What Does Leadership Mean, Today?

If you’re a boss, have the courage to present yourself as a more complex being: as a sinner, not a saint; a fragile identity, not a robust platform; a lively question-mark, not a dead-certain exclamation point.

– Tim Leberecht


Assuming a new leadership role at Gigaom Research has led me to reconsider the premises that underlie the practice of leadership in business, today. Over the coming months I intend to pursue ‘new leadership’ as one major thread in my research agenda.
[Note that I plan to publish my entire research agenda for the next year sometime this month, and I am asking all our analysts here at the new Gigaom Research to do the same.]
One key idea — one that might resonate in the high velocity tech sector where a research firm like Gigaom Research lives and breathes — is that leaders must be more human today than in the past.
This idea is well explored by Tim Leberecht in Leaders Win Trust When They Show a Bit of Humanity, where he wrote

We might think we want our leaders to be machines or heroes. But it’s impossible to trust a person who is always rational, serious, and in control. If you’re a boss, have the courage to present yourself as a more complex being: as a sinner, not a saint; a fragile identity, not a robust platform; a lively question-mark, not a dead-certain exclamation point.

The most effective leaders will show their emotions, employ humor to show their inner workings, and to be open-minded. With regard to the open-mindedness, Paul Saffo’s dictum is ‘strong opinions weakly held‘, which is a near-Taoist approach to triangulating a rapidly changing world:

Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the “strong opinion” part. Then –and this is the “weakly held” part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

We should all ‘engage in creative doubt’, whether we are leaders or aspire to be.

Justin Kirby wonders about the future of social business

Justin Kirby is a practitioner who wonders about the future of social business, starting with his roundup of responses to Chris Heuer’s Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next! piece last fall, touches on Lee Bryant’s thinking, and then explores some aspects of a report I have not yet read, Future of Social Business: Is the Gold Rush Over? by Luke Burley-Jones. He writes about that report, and then goes on:

[The report] is more of a description of the challenges than prescription or framework. For me the report highlights what missing in terms of hard evidence, and a scaleable model that social technologies are there to support, e.g. SAP and ERP, Six Sigma, etc. It also highlights some of the less productive discussions within social business, such as the nitpicking about terminology and definitions.

What’s more significant for me is that report also highlights how few, if any, social media technology enthusiasts have any real experience in behavioural psychology, organisational development, change, leadership, and other more people-focused disciplines. That’s probably why I often hear the refrain it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people, but hey look at this cool new technology. That seems to put the cart before the horse. So despite all the talk about more open, collaborative and social approaches to business the collaboration doesn’t seem as yet to be all that interdisciplinary.


I often hear the refrain it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people, but hey look at this cool new technology.

There are some like the analyst Stowe Boyd who seem to be looking in the right direction with his research into what he calls ‘Socialogy’, the theory and practice behind social business. What I haven’t seen is an interdisciplinary collaboration that uses social technologies to co-create a model for social business, or at the very least some conceptual framework that sets out the problems it attempts to solve. Perhaps an initiative like this could help propose a set of interventions and the metrics by which any success would be measured, and that could include those used within the social enterprise and international development arenas to assess social rather than financial impact, e.g. micro finance, etc.

My response to Justin is this: businesses seem to be blocked on social business, but it’s not technologies per se holding them back. I think one of the factors is that the python hasn’t digested the last pig, and has no room for the next one.

Many companies are stuck on the treadmill, running just as fast as they can to not fall behind. We are confronted by increasingly accelerated change in the economy, an explosion in computing scale in mobile, cloud, and connection technologies, and a sharp upheaval in the business/work dynamic — upended social contract, ephemeralization of work, rise of freelancing, disengagement — with the latter acting as an undertow, and the first two crashing together into a gigantic tsunami.

How can we break free of these crushing waters, and get some breathing room? The answer — such as it is — may come from a gradual awakening to the need for putting a stop to some old practices before new ones can be adopted. The social business mantra has been — generally — the opposite: that a gradualist adoption of tools and techniques could be layered on top of or between older bits of the company’s ways and means. That’s what is generally being done, with very mixed results.

And for large or highly dynamic businesses, adding a little social business to the mix is like putting a teabag in the bathtub: it’s too diffused to make any difference.

So, I am advocating an oppositional approach. First start by recalibrating around different principles — human-centered principles — and then reworking work. My umbrella term for this new form factor of business is ‘leanership’, because in comparison to current and traditional business, 21st businesses will have to be much more agile, nimble, and adaptable, and to get there leadership must diffuse and emerge throughout business networks, with a very different concept of leading. What many — like Lazlo Bock of Google — call emergent leadership, and which I call leanership.

Bock’s work at Google is an example of what I mean. They researched their hiring practices, found that they were basically folklore, and then replaced them with analytically- and scientifically-grounded alternatives (see Lazlo Bock talks about hiring at Google, and why the GPA is irrelevant).

This is not ‘social business’, it’s a new way of work, some aspects of which are social.

That’s why I am not trumpeting social business as answer to some nebulous question about the future of business (see ‘Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either), instead I am trying to track what the most advanced forward-leaning companies — like Asana, Google, GitHub, Medium, Zappo’s and Yammer — are doing. And those practices converge toward leanership.

Is ‘cultural fit’ a cop out? In general, yes.

It has become a common practice to preach and practice the dogma of cultural fit. The premise is that in order for a company to be successful, individuals have to share values and behaviors to meld into an effective workforce. Therefore, it  would seem to be good policy to identify what those values and behaviors are, and to hire people who embody them, and in the case of current employees, to encourage them to adopt those values and behaviors and release those that do not — or cannot — line up with the cultural norms.


The new way of work is based on connectives — loose and shifting networks of highly autonomous cooperators — rather than collectives — tight and static hierarchic teams where people work in narrowly-defined roles.

There are a number of problems in this ideology.
First off, it avoids the basic question of people doing their jobs, versus fitting in with the norms of an organizational culture. Imagine the setting where a relative staid retail chain has hired a few  young designers to reinvigorate the company’s website, and the style of their interactions with other, older employees has unsettled the traditional ways of doing business, but website traffic is up. In such a case, the ruffled feathers of old school employees might be a small cost to pay, however, given enough backlash, a company’s management team might opt to do the dumb thing, and let the designers go.
I think we are starting to see the beginnings of a deeper work culture, one that transcends and replaces the shallow organizational culture of the previous, industrial era. In this new work culture, the individual fit within the organization culture is less of a consideration, because of several factors:

  • The new way of work is based on connectives — loose and shifting networks of highly autonomous cooperators — rather than collectives — tight and static hierarchic teams where people work in narrowly-defined roles.
  • The basic dictum of the new way of work is personal striving to achieve mastery and making the connections needed to create and join high performing networks. The values and behaviors that are critical are those that align with high performance, not supporting the biases of a collective.
  • The most creative networks are loosely coupled, with sufficient room and time for individuals to apply their skills according to their own judgments, and are not dominated by a small elite that direct others in their work. They encourage dissent, as opposed to mandating and enforcing consensus. Acceptance — or encouragement — of dissent one of the key distinctions between cooperative work and the thinking behind what is generally known as collaboration.

Acceptance — or encouragement — of dissent one of the key distinctions between cooperative work and the thinking behind what is generally known as collaboration.

So, fitting into this deep work culture does not translate into a slavish observance of shallow norms of value and behavior. On the contrary, it means taking on an increased level of responsibility to excel in your own work, and to be eager to affiliate with others that are doing the same.
In too many cases, fitting in has come to mean accepting established but unfair practices, and management techniques that are not grounded on science, merely folklore. This is why women continue to be paid 77 cents for every dollar men are paid in business, as just one example. Or why businesses continue to hire using techniques that are a poor predictor of future success in the company. Cultural ‘fit’ is too often just a cop-out — a way to segregate and eliminate the disengaged or would-be change agents pushing to shake things up.
This does not mean that we should be blind to people’s psychological orientation. For example, there are certain psychological characteristics that make some people more effective at customer support than others, all things being equal. So testing people for those characteristics as an indication of their likely success makes sense. However, simply testing for some hypothetical profile of skills or psychological bent without a similarly focused and proven connection to the sort of work a person might be doing just doesn’t make sense.


Cultural ‘fit’ is too often just a cop-out — a way to segregate and eliminate the disengaged or would-be change agents pushing to make shake things up.

The simple truth is that people are bad at hiring, evaluating, and promoting others. People suffer, alas, from a long list of cognitive biases, such as believing that people that are more like us — in looks, nationality, temperament, and background — are easier to work with, and we give that far too much weight rather than to the nature of the work to be done. And that is only one such bias.
In the near future, machines of inhuman intelligence — without our biases, at least — will sift through mountains and years of data, and apply algorithms involving far more factors than the human mind can juggle to come up with recommendations about who should work where and why. At the same time, the rapid transition to the fast and loose way of working will lead to a more migratory sort of career for most, a portfolio of jobs and positions, lining up with Reid Hoffman’s ‘tours of duty’ model.


In the near future, machines of inhuman intelligence — without our biases, at least — will sift through mountains and years of data, and apply algorithms involving far more factors than the human mind can juggle to come up with recommendations about who should work where and why.

Hoffman suggested (see Hire for “Tours of Duty” instead of pretending jobs are forever) that in place of the now-fictional lifetime employment ideal of the 1950s, employees and employers should instead agree on a short-term of employment — say three or four years — and at a determined point, perhaps with a year to go in the tour, the two parties would discuss either a new tour with the company or the possibilities or a tour elsewhere. In either case, the company is responsible to help the employee find that next tour of duty, no matter where, just as the employee has the duty to work hard everyday.


This transition to ‘tours of duty’ is a prime example of deep work culture displacing shallow business culture: where a person’s fit is no longer viewed as a one-time meshing like a gear in a single, solitary corporate machine, but instead constantly working to find and create the right setting that fits you, in an expanded, connected work ecosystem.

This transition to ‘tours of duty’ is a prime example of deep work culture displacing shallow business culture: where a person’s fit is no longer viewed as a one-time meshing like a gear in a single, solitary corporate machine, but instead constantly working to find and create the right setting that fits you, in an expanded, connected work ecosystem. Instead of fitting in, we should be looking for places to work that fit us. If that is the new meaning of ‘fit’, let’s use it. Otherwise cultural fit is just one element of the bad old ways that we should drop.

You want more creativity and openness to what’s new? Get messy.

A great deal of the discussion that surrounds the adoption of new technologies in the enterprise — and their impacts on measurable desired outcomes — involves the cultural changes necessary for adoption. As a result, a considerable amount of time is dedicated to thinking about how cultural changes happen, and how they can be coaxed along.

I written about various approaches to cultural change, like the key role that positive deviants play (see How ‘positive deviants’ help a culture change itself, and Cultural change is really complex contagion, for example). One thing that I haven’t touched on much is physical space and its impact on our receptivity to change and innovation. Yes, there’s been a great deal said and written — including by me — about organizing the workplace to increase the likelihood of serendipitous encounters (see How business model innovation can be goosed: increase the likelihood of serendipity). But not much about the micro-level issues, like placement of chairs, what’s on our desks, and so on.

In a recent research study, Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity by Kathleen D. Vohs, Joseph P. Redden, and Ryan Rahinel of the University of Minnesota, reported on experiments that suggest that increasing the level of messiness in an office setting raises the creativity and willingness to accept novelty of test subjects.

Screenshot 2013-12-06 11.32.49The images above show the experimental setting for one of the two experiments in this study (there was an additional experiment regarding the impact of orderliness on healthy eating and willingness to make charitable donations, too. Order leads to better eating choices and less charitable donations, it turns out)

In the creativity experiment, it turns out that environmental disorder — the messy desks above — led test subjects to come up with more creative uses for ping-pong balls. As the researchers state [citations removed],

Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order, and convention, and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that. Three operationalizations of creativity supported our prediction that sitting in a messy, disorderly room would stimulate more creative ideas than sitting in a tidy, orderly room. It could be that our disorderly laboratory violated participants’ expectations, which can aid creativity. Our preferred explanation, though, is that cues of disorder can produce creativity because they inspire breaking free of convention. What is more, we observed a previously undocumented effect—that cues of disorder can produce highly desirable outcomes.

In the novelty experiment, a similar difference in messy and orderly surroundings was tested with respect to the preference for novelty over the conventional. The test subjects were shown menu items with only one difference, with ‘classic’ or ‘new’ shown, as a way to promote a smoothie ‘boost’ option (additional ingredients):

Screenshot 2013-12-06 11.43.02

The result: those in the messy office were more likely to pick the ‘new’ health boost option rather that the ‘classic’. Tha authors wrote

Experiment 3 showed that environmental order affected preferences for established versus novel outcomes. The results supported our prediction that an orderly environment would activate a mind-set of following convention whereas a disorderly environment would promote exploring new avenues. Highlighting the novelty of these results were the conclusions from a pretest, which confirmed that there was no normatively correct option in this context. Rather, orderliness seemed to encourage a general mind-set for conservatism and tradition, and disorder had the effect of stimulating the desire for the unknown.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps there really is something to chaotic environments full of toys and gizmos, and a relatively high degree of disarray out in Silicon Valley start-ups. A certain degree of disorder leads to a willingness to defy convention, embrace the new, and look for creative ways to do so.

This obviously has some possible application to cultural change in the organization. Consider the settings where people come together to discuss adopting new and innovative practices. Are they neat and tidy? Perhaps it would be better to have such a discussion in a context inherently more disordered, like a room with movable chairs and whiteboards on wheels, and intentionally disorganize the furnishings to avoid orderly rows and columns. Try to make sure the chairs are different sizes and shapes. Do not neatly stack copies of the report, but instead scatter them on various surfaces.

For those that are naturally neat this may prove to be difficult. Organizations that favor order and tidiness at a foundational level may in fact be subtly defeating their own efforts to make change by biasing staff toward conservatism and favoring tradition over novelty.

Companies wanting to up the baseline level of creativity and innovation should start at this foundational level: make things messier, and good things will happen.

 

Employers and employees differ on the causes — and cures — for workplace stress

In a recently released report, the professional services firm Towers Watson revealed that stress is the top workforce issue (see 2013/2014 [email protected] U.S. Executive Summary Report). And the top causes of stress? According to employers, these are the factors:

  1. lack of work/life balance
  2. inadequate staffing
  3. technologies that expand employee availability during nonworking hours
  4. unclear or shifting job expectations.

Employees disagree, citing things in this order:

  1. inadequate staffing
  2. low pay or low increases in pay
  3. unclear or conflicting job expectations
  4. organizational culture, including lack of teamwork, and tendency to avoid accountability and assign blame to others.

Loosely translated, the primary cause of stress: too much work. Too much work stealing time away from family, community and other interests; too much work because employers are running leaner than ever before; and too much work because our companion devices are always with us, and there’s always one more email or status update to read.

I guess it comes as no surprise that employees and employers disagree, but take a look at the mismatch:

Screenshot 2013-12-04 08.51.47

Employers and employees are wildly at variance on the question of work/life balance. The employers, I guess, want to put the primary cause of stress on the back of their employees, suggesting that if they could just do a better job of balancing, things would be much better. And employers also want to blame the victim here about their addiction to mobile technologies.

The low pay issue is the second most important for employees, and no surprise, since pay for non-executives has remained flat for decades, and for many people it has fallen. People are stressed by financial issues.

And number three from the perspective of employees is unclear or conflicting job expectations. That’s an accusation that management doesn’t have its act together. And number 4, employees say organizational culture is divisive and not supportive.

The Bottom Line

This study shows a huge disconnect in business today about workplace stress. Management is not hearing the message from employees: “You are working us too hard. Pay me adequately. Make job responsibilities clear, and create a culture that supports, not divides.”

Clearly, a company that attacks those issues will decrease stress in the workforce. That translates to improved well-being for the people at work, and an improved bottom line for the company, since stress is closely linked to decreased performance, sick time, and turnover.

My recommendation would be for business to work on decreasing stress as a major initiative. Turned around, all of these factors arise from the cultural level, starting with the core principles and values of the company. And stress is a factor in burnout, as I wrote about recently (see Burnout is the consequence of a broken way of work).

Management rhetoric about the happiness of the customer, service delivery, product quality, or delivering returns to shareholders all too frequently suppresses the basic requirements of employee well-being, and that is wrong as well as unsustainable.

This is a deep and chronic issue, one that can’t be gamed with an employee-of-the-month initiative, and represents a systemic failure of the theory and practice of ‘human resources’. A disconnect this big brings the entire foundation of HR into question.

Dissensus, not consensus, is the shorter but steeper path

A week ago, I read a Adam Bryant interview with Bob Pittman of Clear Channel, the radio network, in which Pittman makes a case for a role for dissent as a triangulation tool. He was talking about his early days as a new manager, and how he countered the natural suspicions of those older than him by actively encouraging people to present opposing views, and how that shaped his current approach:

Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, “What did the dissenter say?” The first time you do that, somebody might say, “Well, everybody’s on board.” Then I’ll say, “Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.” I don’t want to hear someone say after we do something, “Oh, we should have done this.”

I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. It gets you out of your framework of the conventions of what you can and can’t do.

Pittman’s grass roots embrace of dissent is only the starting point of its utility, and its central role in the evolving laissez-faire management thinking behind the third way of work.

I want us to listen to these dissenters because they may intend to tell you why we can’t do something, but if you listen hard, what they’re really telling you is what you must do to get something done. – Bob PittmanNote that the heading ‘the shorter path’ is based on one of the paradoxes of computing, that algorithms that do more work at the outset generally wind-up being more efficient. Dissent is like that. Avoiding the comfortable traps of groupthink and the cognitive biases that herd us into consensus too quickly is hard work, but leads to better results, we will see.

Ulrich Klocke researched causes of poor group decision making in How to Improve Decision Making in Small Groups: Effects of Dissent and Training Interventions. First, groups may fail to process information effectively:  for example, not sharing information that may be relevant for various reasons, or giving some information only a cursory examination. Secondly, certain well-known cognitive biases can lead groups to poor results, particularly bias in favor of shared information (information known to many in the group), and a bias in favor of initial preferences (people get stuck on what initially occurs to them, and are hard to unstick).

As Klocke wrote about the sharedness bias —

Groups communicate predominantly about information, which all or most group members share before entering the discussion, and neglect unshared information, which only one or few members have initially.

[…] group members individually judge shared information as more important, relevant, accurate, and influential than unshared information. This bias seems to have two reasons: First, shared information can be confirmed by more than one group member. Second, individuals evaluate their own information as more valid than information from other members. Thus, unshared information, even if mentioned in the discussion, is not seriously considered by other group members and therefore has less impact on the final decision than shared information.

— and later, about the preference bias —

Even when all information necessary to identify the correct solution is exchanged during discussion, individual group members often stick to their initially preferred wrong solution. People bias their information processing to favor an initially preferred alternative. Other studies show the same phenomenon at the group level: Group decisions can often be predicted by the initial preferences of its members. If a majority favors a certain alternative before the discussion, the group seldom decides to chose another alternative. Thus, frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or an averaging procedure.

Klocke has catalogued a litany of cognitive barriers to effective group decision making, and — spoiler alert — the research he conducted supported these biases as being present in his experimental groups, as well as those he cites from the literature. [Note: All citations left out of these quotes.]

Frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or an averaging procedure. – Ulrich KlockePerhaps the worst news is that simply letting people know about these biases is not enough to counter their impact on group behavior. One thing, however, can positively change decision making: dissent.

The impacts of dissent are positive both at the group and individual level. As Klocke outlined,

[…] early field studies analyzed the effects of groupthink, a tendency for concurrence seeking that effectively suppresses the expression of dissent. They found evidence that groupthink can have detrimental effects on group decisions. […] These experiments showed that dissent (compared to consent) enhances decision-making quality, even when no group member favors the correct solution before the discussion. This effect was mediated predominantly by more systematic processing of information but also by less biased processing of information. Specifically, dissent led to the introduction and repetition of more information and to a more balanced discussion of shared and unshared and preference-consistent and inconsistent information.

With regard to individual behavior in the context of dissent:

There is evidence for more systematic processing by individuals after being exposed to divergent opinions. One factor that mobilizes systematic processing is surprise or a deviation from expectancy. Usually, divergent opinions are unexpected and therefore cause surprise and mobilize cognitive resources to explain the unexpected event. In addition, it has been demonstrated that dissent, especially when articulated by a consistent minority, promotes divergent thinking, a variable related to unbiased processing.

Klocke went on to test whether interventions in group activities — telling them groups about the various biases, but not actually introducing systematic efforts toward dissent — and discovered they don’t have much of an effect. Simply knowing that bias is likely does not counter bias.

On the other hand, the findings regarding dissent are powerful and demonstrate a maxim: the more important a decision, the broader the diversity of opinions that should be sought to apply to the decision, and the greater the attention to active and comprehensive dissent.

A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. – Gary KleinBob Pittman’s real-world experience is borne out by the experimental evidence. I think one of the best approaches to inserting dissent is to use project premortems which extends Pittman’s search for dissent at the outset. As described by Gary Klein, a premortem

is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

Klein seems to have grasped the biases that tend to push people toward groupthink, and his approach counters them. Sometime after everyone has been brought up to speed on the plan, a premortem is held.

  1. The facilitator starts by saying the project has failed ‘spectacularly’.
  2. Each person writes down — privately — every reason they can think of for that failure, and as Klein says, ‘especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic’.
  3. In a round robin, the facilitator gets one reason from each team member, who reads it aloud, and it is recorded, until all reasons are covered.
  4. Discussion can be as deep or as shallow as the facilitator needs.
  5. After the meeting, the facilitator and team leader can refine the list, and respond with an action plan to resolve issues, and then reconvene the team to make decisions on ways to revise the project plan or approach.

This intentionally sidesteps the sharedness and preference biases to at least a reasonable degree, and also can increase the deviation from the expected, given that a diverse set of viewpoints are brought into the premortem.

The biggest takeaways are these. We have deep cognitive biases that negatively impact group decision making, especially when group decision-making is not structured to counter those biases, and does not exploit the value of dissent and diversity. Techniques like premortems are one tool to help increase the leverage that dissent offers, and avoid the soft pitfalls of groupthink and unwarranted consensus.

Why are disengaged employees disengaged?

Last year, when working on the Work Media Roadmap report, I came up with a characterization of the way we work today, which I called the 3D Workforce: Distributed, Decentralized, and Discontinuous.

Work today is being uprooted:

  • Workers today are increasingly mobile, and their expectation is that they can and must work wherever they are. Our work can be performed at home, in the train, at a coffee shop, and in the office, and we have increasing autonomy in deciding where and when to do what.
  • Individuals and organizations increasingly do not recognize a clear break between work hours and leisure time, for better or worse. The discontinuity inherent in ‘lifeslicing’ has deep societal implications, and is happening at an increasing rate.
  • Work is commonly shared across geographically dispersed workers, across different companies, and a growing number of freelancers, whose contributions are now estimated at over 35% of all professional and creative work in the US.
  • People also timeshift across projects, making work discontinuous. As a result, people are becoming used to working in loosely coordinated, short-term projects, with a growing reliance on results-only work styles and decreasing organizational infrastructure and oversight.

This trend — or group of trends — was considered far and away the most disruptive of the four identified, more than twice as disruptive as the second. In fact, the 3D workforce received every vote possible.

I often make the comment in presentations that it’s really a 4D workforce, however, because these is a fourth factor: Disengagement. A recent Dale Carnegie research study (What Drives Employee Engagement And Why It Matters) looked into the question of disengaged employees, and found 71% were disengaged to some degree.
Some findings:

Among the 1,500 employees, only 29% are fully engaged and 26% are disengaged. Almost half (45%) are partially engaged.
The findings from the MSW Research study identify several factors that drive engagement or disengagement.
Gender, ethnicity and work status (full/part time) do not emerge as critical variables of employee engagement.
On the other hand, there are some additional factors that have minor influences on engagement. More engaged workers tend to be:

  • Senior management (Senior VP+ level)
  • Employed in a large corporation
  • Have a college education
  • Earn $50K+
  • Under the age of 30, or over 50

Comparatively, demographic and organizational segments currently less engaged or disengaged with their organizations are:

  • Middle-aged employees (40-49 years old)
  • The most highly educated, i.e., those with a post-graduate education
  • Lower-level income employees earning less than $50K
  • Newer employees, especially those in the organization less than a year
  • Client-facing and clerical staffers
  • Those working in government, military, education and manufacturing sectors

And the McGuffin?

While there are many research studies that point to the percentage of engaged and  disengaged employees, few studies have looked at what really drives employee engagement. Dale Carnegie teamed with MSW Research to study the functional and emotional elements that affect employee engagement. A national representative sample of 1,500 employees was surveyed, which revealed that although there are many factors that impact employee engagement, there are three key drivers:

  • Relationship with immediate supervisor
  • Belief in senior leadership
  • Pride in working for the company

Employees said that it is the personal relationship with their immediate supervisor that is the key. The attitude and actions of the immediate supervisor can enhance employee engagement or can create an atmosphere where an employee becomes disengaged. In addition, employees said that believing in the ability of senior leadership to take their input, lead the company in the right direction and openly communicate the state of the organization is key in driving engagement. Other factors that drive engagement are that employees are treated with respect, that their personal values are reflected and that the organization cares about how they feel.

I wrote not too long ago about remote workers being more engaged, which may be counterintuitive, but seems to be based on the way that immediate supervisors treat them. This suggests that leaders work harder to engage remote workers, and that makes a difference.
But the more general issue is still engagement across the board, which hinges on first line managers.
I am not surprised that social sensitivity — the capacity to care about employees as individuals, and to be concerned for their well-being and involvement — is the necessary component for worker engagement. And the lack of that connection with the specific demographic groups may shed light on the difficulties managers have: managers may find it hard to put themselves in the shoes of clerical works, support staff, post-docs, new employees, and low-paid workers.
U.S. businesses lose $11 billion per year because of employee turnover, according to The Bureau of National Affairs, and a lot of that is due to disengaged workers who leave rather than work with unfeeling bosses.
My bet is that as companies become more fast and loose with the transition to social business models of operations, employee engagement may decrease in criticality. As employees build their own support and trust networks, and have more say in what they do and how they do it, the role of management will shift. In a sense, the relationship between the employee and their ‘supervisor’ will become less central to the perception of the company and the job, because ‘supervising’ will gradually be replaced with ‘circumvising’. Instead of a manager you report up to and who directs the work of those below, the social context — social practices, social tools, and the immediate social network — will constrain and support the worker from all around.
The best answer to disengagement is not trying to train first line managers to be more caring. That’s unlikely to work, or to scale. We should instead move steadily into building circumvision as a characteristic of social contexts, where engagement emerges from strong caring relationships with many colleagues, instead centralizing that into one supervisor.

Small and simple apps, and trust

The trend will start primarily in the fast-and-loose end of business, meaning small businesses, freelancers, and autonomous creatives in larger companies.

Speedback trumps feedback

Reading a piece in the NY Times in which Adam Bryant interviews Karen May, Google’s vice president for people development, nominally about the fears that people have about giving feedback. I actually found that initial topic sort of tepid. Yes, employees are nervous about giving feedback, for potentially a gazillion reasons, and in particular when the feedback is negative, as in telling people they aren’t meeting expectations, their work isn’t up to standards, or they are rubbing people the wrong way.

I found myself frustrated, because it seemed to be one of those discussions where the implicit cultural rules of the enterprise are completely unstated. May states that training is a viable respond for a worker falling short of expectations because they lack a specific skill, knowledge or skill. But all other reasons for falling short? It’s on the employee’s head:

May: Don’t use training to fix performance problems. If you’ve got a performance problem, there is a process to go through to figure out what’s causing it. Maybe the person doesn’t have the knowledge or skill or capability. Or is it motivation, or something about relationships within the work environment? Or lack of clarity about expectations? Training is the right solution only if the person doesn’t have the capability. But what I have seen in other places is sort of a knee-jerk reaction by managers to put someone in a training class if somebody isn’t performing well.

The obvious conclusion is that the employee that lacks motivation, or doesn’t ‘get’ how relationships in the workplace are supposed to be managed is on their own: it’s not the company’s place to pass that understanding along, or impart motivation through training. Training is just about technical skills: we don’t train people to work well together, to find purpose, or to understand the company culture.

Needless to say, I think this is massively wrong. And the best companies will figure out ways — either by explicit training or other more subtle techniques, but equally intentional — to get those ideas and connections in the heads of their people. It won’t be sufficient any more to simply just hire the best and the brightest and assume that they share premises about interpersonal interaction, the meaning of life, and the relationship of the company to its workforce.

Yes, she suggests there are potentially other avenues — unnamed — to deal with motivation or relationship issues: but why aren’t those considered training? What are those recourses, anyway? I had a feeling they were punitive, in some way. You know, ‘straighten up and fly right’ sorts of management intercession.

I was about to close the article, and dismiss it as facile and unhelpful, when I hit a snippet that made it worthwhile to wade through everything else to get there:

Karen May of Google, on Conquering Fears of Giving Feedback – Adam Bryant via NYTimes.com

Q. Other insights about giving feedback?

A. We do something in some learning programs with our leaders where we’ll put them in a fast-paced exercise and ask them to give feedback to each other, spur of the moment, based on the experience they’ve had together during the day that they’ve been together. I actually named it “speed-back” instead of “feedback.”

We have people sit in chairs and they’re knee to knee. Then we start the speed-back and say, “You have three minutes to answer the question, ‘How have you experienced me during this learning program?’ ” Then the bell rings and the person giving feedback hears how the other perceived them. Many people say it’s some of the best feedback they’d ever received. We’ve experimented with different questions, like, “What advice would you give me based on the experience that you’ve had with me here?”

Wow.

You pull people from their usual world, out of their everyday setting, with others similarly yanked out of their networks of commitments and position. You put those people in a context where it is understood to be a short-term exercise — a training session — and all involved are — temporarily — stepping outside the hierarchy: just a bunch of people doing something unusual together, led by a trusted expert, the trainer.

A ‘fast and loose’ context rather than the normal ‘slow and tight’ model of interaction.

Then, as one aspect of the exercise, and based solely (in principle) on what has occurred in that separate and temporary shared context, they share feedback. And based on that brief time, together — as individuals, not as nodes in a network of relationships, processes, projects, and long-term meaning — here’s feedback on you: your style, your thinking, your humor, your sensitivity and sensibilities.

I am totally unsurprised that ‘speedback’ leads to great insights and easily assimilated feedback. Why? I think the reason for speedback’s success is almost identical to that underlying Swift Trust:

The Rise Of Rōnin and The Liquid Economy, Stowe Boyd

Companies can avoid the high and seemingly inescapable costs of internal politics with permanent employees struggling for power and autonomy as soon as a hierarchy is created. Networked rōnin operate completely differently. […] Impermanent teams operate as well as they do because of a well-researched — and profoundly important — social phenomenon, called swift trust, first detailed by Debra Meyerson and colleagues (see Swift Trust and Temporary Groups).

I’ve written about this recently, building on Myerson’s explanation, that impermanent teams can come together and accomplish projects with the least amount of politics, because

a/ the participants are all aware that the project is of limited duration,

b/ the team members are able to assume functional roles based on their previous experience with a minimum — or zero — training,

c/ the project is based on distributed, complex, non-trivial tasks that require deep expertise, and ongoing coordination of work activities, and

d/ people can suspend their need to build deep trust because it is a project composed of other rōnin.

And more:

Stowe Boyd, The Meaning Of Work, Connectives, And Swift Trust

These techniques that resemble deep trust, but are lighter-weight and faster to adopt, can be used to quickly get down to business in an ad hoc team, and focus on doing what is needed to get done; instead of getting bogged down in actual trust development, which can take weeks or months to build.

I believe that swift trust is becoming the default for creative work, and that we are all increasingly operating as if every activity we are involved in is impermanent. Increasingly, at least for most creatives, that is the case anyway. But some people, like me, are intentionally adopting the ad hoc project team as the form factor for all creative work.

Partly this is to take advantage of swift trust — where deep trust activities are deferred or completely put aside — and the team members operate in a social demilitarized zone, putting aside long-term obligations and politically negotiated power arrangements. Instead, we join such teams and rapidly assume the role that fits us, people interact based on the nature of the roles that all members play. We suspend our disbelief and agree to trust within the confines of the groups narrowly defined goals.

And just as important, as a consequence of deferring the complex and involved discussions of personal purpose, every ad hoc team member can cast the project in terms of how it lines up with their personal meaning for workThe members do not need to collectively agree to a single shared reason for existence. That is shelved, since the team members will be going forward on their own life paths, as soon as the project is completed.

This last point is where the liquid economy is most central to the discussion. The rōnin does not have to be 100% committed to the long-range strategic plans of the company behind a short-term project: his goals are his own. The company and the rōnin are just walking down this next few miles of road together, and after that, they will part ways.

So, getting back to May’s Speedback, my argument is that the training context for Google’s leaders breaks them so far out of their normal milieux that it almost indistinguishable from the swift trust context of short-term ad hoc projects made up of freelance professionals, like Broadway productions.

And I’ll make a general observation: the degree to which you can make the typical workforce operate around the principles of swift trust — with short project time frames, shifting teams, and feedback limited to work performance limited to the context of the project, and the interactions with members of the project team, exclusively in that context — the better and easier the feedback will be. Turn it around: it’s not that speedback trumps feedback, per se. There are great benefits that come from constraining the context of performance to something as limited as possible, like projects that are driven by the principles of swift trust, and moving it away from nebulous cultural norms and expectations. In that context feedback becomes speedback, and seems a natural and obvious thing, not something awkward and painful.

Attention, distraction, and the social dilemma

Perhaps it’s the holiday season, with the predictable end-of-year, what-does-it-all-mean columns, and the growing sense of being pressed for time as we head for a few compressed days of egg nog and family away from the office. For whatever reason, in the past week I’ve seen a torrent of commentary about attention and distractedness, and the role that tools and space play. Over the past years, the desire to create workplaces that foster creativity and innovation — and maybe cut costs, as well — has led to the adoption of open-plan office layouts and an increased reliance on communication tools. In principle, open-plan workplaces and online chat are intended to make it easier to collaborate with coworkers, and to remain in a state of ‘ambient awareness’ of their coming and going. But workplace distraction is a major side effect of the increased noise and interruptions that seem to inevitably follow:

Rachel Emma Silverman, Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues’ chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their “real work” done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves. “It is an epidemic,” says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it’s a struggle “to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you,” she says. Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

So our efforts to become more social — to remain connected, and to work cooperatively — have led to a social dilemma: we are decreasing the physical and virtual distance between people, but this has led to more noise and less signal. Interruptions and loud conversations pull us away from making progress on vital tasks, meetings break the day into chunks of time too small to accomplish big things, and the growing sense of powerlessness — a sense that we are unable to get ahead of the pressure wave of deadlines, follow-ups, and deliverables — can compound the problem as we grown anxious. At the cultural level, we can see this as another case where privacy is yielding to publicy (or publicness, as Jeff Jarvis styles it), and there are a great many ramifications arising from that shift. However, on a practical level, what can we do about this daily attention drain? One area of intense interest is the basic and core issue of noise. Making offices more open may cause more chance conversations, true, but they are also louder. A strange result of efforts over the past decades to make offices quieter — quieter heating and cooling systems, for example — makes voices carry farther:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz Many offices are now pin-drop quiet, thanks to silent ventilation systems, the demise of clattering typewriters and the victory of e-mail over the telephone. With so little background noise, cubicle dwellers cannot help overhearing anyone who does dare to start a conversation. Researchers at Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health have studied precisely how far those conversations carry and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener: a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work. “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the institute. He found that workers were more satisfied and performed better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.

As a result, many firms are adding noise back. So-called ‘pink noise’ can be added to the background by unobtrusive speakers, a variant of white noise equalized to mask human speech. As a result, conversations carry less far, and the background noise is perceived more like a distant waterfall than a bar at happy hour. And it may be that the promise of open plan offices — like the increased chance of serendipitous conversations — isn’t coming true either:

John Tierney, From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor. “Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices.

Companies are instituting a wide range of policies to try to cut through the fog:

  • Aside from pink noise approaches, many open plan offices have created small private areas for twosy-threesy work groups to retreat to, or putting in ‘phone booths’: small enclosures for taking phone calls.
  • It is becoming commonplace for companies to declare email-less or meeting-less days on a regular basis, so that people can simply focus on work activities. Atos, the 75 thousand person IT consulting firm, has plans to phase out email, company wide, after determining that person were averaging two hours a day on email.
  • Some firms, like Intel, are instituting a policy for each person to allocate a chunk of time each week to ‘think time’ where they won’t attend meetings or respond to emails.

But ultimately these stresses are personal: we each have to juggle our way through each day, no matter what the noises and policies. Is there something else we can do, aside from using productivity approaches like zero mail box? It turns out that researchers have recently determined that meditation training increases our ability to multitask, and reduces the stress associated with that:

Maria Konnikova, The Power Of Concentration In 2012, researchers led by a team from the University of Washington examined the effects of meditation training on multitasking in a real-world setting. They asked a group of human resources professionals to engage in the type of simultaneous planning they did habitually. Each participant was placed in a one-person office, with a laptop and a phone, and asked to complete several typical tasks: schedule meetings for multiple attendees, locate free conference rooms, write a memo that proposed a creative agenda item and the like. The information necessary to complete those tasks? Delivered as it otherwise would be: by e-mail, through instant messages, over the phone and in person. The list was supposed to be completed in 20 minutes or less. After the multitasking free-for-all, participants were divided into three groups: one was assigned to an eight-week meditation course (two hours of instruction, weekly); another group didn’t take the course at first, but took it later; and the last group took an eight-week course in body relaxation. Everyone was put through a second round of frenzy. The only participants to show improvement were those who had received the mindfulness training. Not only did they report fewer negative emotions at the end of the assignment, but their ability to concentrate improved significantly. They could stay on task longer and they switched between tasks less frequently. While the overall time they devoted to the assignment didn’t differ much from that of other groups, they spent it more efficiently. They engaged, on average, in just over 40 discreet “tasks” — test-related behaviors that had a definable start and end time — spending approximately 36 seconds on each, in contrast to the 48 to 50 average tasks attempted by the other groups — with an average of only 30 seconds spent per activity. They also remembered what they did better than the other participants in the study.

With results like that, maybe Intel and Atos should be training their staff to meditate instead of focusing exclusively on calendar and email hygiene. What is increasingly clear is this: there are real benefits to increasing social density in the business setting. Collaboration and innovation does increase, and people are happier at work and more productive when they believe they have more friends at work. However, the side effects of increased social density — noise and interruptions, specifically — can’t be overlooked. We have to make room for work, both in the office and within our own minds, if we want to remain productive and unstressed. We have to understand the social dilemma and work at finding a personal balance between connection and distraction.