5 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

5 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

How Do You Increase Organizational Citizenship (and Employee Engagement)?

Quick recap from last week:

  1. Chasing employee engagement (especially employee happiness) doesn’t work. Engagement is too squishy to define and often your unhappy or frustrated employees are your most engaged.
  2. What does work is increasing Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). That is the only observable way to know whether your employees (or you) are engaged or not.

Which brings us back to the key question: How do you increase Organizational Citizenship?

Here’s 5 Research-Backed Steps to Increase OCBs for Your Team

One: Focus On Progress, Not Engagement.

Have you ever struggled with meditation? You sit and tell your brain to be calm, but instead your “monkey-mind” goes into overdrive thinking about… well, everything but being calm. The masters know the answer is to stop forcing the issue and to just notice what’s happening. Each time you catch your mind wandering now is a sign of progress. Which ironically makes the distractions less concerning and, in a way, welcome.

Engagement works the same way. You can’t force people to be engaged organizational citizens. Engagement is voluntary. No matter what you pay or offer in benefits. How cool your product or service. Whatever perks you offer. Everyone still chooses how much of themselves they are going to give from day to day. And in that sense, “everyone is a volunteer.”

But there still has to be something you can do to encourage people to bring their volunteer spirit with them to work each day. The good news is that there is. Help them see they are making progress in their life. Here is a model to guide you in doing just that.

Two: Ask “What’s Next?” To Blaze the Trail

Step one to helping a team member make progress in his or her life is to ask one simple question: “What’s next?”

If you’ve ever gone on a hiking trip, you’ve noticed the trail is usually marked with blazes. These blazes are painted or hung on trees. They are a sign you are on the right path. Often, they are spaced pretty far apart so it’s not abnormal to walk for a while without seeing one. But you know that if it’s been too long, you are lost. And that you need to retrace your steps in order to find where you got off the path.

“What’s next?” is a way for you to blaze the trail for your teammate. This question helps you figure out what path they are on, and what series of steps they’ll need to take. Notice how this question avoids looking too far ahead. That’s on purpose. Focusing on a big goal is often counterproductive. It makes it easy to give up (as in “I’ll never lose 100 pounds, so why not eat that third helping”). And even more interesting, sometimes reaching a big goal can be depressing. And have the ironic effect of making it easy to quit after all the progress is made.

Asking “what’s next” gets your teammate thinking about progress, and that’s a HUGE motivator.

Progress becomes a self-reinforcing, virtuous circle.

People who are making progress in their lives are more motivated personally. They are also more motivated to help their team.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer studied the power of progress at work in their recent book The Progress Principle. The main conclusion of their study is that when we make progress, we improve our “inner work life” – the way we internally experience our work. And inner work life is directly connected to engagement.

So step one is to stop focusing on engagement and start focusing on progress is by asking “What’s next?”

Then, the question is, how can a leader help refine a goal into a proven way to manage progress? We’ve developed the Win, Know, Show model to help you do just that.

  1. What is their next small win?
  2. How will they know from the work itself whether they are making progress?
  3. When and how will they show their progress?


Ready to learn more? Let’s start with small wins.

Three: Identify a Small Win

So you’ve asked “What’s next?” And just like a Zen master you’re no longer focused on the end result of engagement. Instead, you’re focused on small steps your teammate takes each day. The next step is to help your teammate identify a small win.

A small win isn’t a big ambition. It’s the next logical improvement they need to meet their “what’s next” goal. It should require a little bit of a stretch, but nothing too far out of reach.

Setting a small win helps make sure your teammate can see progress.  What kind of small wins work best? Progress that relates to improving on a task. Or deeper involvement in a project. Maybe even process-related goals like working harder or longer.

Here’s what the professors have to say:

“We discovered that the inner work life effect operates in three primary ways: attention to tasks, engagement in the project, and intention to work hard. When inner work life is good, people are more likely to pay attention to the work itself, become deeply engaged in their team’s project, and hold fast to the goal of doing a great job. When inner work life is bad, people are more likely to get distracted from their work, disengage from their team’s projects, and give up on trying to achieve the goals set before them.”

One other critical point. Your teammate’s next small win (or their “What’s Next?”) might not be work related. That’s cool. If it’s something you can help them with, do it. Progress won’t always be work related. And occasionally, progress on personal goals might even mean your employee leaves to pursue some other life ambition. You may not like that, but here’s the good news.

That person will run through brick walls for you while they do work for you. They will be your biggest fan (and recruiter) when they leave. And leaders with a reputation for developing talent will attract more of it.

Four: Know When You’re Headed the Right Way (or the Wrong Way)

Making progress is motivating, but daily frustrations can easily overwhelm any progress you make. Professors Amabile and Kramer note:

“The connection between mood and negative work events is about five times stronger than the connection between mood and positive events. Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions, and they recall the negative actions more intensely and in more detail than the positive ones.”

That’s why it’s important to establish your “right way/wrong way” yardstick. How will you and your teammate know whether they are making progress? Ideally this feedback will come from the work or task itself. You also want to ask up front about what sorts of obstacles or frustrations could get in the way of progress.

Make sure to talk about how to measure progress.

A good place for inspiration? Video games. The reason video games are so addictive is that they give you immediate “right way/wrong way” feedback. It’s easy to see whether you are improving or getting worse. You can watch your score, the damage you’ve sustained, and the damage you’ve invoked upon your opponent.

What measures are available that can help your teammate see progress in real time? If there aren’t any visible “production” measures, how about process measures? What other ways are there to get feedback?

If you’re having a hard time identifying ways to get feedback, that might be a signal that you should re-think the small win. If you can’t measure progress it’s going to be easy to get stuck.

Don’t forget to look for obstacles and possible frustrations up front. Then, come up with a plan to overcome them. There are two important reasons for this. First, as the good professors suggest, you need to make sure the “steps forward” to “steps back” ratio is around 5:1 in favor of progress. Second, the best research shows that if we plan for obstacles we are way more likely to “grit” our way through them (even if we plan for a different obstacle than the one we eventually face).

This is why it’s so important for leaders to work every day to reduce daily frustrations. It doesn’t matter how much progress you make doing good things for your team. The daily frustrations will outweigh them all day, every day. Avoid taking one step forward, just to take four steps back. Really focus on discovering and reducing daily frustrations for your team.

Five: Show Your Work

You and your teammate have blazed the trail and identified the next small win. You know how you’re going to measure progress. But that’s not enough. Perhaps the most important step is for your teammate to show their progress.

Austin Kleon wrote a brilliant book called Show Your Work. While he focuses a lot on people who work in the visual arts, the lessons he teaches apply to all of us. His basic idea is that the “finished” project is perhaps the least interesting part of the work. What is most interesting are the steps taken to create the project. So his advice: Show Your Work.

This advice can really apply to any field. There are reality TV shows on almost every network today that take us behind the scenes of virtually every kind of work (car shops, kitchens, remodeling, dirty jobs, and so on). People love the chance to show off what they’re working on. It gives us a sense of pride. Honors the craft we dedicate our lives to. Not only that, the feedback you get by sharing your process creates the opportunity to teach and motivate others. It also gives you the chance to learn from others who may have a trick or shortcut you never thought of.

Some people feel like showing their work is showing off.

There is a little element of that, too. But it’s showing off in the best sense of that word. It’s not bragging or taking a victory lap. It is saying, “here’s what I did – the value I created.” It gives others permission to shine a light on the value they create too. Kleon created a great way to do this. Simply take a picture of your work (or of you working) and post it somewhere with the hashtag #ShowYourWork.

Whether your teammate posts their work for the world to see, or just shares it with you or the department, the important thing is that they get a chance to share. Building that into the progress management process helps to set a time-frame for progress. It gives them a reason to get something done (and let’s face it – sometimes that’s the motivation we need to get our noses on that grindstone). If your teammate isn’t ready to show at the designated time, that’s a great signal to check in and see if something is in the way or if they are off the trail.

The Takeaway

Everyone’s a volunteer – so look for OCB instead of engagement. You can’t force people to be engaged. In fact, engagement is such a squishy concept, it is nearly impossible to measure. Which is why leaders should focus on Organizational Citizenship instead.

There are 5 ways leaders can help create more organizational citizenship at work:

  1. Focus on Progress: Nothing motivates more than progress. Managing progress manages inner work life, and generates both internal motivation and motivation to help your team (aka organizational citizenship behavior).
  2. Ask “What’s Next?” This blazes the trail for progress. Make sure your teammate is focusing on the next blaze, not the end of the trail (big goals often kill motivation and progress).
  3. Identify the Next Small Win: Once you know where your teammate is headed, identify the next small step they can take to get there. Focus on task, process or effort-related goals. And it’s OK if the goal isn’t work related.
  4. What’s Your Yardstick? Make sure your teammate can measure progress, ideally from the work itself. Having trouble figuring out a good yardstick? That’s a sign you might want to revise your small win.
  5. Show Your Work: Take a victory lap. Figure out how your teammate can show their progress to you and others. Remember this isn’t bragging. It’s a way to honor the work and to get feedback and advice from others.
Bonus tip:

Don’t forget to lead by example. We’ve already established you can’t force people to engage in OCB activity. But you can help get the ball rolling by volunteering yourself. Organizational citizenship is contagious. Volunteering encourages others to volunteer. Also, make it a priority to zealously remove small daily frustrations. This shows OCB on your part (you don’t have to care about “the little stuff,” but you can choose to). It also shows your team that you value their daily experience. And you recognize that their struggles are real and valid.

Leading by example is the simplest and most effective way to develop and nurture the culture in your workplace. You are watched more than you realize. And, like us all, your actions speak much louder than your words.

Which of the 5 tips for encouraging OCB at your workplace do you see the most room for improvement? What’s your next step? How will you know if you’re making progress? Who can you show that work to? See what I did there 😉

The Only True Measure of Employee Engagement

The Only True Measure of Employee Engagement

Sometimes Your Unhappy Employees Are The Most Engaged.

Think employee engagement just means making employees happy? Nope. Often your unhappy employees are your most engaged ones. Don’t believe me? I’ve got a quick story that might change your mind.

This may come as a surprise to those of you who don’t know me personally, but I haven’t always been the picture of health and wellness that I am today (#irony). I somehow convinced an Ironwoman triathlete to take me on as her lifetime project (#oppositesattract).

Years ago Janet somehow convinced me we should do an “adventure race” together. On the fateful morning of the race Janet went to check us in while all 250 pounds of me sat in the truck wondering what I had done. She quickly returned with the race packet. Inside was the jerseys we had to wear. I watched as she sheepishly pulled my jersey out of the bag and immediately noticed two things:

  1. My jersey was about 3 sizes too small; and
  2. It was a HALF-SHIRT (think Chris Farley’s “fat guy in a little coat” and you’ll get the picture).

Needless to say, I was not happy. But we went on to compete in a two hour race. Well, a two hour race for us (Janet would have finished in under an hour).

The Low-Light (and the Triumph)

The low-light of this day full of low-lights was the blow-up kayak event. Blow-up kayaks are unstable and quite cramped. Especially when the person in the back of the kayak outweighs the person in the front by more than 100 pounds. My legs quickly started falling asleep. Every time I tried to adjust, the kayak took on water, which I would then try to bail out using a small water bottle. This was hilarious to everyone but me.

I decided about halfway through the kayak event that the best way to preserve my marriage was to quit speaking to Janet. When we finally made it back to shore we struggled to dump what felt like 75 gallons of water from the kayak. Janet turned to me and whispered, “We can quit if you want to.” In one of my less approachable moments as a husband I said (OK, I yelled), “We are finishing this fudging race!” Except, like Ralphie, I didn’t say fudge.

But here’s the thing. While I was the slowest, fattest and angriest person on the race course that day I was, without a doubt, the most engaged. If a pack of wild coyotes came between me and that finish line I would have tore right through them. And we did finish, to the cheers (and some jeers) of… well, everyone else who showed up to the race that day.

The Problem with Measuring Employee Engagement

I’m not suggesting you should motivate your team by piling them into your version of a tiny blow-up kayak. But the old adage isn’t necessarily true. Happy employees are not the key to employee engagement. We often get this completely backwards, thinking our job is to be the Chief Happiness Officer of our company. Happiness and satisfaction are often the opposite of employee engagement.

Think about yourself for a second. Do you consider yourself an engaged employee? Okay, then are you always happy? Or do you get frustrated that things aren’t going as well as you know they could? Upset when you see the company or your team settling or not living up to its potential?

So happiness is a poor measure of engagement. Here’s some more bad news. Your “engagement survey” isn’t really measuring employee engagement either. Sure, every survey company out there (including mine) offers an engagement index. But these all measure work conditions that should lead to employee engagement (or disengagement).

The Only True Measure of Employee Engagement

Frustrated or unhappy employees are sometimes disengaged. But often the opposite is true. It depends on why the person is frustrated or unhappy.

One recent article suggests using the “net promoter” score, or whether an employee is likely to refer someone to work or do business with the company. We’ve been measuring net promoter in our surveys for many years now. I like this measure over others because it is a solid predictor of actual behavior. But even this isn’t actually measuring employee engagement. Likelihood to promote is just another precursor to engagement.

Are You Making Diamonds or Coal?

Sometimes friction and high pressure leads to diamonds. Other times you end up with coal (or just ground up dirt). How do you know if you’re creating diamonds or coal? How can you tell if you’re employees are actually engaged?

There is only one way to get a true sense of how engaged your team members are. You must focus on observable behavior. What do they choose to do to help out their teammates? Do they volunteer to help others when they don’t have to? Are they always looking for ways to make things smoother, even outside of their normal job?

That’s the true measure of employee engagement. It’s called Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). And I think it is the best observable way to spot engagement.

Professor Dennis Organ originally defined OCB as, “individual behavior that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognized by the formal reward system, and that in the aggregate promotes the effective functioning of the organization.” OCB has 3 critical components:

  1. They are discretionary (not part of the job description) and voluntary or chosen by the employee;
  2. They go above and beyond the requirements of the job (they aren’t just performing your job above expectations); and
  3. They contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organization.

How do you get people to engage in OCB? I thought you’d never ask 🙂

Next week we’ll cover 5 steps (including our “Win, Know, Show” Model) you can use to increase Organizational Citizenship among your teammates.

Have you ever been frustrated or angry and engaged? Do you ever mistake frustration of a teammate as a sign of poor engagement? How much organizational citizenship behavior do you notice among your teammates?

How to Upgrade Your Self-Control as a Leader: 3 Research-Backed Steps

How to Upgrade Your Self-Control as a Leader: 3 Research-Backed Steps

Leadership Takes Self-Control

You ever had one of those days where NOTHING goes right? Alarm doesn’t go off. GPS sends you to the wrong address. You walk in the door only to realize your well-planned day just got blown to smithereens. Or in my case last week, get caught in a monsoon during a measly 6-block walk to a presentation. Nothing like showing up to a speech looking like you just ran a marathon in your suit. Nice.

If you’ve been a leader for any length of time, you know how it is. But leaders pride ourselves on rising to the occasion when the chips are down. Keeping calm under pressure. In my case I found a bathroom, changed my shirt (twice… my clean shirt for the next day also got soaked through my suitcase). I didn’t look my best, but I didn’t look homeless, which was a solid upgrade from a few minutes before. And I didn’t snap or vent my frustration to anyone.

Those are the good days. But there are bad days too. The days you do snap. Say something you regret. Use your “outside” voice while yelling the wrong F-word. Respond when the right move is keeping your mouth shut.

How well do you exercise self-control? It’s a challenge for most leaders. It requires self-awareness and observing yourself through another person’s eyes. You may feel good about your self-control. Does your team feel the same way?

Poor Self-Control? I’ve Got Some Bad News

One of the world’s most important and influential psychologists, Roy F. Baumeister, teamed up with New York Times science writer John Tierney to write Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It is the go-to book on how to master (well, at least improve) your self-control. Here are a few of their findings:

  • Managers who scored high in self-control were rated more favorably by subordinates and peers;
  • People with good self-control were exceptional at forming and maintaining secure, satisfying attachments to other people; and
  • They were more stable emotionally and less prone to anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychoticism, obsessive-compulsive behavior, eating disorders, drinking problems, and other maladies.

Master self-control and you’ll be better rated at work and enjoy better relationships. Plus you won’t end up depressed because you’re a fat, drunk psychopath. And if that’s not enough, a recent HBR article cites peer-reviewed research that suggests:

“At work, leaders with higher levels of self-control display more effective leadership styles – they are more likely to inspire and intellectually challenge their followers, instead of being abusive or micromanaging.”

That same study – which is supported by Baumeister and Tierney’s research – explains the 3 ground rules for self-control:

  1. Self control is a finite cognitive resource;
  2. Different types of self-control tap the same pool of self-control resources; and
  3. Exerting self-control can negatively affect future self-control if it is not replenished.

OK, you’re convinced. This self-control thing is worth working on. You know the ground rules. But how realistic is it to maintain self-control all day long? What’s your strategy for managing this precious resource?

3 Research-Backed Steps to Upgrade Your Self-Control as a Leader:

Step One: Don’t Fail the Marshmallow Test. Watch for Signs of Willpower Depletion.

The classic study on self-control is basically torturing children. You put kids in a room with a bunch of marshmallows and tell them not to eat them. Then you leave and watch them struggle to avoid eating them (or not struggle at all and watch the little heathens pound fistfuls of marshmallows).

The marshmallow test turns out to be an incredible predictor of performance later in life. It’s basically the only test you can give a child that predicts how they will perform as an adult (not even IQ does that). Another illustration of the power of self-control.

One of the most important points Baumeister and Tierney make through their research is that willpower becomes depleted as you use it. Think about it like exercise. When you work out, you use up energy. Before you can exercise again, you must rest and refuel. If you hit the wall, your performance drops and you “bonk.”

You don’t want to bonk as a leader. Here are 4 questions to ask yourself to determine how much willpower gas you have left in your tank.

  1. Are you getting frustrated more easily?
  2. Is the “volume” on your life turned up? (Do you feel extra busy? Spread too thin?)
  3. Are you struggling to make decisions?
  4. Is your overall energy down?

Once you recognize your willpower reserves are running low, move on to step two.

Step Two: Slow Down And Eat Some Humble Pie.

If your self-control is running low, it’s likely your relationship with your team is struggling because of it. You don’t want that. Remember, employees perform better for leaders with higher levels of self-control.

How can you refuel your relationships? Recognize that you are not at your best. A lot of leaders will fall back on their power or positional authority in times like these. That’s not a good place. Instead, focus on being humble. For tips on this you should check out Edgar Schein’s book Humble Inquiry. Here are three actions you can take:

  • Do less telling and more asking. Schein observes, “Telling puts the other person down. It implies the other person does not know what I am telling and that the other person ought to know it.”
  • Practice “Here and Now Humility.” This is the idea that when someone in a higher power position asks someone in a lower power position to do something for them, their roles switch. The person in the higher power position becomes dependent on the other and thus, inferior. Schein suggests that you embrace this dynamic as often as possible. Or check out the Recognizing Gaps Tool in our Leadership Survival Toolkit for practical ways to “flip the script” and show humility toward your team.
  • Stop being so task-oriented. Task-oriented relationships encourage individualism and competitiveness. On the flip side, person-oriented relationships encourage cooperation, teamwork, and putting group (or business) before self.

Step Three: Make Your Bed. Work On Building Your Willpower “Muscles.”

How do you maintain self-control? Here are 3 practical tips to get you started.

  1. Start your day off right. Get some early positive momentum by building habits that start your day on the right track. Tim Ferris’ terrific new book Tools of Titans mentions this simple tip from Hindu Priest Dandapani: finish your sleep each day by making your bed. Ferris also recommends journaling about things you’re thankful for each morning. This is part of my daily practice too. I’m such a fan that it’s included in all of our Learn and Lead Journals. Accomplishing small steps gives you the feeling of control.
  2. Take care of yourself. Baumeister and Tierney found that sleep restores willpower. So get plenty of rest. Ferris offers many practical tips on this too. Also organize your workspace. Being in a clean room increases self-control, which is why you should keep your physical and virtual desks under control. Finally, eat right. Will-power is directly affected by your glucose levels.
  3. Pre-commit. Baumeister and Tierney also suggest pre-committing to the steps you’ll take to overcome anticipated obstacles. Let’s say hypothetically that you drive by a Sonic on your way home from work. What’s your plan to keep that voice on your left shoulder from talking you into grabbing a cookie-dough Master Blast after a hard day? Decision-making depletes self-control. Having a plan in place makes it much more likely that you’ll follow through and avoid the temptation (not that I have any personal experience with this :)).

The Takeaway

Leadership takes self-control. And self-control is like any limited resource – it must be conserved and replenished. Here are 3 tips for upgrading your self-control as a leader.

  1. Don’t fail the marshmallow test. Watch for signs of willpower depletion. Learn to recognize the signs that your self-control is running low.
  2. Slow down and eat some humble pie. Take some time to reflect on how your low-willpower moments impact your team. Practice humility and use our tools to flip the power relationship.
  3. Make Your Bed. Work on building your willpower “muscles.” All good things take effort. Practice behaviors that increase your chances of acting from a place of self-control.

How far into your day do you usually make it before your self-control reserves burn out? Can you think of examples where your lack of control has had a negative effect on a team member? What are 2 or 3 things you can do to build up your self-control muscles?

Here is How Leaders Can Overcome Bias: 3 Proven Tactics from Research

Here is How Leaders Can Overcome Bias: 3 Proven Tactics from Research

Are You Biased? Don’t Say No Until You Imagine This.

You’re driving to work. Sipping your coffee. Listening to your favorite morning show. At the most traffic-jammed intersection of your drive, someone squeezes in between you and the car just ahead. How do you feel? Right. What a jerk!

Now imagine you stop for gas. You try pulling out of the convenience store into the same intersection. And what happens? Nobody will let you merge. After fuming for 3 minutes you jam your way in, causing the person behind you to hit their brakes (and salute you). Now how do you feel? Right again. What a bunch of jerks!

You see yourself as the hero of both of these driving stories, overcoming all those villains on the roadways. But are you always an angel on the road? Yeah, me either.

We see our own behavior in the best light possible. When we react to something (like traffic) we explain our behavior based on the situation. But the behavior of others? Well that’s a different story. We explain other people’s behavior based on traits. This is called Actor-Observer Bias (or Fundamental Attribution Error if you want to get real fancy-schmancy). And it is just one cognitive bias that impacts your leadership.

Let’s Start with the Obvious. Very Few People Think They Are Biased.

Bias is how other people behave (there goes that Actor-Observer bias again). Bias is a leadership “blindspot” lurking in the background. It’s rarely overt or even conscious. It’s implicit and hidden from plain sight.

The best book I’ve read on implicit bias is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. Their main message is that we all experience bias:

A quarter century ago, most psychologists believed that human behavior was primarily guided by conscious thoughts and feelings. Nowadays the majority will readily agree that much of human judgment and behavior is produced with little conscious thought.

We prefer people who look like us or share similar backgrounds. Or in the case of Actor-Observer bias, we prefer people who are us. And since most of us don’t think we’re biased, we don’t question our decision-making.

Banaji and Greenwald find we often react to things without even thinking about it. It is part of our System 1 (automatic) thinking. Every day we unconsciously react to people and situations based on bias we don’t realize we have. Or worse, bias that we tell ourselves we don’t have. Even professor Banaji, who dedicates his career to overcoming bias in society, tests out as showing an automatic preference in favor of Whites.

Three Ways to Overcome Your Own Bias as a Leader

We rarely think about our biases. We don’t want to think about them. Or we think we aren’t biased when our actions tell a different story. Dostoyevski calls them “colorless lies” because they are lies we don’t even reveal to ourselves.

The fact is, our biases run the show more often than we realize. And that’s a problem. Because if we operate on autopilot our behavior won’t change. But once you shine a light on bias you give yourself a shot to question your assumptions. Here are three research-backed ways you can manage your bias:

1. Check Yourself (Before You Wreck Yourself).

Step one is switch off the autopilot every once in a while. Professor Banaji and another colleague created numerous tests that reveal implicit bias. If you feel like doing some self-awareness work I encourage you to check out the Implicit Association Tests. They were very eye-opening for me (and my family).

The Implicit Association Tests focus mainly on traits like race, culture, age, and gender. Knowing your implicit bias in these areas is obviously very important. But you also need to check for cognitive bias like the Actor-Observer bias. Things like Confirmation bias and the Semmelweis Reflex, are bugs in your cognitive operating system. Here’s a great visual of the most common cognitive bias:

The Cognitive Bias Codex by John Mannogian

The bad news is we all have bias. We rarely question whether it’s impacting our decisions or behavior (spoiler alert: it is). What’s worse, even if you know you have bias you won’t “cure” your implicit or cognitive bias. Professors Banaji and Greenwald lament:

As disappointing as it was to discover that the tests revealed associations that we preferred not to have, it was even more disappointing to observe that our results for these tests changed little over time, as we took them repeatedly. Awareness of the hidden biases did not seem to help us to eradicate them.

Once you understand your potential bias, instead of trying to eliminate it you should manage it. To do that you move to step 2.

2. Teach Yourself to Turn Off (and Sometimes Turn On) Your Autopilot

Our implicit or cognitive bias doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s situational. It occurs when we make a decision or respond to a situation. These are “triggers” and each one is an opportunity to question (or act based on) bias. For example, consider these situations:

  • Someone with an accent applies for a customer service job. You don’t think they’ll be a good fit. Why? You don’t think you customers will accept talking to someone with an accent.
  • A small person asks to be a helper in your fabrication shop. You immediately push them to the “no” pile. Why? there’s a lot of heavy lifting involved that this person probably can’t handle.
  • One of your teammates seems to be on Facebook a little too often. They come to you with an idea to reduce the amount of time it takes to do their operation. You internally roll your eyes, figuring they are just trying to get out of more work.

Each one of these might seem like a reasonable reaction. Sometimes language and weight restrictions rise to the level of actual job requirements. But we often don’t question the assumptions behind these reactions. Any of them could be due to implicit or cognitive bias.

Maybe your customers might enjoy someone with an unusual accent. Or this could be an opportunity to reduce or eliminate lifting in fabrication (not to mention you never know who lifts cars after work at the cross-fit gym!) And the “lazy” employee might have just given you a huge money-saving idea. These days some economists even argue that time on Facebook may mask huge productivity gains at work (although for any of my employees reading this let me say I’m not convinced 🙂

How To Turn Off the Autopilot

In situations like these use the trigger as chance to question assumptions. Your goal is to create cognitive dissonance and get your System 2 (analytical) brain working. Our Hero Assumption Learn and Lead Huddle includes a Trigger Tool. It encourages leaders to reflect on these triggers. But here are three questions to get you started:

  1. What is your evidence for the assumption? Is there any evidence that the opposite is true?
  2. Are there any resources or alternatives that could overcome the potential obstacle? Have we ever overcome a situation like this before?
  3. Is this an opportunity to re-think the way “we’ve always done” things? What new could we create from this situation?

These questions will help get your brain off autopilot, and nudge you to face any implicit or cognitive bias. However, there are times when autopilot can be the answer to bias. Like tryouts for a seat in an orchestra. For decades these tryouts occurred out in the open and women rarely won a spot. All that changed over the last 20 years when orchestras started doing “blind” auditions with players behind cloth screens. As Professors Banaji and Greenwald explain:

After the adoption of blind auditions, the proportion of women hired by major symphony orchestras doubled—from 20 percent to 40 percent. In retrospect it is easy to see that a virtuoso = male stereotype was an invalid but potent mindbug, undermining the orchestra’s ability to select the most talented musicians. Two things stand out about the introduction of blind auditions for orchestra hiring. First is that they did the experiment at all; few experts are able to have sufficient distrust of their own abilities to actually put themselves to a test. Second, the fix was simple and cheap—a piece of cloth. Outsmarting this particular mindbug required awareness, a desire to improve, and a method for improving. It did not need to be complicated or costly.

Whenever possible, look for ways to eliminate bias by removing chances for it to happen in the first place. This removes bias from the system instead of relying on us to catch ourselves in the act. But if you still want to stop bias at the source you’ll need a new “autopilot setting” using step 3.

3. Reset Your Autopilot Using The Hero Assumption

Start thinking about implicit and cognitive bias and it’s easy to get discouraged. Leaders get the chance to act on bias dozens of times a day. And be honest. How often do you look at your employees like drivers on the road I mentioned earlier?

We call this the Villain Assumption. The Villain Assumption is the opposite of the Hero Assumption (“nobody wakes up thinking they are the villain of their story”). I’d bet you’ve made the Villain Assumption toward someone on your team at least once today without realizing it. Late for a meeting? Probably wasting time on social media. Quality issue? Probably doesn’t care as much about the work as you do.

Worse, you may make the Villain Assumption toward yourself. Do you ever wonder whether you have what it takes to be a great leader? Are you organized enough? Driven enough? That’s the Villain Assumption. You may have even had some thoughts like that while reading this article.

The Hero Assumption isn’t just being nice. It is a key difference maker in how they perform. Research on the Pygmalion effect proves that your assumptions about your team influences how they perform – for better or worse. And it’s not just a good idea for your teammates. The stereotypes and implicit assumptions we make can negatively effect the way we act and behave toward ourselves and even harm our health. One study Banaji and Greenwald cite shows that elderly people who have negative implicit assumptions about age are more likely to suffer from heart disease when they’re older. They conclude:

In understanding mindbugs, a persuasive reason to take them seriously is self-interest: Stereotypes can negatively affect our actions toward ourselves.

Therefore Step 3 is to make the Hero Assumption about your teammates. This must be your “default” position. Anytime you experience a trigger look for how the glass is half-full. Assume positive intent. When your coworker reacts think of them like the Actor instead of the Observer (the same way you would for yourself).

The Takeaway

Each one of us faces a complicated set of implicit and cognitive biases. We almost never think about them (after all, they’re implicit). Even worse, they are very hard to overcome. This means we have to always look out for them and be ready to manage them when they pop up. You can do that by:

  1. Checking Yourself (working on self-awareness and always being on the lookout for implicit and cognitive bias);
  2. Checking Your Autopilot (look for triggering situations and create alarms to make sure you consider bias; or look for situations where you can set your autopilot to overcome potential bias);
  3. Make the Hero Assumption Your “Default” Setting (set you and your team up for success by assuming the best and not the worst).

I know you can handle it. After all, I’m making the Hero Assumption about you.

Do you have any experience with implicit bias in your life? What about cognitive bias? When was the last time you tried to recognize some of your own biases. Does the Hero Assumption come naturally to you? Let us know in the comments.

3 Questions Your Employees Don’t Ask (But Desperately Want Answered)

3 Questions Your Employees Don’t Ask (But Desperately Want Answered)

Are you the kind of person who cares what people think about you?

Last week I traveled to Wisconsin to visit a client. We’ve done business with them for a long time, but part of our agenda included discussing a new opportunity. The people we’ve historically worked with have moved on and this was the first time I’d personally met the new team. I wanted to make a good impression.

I worried about all the stuff I do when making a pitch. Was I prepared? Did my box of books and handouts make it? How will they feel about them? Are there enough copies for everyone? Should I use slides? If I do, will I be able to get my presentation up on their screen? Should I have packed a tie? Are my pants fitting too tight (unfortunately the answer there is yes). Will we start on time? Will I forget to cover all the important stuff? I had all these questions and a hundred more.

Do you ever get nervous for meetings with your boss? Or with a client or big customer? What kinds of things do you worry about when getting ready for those “high stakes” meetings?

It is not unusual to worry about how people will react to us in situations like this. In fact, what would be weird is if we didn’t worry. That’s because we are genetically hard-wired to want acceptance from others.

How to avoid being a chew toy for a saber tooth tiger

Back when our ancestors were running from wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers, acceptance wasn’t just trying to feel good about ourselves. Getting excluded from the group was a death sentence. The worst punishment in these times was getting shunned from the tribe.

Because of this we humans developed a strong capacity for cooperation and social connection. A huge part of that capability lies in our ability to read and interpret the (primarily nonverbal) signals from others, and to adjust our behavior in a way to gain acceptance. Some argue (and I agree) that we have taken this need for acceptance way too far. But there is no question that these skills serve us well in situations where cooperation is required. Nowhere is that more true than at work.

“The psychological need that shall not be named”

Remember Voldemort in the Harry Potter stories? He was evil and ever present. Because of that there was a rule that you never mentioned him by name. This need for acceptance is a lot like that. It’s rarely discussed.  In situations where the power balance isn’t equal (and often it’s not) we don’t tip our hands about our anxiety about our need for acceptance. We fear it is a sign of weakness. That’s especially true when we are in the low power position.

Why is it important for leaders to understand this ever-present but never discussed need for acceptance? Because it raises serious questions in the minds of our teammates that are never asked. Instead they make assumptions based on what we say or how we act.

Just like you want to impress and feel acceptance from your boss, your family and your friends, your employees want to impress and feel acceptance from you. They crave it. There are three questions they especially want answered, but they’ll never ask.

Three questions your employees don’t ask, but want to know:

Question One: Do you like me?

It’s so basic. But even the coolest cat in school wants to be liked. Especially by people that matter. And your boss matters. Aside from the obvious fact that your livelihood is in their hands, so is your development as a professional. And a fair amount of your sense of value as a person.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that you should live your life valuing yourself based on what others think about you. You shouldn’t. And the world would be a lot better place if we spent less time worrying about what everyone else thought about us and just concentrated on self-acceptance and being our best selves.

But that’s just not how most of us are wired. So by all means try to teach your teammates (and yourself) self-acceptance. In the meantime you can safely assume they’re not quite there. Which means that they need to know that you like them. That you think they are a good person. That you want them around.

Question Two: Do you think I have what it takes?

This one focuses on the Progress Principle. People want to make progress in their lives. It is another critical driver embedded deep in our sense of self. No one likes the feeling of running in place. Or worse, going backward. Not only do these feelings decrease engagement and increase turnover, they also create resentment. And that seeps its way into the culture of your workplace.

Here’s the key. Remember the third question of Approachable Leaders: Where are you going? Look for ways to set your teammates up for progress each day. And then support them. Encourage them. Celebrate small wins (and the big ones). Let them know you believe in them. That you think they have what it takes.

Question Three: Do you think I’m worth the effort?

Things aren’t always going to go right. We screw up. Despite our best efforts we have days when we take a few steps back. These are times even the most self-accepting person gets on shaky ground. How do you act toward your team when things are in the ditch? Do you encourage and support or do you give up on them?

And here we come back to value and self-worth. Do you think I’m worth the effort?

Think about that question for a moment and how it might effect someone. How does it effect you?

True leadership is about so much more than making sure business gets handled. Yes, that’s technically your job. And you have to make sure your job gets done. But when you step into the role of a leader, something else happens.

Your opinion begins to matter on a deeper level.

How do you let your teammates know that you like them and value them? Are there things you do that might communicate the opposite message?

PS – I’ve had these three questions sitting as a draft blog post for a few months and I forgot where I first saw them. I’ve looked high and low but can’t find the original source. If you happen to have seen these before, could you let me know? I’d like to link to them and thank them for the inspiration.


Calm Under Pressure: Leadership Lessons from a Bomb Disposal Expert

Calm Under Pressure: Leadership Lessons from a Bomb Disposal Expert

What do a Hindu Priest and Bomb Disposal Expert have in common?

Let me make a guess about you. Your life is hectic. You begin your day with one to-do list, only to find it blown up within minutes after you arrive to work. Some days it feels like the world conspired to throw a bomb into anything you choose to do. Instead of just working your list you now have the job of bomb disposal. And as Batman quips in my favorite line of the 1966 Batman Movie (please don’t judge), “some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”

In a sense this is truly the job of leaders. When things are going according to plan people don’t really need a lot of leadership. But when everything is falling apart around them? When things are messy? People need a leader the most when they don’t know what to do.

You know what I’m talking about. Staying calm under pressure. The poop has hit the fan. Everything grinds to a halt. No one knows how to fix the problem. This is when true leaders step up. Because someone must decide what to do next. Keep things moving forward. Calm everyone down and help them perform under pressure.

This is what Eric Barker wrote about in a recent article where he interviewed an EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) or bomb disposal expert. My favorite quote from the article:

“EOD is the science of vague assumptions based on debatable data taken from inconclusive experiments with instruments of problematic accuracy by persons of questionable mentality.”

Sounds like a great definition of leadership to me. The stakes aren’t always life or death (but they can be). But whether you are disposing of a bomb or helping solve a workplace dilemma your job is to deal with uncertainty – stay calm under pressure – in situations where the stakes are high.

3 Tips to Stay Calm Under Pressure

I know none of us will be defusing a bomb anytime soon (I hope!) But high pressure situations are relative. And you’re probably like me and have found yourself in the heat of the moment, not knowing what to do, but needing to make a decision anyway. Which brings me to the Hindu Priest.

calm under pressure

Neither of these guys are bomb disposal experts.

Last week my Entrepreneur’s Organization Chapter hosted Dandapani for our annual member appreciation event. A big part of his presentation dealt with practical, everyday tips on staying focused and mindful in a turbulent business world. These tips related well to what Barker’s bomb disposal expert lays out for us. The first tip for remaining calm under pressure is to:

1. Avoid “The Rabbit Hole” and Do a Threat Assessment

The rabbit hole is all the what-ifs. This is by far the biggest barrier to forward movement. Because what-ifs are just that. They are hypotheticals. And they can be time-wasters.

The rabbit hole is understandable. We want to make the best decision possible. Especially when the stakes are high. However, we often let the what-ifs take our awareness away from what’s really important.

Dandapani teaches that awareness is like a flashlight that we shine to different areas of our brain. A lot of functional MRI studies show this happening in real time. Is your focus on fear? Your awareness will light up the “fear” area of your brain (which will literally light up on an f-MRI). Is your focus on resources or problem solving? A different area of your brain lights up.

Your best tool for making a comprehensive decision in the heat of the moment is to do a threat assessment. That is, to ask yourself, “What kind of problem is this?”

To do that, you must leverage your experience. If you’ve been a leader for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered a similar problem to the one you’re facing. Even if you’re a new leader, you’ve probably encountered a similar situation outside of work. You just have a different vantage point on the issue. That may even serve you better.

No matter your prior experience, do your best to narrow down the issue at hand. Generalize if you must. Then you can proceed with a clear, focused mindset.

The next tip from Barker’s bomb disposal expert:

2. Emphasize the Positive and Focus on What You Can Control

This is where you get the “calm” in keeping calm under pressure.

When you focus only on the negatives, all the challenges that surround the issue (and you light up the fear and anxiety centers of the brain), you’re more likely to lose your cool. Focusing on challenges outside of your control just reiterates over and over that you aren’t in control.

Take the control back. Find the positives. Focus your awareness light on those things. And not only will you be much more likely keep your cool, you are also more likely to make a decision that will work out in your favor. One of the things Dandapani also taught is that when we bring our awareness to our bigger goals at work and in life, that the path will often reveal itself in ways that were hidden before. Once you focus on what is possible – rather than what isn’t – your brain starts to notice other connections that were invisible before.

Not only that. You will be more optimistic and your team will pick up on that.

Last, but not least, tip 3 for staying calm under pressure is to:

3. Know Your Next Step

Barker writes,

“The secret to calm and focus is simply deciding what you need to do next. That prevents the gap from opening up where the speculation and worrying grows.”

This is so important and brings me back to the point of not trying to force yourself to know exactly how everything will work out. The biggest and boldest strategies happen through baby steps. One thing at a time. The next step is all you need to worry about.

Last week I finished The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This is a major theme of that (terrific) book: you have no idea how the real-world will react to what your hypothesis about how to respond. Because of that you should focus on the smallest possible step that will provide proof that you can use to inform the next step. He calls this the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). For leaders I’d call it MVL (Minimum Viable Leadership). In other words take the smallest step designed to resolve the current situation (consistent with the long term vision and values of the organization). Then see what is revealed after that experience.

Some may think steps 2 and 3 contradict. I’m supposed to focus on my big picture goals and the small picture next steps at the same time? Yes, but here’s how. The idea is to always know your bigger purpose (what you are striving for) without letting that interfere with taking your next small step (what you can control). Then evaluate your progress based on real-world information (versus what’s going on in your head).

And when you’re not sure what even the next baby step should be?

Head back up to Step 1. Let go of thoughts that aren’t helpful (stop shining your awareness light in the unproductive areas) then move to Step 2 by focusing on your purpose and what you can control. As you do that, the next small steps will show up.

What’s been your craziest experience of trying to remain calm under pressure? How did you handle it? Do you have any tips you can share?

By the way, Eric Barker just released his first book (not surprisingly it’s titled Barking Up the Wrong Tree). Check it out!