Can we Predict Karma in Applicants?

We would all like to think that doing well towards others will benefit us in this (and future?) life.  At the same time, capitalism can encourage some people to act entirely in their self-interest in order to get ahead and create efficient organizations.  So, should we hire good or successful people?

Altruism is a part of the “Big 5” personality construct of Agreeableness.  In business settings, we would consider it how much a person makes other feel welcome versus looking down on others.  Agreeableness has been established as a reasonably good predictor of job performance.

In this study, researchers dug into altruism and how it affected life outcomes, including income.  There are two things that I found interesting and useful about their results:

  • We should not be surprised that altruism leads to financial success in environments that involve teamwork. Working with others is about making 2+2=5 and people need to be willing to think about others to make that happen.  It is important to note that this research did not look at specific occupations.  One can see how altruism would be a bigger plus for some professions (health care) but not in others (sales).
  • Generally, the results showed a straight-line relationship between altruistic motivations and income. However, when looking at altruistic behaviors, there was a point where there could be too much of a good thing an income went down among those who reported the most altruistic behaviors.  This is important from a selection perspective because if you were to use a personality measure (Compared to most people I know, I am very altruistic.), you would want to score it as higher is better.  However, if using a biodata approach (How many times have you given your time to someone else in the past year?), then a curvilinear scoring may be more accurate.

Of course, deciding on any pre-employment screen first requires a good job analysis first.  This study provides an interesting window into how one sub-facet of personality can potentially be predictive of important job behaviors.

It also reminds us to look at the value of pro-social behaviors in the workplace and look for opportunities for employees to do them together.  It builds a culture of altruism that may also lead to greater business success.

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.

But we Trained Them!

Workplace controversies that make headlines are a bonanza for corporate trainers. Even in states like California that have mandatory sexual harassment training (companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide all supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years thereafter), you can bet that the #MeToo movement has led to an explosion in programs for managers devoted to the topic.

While providing basic information about sexual harassment is a good thing, it is more of a “check the box” activity than a creator of change. The underpinnings of what made it allowable and tolerated run deeper than what can be addressed in a two-hour mandatory training session or firing a couple of executives for egregious behavior. So, how can a company create an environment where incidents of sexual harassment are reduced?

1) Recruit, hire, and promote qualified women. Sociologists tell us that the roots of harassment are power differences. Having women and men participate in an organization with equal footing will likely reduce harassment incidents. Oh, and while you are at it, equal pay based on skill and experience goes a long way.

2) Reward at least some of the means, not just the ends. Cultures that have a win at all costs mentality are prime breeding grounds for harassment. If an organization only focuses on results, top producers can rationalize and get away with more bad behavior. Consider rewarding important process indicators (voluntary turnover, complaints to HR, engagement survey results, etc.) as part of evaluating manager’s performance.

3) Apply corporate sexual harassment policies quickly and as intended. This is where training has benefit. If manager know the policy and implement it correctly, it tells employees that it is as important as other policies and procedures.

Sexual harassment in the workplace did not happen, nor will it disappear, overnight. Our challenge is to create cultures that strongly discourage it. And that takes more than a two hour training band-aid.

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.

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.

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.

Accountability, Fear, and Changing a Culture

Uber finds itself in the news for lots of reasons, not all of them good.  The most recent story concerns the firing of 20 employees for a variety of bad behaviors to show that they were being held accountable for their actions.  I am not so concerned with whether this was a good move as much as if it will lead to change.

Certainly, the publicness of the firings meant that they were done as a message to Uber employees and the investment community.  It says, “Yes, we hear you about our culture and we are doing something about it.”  What it doesn’t say is, “You have been rewarding our CEO who does the same things, but we are not so sure what to do about that.”

Firing a bunch of people does not improve a company’s culture, even if it was the right decision.  Rather, it instills fear.  And while it may convey a message of what will not be tolerated, the action does not reinforce any positive behaviors that senior management would like to see.  It is almost like sentencing people to hang by the neck until they cheer up.

Uber has grown their business by the asking for forgiveness rather than permission.  That type of a model, by definition, rewards people for bending the rules to the extreme.  Their challenge is how to continue with a culture based on disrupting the status quo but respects the people who support it.  That will require threading a pretty small needle.

Changing a culture requires time and consistency.  Management needs to look at every aspect of its people processes (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, compensation, performance management, and succession planning) and ask, “Have we put in the right incentives and are we modeling the correct behaviors for a sustainable culture?”  Cultures do not happen overnight and they do not change after a few heads roll.

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