are so many policies that most people in the government don’t know all the policies. In government everyone just wants to try to avoid risk, and in the process of doing that, we have tremendous risk everywhere.

Given your experience with 18F, what’s your advice for the Office of American Innovation?

The advice I would give is: Keep the pressure up. We can’t compromise on the rate of change. Rolling back simply means that government starts to fail at more massive levels.

At the same time, the only way [to do that] is if we encourage massive adoption from inside the bureaucracy. I know that people are frustrated and feel that that’s impossible. I know for a fact it’s not. But we have to change our messaging to get them onboard. You can’t run into a room calling someone stupid, and then expect them to be happy with you suggesting changes that they’ve probably been suggesting for a decade. We need a larger army. We’re going to need thousands of people within government to help us go forward.

I used to tell people I interviewed for 18F, “This is the Super Bowl of change management.” That’s why we’re here. This is where it’s hardest. So roll up your sleeves, get ready for it.

It’s about the people, it’s really not about technology. And that, I hope, becomes an understanding of this next effort.

We Tracked Every Dollar 235 U.S. Households Spent for a Year, and Found Widespread Financial Vulnerability

April 12, 2017 - 8:05am

Income inequality in the United States is growing, but the most common economic statistics hide a significant portion of Americans’ financial instability by drawing on annual aggregates of income and spending. Annual numbers can hide fluctuations that determine whether families have trouble paying bills or making important investments at a given moment. The lack of access to stable, predictable cash flows is the hard-to-see source of much of today’s economic insecurity.

We came to understand this after analyzing the U.S. Financial Diaries (USFD), an unprecedented study to collect detailed cash flow data for U.S. households. From 2012 to 2014 we set up research sites in 10 communities across the country. The USFD research team engaged 235 households that were willing to let us track their financial lives for a full year. We tried to record every single dollar the households earned, spent, saved, borrowed, and shared with others. We logged all transactions, whether they occurred digitally or in cash, above the table or below, in money or in kind. The households had at least one worker, and none were among the poorest or richest in their communities. Beyond that, the households were diverse: rural, urban, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, recent immigrants, and families that have been in the U.S. for generations.

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Our first big finding was that the households’ incomes were highly unstable, even for those with full-time workers. We counted spikes and dips in earning, defined as months in which a household’s income was either 25% more or 25% less than the average. It turned out that households experienced an average of five months per year with either a spike or dip. In other words, incomes were far from average almost half of the time. Income volatility was more extreme for poorer families, but middle class families felt it too.

This income volatility is the result of broad shifts in the labor market. As employment in the service and retail sectors has grown, and dynamic staffing policies have spread, more workers depend on income from commissions, tips, and hourly work with fluctuating schedules. The unemployment rate has been low (under 5% nationally), but that doesn’t necessarily create stable incomes: Half of the volatility we saw was due to variation in the size of paychecks within the same job.

We found that monthly spending was just as volatile as income. On top of regular expenses, emergencies arose frequently: Cars needed repair, roofs needed fixing, tuition bills came due, and people got sick. In addition, the rising relative costs of health care, housing, education, and transportation stretched budgets and cut into the slack available to buffer shocks, especially with the well-documented stagnation of real wages for most workers. In 2015 low- and middle-income families devoted about one-third of their earnings to housing, and they have seen housing prices rise 25%–50% since the mid-1990s. The cost of a bachelor’s degree from a public college has risen by one-third from 2003 to 2014. Even with the Affordable Care Act, health care costs have continued to grow, and low-income families, unable to afford high monthly payments, have relied on plans with high deductibles, leaving them exposed to significant out-of-pocket expenses.

Elaine Sullivan, a participant in the USFD study, illustrates many workers’ experience. Elaine ran a school cafeteria for 15 years, a job that came with benefits and steady pay. After being laid off, it took her a year and a half to find a steady job again. She worked her way up to manage several locations of a quick-serve restaurant. As manager, she has health insurance through her employer, but when she had a health emergency, she nonetheless ended up with $8,000 in medical debt due to deductibles and coverage gaps. She’ll have to negotiate a payment plan with the hospital on her own, and now it’s even more important that she keep her job. She does like the job (even though it pays much less than her former one) but for one aspect: sending staff home when business is slow. She tracks a ratio of sales-to-staff on an hourly basis throughout the day, and if her stores are out of the required range set by national headquarters, she hears about it from “upstairs” within 24 hours, which puts her own income stability at risk.

Fundamentally, the instability of households’ cash flows that we saw arises because families bear far more economic risk than they have in the past. Their jobs deliver less-steady income, even when they are full-time. They have less room between their incomes and their spending needs, and less ability to accumulate reserves. And employers and government do less to buffer individual families from the resulting ups and downs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Volatile income and spending needs are not problems in themselves. When a business, rather than a household, faces such volatility, it responds by building up working capital. Many people can do the equivalent in household terms: They plan, save, rely on family wealth, and use credit and insurance. But the challenge for a growing number of Americans is that they have insufficient ways to cope with the ups and downs. For households, just as for businesses with shaky cash flows, effective ways to cope with the ups and downs are least available to those who need them the most.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, either.

Our close-up look at the cash flows of working families provides a vital missing piece of the inequality story: Financial instability is growing alongside inequality of income and wealth — and the financial instability constitutes a form of inequality in itself. But this close-up look at cash flows suggests new routes to helping families.

Employers have been part of the problem, as they have pushed more risk onto workers, and they need to be an important part of the solution. Business practices, such as scheduling policies for hourly workers and benefits programs, need to be reconsidered, with a stronger focus on the resulting financial stability of workers. Employers have the ability to offer emergency savings vehicles, connections to high-quality financial services, and access to financial coaching. Financial services providers have the opportunity to innovate, shifting their product set to better enable households to create stability amid volatility. The problems are too deep to solve with any one step, but there are clear ways to start helping struggling Americans rebuild a sense of control and security.

Female Supreme Court Justices Are Interrupted More by Male Justices and Advocates

April 11, 2017 - 1:03pm

During the Senate hearings on whether he should become the next associate justice of the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch maintained iron discipline in refusing to commit himself to any position that could count against him. Gorsuch maintained a steadfastly calm demeanor, but he showed his cards in one regard: He could not help repeatedly interrupting the liberal female senators. In this way, he proved himself to be well qualified to sit on the highest judicial bench. Our new empirical study shows that the male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. And the conservative justices interrupt the liberal justices more than twice as often as vice versa.

We examined the transcripts of 15 years of Supreme Court oral arguments, finding that women do not have an equal opportunity to be heard on the highest court in the land. In fact, as more women join the court, the reaction of the male justices has been to increase their interruptions of the female justices. Many male justices are now interrupting female justices at double-digit rates per term, but the reverse is almost never true. In the last 12 years, during which women made up, on average, 24% of the bench, 32% of interruptions were of the female justices, but only 4% were by the female justices.

These results are not limited to the current Supreme Court. We conducted an in-depth analysis of the 1990, 2002, and 2015 terms to see whether the same patterns held when there were fewer female justices on the court. We found a consistently gendered pattern: In 1990, with one woman on the bench (former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), 35.7% of interruptions were directed at her; in 2002, 45.3% were directed at the two female justices (O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg); in 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were directed at the three female justices on the bench (Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan). With more women on the court, the situation only seems to be getting worse.

Prior research in linguistics and psychology has shown that women are routinely interrupted by men, be it in one-on-one conversations or in groups, at work or in social situations. Interruptions are attempts at dominance, and so the more powerful a woman becomes, the less often she should be interrupted. Yet even though Supreme Court justices are some of the most powerful individuals in the country, female justices find themselves consistently interrupted not only by their male colleagues but also by their subordinates: the male advocates who are attempting to persuade them.

Despite strict rules mandating that advocates stop talking immediately when a justice begins speaking, interruptions by male advocates account for approximately 10% of all interruptions that occur in court (excluding justices interrupting advocates, which is standard procedure). In contrast, interruptions by female advocates account for approximately 0%. The problem was particularly observable when, in 2015, male advocates interrupting Justice Sotomayor was the most common form of interruptions of any justice, accounting for 8% of all interruptions in the court. Justice Sotomayor is also the court’s only woman of color.

Can this pattern be explained by other factors? Of the 113 justices to have served on the Supreme Court, only four have been women, and three of those four were appointed by Democratic presidents. We expected that partisan differences could account for some portion of the interruptions. Since justices do not always vote in accordance with the party of their nominating president, we used Martin-Quinn scores, the most common way to analyze judicial ideology, to determine how liberal or conservative each justice was. We found that conservative justices disproportionately interrupt liberal justices: 70% of interruptions were of liberals; only 30% were of conservatives. In addition, advocates interrupt liberal justices more than they interrupt conservative justices. Despite this pattern, gender is the stronger factor in interruption: In 1990 the moderately conservative Justice O’Connor was interrupted 2.8 times as often as the average male justice. (It is worth noting that the results were not driven by Antonin Scalia, despite his reputation as a particularly pugnacious justice.)

Two of the three sitting female justices, Kagan and Sotomayor, are the most junior justices on the court. But, once again, seniority does not explain the gender pattern. Although senior justices do interrupt junior justices more frequently than vice versa, and the difference is statistically significant, gender is approximately 30 times more powerful than seniority. The most junior justice on the court will now be Gorsuch, and we expect the greater importance of gender over seniority to become even more apparent.

Length of tenure does matter in one particular respect: Time on the court gives women a chance to learn how to avoid being interrupted — by talking more like men. Early in their tenure, female justices tend to frame questions politely, using prefatory words such as “May I ask,” “Can I ask,” “Excuse me,” or the advocate’s name. This provides an opportunity for another justice to jump in before the speaker gets to the substance of her question.

We found that women gradually learn to set aside such politeness. All four of the female justices have reduced their tendency to use this polite phrasing. Justice Sotomayor adjusted within just a few months. Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg gradually became less and less polite over decades on the court, eventually using the polite phrases approximately one-third as much as they did initially. Justice Kagan is still learning: She uses polite language more than twice as often as the average man, although half as often as she did in 2010. We do not see a similar trend with the men, because male justices rarely use these polite speech patterns, even when they first enter the court. It is the women who adapt their speech patterns to match those of the men.

These behavior patterns are important, as oral arguments shape case outcomes. When a female justice is interrupted, her concern is often left unaddressed, which limits her ability to influence the outcome of the case. Women changing their questioning techniques should not be the only response to this problem. The chief justice should play a larger role as referee, enforcing the rule that prohibits advocates from interrupting the justices, and preventing an interrupting justice from continuing.

Our research aligns with previous research that has shown that women get talked over much more often than men in all sorts of settings, likely due to unconscious bias. What our findings additionally suggest is that there is no point at which a woman is high-status enough to avoid being interrupted.

A Face-to-Face Request Is 34 Times More Successful than an Email

April 11, 2017 - 12:00pm

Imagine you need people to donate to a cause you care about. How do you get as many people as possible to donate? You could send an email to 200 of your friends, family members, and acquaintances.  Or you could ask a few of the people you encounter in a typical day—face-to-face—to donate. Which method would mobilize more people for your cause?

Despite the reach of email, asking in person is the significantly more effective approach; you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast. Still, most people tend to think the email ask will be more effective.

In research Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University and I conducted, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we have found that people tend to overestimate the power of their persuasiveness via text-based communication, and underestimate the power of their persuasiveness via face-to-face communication.

In one study, we had 45 participants ask 450 strangers (10 strangers each) to complete a brief survey. All participants made the exact same request following the exact same script; however, half of the participants made their requests over email, while the other half asked face-to-face.

We found that people were much more likely to agree to complete a survey when they were asked in-person as opposed to over email. These findings are consistent with previous research showing that people are more likely to comply with requests in person than over email.

However, prior to making their requests, we asked participants in each condition to predict how many of the 10 strangers they asked would agree to fill out the survey. Participants in the face-to-face condition guessed that on average 5 out of 10 people would agree.  Participants in the email condition guessed that on average 5.5 out of 10 people would agree.  This difference was not statistically significant; participants who made requests over email felt essentially just as confident about the effectiveness of their requests as those who made their requests face-to-face, even though face-to-face requests were 34 times more effective than emailed ones.

Why do people think of email as being equally effective when it is so clearly not? In our studies, participants were highly attuned to their own trustworthiness and the legitimacy of the action they were asking others to take when they sent their emails. Anchored on this information, they failed to anticipate what the recipients of their emails were likely to see: an untrustworthy email asking them to click on a suspicious link.

Indeed, when we replicated our results in a second study we found the nonverbal cues requesters conveyed during a face-to-face interaction made all the difference in how people viewed the legitimacy of their requests, but requesters were oblivious to this fact.

If your office runs on email and text-based communication, it’s worth considering whether you could be a more effective communicator by having conversations in person. It is often more convenient and comfortable to use text-based communication than to approach someone in-person, but if you overestimate the effectiveness of such media, you may regularly—and unknowingly—choose inferior means of influence.

The Stage Where Most Innovation Projects Fail

April 11, 2017 - 11:00am

When a CEO announces a major initiative to foster innovation, mark your calendar. Three years later, many of these ambitious ventures will have quietly expired without an obituary. Among those that have met that fate in recent months are initiatives at Target, Alaska Airlines, Coca-Cola, the New York Times, and Chubb.

The problem isn’t that large companies lack good ideas. In most cases we’ve studied at Innovation Leader, an online resource for people responsible for innovation and R&D, there’s a surplus of good ideas for new products, services and business models. Often, there is early data that shows customers are willing to buy.

The problems arise when projects need to be transferred to the business units for a large-scale launch. Is there enough communication? Does the business unit feel like the project is something they had a hand in shaping — or is it like a perishable package left on a doorstep? Are people moving from the innovation lab or pilot test team to help with the roll-out? Are there sufficient resources devoted to solving issues that occur with scale-up? Is anyone responsible for ensuring these projects don’t fall through the cracks, or drop to the bottom of the sales force’s priority list?

In a recent survey of 164 executives at companies with more than $1 billion in revenue, 26% of respondents told us the transition from innovation or R&D group to the business unit “needs serious work” at their company. Another 16% described it as “terrible,” and said they’d seen multiple projects wither following the hand-off to a business unit. Most respondents admitted that there was room for improvement.

So how to improve? At many companies, new innovation initiatives get the blessing of the CEO — but have little interaction with the business units. Each initiative thus becomes like a satellite orbiting the earth, communicating sporadically only with a few senior executives on the ground. Freedom to explore long-term ideas and emerging technologies is important. But most of these new teams will require help from the business units to make it out into the “real world,” and generate substantial revenues.

One way to create an alliance is to invite business units to lay out targets or problem areas for the innovation or R&D group to explore, or supply funding so they have skin in the game. Forty-six percent of our survey respondents said that some of their funding came from business units; another 24% said business units provided the majority of their funds. And the vast majority of respondents told us that business unit leaders were either “somewhat involved” (59%) or “extremely involved” (26%) in setting the agenda for innovation efforts at the company. Yes, too much involvement can lead to a fixation on incremental improvements that can be shepherded to market quickly, to impact the next quarter’s results. But it also ensures that the innovation group isn’t drifting off into deep space.

April Bertram, a business development director who works on a startup inside of GOJO, the Ohio-based maker of Purell, talks about letting business unit leaders design “guard rails.” You don’t want to rein in creativity, she says, but you do want to focus an innovation team on things that could realistically be commercialized.

At Aon Health, part of $11.7 billion Aon Hewitt, chief innovation officer Jim Winkler says that as part of the annual budgeting process, “we have a day-long innovation session with our line of business leaders and a lot of our product people, folks from IT, etc. who walk through where we see the marketplace evolving to, and the competitive landscape. …The line of business leaders are very vocal participants in that process.”

Consumer packaged goods giant Clorox has decided to move most innovation roles into the business units over the past five years. A central corporate team focuses on coaching and improving processes, but “each brand has an innovation team composed of marketing, research, and R&D folks planning one to five years out,” says Patrick O’Loughlin, Innovation Business Leader at Clorox.

Those three companies are pursuing what might be called “intertwined innovation,” where the interests and needs of the business units are woven into the mandate of an innovation team or individual staffers charged with hunting for new opportunities and growth. (The opposite of that is “insulated innovation,” when you set up a skunkworks facility or a group of high-powered researchers, and don’t require much on-going engagement with the business units. Google’s X division is a good example of that model, as is the global network of innovation labs set up by Lowe’s, the home improvement retailer.)

“Working hand-in-hand has proven to be much more effective, in my career, than those skunkworks ‘go away and come up with a magic box and bring it back to the business and have them figure out how it will best fit in,’” says Scott Burns, Head of Customer Experience at Reliant Energy, a Houston energy services provider.

To make the intertwined model work, some companies are also rotating business-side people through the innovation group — often to provide commercial expertise, or help make introductions to customers who might be willing to test something new and provide feedback. Or they are exporting innovation team members to the business unit that will be responsible for launching a project, so there’s someone involved who is knowledgeable and passionate about it. “Don’t call it a hand-off,” one survey respondent advised. “It needs to be a transition.”

But as that transition plays out, few companies are paying sufficient attention to creating accountability and incentives for success. The transition is one of the most vulnerable phases of innovation. Is the CEO or another senior executive paying attention to the milestones it is expected to hit, and asking whether members of the innovation team are continuing to support it as promised? Is the business unit being measured not just on how much revenue they generate from new products, but how many times they drop the ball or under-resource something that has been developed for them? This area is the black hole of innovation — no matter how much you’re spending on staff, training, new tools and software, and nifty innovation centers, so much value can just vaporize at this stage.

Innovators thrive on discovery and nurturing new ideas. Operators in the business units love hitting goals and finding new efficiencies. While their motivations are very different, it’s time to acknowledge that they need one another to succeed in the market. And CEOs need to foster constructive connectivity between the two groups if they intend for innovation to deliver real impact after the initial press release.

When You’re Leaving Your Job Because of Your Kids

April 11, 2017 - 10:00am

You’ve decided to leave the organization, and the decision was driven by your needs as a working parent. Maybe you’re taking a new job with fewer hours or less travel so you can spend more time with the kids; maybe you’re “up-ramping” and taking on a position with more responsibility, pressure, and pay – so you can afford those looming college bills; or maybe you’ve decided to put your focus on responsibilities at home before looking for a different opportunity.

Regardless of the specific reason why, the question now is how – how to leave in the right way, how to be credible, honest and transparent while acting in your own best interests, and how to preserve the long-term career capital you’ve worked so hard to create.

Unfortunately for working parents, there’s no offboarding playbook, and when you’ve got your kids and family in mind, the raft of emotions attached to a professional exit can swell to very large proportions. You may feel guilty, excited, conflicted, angry, or relieved, perhaps all at the same time, and many other emotions in between….none of which puts you on your front foot to handle your exit in a way that can enhance your network or career.

But there are strategies that work — specific techniques that can make your transition as effective and non-stressful as possible.

As a longtime human capital professional, I watched many employees make career changes, some very effectively and gracefully, and learned their personal techniques and approaches. Now, as an executive coach and advisor to working parent professionals, I work with many executives seeking to make career transitions smartly, and advise them on incorporating these strategies in their moves. And as a full-time working mother who’s changed jobs twice since my first daughter arrived five years ago, I’ve had the chance to use them myself.

Here are seven tactics any working parent should use when transitioning out of a job:

Say it plain — without an edge. “Bill, I’ve decided to leave the organization. I’ve taken a role at Other Company that will give me the flexibility to meet my family responsibilities in the way I need to.” Like a good newspaper article, the most important information should be conveyed upfront, factually, and neutrally. Don’t wait five minutes into the conversation to make your announcement, and don’t address any gripes you had about the lifestyle or hours on the job when breaking the news — those are in the rearview mirror.

Be a class act — regardless of your feelings. Even if your manager screamed at you about missing a weekly update meeting to take your sick child to the pediatrician, it’s time to rise above. Remember: Last impressions are lasting impressions, and yours need to convey your value and style as a professional. Saying “I’ve appreciated the four years I spent here, and the opportunity to be part of a great team” puts you in a much better long-term position than a negative statement will.

You and Your Team Series Career Transitions

Play through the negative reaction. Your manager may be surprised, or even angry. Maybe you were the “work-life poster child” the company wanted to keep, or maybe your departure means the department loses the headcount. Be prepared for negative reactions — pushback, derision, irritation, disbelief — and rehearse the jujitsu moves you can make to neutralize them. Empathize and acknowledge: “I understand this is a surprise.” Make things more personal: “ I understand your point of view as a leader of the company, but I’ve made this decision as an individual, and a father.” And praise: “My decision has nothing to do with how I see you as a manager. You’ve been a great advocate for me, and I appreciate it.”

Keep an open mind. Many of my working-parent coachees are shocked, upon resigning, to find out how much their organizations value them – and are suddenly willing to provide new roles, more flexibility, even sabbatical leaves in a desperate bid to keep them. As firm as your intention to leave is, remain open to new options that are offered. You may find an unexpected solution that’s actually better than the one you’ve committed to. At the very least, it’s worth a conversation.

Put on blinders. Inevitably, any working parent leaving his or her job for anything remotely to do with family reasons will be on the receiving end of editorial comments — lots and lots of them, some clumsy (“Couldn’t take it, huh?”) to well-intentioned but disheartening (“Be careful — my law school roommate left after her first was born and she could never find a job again.”). The comments have nothing to do with you, so ignore them. Put on blinders, look down the straightaway, and run your own race, with the guardrails and mile markers you’ve set for yourself — not the ones others set for you.

Become a consultant. Once the announcement has been made, go above and beyond to help your colleagues transition into their future without you. Spreadsheet summaries, checklists, flow charts documenting complex operations, project planning meetings …pretend you’re from McKinsey, and your job is to help the organization manage without you. Stay late a few days to demonstrate how committed you are to supporting colleagues through your departure. You’ll look like the top-flight professional you are — efficient, professional, and graceful to boot.

Take your relationships with you. When you leave a job, don’t leave your professional connections along with it. Take the relationships you’ve had — with managers, colleagues, mentors, mentees, and everyone in between — into your next role, even if your next role is spending time at home. Statements like “While we won’t be working together anymore, I want you to know that I’ve always considered you a mentor, and will continue to” or “I certainly hope we get to be members of the same team again” appeal to and leave lasting positive impressions with the crustiest of colleagues. Think of your professional network as a portfolio, and make sure that no important assets fall out of it as you change roles.

Anyone making a working-parent-related job change will inevitably have some concerns and self-doubt. But by focusing on the mechanics of your exit, you can make the transition resound to your credit and keep doors open for the future.

Hard Questions on Our Transition to Driverless Cars

April 11, 2017 - 9:00am

Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the automobile. In so doing, it will transform much more than that. Given how central automotive transportation is to our cities, commerce, and daily lives, saying that AI will change life as we know it is no understatement.

To understand where this new mobility might take us, it’s important to distinguish between two types of AI-powered motor vehicles: self-driving and driverless. Self-driving vehicles offer the options of automated and manual driving. Either way, there’s someone in the driver’s seat. Driverless vehicles, on the other hand, have neither driver nor (eventually) a steering wheel. This distinction is important because the driver is typically the most expensive part of a transport business, be it taxi services, last-mile logistics, or long-haul trucking. Self-driving capabilities can boost safety and driver productivity. By eliminating the driver altogether, businesses could slash costs by as much as 60%, depending on the industry.

In combination with the sharing economy, driverless vehicles are likely to be deployed in fleets, benefiting higher utilization in urban settings. This portends a dual-track future. While sharing and driverless will converge for the 1.7 billion population living in sizable cities, the remainder of the population will also benefit, but largely from the safety advantages of self-driving cars that they will own.

Where and When the Technology Might Be Deployed

Automakers are already producing self-driving autonomy features for specific uses, such as highway driving, in premium vehicles. As expected, uptake has been slow because extra costs are limiting demand, but the rollout is growing.

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By contrast, driverless vehicle adoption depends on overcoming three factors: infrastructure maturity, technology readiness, and regulation. Of the large markets, the U.S., thanks to a mature infrastructure and, thus far, supportive regulatory environment, is at the forefront, and driverless technology is undergoing real-world, large-scale testing to train machine learning algorithms. We expect Europe (excluding the UK) to lag the U.S., given the higher technical complexity of medieval cities and regulations resulting in limited on-the-ground testing. China and India are still in process of building out their infrastructure; their technology will need more effort to adapt to their complex street environments.

What Leaders Need to Consider

It’s time for boards and executives to ask themselves hard questions about how the new mobility could affect their business models. For example:

Infrastructure. As mobility changes around us, how should we approach our master plans for airports, car parking, high-speed trains, energy, ports, toll roads, and so forth? These plans have investment horizons of 15 to 30 years or longer. What will happen to demand, pricing, and usage patterns over that horizon? How do we de-risk our investments, and how can we accommodate for different future scenarios?

Cities. How will autonomous vehicles affect congestion? Can we balance their benefits against the probable increase in demand as mobility costs decline? How do we navigate their integration into our emerging “mobility as a service” offerings and realize the benefits of less congestion and lower pollution? How will road pricing models need to change? How will we need to change urban planning in this future?

Transportation. How will driverless vehicles complement existing public transit infrastructure? How can we remain relevant in this future? 

Automotive OEMs. How do we reposition ourselves to sell not just vehicles, but mobility? What’s our role in the value chain: facilitator, fleet operator, driverless “driver” supplier (versus vehicle manufacturer)? What should we buy or partner with instead of building? Where and how do we develop a relationship with cities? How can we help businesses benefit from greater vehicle automation?

Aftermarket automotive. What is our role in a fleet-led urban future? How can we embrace the opportunities that connected vehicles create? 

Insurance. What strategic moves should we pursue as increased autonomy shrinks the motor claims pool? What products will be relevant in this evolving future where fleets and product liability become more important?

Financial services. How will vehicle ownership patterns evolve as Millennial and Generation Z customers claim a greater share of mobility consumption? How can we finance fleets through leasing and/or mobility securitization?

Energy. How does the confluence of autonomy, sharing, and electrification change the fuel mix in automotive applications? What will our retail footprint be? In a driverless world, how could vehicle-to-grid (V2G) help us create new ways to distribute and store energy?

Retail and consumer business. If new mobility can dramatically reduce distribution costs, should we rethink the industry’s value chain and distribution access to customer? How does our logistics footprint need to evolve, and how can we realize the savings? What new propositions can we create? What customer segments could this “mobility as a platform” allow us to serve?

Health care. How do these changes help us manage the needs of our aging population? How can we use driverless vehicles to reduce health care costs?

Public policy. How will society adapt to the loss of service jobs that results from automated driving? What new roles could fill this gap, and how can policy makers ease the transition?

Modern vehicles are safer and more tech-enabled than ever, but AI-enabled mobility holds the promise to an accident-free future. Some disruptors’ systems already outperform humans on the open road. It is a matter of time before we start seeing robo-taxis and autonomous commercial vehicles appear and upend today’s business models. Now is the time for business leaders and city administrators to get in front of the transformation.

If Your Boss Has a Lot of Integrity, You May Be More Likely to Compromise Yours

April 11, 2017 - 8:05am

The idea that leaders should follow a set of sound principles and support policies that reflect their own values is a widely held standard, and for good reason. But there is a downside to integrity. In our research, we have found that when leaders behave with high integrity, their followers may compromise their own. They create a façade of conformity, suppressing their own values and views and pretending to share the organization’s values in order to survive and succeed at work.

Let’s consider two illustrations of facades of conformity, based on interviews we conducted with executives and middle managers across a wide range of industries in North America.

Alejandra, an innovative business leader in a multinational organization, is at odds with her organization. A recent merger has shifted the organization’s culture from one that values collaboration as a way of achieving high performance to one that encourages intense competition. Alejandra believes strongly in sharing information with her colleagues and collaborating with other business leaders in the organization. She has been guided by these values for years, but she now finds herself pretending to agree with the new direction and mindset of the organization.

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David feels pressure to conform for a different reason. He is a conservative Jew who wears a yarmulke. His religious and cultural values contrast sharply with many of the values held by the majority of his colleagues and superiors in his organization. As a result of these differences, David perceives that expressing divergent views about organizational decisions and practices is risky because doing so may evoke stereotypes about his culture, or cause him to be singled out in a negative light. To avoid highlighting the differences he already brings to the workplace, David chooses at times to withhold his views, as well as potentially innovative ideas that might be considered by others too far outside the norm.

Most people engage in some level of façade creation on a daily basis in order to fit in and gain acceptance. But our research has shown that people like Alejandra and David, who hold values and views in conflict with organizational values or those of the majority of their colleagues, may conform at even greater levels when they consider their leader (for example, their immediate boss) to have high integrity. We have found this “leader integrity effect” in multiple studies.

In one study, 131 students participated in an online experiment in an office setting. Participants were told that they would take part in an online discussion with others in the office regarding a new rule about alcohol and drugs on campus. The participants privately entered their view on the issue (in favor or opposed), and the system randomly assigned them to one of four conditions. The conditions included participants having values that either matched or conflicted with the majority of the online group’s values, along with either a low-integrity or high-integrity leader. After reading their group’s responses, participants saw private messages that cast their leader (the person assigned to facilitate the group’s discussion) as having either high or low integrity. Finally, the leader/facilitator asked each participant to write a follow-up statement summarizing their point of view on the controversial topic. When we compared those statements to participants’ earlier opinions, we found that those who held minority viewpoints and believed their leaders to have high integrity were most likely to change their responses to conform to the stance of the majority.

We found consistent results in a survey of 135 individuals working in over 20 industries. On two occasions, three months apart, participants answered questions about how well-matched their values were with those of their organization. They were also asked about their leaders’ level of integrity and their own pattern of appearing to conform to their organization’s values. Our results showed that participants who indicated little overlap existed between their values and their organization’s values reported the highest levels of creating facades of conformity when their leader was perceived as having high integrity. This set of individuals also reported the lowest level of engagement in their work (their enthusiasm and energy while working, as well as their sense of significance and pride about their work). This finding is consistent with prior survey-based research that showed that creating facades of conformity can cause employees to experience emotional exhaustion and increased intentions to quit.

Our findings reveal a paradoxical dynamic: Integrity is a positive and well-appreciated quality in a leader, but it may provoke followers to behave with less integrity by hiding their own values.

Why might this be the case? According to the principles of social exchange theory, positive or beneficial treatment from an organization or leader can prompt employees to feel obligated to reciprocate by engaging in behaviors that will benefit the organization. Following this logic, a leader’s authentic and ethical behavior may motivate followers to reciprocate in ways they believe will benefit the leader as well as the organization. In particular, followers with divergent views may reciprocate by conforming to organizational norms and values, even when they disagree with them. Additionally, research suggests that the experience of having a high-integrity leader might result in feelings of being exposed, judged, or scrutinized. These feelings might prompt followers to create facades of conformity.

The appearance of conformity comes at a cost to both the employee and the organization. It reduces employee well-being and work engagement, and it causes organizations to miss out on divergent perspectives that could bolster creativity, innovation, and organizational learning.

So, if you are viewed as a leader of integrity, it is critical to deliberately promote a work environment that embraces and makes use of diverse perspectives. Be sure to convey a consistent message that your team’s authentic self-expression is essential to your success and that of the organization.

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel

April 10, 2017 - 2:15pm

The average Facebook user spends almost an hour on the site every day, according to data provided by the company last year. A Deloitte survey found that for many smartphone users, checking social media apps are the first thing they do in the morning – often before even getting out of bed. Of course, social interaction is a healthy and necessary part of human existence. Thousands of studies have concluded that most human beings thrive when they have strong, positive relationships with other human beings.

The challenge is that most of the work on social interaction has been conducted using “real world,” face-to-face social networks, in contrast to the types of online relationships that are increasingly common. So, while we know that old-fashioned social interaction is healthy, what about social interaction that is completely mediated through an electronic screen? When you wake up in the morning and tap on that little blue icon, what impact does it have on you?

Prior research has shown that the use of social media may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increase sedentary behavior by encouraging more screen time, lead to internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavorable social comparison. Self-comparison can be a strong influence on human behavior, and because people tend to display the most positive aspects of their lives on social media, it is possible for an individual to believe that their own life compares negatively to what they see presented by others. But some skeptics have wondered if perhaps people with lower well-being are more likely to use social media, rather than social media causing lower well-being. Moreover, other studies have found that social media use has a positive impact on well-being through increased social support and reinforcement of  real world relationships.

We wanted to get a clearer picture of the relationship between social media use and well-being. In our study, we used three waves of data from 5,208 adults from a national longitudinal panel maintained by the Gallup organization, coupled with several different measures of Facebook usage, to see how well-being changed over time in association with Facebook use. Our measures of well-being included life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index (BMI). Our measures of Facebook use included liking others’ posts, creating one’s own posts, and clicking on links. We also had measures of respondents’ real-world social networks.  In each wave, respondents were asked to name up to four friends with whom they discuss important matters and up to four friends with whom they spend their free time, so that each participant could name up to a total of eight unique individuals.

Our approach had three strengths that set it apart from most of the previous work on the topic. First, we had three waves of data for many of our respondents over a period of two years. This allowed us to track how changes in social media use were associated with changes in well-being. Most studies done to date only use one period of data, limiting interpretations of conclusions to simple associations. Second, we had objective measures of Facebook use, pulled directly from participants’ Facebook accounts, rather than measures based on a person’s self-report. Third, in addition to the Facebook data, we had information regarding the respondents’ real-world social networks, which would allow us to directly compare the two influences (face-to-face networks and online interactions). Of course, our study has limitations too, including that we could not be certain about how fully representative it was because not everyone in the Gallup sample allowed us access to their Facebook data.

Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

Our models included measures of real-world networks and adjusted for baseline Facebook use. When we accounted for a person’s level of initial well-being, initial real-world networks, and initial level of Facebook use, increased use of Facebook was still associated with a likelihood of diminished future well-being. This provides some evidence that the association between Facebook use and compromised well-being is a dynamic process.

Although we can show that Facebook use seems to lead to diminished well-being, we cannot definitively say how that occurs. We did not see much difference between the three types of activity we measured — liking, posting, and clicking links, (although liking and clicking were more consistently significant) — and the impact on the user. This was interesting, because while we expected that “liking” other people’s content would be more likely to lead to negative self-comparisons and thus decreases in well-being, updating one’s own status and clicking links seemed to have a similar effect (although the nature of status updates can ostensibly be the result of social comparison-tailoring your own Facebook image based on how others will perceive it). Overall our results suggests that well-being declines are also matter of quantity of use rather than only quality of use. If this is the case, our results contrast with previous research arguing that the quantity of social media interaction is irrelevant, and that only the quality of those interactions matter.

These results then may be relevant for other forms of social media. While many platforms expose the user to the sort of polished profiles of others that can lead to negative self-comparison, the issue of quantity of usage will be an issue for any social media platform.  While screen time in general can be problematic, the tricky thing about social media is that while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction. Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real world interaction we need for a healthy life.

The full story when it comes to online social media use is surely complex. Exposure to the carefully curated images from others’ lives leads to negative self-comparison, and the sheer quantity of social media interaction may detract from more meaningful real-life experiences.  What seems quite clear, however, is that online social interactions are no substitute for the real thing.

 

Rethinking Some Assumptions About Global Business

April 10, 2017 - 1:59pm

Companies may be profiting, but they’re not investing those profits in long-term growth.

How to Evaluate, Accept, Reject, or Negotiate a Job Offer

April 10, 2017 - 12:00pm

Congratulations! You got the job. Now for the hard part: deciding whether to accept it or not. How should you assess the salary as well as the other perks? Which publicly available information should you rely on? How should you try to get a better deal? And what’s the best way to decline an offer if it’s not the right job for you?

What the Experts Say
When an employer extends a job offer to you, he has, in essence, “fallen in love with you,” says John Lees, the UK-based career strategist and author of The Success Code. “He has psychologically committed to you, and it is a critical moment.” According to Lees, “you have more leverage” to shape your job description and improve your salary and benefits package “right after you are made an offer than you do in your first two years of employment.” Still, evaluating a job offer is not always straightforward — especially since you may not have the luxury of comparing it to others. “Step back and think expansively about your objectives,” advises Jeff Weiss, president of Lesley University and author of the HBR Guide to Negotiating. “Think about the offer in terms of your development, your quality of life, and the variety of the work you want to do.” No job offer will be perfect, so a big part of the evaluation requires you to “think about the trade-offs you are willing to make.” Here are some ideas to help you figure out if the job is right for you.

Shift your mindset
First, you must recognize that receiving an offer represents a “new and different phase” of the job search process, says Lees. “The purpose of the interview is to get the offer,” he says. The next stage is about weighing that offer and then negotiating with your new employer. “Pause, you are starting a new chapter.” Bear in mind that even though the job is yours if you want it, you must “continue to be enthusiastic” in your dealings with your prospective manager, says Lees. “By sounding critical or suspicious or by questioning something about the offer, you are sending a negative signal,” he says. “It sounds as if you’re uncertain that you want job.” That may indeed be the case, but it’s not the message you want to send to your would-be manager. “Employers need to feel that you are committed.”

Be methodical
Next, you need to think about what matters to you in both your professional and private life and then “assess the offer” against these metrics, says Weiss. “People tend to focus on the dollars, but it is useful to ask, “What is of value to me?” After all, money is only one component of career satisfaction. “Very often it comes down to, ‘I would rather make X amount of money and be excited to go to work in the morning, than make X plus 10% and hate my job,’” he says. Below are the most important components to take into account as you assess the offer.

  • Salary. Even when the money on offer is enough to live on, you need to figure out if it’s an amount worthy of your knowledge and skills and whether it’s in line with the local market. Look at the financial package on the whole. The key question, says Weiss, is “What is someone with my competencies and experience in this role and in this city paid?” Databases and job search websites, such as Glassdoor, Indeed, Ladders, and Salary.com are a good starting point, but Lees recommends talking to recruiters and headhunters and others in the industry. “Find anyone who knows the sector and the range,” he says. As part of your detective work, you must also devise “a good argument for why you are in the top 10-15% of that range.” But usually there is only so much wiggle room. “You must have a backup plan if there is no flexibility on money in terms of what other areas you want to push back on.”
  • Job content. It’s also important to think about whether you will “derive job satisfaction,” from the offer that’s on the table, says Lees. To answer this question, you need to know the “kinds of activities you want to be involved in and the skills you want to use” as a professional. Ask yourself questions like  “Do I want to lead a big team, supervise only a few others, or have zero management duties? Do I want to be in front of clients? Do I crave autonomy? Do I want lots of international travel — or no travel at all? What kinds of projects do I want to be engaged in? And what kinds of professional tasks do I want no part of?” Then see how well the offer matches up against the responsibilities you’re being asked to take on. “Also, look at what you will be doing, what success looks like, and what benchmarks you’ll be judged against,” he says. Having a deep understanding of what’s expected of you is critical for deciding whether you do indeed want the job, he adds. Think hard about whether the “the job is achievable and whether you feel you are going to be able to hit the targets set out.” If the answers are no, it may be that the role is ill-conceived or not for you.
  • Cultural fit. You must also “do your due diligence,” on the organization and its people to make a sound judgment on whether you will enjoy working there, notes Weiss. Ask yourself, “Is this a place where I will be happy? Where I will be challenged? And where I will thrive?” To answer that, Lees recommends “working the phones, reaching out to your contacts and LinkedIn network,” and asking questions. “What is the organization like? How long do people stay? Find out what happened to the last person who did the job.” You will not be able to negotiate or change the organization’s culture, of course, but it is helpful to know beforehand what you’re getting into. It might make sense to do a trial run at the company during the evaluation stage. “Say, ‘I really want to learn more about this organization. Can I spend a few hours with the team?’ That’ll give you a sense of what your colleagues are like, what it would be like to work there, and where the bodies are buried.”
  • Flexibility, vacation, and other perks. For many employees, vacation time and the ability to work flexible hours are an increasingly valuable perk. While health benefits are typically standard issue, additional paid time off may be negotiable. If flexibility is not an explicit component of the job offer, you can broach the topic in the negotiation stage, says Weiss. But bear in mind that “things like that are much easier to raise when you’ve made yourself invaluable,” and have been working in the job for a certain period of time. That said, it’s important during the evaluation stage to find out whether current employees are afforded such benefits. Get a feel for how a request for flexibility might be received by senior management. “If you are a perfect match for the job and it’s a tight market, you have a lot of leverage,” says Lees. But if the market is more fluid, you may have little leeway.
  • Other options. “You must also assess your walk-away alternatives,” says Weiss. Even if you don’t necessarily have other job offers in hand, you need to consider other possibilities. “Think about the offer in terms of the cost and benefit of starting the job search process all over again, of staying in your current job, or of waiting to see what other offers materialize later down the road,” he says. If nothing more, this exercise is useful in helping you realize that you have options.

Devise your plan
Once you have “determined the most important elements of the offer that you would like to change,” you need to “decide which cards you are going to play and the sequence of how you will play them,” says Lees. Formulating your negotiation strategy requires creativity, says Weiss. If you are dealing with an intermediary — an HR administrator or a recruiter, for instance — remember to “not only make requests, but also arm that person with questions, information, and ideas.” Come at it from the “perspective of joint problem-solving.” He suggests saying something like, “The salary you’re offering is great, but I want to keep developing in this role. I can imagine some possibilities that might make the job more palatable such as having access to a mentoring program, a rotation program, or an educational allowance. Which of these might be possible?’”

Be tough but cheerful
The rest is “classic negotiation,” says Lees. “You want to maximize the cost of the things you are prepared to accept and minimize the things you’re asking for.” Demonstrate that you’ve undertaken a thoughtful evaluation. For instance, you might say, “I am quite happy with the role and responsibilities, but I would like to work from home one day per week.” Seek to come across as a “tough but cheerful negotiator,” he says. “Go into the deal-making with your eyes open,” he adds. “You can’t negotiate everything, and once you’ve agreed on something you can’t go back on it,” he says. Adds Weiss: “It’s not what you ask for; it’s how you ask for it. Be well-prepared, respectful, and constructive. You want to be seen as someone they want to work with.”

Say no (politely) if it’s not right
Ideally there will be some give and take in these negotiations, but if “you keep coming up against a ‘no’ for everything you ask for, that demonstrates inflexibility” on the part of your prospective employer, and that “could well be a management style you don’t want to live with,” says Lees. Heed red flags. “Pay attention to your internal monitoring system,” he says. “If due diligence tells you that you should not take the job, listen.” Besides, there is no shame in declining a job offer if it’s not the right fit. “As long as you turn it down politely with one or two good reasons — it will not stretch you enough or you want to work in a different sector — you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” he says. And yet, you should  “always leave the door open,” says Weiss. “The people you are dealing with are your potential customers, potential advisors, and perhaps even your future employers. Be respectful.”

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Think about what you want out of your job and use that as a framework to determine the elements of the offer you would like to alter
  • Be selective about what you push back on
  • Employ classic negotiation techniques by maximizing the cost of the things you are prepared to accept and minimizing the things you seek.

Don’t

  • Be critical or suspicious when questioning something about the offer.
  • Neglect to consider your walkaway alternatives.
  • Ignore red flags. If your instincts and due diligence tells you that you should not take the job, listen.

Case Study #1: Do due diligence on salary considerations and be open to making trade-offs
Two years ago, Jane Chung was contacted about a job as a project manager at Los Angeles-based AltaMed Health Services Corporation. At the time, Jane was a consultant and counted AltaMed among her clients.

When Jane got the offer, she was instantly pleased. “The initial base salary was around 20% higher than my salary at the time,” she says. “Normally, I would’ve been tempted to accept immediately, but I knew that I needed to do a more thorough calculation of the complete offer package.”

Jane’s first order of business was to do a careful, comprehensive evaluation of the money. She used publicly available information from Glassdoor and Indeed to get a sense of the specific title’s market average. She also talked to recruiters and other people in her LinkedIn network to determine her worth. “I make it a habit, whether I’m actively job searching or not, to use my personal network to inquire about other companies’ paid time off allowances/policies and flexibility in work schedule,” she says.

From her due diligence, she learned that going from the private sector to a non-profit health system would mean a significant reduction in bonuses. “I recalculated my total current pay to be inclusive of benefits and bonuses, and factored in the increased scope and responsibility of this new position,” she says.

Next, Jane reflected on whether she would be happy working at AltaMed. “My primary motivation for pursuing a position was because of the mission of the organization to provide healthcare to disadvantaged and under-served communities,” she says. She was already familiar with and impressed by the organziation’s’s culture, dynamics and senior leaders.

And there were other perks. “I also knew the company observed a corporate shutdown during the holiday season, which was a plus for me,” she says.

She then formulated her negotiation plan.  A recruiter was acting as a go-between, and Jane made sure to “ask a lot of questions” while continually “expressing genuine enthusiasm for the offer.”

Her first request was for a higher base salary, and while AltaMed did comply, the second offer still didn’t meet her goal. So she next asked the recruiter if other elements, such as paid time off, were open for negotiation. Unfortunately, “she said that wouldn’t be possible because of the company’s strict adherence to the PTO formula based on years served,” Jane recalls.

Still, the move “did help the recruiter know I was committed to this position and that I was also open to negotiating other elements,” Jane said. She asked once more if the company could sweeten the offer and it responded with another small base salary increase plus a signing bonus. So she took the job.

Today Jane is in the middle of a new job search as her project is tied to federal funding that is due to end in September of this year.

Case Study # 2:  Prioritize what’s important to you and formulate an approach
A few years ago, a recruiter approached Andrea Molette Bradford, a marketing executive who has worked for Coca-Cola and Sprint, about a vice president position at a large retail company based in a different city.

Andrea was eager to make a career change and excited about the job. “The recruiter provided invaluable information about the company and coached me during the interview and the offer process,” she says. “However, I kept in mind that the recruiter was hired and compensated by the company; therefore, I did not expect him to prioritize my best interests.”

The offer arrived, and it was pretty good. She was pleased with role and responsibilities, starting salary, health benefits, bonus payment, and stock options.

But there were still some things that Andrea wanted to change. “Whenever I consider an offer, I always write down what I want, in priority order. I never share this list, but it is my north star in negotiations.”

Her first priority was more vacation time; the second was a later start date. “I wanted to push it back so that I could close out my home and have time to move and get settled in my new city,” she says.

She then formulated a plan for how she’d approach these requests. The thrust of her message was that she was satisfied with the bulk of the offer but wanted to maintain the number of weeks of holiday that she had in her current job. “I also told my boss that traveling makes me a well-rounded professional, and I need that vacation time in order to see people and things outside of my backyard.” She also explained that she had relocated before and knew how important it was to allow “adequate time” for the transition.

Andrea strived to come across as reasonable and positive during the negotiation. She secured the additional vacation and, although her prospective boss wanted her to begin work earlier, Andrea ultimately prevailed. “The hiring manager pushed hard on [the start date], but I think he understood that it was important to me, and I only came to the table with two requests.” She says she made the right decision to take the job.

Today Andrea is an independent consultant. “I am always open to great opportunities,” she says.

What Will Happen When Your Company’s Algorithms Go Wrong?

April 10, 2017 - 11:00am

When you’re ready to incorporate artificial intelligence technologies in your business, the analysis you should perform is this: What can possibly go wrong? What is our product or service expected to do? What happens if it fails to do so? Do we have a damage mitigation plan? Consider the embarrassing situation that Microsoft found itself in with its Tay chatbot fiasco, where internet trolls exploited vulnerabilities in the bot’s code, feeding it racist, homophobic, and sexist content that millions read on social media.

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Accidents, including deadly ones, caused by software or industrial robots can be traced to the early days of such technology, but they are not necessarily caused by the systems themselves. AI failures, on the other hand, are directly related to the mistakes produced by the intelligence such systems are designed to exhibit. We can broadly classify such failures into “mistakes made during the learning phase” and “mistakes made during performance phase.” A system can fail to learn what its designers want it to learn and might instead learn a different, but correlated function.

A frequently cited example is a computer vision system that the U.S. Army had hoped to use to automatically detect camouflaged enemy tanks. The system was supposed to classify pictures of tanks, but instead learned to distinguish the backgrounds of such images. Other examples include problems caused by poorly-designed functions that would reward AIs for only partially desirable behaviors, such as pausing a game to avoid losing, or repeatedly touching a soccer ball to get credit for possession.

It can help to look at some recent examples of AI failure to better understand what problems are likely to arise and what you can do to prevent them — or at least to clean up quickly after a failure. Consider these examples of AI failures from the past few years:

  • 2015: An automated email reply generator created inappropriate responses, such as writing “I love you” to a business colleague.
  • 2015: A robot for grabbing auto parts grabbed and killed a man.
  • 2015: Image tagging software classified black people as gorillas.
  • 2015: Medical AI classified patients with asthma as having a lower risk of dying of pneumonia.
  • 2015: Adult content filtering software failed to remove inappropriate content, exposing children to violent and sexual content.
  • 2016: AI designed to predict recidivism acted racist.
  • 2016: An AI agent exploited a reward signal to win a game without actually completing the game.
  • 2016: Video game NPCs (non-player characters, or any character that is not controlled by a human player) designed unauthorized superweapons.
  • 2016: AI judged a beauty contest and rated dark-skinned contestants lower.
  • 2016: A mall security robot collided with and injured a child.
  • 2016: The AI “AlphaGo” lost to a human in a world-championship-level game of “Go.”
  • 2016: A self-driving car had a deadly accident.

And every day, consumers experience more common shortcomings of AI: Spam filters block important emails, GPS provides faulty directions, machine translations corrupt the meaning of phrases, autocorrect replaces a desired word with a wrong one, biometric systems misrecognize people, transcription software fails to capture what is being said; overall, it is harder to find examples of AIs that don’t fail.

Analyzing the list of AI failures above, we can arrive at a simple generalization: An AI designed to do X will eventually fail to do X. While it may seem trivial, it is a powerful generalization tool, which can be used to predict future failures of AIs. For example, looking at cutting-edge current and future AIs we can predict that:

  • AI doctors will misdiagnose some patients in a way a real doctor would not.
  • Video description software will misunderstand movie plots.
  • Software for generating jokes will occasionally fail to make them funny.
  • Sarcasm detection software will confuse sarcastic and sincere statements.
  • Employee screening software will be systematically biased and thus hire low performers.
  • The Mars robot-explorer will misjudge its environment and fall into a crater.
  • Tax preparation software will miss important deductions or make inappropriate ones.

What should you learn from the above examples and analysis? Failures will happen! It’s inevitable.  But, we can still put best practices in place, such as:

  • Controlling user input to the system and limiting learning to verified data inputs.
  • Checking for racial, gender, age, and other common biases in your algorithms.
  • Explicitly analyzing how your software can fail, and then providing a safety mechanism for each possible failure.
  • Having a less “smart” backup product or service available.
  • Having a communications plan in place to address the media in case of an embarrassing failure. (Hint: Start with an apology.)

I predict that both the frequency and seriousness of AI failures will steadily increase as AIs become more capable. The failures of today’s narrow domain AIs are just the tip of the iceberg; once we develop general artificial intelligence capable of cross-domain performance, embarrassment will be the least of our concerns.

Let Your Call Center Reps Collaborate

April 10, 2017 - 10:00am

Walk into any customer-service department and you’re likely to encounter a scene that looks more like a factory floor than a knowledge-worker environment. In almost every company around the world, the contact center typically features row upon row of workstations, with reps at each station—headsets on and heads down—going through the same scripted, robotic interactions with each and every customer. While posters on the wall might exhort reps to “be themselves” and “let their personalities shine through,” the organization does all it can to actively prohibit such behavior, seeking instead to eliminate variance from one service interaction to the next.  Calls are recorded and reps are ultimately evaluated on their ability to hit a prescribed set of quality checklist items—for instance, whether they used the customer’s name to build rapport, thanked the customer for being loyal, used an approved greeting and sign-off and, above all, whether they said anything factually incorrect about policies, products or services that could land the company in hot water.

In short, where other departments reward creativity and experimentation, what’s prized in customer service are consistency, error reduction and adherence to the rules.

Our research, however, shows that this type of management approach doesn’t just lead to lower-quality service interactions, but it’s more likely to increase errors than to reduce them.

In a global, online survey of more than 7,500 service reps from across 38 different companies, we found that service organizations fall into one of three distinct work environments or “climates”:

  1. Adherence climates, in which reps rely primarily on company policies and procedures when making decisions.
  2. Individual-judgment climates, wherein reps rely on their own personal experience and judgment to make decisions.
  3. Network-judgment climates, in which reps rely more on advice and guidance from colleagues to inform their own decisions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, adherence climates tend to dominate in customer service.  In our study, roughly three-quarters of companies can be characterized as representing one dominant type of climate.  In those organizations, fully 52% of reps reported working in an adherence climate compared to 35% who work in an individual judgment climate and only 12% who find themselves in a network judgment climate.

But, when we look at the performance of these different climates (measured in terms of customer effort, customer satisfaction, and productivity), it turns out that the adherence climate—which managers believe delivers the most consistent service experience across customer interactions—comes in dead last. Individual-judgment climates generate marginally better outcomes, but it is the network judgment climate that delivers the greatest lift in performance. Network judgment climates perform 50% better than the average contact center.  The same true when it comes to making mistakes. Network judgment climates actually reduce the risk of rep error by 25% when compared to either individual judgment climates or adherence climates.

It turns out that the best way to improve performance and minimize risk isn’t to tightly manage reps, but instead to liberate them to engage with one another and share both best practices and lessons learned in handling customer service requests.

Why do reps in network judgment climates perform better?  We think it has to do with the shifting nature of service requests.  In the days before self-service, tightly managing the service center might have made sense given the simple and predictable mix of issues that reps had to deal with—for instance, checking balances, changing addresses, or tracking packages.  But, now that these easy issues are resolved in self-service channels, the average issue that makes it through to a live rep is more complex and far less predictable. In this environment, it’s hard to provide reps with a script or checklist for every possible situation. Instead, with new and unique customer issues coming in every minute, it makes more sense to empower reps to leverage their peers’ wisdom, experience, and lessons learned.

Whereas in the typical contact center, you would find reps working individually to resolve customer issues, in a network-judgment organization you would see reps leaning across their cube walls, huddled around a whiteboard or using tools like instant messaging to share advice and collaborate on solutions to complex issues.

Transforming an organization’s climate to one of network judgment takes time and commitment, but can be done.  Our research points to two key steps to get this right:

  1. Invest in collaboration tools and reward collaborative behaviors: Companies should signal the expectations of peer learning and sharing through incentives and metrics (rewarding reps for collaborating with others and sharing advice) and bring reps closer together — both physically (by rethinking floor layout) and virtually (using tools like instant messenger and discussion boards). Supervisor coaching plays a critical role as well in reinforcing the collaborative behaviors that underpin a network-judgment climate.
  1. Enlist reps to identify the underlying barriers to collaboration: Managers are sometimes surprised that collaboration doesn’t happen automatically after knocking down cube walls or investing in collaboration tools for reps. Often, there remain underlying barriers to collaboration that companies only surface once they engage reps in listening tours and focus groups. One of the biggest culprits stymying collaboration?  Legacy productivity metrics like Average Handle Time (AHT), which we’ve written about previously.  Said one manager from a large retailer, “We couldn’t figure out why our reps weren’t collaborating despite strong signals from management that we wanted them to.  Once we got them together for a team brainstorming session, we realized that our obsession with AHT as a performance metric was sending the opposite message to reps: that we care more about handling calls quickly than allowing reps the time they need to tap a colleague on the shoulder and ask for advice.”

A network judgment climate sets reps up to be true problem solvers and owners of a low-effort service experience.  It means they have an outlet to share their ideas with their peers and their concerns with their supervisors. They get to stand up, take control, and share what they know.

And it has one other important benefit: reps far prefer it. Reps who work in a network-judgment organization demonstrate 54% higher discretionary effort and a 17% higher intent-to-stay than reps who work in the average contact center.  With reps who stick around longer and are more engaged in their work, the richness of their collaboration and, therefore, the collective wisdom of the service department only improves. Network judgment is a trifecta win for the organizations who can implement it—better for reps, better for the company and, ultimately, better for the customer.

4 Kinds of Workplaces, and How to Know Which Is Best for You

April 10, 2017 - 9:00am

We all want to be part of a great organization and a high-performance workplace. We want to be at our best, surrounded by colleagues who help us and challenge us, doing work that is financially rewarding and personally meaningful. But there’s more than one kind of successful organization, and there are many kinds of productive workplaces. What matters at work is whether the value proposition that drives your company is in sync with the values that motivate you, whether the culture that defines life inside an organization is compatible with your personal style, and whether the people with whom you work make you think, grow, even laugh.

Which means that all of us, no matter where we are in our careers or what sort of work we do, have to reflect on the kind of workplace that works for us. Do we thrive on the rush of external and internal competition, or are we at our best in an environment built on collaboration? Do we hunger for individual achievement and personal recognition, or do we revel in team spirit and collective success? Are we prepared to sacrifice emotional and psychological satisfaction for financial rewards, or is doing something meaningful more important than making money?

I’ve had the opportunity, over the last two decades, to immerse myself in some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and productive workplaces, from health care to financial services, from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. These organizations have achieved tremendous success in the marketplace with vastly different approaches to the workplace. As I reflect on the many businesses I’ve visited and studied, I’ve identified four distinct kinds of workplaces, and I’ve come up with a set of 16 questions to help you figure out which kind works for you.

There are no right answers to these questions, of course; there’s no perfect workplace for everyone. Each of us has to figure out what kind of workplace gives us the best chance to do great work.

What are those four kinds of workplaces?

The company as community. This kind of workplace exudes an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit in which trust, teamwork, and peer-to-peer loyalty are bedrock principles rather than mere rhetoric. Customers matter, of course, as do the interests of partners and investors. But this workplace elevates the needs of employees above all other constituencies. The formula for business success starts with what’s right for the people in the business. For example, at Davita, a hugely successful health care provider based in Denver, Colorado, CEO Kent Thiry likes to say that his organization is a “community first and a company second.” He explains: “We have flipped the means and the ends. Having an adequately profitable business is the means. Building a real community of human beings is the end.”

A constellation of stars. These organizations are a collection of hard-driving, fiercely competitive individuals who measure their success against personal goals, and even against one another. The ethos is up-or-out, sink-or-swim, rank-and-yank. It’s a tough environment, but it’s the right environment for talented people who aspire to be superstars. Many investment banks and hedge funds operate this way, as do some law firms, consulting outfits, and tech titans. “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the New York Times. “They are 100 times better.” In workplaces built for stars, organizational success relies on individual achievement.

Not just a company, a cause. In this environment, employees worry less about personal happiness or individual triumphs and more about their collective impact. There is a self-effacing quality to these workplaces, a willingness to make sacrifices and go to extraordinary lengths to keep promises to customers and other constituencies. The spirit is “mission first” — do whatever it takes to get the job done. No company better captures this model than USAA, the fabulously successful financial services company that does business exclusively with active and retired military members and their families. USAA has become a passion brand, renowned for its out-of-this-world service, because grassroots employees identify so thoroughly with soldiers and their families, and put those interests above their own. That’s what it means to be a cause, as opposed to just a company.

Small is beautiful. Certain people, whether they’re motivated by a sense of mission or a thirst for individual achievement, are at their best in environments that are easy to navigate, where there are few obstacles between ideas and action, where a sense of urgency defines the pace of life. Last October entrepreneurship guru Bo Burlingham published the 10th-anniversary edition of his business classic, Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. The book’s title and subtitle capture the spirit of this kind of workplace, where human scale matters more than massive revenue and big market share. In a world where smaller and smaller groups of people can achieve bigger and bigger things, size really does matter — and smaller can often be more rewarding than bigger.

There’s nothing like doing work that matters, but that means finding a company, organization, or team with a workplace that’s right for you. In a world with so much interesting and important work to do, we all deserve the chance to be at our best and to be surrounded by colleagues who bring out the best in us.

Author’s note: I’ve created a 16-question quiz on my website to help you figure out the best workplace for you. It’s free, but you do have to enter your email address to get your results.

The Different Approaches Firms Use to Set Strategy

April 10, 2017 - 8:05am

What is your strategy? Most senior executives can confidently answer this question. How has that strategy changed over time? This one usually gets a quick answer too. How do you make decisions about changing that strategy? Now it gets much more difficult. The fact is, many senior executives struggle to describe how they make strategic decisions. That’s a serious problem, since the process for making strategic decisions can shape the strategy itself. Making a strategy without knowing your process is like sailing without a compass. You are setting yourself up for a long, stressful journey. Even worse, if you eventually reach your destination, you may not realize that you’re in the right place.

To better understand how companies really make strategic choices, we recently interviewed 92 current CEOs, founders, and senior executives. We asked each to answer detailed questions about their approach to strategic decision making. Their replies revealed both striking variety and underlying patterns. Here, we offer a typology of four approaches. Our results can’t say that any single approach to strategy is always best, but we do offer some evidence that one of the approaches is often flawed.

Four Approaches to Strategic Decision Making

Companies’ processes differed from each other in two ways. The first was whether a firm uses a high or low level of process to make strategic decisions. That is, does it have recurring routines for discussing strategy, triggering strategic changes, and reviewing those changes? The second was the amount of input from other employees that the leader considers while making a strategic decision. This factor focuses on employee involvement in decision making, not simply attendance at meetings or post-decision communication. These two factors can exist in any pairing, and based on our interviews, firms populate all boxes, which gives us four distinct archetypes of strategic decision making.

 

Unilateral firms are both low process and low input. They tend to have a top-down leader who makes decisions alone. During our interviews, these individuals often had difficulty explaining their decision-making process and the role other employees played. Interestingly, these interviewees had two different types of attitudes: Some disliked their process and admitted that they should do things differently, while others seemed very confident with how they made decisions. A potential benefit for Unilateral firms is that leaders can make decisions quickly, without the constraints of process complexity and debate. However, the bad news is that, lacking checks and balances, Unilateral firms can make bad decisions fast. Moreover, speed is not a sure thing in a Unilateral firm: If the top-down leader chooses to procrastinate on a tough decision, no process is there to force timely action.

Ad Hoc firms are low process and high input. These firms do not have a codified, recurring process that they follow every time they make a strategic change. But when a change needs to be made, the leader pulls their team together to take action. The exact steps the firm follows and the exact people in the room change from one decision to the next. The benefit of an Ad Hoc system is that rigid rules don’t constrain the firm. Leaders can tailor the process to each decision by adjusting the length of deliberations, the involved parties, and other factors. The main risk is that the firm may not learn over time how to get better at making strategic decisions. The top leader of an Ad Hoc firm might also use the process flexibility to exclude stakeholders who disagree with the leader’s position. This will eliminate the debate that fuels Ad Hoc decision making and, in essence, shift the firm down to the unilateral box.

Administrative firms are high process but low input. These firms follow rigorous processes and well-defined routines to make strategic decisions without actually eliciting debate from other employees. One benefit is the detailed data collection and documentation that accompanies this extensive process. If Administrative firms are smart, they can leverage this information to improve future decision making. But, similar to Unilateral firms, the low level of input can result in bad decisions if leaders do not consider key information or opinions. In fact, this risk can be especially grave in Administrative firms because the detailed process and the sheer quantity of information gathered can act as theater, masking the lack of broad input from internal and external stakeholders.

Collaborative firms are both high process and high input. These firms have the rigorous process of an Administrative firm, but also the engaged employees of an Ad Hoc firm. During interviews, these leaders showed strong consistency across different types of decisions and could clearly articulate how employees added value during the process. The detailed process ensures that the leaders don’t miss any steps. The frequent input ensures that they don’t miss any information. However, the inflexible system can potentially slow down decision making and prevent firms from acting on time-sensitive opportunities. For example, Collaborative firms may inadvertently include irrelevant parties in strategy discussions or spend too much time achieving consensus among the participants in order to maintain engagement.

Which Approach Should a Firm Use?

Each of these archetypes has benefits and risks, which invites a question: Where should a firm sit in the matrix? Our interview data shows tremendous variation in archetype within each industry and across firms of similar size, which suggests that the right archetype for a given firm depends on subtle features of the company and its context. Our current research does not include enough data on context and firm performance to pinpoint the conditions in which one archetype would be the winner.

That said, our early data does make us skeptical about the Unilateral archetype. In our interviews, we asked managers to give us a sense of where their approach stood in terms of five attributes that are generally associated with good strategic decision-making processes, namely:

  • Alternatives. Does the firm consider alternative options when making strategic decisions?
  • Information. How much information does the firm use to spark debate about decisions?
  • Implementation. Is a detailed implementation plan available when a decision is made?
  • Learning. Does the firm study successes and failures to learn for future decisions?
  • Communication. Does the firm have a clear plan to communicate changes to employees?

We then scored executives’ responses based on a quantitative rubric. The chart below shows the percentage of total possible points that the average firm in each archetype scored on each of the attributes. Unilateral firms scored lower on all criteria, to the point of statistical significance, than Collaborative firms; on four of the five than Administrative firms; and on three of the five than Ad Hoc firms. The low scores of Unilateral firms raise a red flag about this approach. If you are using the Unilateral archetype, you should pressure-test it and consider whether it is the best option for your firm. In contrast, the other three archetypes do not differ much in terms of the five attributes. For example, the chances of establishing learning routines appear very similar across Ad Hoc, Collaborative, and Administrative archetypes.

 

Ultimately, the wide variation in strategy-making approaches, even within similar industries and across organizations of similar sizes, was a real eye opener for our research team. An optimistic interpretation of this finding is that managers have considerable leeway to choose the archetype that best fits their specific context. A less rosy interpretation is that managers may inadvertently be stuck with less-than-optimal approaches. Our future research will aim to shed more light on this important question.

In the meantime, our advice to leaders is to take a hard look at how they make strategic decisions. Where does your firm sit on the matrix? Does your approach match where you want to be, given the pros and cons of each archetype? Does the approach fit with the demands of your market and firm? Questions like these will show whether you need to change, and will help you start the work needed to shift processes and culture to find a new home on the matrix.

The authors are grateful to Alek Duerksen, David Lopez-Lengowski, Michael Lynch, Meg McGuire, and Jackie Reilly, who conducted many of the interviews and gave insightful input on the design of the survey instrument.

If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?

April 7, 2017 - 12:00pm

The research is clear: when we choose humble, unassuming people as our leaders, the world around us becomes a better place.

Humble leaders improve the performance of a company in the long run because they create more collaborative environments. They have a balanced view of themselves – both their virtues and shortcomings – and a strong appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, while being open to new ideas and feedback. These “unsung heroes” help their believers to build their self-esteem, go beyond their expectations, and create a community that channels individual efforts into an organized group that works for the good of the collective.

For example, one study examined 105 small-to-medium-sized companies in the computer software and hardware industry in the United Studies. The findings revealed that when a humble CEO is at the helm of a firm, its top management team is more likely to collaborate and share information, making the most of the firm’s talent.

Another study showed that a leader’s humility can be contagious: when leaders behave humbly, followers emulate their modest attitude and behavior. A study of 161 teams found that employees following humble leaders were themselves more likely to admit their mistakes and limitations, share the spotlight by deflecting praise to others, and be open to new ideas, advice, and feedback.

Yet instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.

The Greek word Kharisma means “divine gift,” and charisma is the quality of extraordinary charm, magnetism, and presence that makes a person capable of inspiring others with enthusiasm and devotion. German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as “of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of it, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.” Research evidence on charismatic leadership reveals that charismatic people are more likely to become endorsed as leaders because of their high energy, unconventional behavior, and heroic deeds.

While charisma is conductive to orchestrating positive large-scale transformations, there can be a “dark side” to charismatic leadership. Jay Conger and Rabindra Kanungo describe it this way in their seminal book: “Charismatic leaders can be prone to extreme narcissism that leads them to promote highly self-serving and grandiose aims.” A clinical study illustrates that when charisma overlaps with narcissism, leaders tend to abuse their power and take advantage of their followers. Another study indicates that narcissistic leaders tend to present a bold vision of the future, and this makes them more charismatic in the eyes of others.

Why are such leaders more likely to rise to the top? One study suggests that despite being perceived as arrogant, narcissistic individuals radiate “an image of a prototypically effective leader.” Narcissistic leaders know how to draw attention toward themselves. They enjoy the visibility. It takes time for people to see that these early signals of competence are not later realized, and that a leader’s narcissism reduces the exchange of information among team members and often negatively affects group performance.

It’s not that charismatic and narcissistic people can’t ever make good leaders. In some circumstances, they can. For example, one study found that narcissistic CEOs “favor bold actions that attract attention, resulting in big wins or big losses.” A narcissistic leader thus can represent a high-risk, high-reward proposition.

And it’s not that humble leaders can’t ever be charismatic. Researchers agree that we could classify charismatic leaders as “negative” or “positive” by their orientation toward pursuing their self-interested goals versus those of their groups. These two sides of charismatic leadership have also been called personalized and socialized charisma. Although the socialized charismatic leader has the aura of a hero, it is counteracted with low authoritarianism and a genuine interest in the collective welfare. In contrast, the personalized charismatic leader’s perceived heroism is coupled with high authoritarianism and high narcissism. It is when followers are confused and disoriented that they are more likely to form personalized relationships with a charismatic leader. Socialized relationships, on the other hand, are established by followers with a clear set of values who view the charismatic leader as a means to achieve collective action.

The problem is that we select negative charismatic leaders much more frequently than in the limited situations where the risk they represent might pay off. Despite their grandiose view of themselves, low empathy, dominant orientation toward others, and strong sense of entitlement, their charisma proves irresistible. Followers of superheroes are enthralled by their showmanship: through their sheer magnetism, narcissistic leaders transform their environments into a competitive game in which their followers also become more self-centered, giving rise to organizational narcissism, as one study shows.

If humble leaders are more effective than narcissistic leaders, why do we so often choose narcissistic individuals to lead us?

The “romance of leadership” hypothesis suggests that we generally have a biased tendency to understand social events in terms of leadership and people tend to romanticize the figure of the leader.

My own research shows that our psychological states can also bias our perceptions of charismatic leaders. High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.

Economic and social crises thus become a unique testing ground for charismatic leaders. They create conditions of distress and uncertainty that appear to be ideal for the ascent of charismatic figures. Yet at the same time, they also make us more vulnerable to choosing the wrong leader. Crises and other emotionally laden events increase our propensity to romanticize the grandiose view of narcissistic leaders. The paradox is that we may then choose to support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to be seduced by superheroes who could come and “rescue” us, but who possibly then plunge us into greater peril.

While this may sound hopeless, there is another way of looking at it. Essentially, we have the leaders we deserve. As we collectively select and construct our leaders to satisfy our own needs and desires, we can choose humility or socialized charisma over narcissism.

Signs You’re Losing Control of Your Family Business

April 7, 2017 - 11:00am

When the non-family chairman/CEO unexpectedly told family business owners that they had to live without dividends or sell the business, Tommy leaned over and whispered in his cousin’s ear: “Do you get what’s going on? The numbers have always been terrific.”

Despite their shock, Tommy and other family owners shared responsibility for this painful situation. For years, they’d been detached and unengaged owners. No family member worked in the company, and those who sat on the board rubber-stamped management’s decisions. The owners sat passively until faced with the reality that they were at risk of losing the business that had been in the family for three generations.

While the details vary, stories of family owners losing control of their businesses are common. Consider what happened when a relatively young patriarch died unexpectedly, leaving no succession plan in place. The children were unprepared to take over, and the widow had no business experience. She brought in a non-family CEO who treated the business as his personal fiefdom. Eventually he tried to buy the business himself at a deflated price. The experience broke the family, emotionally and financially.

Sometimes a non-family CEO plays the role of villain in these situations, the blame lies more often with the owners, who created a power vacuum for others to fill. Lacking substantive direction from the owners, these executives understandably followed their own self-interests. But even when families are fortunate enough to find that selfless, protective non-family leader – and we have seen many – owners still need to speak with a single voice about what they want. Otherwise, there is no way to ensure that their ownership interests are being served.

Are there warning signs that you may be on the path to losing control of your family business? We primarily see five red flags:

  • Dividends never change. If you receive stable dividends year after year, then you should grow concerned. Dividend targets are fine, but the dividends of a well-run company are always uncertain and should vary depending on the company’s performance and its future opportunities. Every year there should be some discussion about the company’s profits and what to do with them. If you grow accustomed to receiving annual dividends — in the worst cases, treating them as a birthright — then you forfeit an essential mechanism for controlling the business, namely, deciding how much of your money should be reinvested annually.
  • Board meetings are a formality. A board of directors (or advisors) is essential for ensuring that the business is pursuing the owners’ objectives. At their best, independent directors bring wisdom, expertise, and a willingness to challenge management. As owners, you must see to it that the board is properly formed and empowered. Do you have a “paper board” that rarely meets or essentially rubber-stamps the recommendations of management? Is the board filled with family friends, or with the CEO and his allies? Is the board’s role murky and undefined? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you’re giving away a key lever for maintaining control.
  • Too much or too little information is provided. As an equity owner, you should receive information about business performance in a timely and appropriate way. Either fifteen-minute updates (“The business is great!” “Enjoy your dividend!”) or 200-page “summaries” should set off alarm bells. If you don’t work in the company, you are already at a disadvantage, lacking first-hand knowledge of what’s happening. When management either skimps or drowns you in details, it’s very difficult to understand your business’s performance and potential.
  • The CEO seems irreplaceable. There are business leaders who can run your business and deliver outstanding results, while also cultivating proper family engagement. Do what you can to keep these people. Watch out, however, if you (and they) talk and behave as if they are irreplaceable. Respect and appreciation for a job well done are healthy. Fear and dependency are not. Irreplaceable executives can begin to make decisions independently, believing they know better than you do. They may even refer to you as “the kids.” If your family ownership group walks on eggshells around your non-family CEO, your behavior may signal a dangerous imbalance of power.
  • Family members are shut out of the business. Sometimes family owners lose control of the business because the previous generation has shut the door to them during the succession process. There is either a real or perceived lack of talent among the next generation — or fear about the dangers of family conflict — and employment policies are put in place that either prevent or make it very difficult for family members to work in the business. There are times when this “professionalization” of the family business may make sense. But be aware that the family’s direct link to the operations of the company will be severed. You don’t need to run the business. But having owners employed there helps the family to keep a finger on the company’s pulse.

When you realize that you’ve lost some or most of the control over your company, then it’s time to ask yourselves whether or not you wish to continue to own your family business. You may decide it’s time to sell. But if you choose instead to become an active owner, then you must first reclaim active ownership. This decision doesn’t mean that you suddenly have to start micromanaging executives or meddling in operational decisions.

What does active ownership mean? To grapple with this and other important questions, the first step is to create a place where you and other owners can meet (without non-family executives or board members) to talk about your role and your aspirations for the business. We often call this place an Owner Council. It’s a forum where you can decide your priorities as owners and discuss how to speak to the board and management about these priorities in a united voice.

After creating an Owner Council, you can then begin to set your objectives for the company. It’s the owners’ responsibility to put in place clear financial policies for dividends and debt levels, as well as to set financial and non-financial guardrails, such as setting a return on investment target or banning investments in, say, tobacco. One of your most important jobs is to manage the process of selecting board members. You may, of course, solicit advice from others, such as a nominating committee, but the ultimate decision rests within the ownership group. It’s then up you as owners to hold the board accountable for choosing a high performing CEO who supports your owner agenda.

Keeping control of your family business isn’t easy. For a start, ownership is not typically a full-time job, but is rather peripheral to your everyday work and lives. You can also feel ill-equipped to exercise your rights thoughtfully when the financials of the business can seem impenetrable. You may never become an expert on, say, return on invested capital, which only underscores the importance of structures that let you rely on the knowledge of people who appreciate your values and follow your agenda. By becoming more active and effective owners, you can let go of many decisions without losing control of your family business.

Some of the identifying details in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality.

5 Questions to Ask Before You Call Out Someone Powerful

April 7, 2017 - 10:00am

A leader in the health industry recalled an incident from 40 years ago that still haunted him. In the early stages of his career he decided he had to speak up about malpractice he had witnessed. He remembered the experience very clearly: “I was hauled before the District Medical Officer… there’s me at 21 and him fifty-odd: ‘Young man, if you think you have any future in this career, you’ll desist from this [questioning] immediately.’ So I did desist.”

To avoid situations like this, most people will consciously or unconsciously weigh up relative power differences before deciding to speak up. And it’s always tempting to think that when you have more power — maybe even just a little more – it will be easier to call out wrongdoing. But over the last two years, as we interviewed over 60 business leaders, what we found is that this feeling never goes away. There is always someone or something more powerful than you are — when we spoke with company CEOs, they’d express concern about their boards, and when we spoke with board chairmen, they’d admit to being afraid of the media. No matter how senior the person we interviewed, there was always a lingering doubt about the risks and consequences of speaking up.

In our study, recently published, we sought to understand the complexities surrounding the decision to speak up or not at work — from a small idea about how to change customer service conversations, to a more serious issue of professional wrongdoing. In a previous article we explored how leaders may inadvertently silence others through being blind to their relative power. Now, we share what we’ve learned about those who do speak up. Our research suggests that speaking truth to power requires attention to these five intimately related questions:

1. How much do you believe in your own opinion? Speaking up requires you to believe you have a contribution to make and to feel strongly enough about it to speak up. So how much do you care? How would you feel if you didn’t speak up?

When we spoke to one whistle-blower who had inadvertently discovered that their CEO had been defrauding the company, he described the devastating consequences of speaking up: not only did he lose his job, but his family came apart as well. Asked whether he would blow the whistle again, had he known the consequences, he replied quickly: “Absolutely not!” Then, wracked with distress, he said: “But how could I not have?” Even with the consequences so brutally apparent, this executive felt so strongly that speaking up was the morally right choice that he could not have lived with himself had he stayed silent.

This is an atypical story that stands out because of its drama — in many cases, the morally right course of action is murkier, and the consequences of speaking up are not so devastating. Which leads us to the second question:

2. Do you have a realistic grasp of the consequences of speaking up? By balancing how much we believe in what we have to say with what might happen if we say it, we can decide whether we have the energy and resilience required to do so. People often have an exaggerated fear of the consequences of speaking up, and so we tend to prefer the short-term security of staying silent. How can we best ensure we are being realistic with our fears? Start by considering how those who have previously spoken up have actually been treated. Then don’t forget to reflect on the counter-argument: what are the long-term consequences to you and others of staying silent? And think carefully about who is likely to be affected if you do speak out. This brings us onto the third key question:

3. How will what you have to say affect the political games being played in the organization? The Chief Operating Officer of one of the world’s biggest banks described the environment that fostered the culture that enabled the Libor and related scandals: “It all begins with the organization’s biggest lie.” This lie?  “Budgets.” The COO said that as soon as budget conversations were initiated, the political games began. Those new to the organization often fell afoul of the unwritten rules of the game. The organizational culture became so Byzantine with intrigue, and silence so obviously the safest choice, that larger and larger lies were allowed to grow unchecked.

This applies in all organizations. There is always politics in organizations, even in those that say they don’t have any, and there are always written and unwritten rules — with the unwritten ones being those that will usually trip you up.

4. What are the social rules that govern how you speak up and how you are listened to? Human beings label one another all the time, often unconsciously. So we meet someone and label them as: woman or old or American or rich. And then of course we consider their formal organizational label: CEO, sales rep, shelf-stacker, consultant. All these labels convey status, which differs according to context. A consultant in one organization may be expected to speak up and challenge the status quo — that is why they have been brought in — but in another, they might be expected to provide evidence to support the CEO’s stated strategy.

An activist investor in America, responsible for funds worth billions, described how she was often the only woman in the boardroom when she met with the executive teams of the companies she invested in.  And she was nearly always the only person aged under 50. Well aware that in these settings the labels “woman” and “young” conveyed lower status, she explained how she sought to build alliances before board meetings by speaking with her co-investors in advance, one-on-one, to secure their support.

Labels matter. If you want to speak up you would be wise to consider what labels are applied to you and the consequences of the labels you are applying to those you are speaking up to. This leads to the final question:

5. What is the most skillful way of speaking up in order to be heard? The Deputy Chairman of a global media organization explained to us that he quickly learned not to challenge the Chairman in a group situation. However, when traveling with the Chairman he knew that when they sat down together in the hotel lobby with a glass of wine, he could say anything he liked — and he would be heard.

Knowing what to say, how, when, and to whom is how you mitigate the consequences of speaking out and amplify the likelihood of being heard. Rehearsing can help, as can actively reflecting on your previous experience of speaking up — what worked, what didn’t, and what did you learn that you should apply in this situation?

The reality is that organizations are soaked in power and power politics. Speaking up is always a political act.

In choosing to speak up or not, a less powerful person has to be acutely aware of their own drivers and behavioral triggers, sensitive to their standing in the formal and informal social hierarchy, and also to the specifics of their organizational culture. There is no one-size-fits-all approach people can adopt. But there is no doubt that organizations of all stripes, and in all sectors, would perform better if more voices were raised, and heard.

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