Bringing the Right Tools to the Table

At some point, all of us are in a meeting where a discussion breaks out over whether a particular business initiative should be implemented. Someone will say, “I heard about it on a podcast/TedTalk,” or “A friend of mine at XYZ company did it and it worked for them,” or something similar. The question then is how do we really know that it will work under a given set of circumstances? While we never have 100% of the information we would like to have before making such a decision, we do have tools to help guide us.

Dennis Adsit and I entered such a discussion about intentionally letting go the bottom 10% of a company’s workforce annually a while back. This was one of Jack Welch’s tactics and it became known as “Rank and Yank” (R&Y). The idea behind it was that the amount of resources spent on better performers has a higher return on investment than putting them towards the lowest performers. After a bit of back and forth, we decided to test this the best way we could. The result was an article in Consulting Psychology Journal: Research and Practice.

There are two main takeaways from the article:

1) Under certain circumstances, R&Y may be a very viable option for improving organizational effectiveness. Dennis summarizes this well in this post.

2) When management comes to your team with “I’ve got a great idea…” you must be prepared to develop an analysis to respond to the request. It is this that I want to address a bit more.

People sometimes confuse having all of the information and having an evidenced-based recommendation. In our paper we simulate an outcome based upon a set of assumptions. We talked quite a bit about those assumptions before we accepted them. There were also cases where we thought different assumptions were important, so we ran the numbers under different conditions. This allowed us to draw better conclusions from the data.

In the article we chose to model call center agents for several reasons. Among them were that we knew from experience with clients that their job performance (after training) is consistent on a week-to-week and can be measured objectively. This helped in estimating the impact of turnover. But, we also found that others had measured the “softer” costs of turnover on agent performance. This served as an excellent reminder that with enough diligence and care there are many aspects to productivity that can be measured, but that are not. HR brings a lot of value to table when it rolls up its sleeves and digs into these issues.

It did not really matter than we chose to simulate the effectiveness of R&Y. It could have been a selection system, a management development program, or a training class. What is important is taking the time and effort to listen to others and work through the data. That allows HR to have significant value and impact.

Even in Business, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

We are in an era where many businesses feel that they must project an image of social responsibility. This may be driven by management’s true desire to be a force of good, a competitive advantage, or as a way to attract millennial job candidates. Being perceived as being on the “wrong” side of an issue can have significant effects on consumer oriented businesses (see Chick-fil-A or Facebook). But is the impact of this corporate behavior?

There many consequences of a firm demonstrating social responsibility. These include:

1. Being socially conscious doesn’t really help sales. This is probably because just about every company promotes social responsibility in some way, so there is not much variance.

2. Companies that promote how socially conscious they are get more job applicants, particularly women. This makes sense since millennials are drawn to companies that share their values.

3. Those who apply for work at companies that promote socially responsibility are more productive than those who apply at companies who do not advertise that they are socially responsible.

4. Those who work for work for socially conscious companies are more likely to steal from them.

Wait—what’s that with #4? People who are generally more willing to work for a socially conscious company are more dishonest (steal, slack off, etc.) than other employees? Not quite, but when people do good things they sometimes feel as if that gives them a license to get away with stuff. Keep that in mind next time a leader of an organization that thinks it has a high value to society (religion, journalism, etc.) gets caught engaging in some pretty awful behavior.

So, if you are a company that wants to promote social responsibility to attract more productive workers, but you don’t want the bad stuff that comes with it, what should you do?

1) Reduce the amount of social responsibility messages after people have been hired. Once people are onboard, you don’t need to keep talking about how much good the company does—they get it. The continued presence of these messages makes moral licensing more prevalent.

2) I would assume that there are individual differences when it comes to moral licensing (most likely related to conscientiousness). And it so happens that conscientiousness is one of the personality variables that generally predicts job performance. So, it would be valuable for socially conscious companies not to take it for granted that their candidates are all good people. Rather, a validated test would likely help them select those who are less likely to look for an excuse to slack off.

Many business choices have unintended consequences. Being overtly socially conscious apparently does as well. However, companies can mitigate those consequences with some good planning and employee selection practices.

People–Can’t Profit With Them, Can’t Profit Without Them

So, in the same week that Tesla says that lack of people is a problem in their business (too many robots!), Starbucks comes to the conclusion that people are biased and are hurting its business, everyone gets training. So, which one is right?

Let’s start with Tesla. Their statement is not as much about how wonderful people are as it is that they haven’t quite (yet) gotten the engineering down for their new cars to be built completely by robots. So, it is not exactly an “Up with people” moment as a “Well, we guess we have to put up with them for a bit longer” one.

The Starbucks situation is a bit stickier. On one hand, they clearly felt as if they had to do something after a horrible incident involving African-American customers to maintain their brand image. But, I think they are setting themselves up for failure. Implicit bias training is well meaning, but correcting a lifetime of assumptions about people in a ½ day seminar is a pretty tall order. What will they do next time a racially tinged incident occurs? Do a full day of training? Validate a test that predicts levels of implicit bias?

Where I think the training will have the most impact is on their new hires. It sets a cultural norm of what is and is not OK. Yes, this will require management support and some way of recognizing employees for being decent human beings. But, in reading the comments on their social media pages after the announcement that may not matter as a lot of people were pretty bent out of shape of having to go one whole afternoon without their Starbucks. Ah, the downsides of selling a legal, but addicting, product.

Service sector organizations will always face the challenge of directing the activities of people in a way that is consistent with their values. Manufacturers are always challenged with introducing technology (which improves efficiency), but also understanding its limits (for now). We are not quite at a point where people can be engineered out of business. So, we still need to lead them in productive ways.

Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

Does Kindergarten Really Have a Culture of Success?

You may be familiar with the marshmallow challenge. It is an intriguing and engaging team building exercise that demonstrates the importance of failure in group interactions.

It is all fun and everyone gets a laugh regarding how, according to an accompanying Ted Talk I show, kindergartners do better at it than those who went to business school. By the way, I’d like to see that replicated because it makes a great story but I doubt that it is really true. But the most important lesson for leaders from it is not that failure eventually grows success. Rather, it is the call to action to create a culture where taking the risk should be rewarded and not only when the risk leads to immediate success.

What leaders should learn from the challenge is that it takes place in an environment that encourages risk taking. There is no one to say, “Let me tell you how we’ve done this before” or “If this doesn’t work out well we are in big trouble.” From this culture, most teams are able to accomplish something that at first seems unlikely in about 18 minutes. This should lead to a candid conversation about the barriers that exist to useful failure and what actions can be taken to change those aspects of the culture.

The nature of kindergarten is to reward process more than results. Incentives in business cannot be quite follow that model and lead to success. However, we can use learning to find the unnecessary hurdles creativity and problem solving.

What Do Grades Tell Us When Hiring?

Welcome to 2018! This first link actually highlights a look at valid personality testing on a largely read website. This makes me think that the year is off to a good start in the field.

Along those same lines of predicting behavior, a line of thought has always been that school grades are indicative of future success. The logic behind this makes sense. If a student applies him/herself and does well in school, then it is likely that he or she will do the same at work. Critics will say that grades measure something very specific that does not really translate to work and there are biases in how grades are given (which is why universities use standardized tests).

As always, what makes a good predictor really depends on the outcomes you are looking for. If your goal is to hire people who are good at following rules and doing lots of things pretty well, then this article suggests that school grades should be part of your evaluation process. But, if you want to hire very creative and novel thinkers, then GPA probably is not your best answer.

What also grabbed me about the article was the definition of success. The research article cited indicated that those who did very well in high school, nearly all of them were doing well in work and leading good lives. But, for the authors, this apparently is not enough. Why? Because none of them have “impressed the world,” whatever that means. And because there are lots of millionaires with relatively low GPAs (here is a suggestion: how about controlling for parents’ wealth before making that calculation?).

From an employment perspective, we need to be clear what valuable performance looks like when validating and part of the selection process. If your goal is to select people into positions that require developing unique solutions, then GPA may not be a useful predictor. However, if you expect people to follow processes and execute procedures, then GPA is likely to be a useful tool which should be used with other valid predictors.

And, if you are looking to hire people who are going to “impress the world,” good luck to you.

Mentoring For Turnover

This is an interesting time of the year in college football in the U.S., and not just because the final games are about to be played. As head coaches who had a poor year get fired (what should constitute the criteria for firing a college football coach is a topic for another blog), schools have begun looking for their next head coach. In some, but not many, cases an assistant who reported to the fired coach will get the job. In others, a head coach from another school will be head hunted. But, the most common instance is when an assistant from another school is hired. That is as if you wanted to hire a new vice-president of your company and you felt that the best candidates were directors at other firms. Why does this happen?

Part is that the athletic directors (those responsible for hiring the new coach) feel that the failure that led to the coach getting fired belongs to the assistant coaches as well. It is hard for them to go to their stakeholders and say, “We had a really bad season, but we think that one of our assistants is a diamond in the rough.” Note that some schools will groom a successor to the head coach when there is a retirement time frame set.

Picking head coaches from other schools typically involves a bigger school (read: one with a larger budget for salaries, practice facilities, etc.) poaching a successful coach from a smaller one. Think of this as an executive doing well at a competitor with less revenue and a firm with more sales thinking that s/he is ready to move up.

The last option, hiring an assistant from another school, is an interesting one because it reflects on the culture of coaching. Head coaches are thought of well when their assistants go on to getting better jobs. Most of them feel that part of their job is to mentor their assistants so they can get a better job—either at the current university if the head coach leaves or anywhere else. Unlike in corporate America, where losing top lieutenants is seen as a sign of a toxic culture, a head coach who has assistants move on (and be successful) at other schools is perceived as having a great “coaching tree” and attracts even better talent.

This culture comes from the coaching profession being relatively small (130 schools at the top level and 124 at the next). Even with 7 to 10 assistants for each team, everyone eventually gets to know everyone through movement, conferences, etc. Almost every college head coach got his job after being an assistant at another school (most likely, after being an assistant at several schools), so a head coach knows how big of a deal it is when an assistant gets the call to run a program.

In business, it is not a good thing if your high potentials are getting their big opportunity someplace else. However, what are you doing to ensure that they get meaningful promotions internally? Is a VP rewarded when one of her directors becomes VP in another division? Or, is she seen as someone who can’t keep good talent? If it is the former, she will attract more high potentials (internally and externally).

You can create this kind of culture if you encourage and train your executives to mentor talent. Recognize them publicly when their direct reports move on to better positions so they will be encouraged to continue to nurture talent and high potentials will want to work for them.

Inviting Introverts to Lead

Whenever I teach about leadership the participants and I talk about the value of charisma. Not surprisingly, most of those in the workshop feel that the most effective leaders are these larger-than-life figures. That is, until we start talking about ones that are not (and often one of them is the CEO of their company). So, what gives?

This article delves into the issue. Note that the author sometimes confuses behavior (which can be changed) with personality (which is VERY stable, despite her claim and her link that is not associated with any research). The real issue is what can introverts do to be effective leaders?

For many, what it comes down to is the expectations of the situation. If I think any task is going to be painful, of course I am going to avoid it. This is how introverts feel about an assignment that involves a lot of group interaction.

This study looked at potential barriers to introverts being effective leaders. What they found was that negative thinking about assuming the role inhibited performance (as measured by emergent leadership). However, and this is important, positive thinking did not lead to more emergent leadership. So, in working with high potential introverts, this data (and it is only one study) suggests that removing undesirable thoughts about the role (e.g., your fears are not accurate, you will not be a failure, etc.) will lead to more leadership behaviors than selling the role (e.g., you will be fabulous, there is no doubt that you will be successful, etc.).

This is important because it shows that those who lack the extroversion trait associated with charisma may still be effective leaders. This increases your pool of leadership potential in your company. It also provides a road map for encouraging introverts, who are otherwise qualified, to take on leadership assignments in way that allows them to be successful.

From a selection perspective, understanding this nuance would be valuable to determining who you choose to be leaders. Rather than assessing introversion/extroversion, you can look at a person’s attitudes towards leading groups as potentially a more valued predictor.

How Committed Are You to Developing a Skilled Workforce?

The economy is in a unique position right now. Unemployment is at the lowest rate this century as is the net migration rate. This leaves employers of a skilled workforce in the position of a smaller pool of candidates in general and likely one that contains fewer people with the talents they are looking for.

When more the jobs in the country were in the industrial sector (and there was a higher participation in private sector unions), management and labor worked out apprentice programs. This allowed lower skill workers to obtain the knowledge and skills for jobs over time. It also required the companies to really think about how they wanted the work done and train people accordingly.

The knowledge and service economy (along with companies’ willingness to expand/contact their head counts and greater employee mobility) has ground the apprentice approach to a near halt. People are more willing to skip from job to job to gain skills and employers are less leery of candidates who have multiple firms on their resumes. This gives hiring companies less control of the skills of the people they are hiring. I was considering these ideas when I read this article about Kaiser Permanente breaking ground its own medical school.

Kaiser’s jump into medical education can be taken in several ways, but the one that interests me the most is that a very large player in a big industry (health care) has gone to another big industry (medical schools) and said, “You all are behind the times in providing us workers and we think we can do it better.” It would be like a software company offering degrees in computer science (I think I just gave Amazon an idea!). This is potentially a disruption of a 300 year old model of providing workers.

The investment Kaiser is making is large, but they obviously see the benefit is even bigger in the quality of their doctor labor pool. I would think that if this foray is successful that they would open schools for other professions where they hire a lot of people (e.g., nursing).

The question for other business sectors is this: If your pool of available skilled talent is getting smaller, what are you doing to do to ensure you have access to it in the future? Are you going to poach from competitors or are you planning on creating your own talent pipeline?

I get that the investment in training is high and has its risks (I don’t want to spend a lot of money investing in people just to see them leave). However, it provides you the opportunity to develop the right skills and create the culture you want. It seems like money well spent.

Is Taking a Pulse Too Invasive?

Corporate culture is a tricky thing. It develops over time, but we want to change it quickly when it suits us. The business media is replete with examples of great (100 best places to work!) and toxic (see Uber, supposedly) places to work. If your job is to influence those cultures, where do you start?

I am very big on measurement in the workplace. Whether it is testing for job candidates, evaluating job performance, or surveying employee engagement. So, I was interested to read about startup software tools that provide for spot surveys and compliance measures. The appeal of these is clear. Real time data can lead to real time solutions. But, are these really ways to improve culture or just faster methods of applying band-aids?

Culture evolves whether you want it to or not. Companies that actively manage employee engagement can use it as a strategic and recruiting advantage. The constant use of software to measure culture strikes me as a reactive approach. It can lead companies to chase small problems (“Why has turnover ticked up in Pat’s area?”) instead of focusing on larger ones (“What are we doing to ensure that all of our best employees want to stay?”). Also by constantly measuring engagement we are affecting it, but probably not in the way we want to be (“Why are we constantly being asked for our opinion? Doesn’t management know what’s happening here?”).

I would suggest a thoughtful approach where you ask what you want your culture to be. You can take a baseline measure and then take steps to close any gaps (hint—be sure that senior executives are modeling and talking about the culture you are trying to achieve). Then see if closing any of those gaps affects measures of engagement (turnover, absenteeism, productivity, etc). Keep focusing on what has impact and put aside what doesn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat. This replaces a “whack-a-mole” approach with a more strategic one that does not require constant surveying.

Senior executives should have a “pulse” on the organization, but they should not have to be constantly asking “are we there yet?” like an 8 year old in the back of a car. If you approach employee engagement strategically, you can manage better and not be so invasive.

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