HBR: How to Lose Your Best Employees

“When we are learning, we experience higher levels of brain activity and many feel-good brain chemicals are produced. Managers would do well to remember that.” What are you doing to keep your employees challenged at work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Whitney Johnson:

How to Lose Your Best Employees

You want to be a great boss. You want your company to be a great place to work. But right now, at this very moment, one of your key employees might be about to walk out the door.

She has consistently brought her best game to work and has grown into a huge asset. But her learning has peaked, her growth has stalled, and she needs a new challenge to reinvigorate her.

As her boss, you don’t want anything to change. After all, she’s super-productive, her work is flawless, and she always delivers on time. You want to keep her right where she is.

That’s a great way to lose her forever.

This was my situation more than a decade ago. After eight years as an award-winning stock analyst at Merrill Lynch, I needed a new challenge. I’ve always liked mentoring and coaching people, so I approached a senior executive about moving to a management track. Rather than offering his support, he dismissed and discouraged me. His attitude was, We like you right where you are. I left within the year.

This kind of scenario plays out in companies every day. And the cost is enormous in terms of both time and money. But if I had stayed and disengaged, the cost may have been even higher. When people can no longer grow in their jobs, they mail it in — leading to huge gaps in productivity. According to Gallup, a lack of employee engagement “implies a stunning amount of wasted potential, given that business units in the top quartile of Gallup’s global employee engagement database are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.”

And yet engagement is only symptomatic. When your employees (and maybe even you, as their manager) aren’t allowed to grow, they begin to feel that they don’t matter. They feel like a cog in a wheel, easily swapped out. If you aren’t invested in them, they won’t be invested in you, and even if they don’t walk out the door, they will mentally check out.

How do you overcome this conundrum? It starts with recognizing that every person in your company, including you, is on a learning curve. That learning curve means that every role has a shelf life. You start a new position at the low end of the learning curve, with challenges to overcome in the early days. Moving up the steep slope of growth, you acquire competence and confidence, continuing into a place of high contribution and eventually mastery at the top of the curve.

But what comes next as the potential for growth peters out? The learning curve flattens, a plateau is reached; a precipice of disengagement and declining performance is on the near horizon. I’d estimate that four years is about the maximum learning curve for most people in most positions; if, after that, you’re still doing the exact same thing, you’re probably starting to feel a little flat.

Take my own career: I moved to New York City with a freshly minted university degree in music. I was a pianist who especially loved jazz. But I was quickly dazzled by Wall Street which, in the late 1980s, was the place to work. I secured a position as a secretary in a financial firm and started night school to learn about investing.

A few years later, my boss helped me make the leap from support staff to investment banker. It was an unlikely, thrilling new opportunity that required his sponsorship and support. After a few years, I jumped again to become a stock analyst, and I scaled that curve to achieve an Institutional Investor ranking for several successive years.

When I began, I was excited to be a secretary on Wall Street. I was also excited to become an investment banker. And I loved being a stock analyst. Though I started in each of these positions at the low end of their respective learning curves, I was able to progress and achieve mastery in all of them.

Eventually, I became a little bored with each job and started looking around for a new challenge to jump to. Most of us follow similar patterns — our brains want to be learning, and they give us feel-good feedback when we are. When we aren’t, we don’t feel so good. The human brain is designed to learn, not just during our childhood school years but throughout our life spans. When we are learning, we experience higher levels of brain activity and many feel-good brain chemicals are produced. Managers would do well to remember that.

Because every organization is a collection of people on different learning curves. You build an A team by optimizing these individual curves with a mix of people: 15% of them at the low end of the curve, just starting to learn new skills; 70% in the sweet spot of engagement; and 15% at the high end of mastery. As you manage employees all along the learning curve, requiring them to jump to a new curve when they reach the top, you will have a company full of people who are engaged.

You and every person on your team is a learning machine. You want the challenge of not knowing how to do something, learning how to do it, mastering it, and then learning something new. Instead of letting the engines of your employees sit idle, crank them: Learn, leap, and repeat.

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HBR: Track Your Time for 30 Days. What You Learn Might Surprise You.

I would encourage you to do a time-tracking exercise for 30 days. The information would be invaluable to being more productive and evaluating your schedule.  Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark:

Track Your Time for 30 Days. What You Learn Might Surprise You.

It’s hard to know if we’re really making efficient use of our time. It seems like we’re working hard — and we’re certainly stressed out. But are we spending our time on the right things? That’s the question I set out to solve at the start of this year. I was feeling overwhelmed after spending the fall launching a new book and was finally turning to the litany of tasks I’d neglected in its wake.

Inspired by a colleague, the time management expert Laura Vanderkam, I decided to spend the month of February tracking exactly how I spent my time, down to half-hour increments. It wasn’t high tech — I used an Excel spreadsheet — but even the process of remembering to write things down was arduous. After all, we’re used to living our lives, not recording them. But the insights I gained over the course of a month were extremely useful. In particular, there were four that made me rethink a lot of the conventional wisdom on productivity and time management. While I encourage you to do your own time-tracking exercise, if you don’t have the time for that (ha!), here’s what I learned:

The right kind of multitasking can be transformative. We’ve all heard plenty about the dangers of multitasking — we can’t do multiple things at once effectively, and we’ll always suffer from cognitive switching costs. That’s true for certain activities but — crucially — is irrelevant for others. For instance, almost anyone can easily listen to podcasts or audiobooks while exercising, cooking, or commuting to work, and if you’re dining alone, you can read while you eat.

With a month’s data in hand, I was astonished to discover I averaged almost two hours of reading each day, plus an additional 90 minutes of listening to audio content. “Reading more” is a common aspiration for busy professionals — one poll reported that nearly one in five people claimed it as their New Year’s resolution — and “strategic multitasking” is a surprisingly easy way to fit it in.

There are benefits from combining your personal and professional networks. Many people still hold to the idea that friends and business don’t mix and that you should separate your personal life and professional life. And it’s true that boundaries can be important for work-life balance.

But if you relish what you’re doing, the most interesting friends in the world are often ones with whom you can share both personal matters (discussing hobbies or commiserating about interpersonal relationships) and those related to your business. As I’m writing this article, in fact, I’m on an airplane with one of my closest friends, who nominated me for an elite business consortium that we’re now participating in together. In my time-tracking exercise, I counted my time under multiple categories if it legitimately filled both criteria. Amazingly, this allowed me to have a full 29% more time in my month — 866 hours instead of the typical 672 — which helped me to get more done.

For example, I learned that I spend 19.3 hours per week with friends and 17 hours doing some form of networking. The overlap isn’t perfect, but it’s close, and those relationships have formed the core of my professional success. I might spend more time socializing than some — I live in a city, and I don’t have kids — but the same principle of building overlapping personal and professional circles holds no matter how many hours per week you have to devote.

Certain hours of the day are especially likely to be “wasted.” I don’t waste much time on social media (I define “waste” as time spent scrolling aimlessly through feeds, rather than posting with a professional purpose in mind). In fact, it only came to 2.5 hours during the entire month of February. In the scheme of things, it’s not much, and we don’t need to optimize every minute. But I’d at least like to be deliberate in how I choose to slack off, and social media wouldn’t be my top choice.

During the times when I did fall into the social media rabbit hole, a clear pattern emerged: It almost always occurred between 10 PM and 11 PM. Despite recent questions about the accuracy of Roy Baumeister’s seminal theory of ego depletion, it certainly seemed to be the case for me that I was most susceptible to distraction at that time, when I was worn down from the demands of the day but not tired enough to sleep. Realizing that this time of day is when my defenses are lowest, I can now guard more vigilantly against misspending time.

Certain tasks carry disproportionate psychological weight. Before starting my experiment, my perception was that I was besieged by email, which was crippling my productivity. But the reality was somewhat different. Indeed, I spent about 1.35 hours per day handling messages, which isn’t trifling. But it’s also not overwhelming, and well under the amount of time I allocated each day to pure client work (my top priority), networking and time with friends, and even reading.

However, even recognizing this, email still bothered me the most of any task, and I felt constant psychological pressure when I was “behind” on my response times. It wasn’t so much the frequency of checking email that stressed me out. (Some have experimented with checking email only twice a day, with mixed results.) For me, the anxiety came from the feeling — endemic to the nature of email — that people were awaiting my response and that I was constantly being handed new tasks for my to-do list.

My time-tracking experiment, however, helped me put things into perspective. We may never be able to fully escape feelings of email-related guilt. But I’d much rather accept a minor twinge now because I’m slow in responding to someone’s message (the urgent) than the long-term shame I’d feel looking back and discovering I’d become an email ninja while jettisoning my own strategic priorities (the important).

Time tracking can be onerous. In fact, I assigned the experiment to the mastermind group I run, and several participants just couldn’t finish it. One strategy I used to force myself to log my hours every day was “habit stacking” — tying the new behavior to an existing one. In my case, I left my Excel document open on my computer so that it was the first thing I saw when I returned to work after a break. That prompted me to record whatever I’d been doing in the interval, whether it was sleeping (after an overnight break), taking a meeting, or having lunch.

If you can manage to keep it up, the knowledge gleaned from time tracking can be invaluable. Understanding where you can successfully multitask, essentially giving yourself more hours in the day, can transform your productivity. And recognizing which activities are stressful enables you to make smarter decisions about how to delegate or reshuffle your workflow, so you can optimize for the tasks that suit you best.

Without data, it’s easy to paint an erroneous picture of how we spend our time, whether it’s inadvertently exaggerating the number of hours we work or assuming we’re wasting more time than we really do. My month of time tracking revealed useful insights that have enabled me to become more productive — and if you make an effort to evaluate your schedule, it may highlight ways you can optimize moving forward as well.

HBS: To Motivate Employees, Give an Unexpected Bonus (or Penalty)

What best motivates employees to do their best work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge by Michael Blanding:

To Motivate Employees, Give an Unexpected Bonus (or Penalty)

Susanna Gallani finds that employees can be more motivated by the anticipation of a reward or punishment than the actual payoff.

In the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, an executive played by Alec Baldwin presents a unique motivational scheme to a trio of down-on-their-luck real estate salesmen. There will be a new contest, he tells them, to see who can bring in the most sales. “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado,” he says. “Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

This might seem an extreme way to motivate employees (and, of course, fails spectacularly in the movie). But companies hold so-called tournaments based on relative performance all the time to incentivize workers, says Susanna Gallani, an assistant professor in the Accounting and Management Unit at Harvard Business School.

How much those systems spur employees, however, may depend on how fair employees perceive them to be.

“We have a tendency to attribute favorable outcomes to our own abilities, but when things go wrong, we try and find other reasons to explain it,” Gallani says.

Which rewards motivate workers?

In a new working paper written with doctoral student Wei Cai, Subjectivity in Tournaments: Implicit Rewards and Penalties in Subsequent Performance, she finds that those perceptions can have a lot more to do with how employees are motivated than the actual consequences they receive.

Motivation is important in business for one reason: In the contract between employers and employees, it’s simply not possible to spell out how employees’ roles will need to expand to meet every contingency.

“Maybe there is an epidemic of the flu and everyone needs to work overtime, or there is an exogenous increase in demand,” Gallani says. “There is so much left unwritten.”

Because of that, employers rely on employee motivation to go above and beyond the contract and do what’s in the best interest of the organization.

“If you feel like you are being given a gift more than you thought you would earn, then you tend to go above and beyond to restore this balance”

Incentive mechanisms to motivate employees can take many forms, whether it’s tangible rewards or punishment, comparing one employee’s reputation versus another’s, or peer pressure to work on behalf of the larger group. All of those forms of incentive influence individual decisions, which are driven by expectations of future outcomes.

“We make choices in anticipation of what the consequences of those choices will be,” Gallani says. “If I work hard, I will get a bonus or greater respect from my peers or simply the confirmation that I am a good employee—so I will make choices to exhibit high levels of effort.”

In some cases, tournament incentives are structured in such a way that when some employees triumph, others fail. General Electric’s “vitality curve,” for example, made employees in the top 20 percent of performance eligible for raises and promotions, while those in the bottom 10 percent risked being demoted or fired. Industries such as investment banking, consulting, and academia routinely include “up and out” systems in which employees are either promoted or fired. While these systems are intended to spur hard work and high levels of performance, they also introduce potential risks.

The determination of winners and losers in a tournament-based reward system is rarely based on purely objective measures, such as how many sales employees make or how many units they produce. “The objective performance measures don’t take into consideration whether the machine broke down or whether someone is still learning the job,” Gallani explains.

To compensate, managers often inject an element of subjectivity into the competition to even out the scores, by taking into consideration factors that might be outside of the control of the employees or contingencies not foreseeable at the time the employee signed the contract. While subjectivity can improve the precision of the performance evaluation, it might also be open to bias. “Maybe you don’t like that worker, so you are biased consciously or unconsciously against him,” says Gallani.

Whether or not that bias exists, humans’ natural tendency to look for someone else to blame often makes employees believe that bias exists. Gallani and Cai decided to test the effects of those perceptions in a real-world scenario involving an anonymous Chinese company that operates in printing processes.

The company, which Cai found while she was home in China on winter break, runs a tournament-style reward scheme for departments, with each ranked on a 100-point system. Each month, the best performing department receives a bonus, while the worst performing department receives a pay cut. Determining whether departments were awarded the bonus or pay cut depends on objective rankings in the point system, but also on the subjective evaluation by top managers.

“It’s not just about who gets the reward or the penalty, but who was expecting to”

What makes the company perfect for research is that it publishes the objective monthly scores for each department alongside the actual winners and losers. Thus, departments can see any discrepancy between objective and subjective results, which happens about 50 percent of the time. In cases where employees thought they would be rewarded but weren’t, Gallani and Cai called that an “implicit punishment,” while in the opposite case, in which employees thought they would be punished but weren’t, they called it an “implicit reward.”

They found that when employees received rewards—whether they were actual or implicit—they tended to be more productive afterward. In the case of the implicit rewards, Gallani speculates that the extra effort is due to a principle of reciprocity. “If you feel like you are being given a gift more than you thought you would earn, then you tend to go above and beyond to restore this balance,” she says.

On the other hand, those employees who were punished, or who didn’t receive the reward they anticipated, tended to be less productive.

Perceptions are worth more than money

Surprisingly, Gallani and Cai found that the productivity boost or lag in response to an actual reward or punishment was short-lived in comparison to those from implicit consequences. (While they couldn’t say exactly how much longer the effects lasted, they liken it to the difference between a short-term and medium-term effect.)

In other words, the feeling of getting an unanticipated bonus or penalty was more motivating to employees than actually getting a bonus or penalty they earned—perhaps because they interpreted it as a result of bias either for or against them by their bosses.

“It’s not just about who gets the reward or the penalty,” says Gallani, “but who was expecting to.”

Ultimately, such tournament-style motivation schemes may be a zero-sum game, Gallani and Cai found, with the increased productivity of the winners and decreased productivity of the losers canceling each other out to create a statistically negligible overall effect.

The study’s findings are relevant for practice in that they point to side effects of tournament performance evaluation schemes that might undermine effectiveness of incentive systems. In particular, this study shows that the effects of rewards and punishments have wide-ranging consequences that impact not only the receivers of rewards and penalties, but also their colleagues, Gallani says.

Additionally, this study shows that workers are motivated not only by the prospect of receiving a reward or a punishment, but also by the methodology by which rewards and punishments are assigned.

Related Reading:

How to Demotivate Your Best Employees
The Power of Ordinary Practices
Sharpening Your Skills: Motivation

 

HBR: How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Do you request feedback from your peers and/or managers? What do you do to motivate yourself? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Julie Mosow:

How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Let’s face it: some bosses are not inspiring. They don’t motivate us to perform at our best — let alone improve our skills. What should you do if your boss is too hands-off, ambivalent, or downright demotivating? How can you keep your engagement up and your own professional goals on track? Is it possible to motivate yourself?

What the Experts Say

The good news is that while your boss has a lot of influence over how engaged you are at work, you can put yourself in the driver’s seat. “Employees have more control than they realize over their ability to build and sustain motivation in the workplace,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. There are many factors that influence motivation, but “the most significant one is a sense of progress,” says Monique Valcour, professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, citing Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle. “And that comes from the feeling that we are doing work that is meaningful to ourselves, to our colleagues, to the organization, and to the world at large.” Halvorson adds: “Changing your mindset and habits can drive a more fulfilling, more motivated approach to work no matter who your manager is.” Here’s how to motivate yourself when your boss doesn’t.

Understand what makes you tick

If your manager doesn’t motivate you or, even worse, undermines you, it’s important to figure out what drives you personally and professionally. In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer stress that motivation stems from three things: love of the work itself, the desire to receive recognition, and a sense that our work matters and connects us to others. So ask yourself: When was the last time you felt a sense of meaning and purpose at work? What were the conditions that allowed those feelings to flourish?

Set your own goals

Valcour points out that many people feel they’re sprinting in place with no extra time to tackle anything other than their day-to-day responsibilities. However, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Make an individual career plan to help you track your projects and results and set goals for your own development. While some of these goals may be directly related to your current role, others may be geared toward learning and exploring areas of interest outside your job description. Even though it’s tempting to set demanding goals for yourself, Halvorson cautions against going overboard. “Although it’s counterintuitive, setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can actually be demotivating because there’s so much on the line,” she says. Instead, set goals with smaller milestones so that you can celebrate your progress each step along the way.

Use if-then planning

Once you’ve decided on your goals, Halvorson recommends using “if-then” planning to stay on track or to handle setbacks. “Accepting that challenges are a part of life and being prepared to deal with them is critical to long-term motivation,” she says. For example, if your goal is to finish a presentation, but you find yourself getting distracted by conversations with colleagues, you might say, “If I haven’t finished the presentation by the end of the day on Wednesday, then I will come in early on Thursday to finish up while it’s quiet.” Or you might use if-then planning to move past a low point. For example, “If we don’t receive funding for this project, then I will rewrite the business plan and approach the partners again.” By anticipating obstacles, you’re less likely to get stuck.

Evaluate your own performance and ask for feedback

One way that poor managers undermine motivation is by not giving sufficient feedback. “Seeking feedback is important,” Valcour confirms, “even if we sometimes hear things we’d rather not.” Halvorson believes that most managers are willing to offer feedback if you ask. You might request the feedback directly and in the moment by saying something like, “How did you think the meeting went? Is there anything I might do differently next time?” You might also look to peers for an objective assessment of your performance. Ask people who will be candid with you and whose opinions you trust. Another option is self-evaluation. “We’re more capable than we realize of generating meaningful feedback about our professional accomplishments,” Halvorson says. “Look critically at your own work and ask yourself the same questions you would use to evaluate the work of others. For example, consider if you’re moving fast enough or if the quality of your work is what it should be.”

Expand your internal and external networks

If your manager isn’t motivating you, it’s essential to look for support elsewhere — not only to boost your confidence but also to increase your visibility. Find mentors within your own company to give guidance and perspective, and, if possible, develop an in-house peer group designed to help all of you move forward. You can also seek out and develop external relationships. Valcour is a strong proponent of online networking. “Particularly for people who live far away from their colleagues, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other networking sites provide a sense of connectedness to a larger professional community that might otherwise be difficult to maintain.” Even for someone in a major metropolitan area with many opportunities to connect, online networking is an effective way to stay in touch with colleagues and to keep abreast of industry-wide developments.

Focus on learning

By shifting the focus of your work from performing perfectly to consistently learning and improving, you create the conditions for both heightened motivation and success. “Research suggests that this change in mindset reliably results in better performance,” Halvorsen says. “When it comes to achievement, attitude and persistence are often more important than innate abilities.” Her advice: break the habit of kicking yourself when things don’t go perfectly and replace it by telling yourself that you’ll learn from your mistakes, move on, and do better next time. “No matter your manager’s approach, breaking away from results-oriented thinking is one of the most powerful things you can do to boost your own motivation.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Determine your own personal and professional motivators ­— you can’t rely on your boss to get ahead
  • Ask for feedback from your colleagues
  • Build a support system inside ­— and outside ­— your company

Don’t:

  • Set unreachable goals that stall your sense of moving forward ­— keep your goals manageable and celebrate your progress along the way
  • Underestimate the value of self-evaluation — look critically at your own work
  • Dwell on your mistakes ­— it’s more important to keep learning

Case Study #1: Cultivate a supportive, effective network

A vice president of human resources in the financial services industry, Lisa Chang* has had five different bosses during the past two years. The revolving door of managers proved to be very demotivating. So she looked elsewhere for support and decided to create an internal network beyond her team. Lisa developed relationships with three senior women in the organization: a woman who was briefly her supervisor before taking a role elsewhere in the company, another who is a leader in the client group she serves, and the chief human resources officer. “It’s unusual to have such a candid, open relationship with someone so senior, Lisa explains. “The chief human resources officer has given me opportunities at every turn in addition to being someone I can go to for advice.”

Lisa has looked to her peers as well but she feels that these mentorship relationships have been a far more effective way for her to stay motivated. “My peers and I are all in the same boat, so most of them wouldn’t have been a great help to me. By looking to more senior employees at the company, I’ve been able to create the kinds of relationships I might have had if I had been working with a great boss.”

While the lack of consistent, managerial support is not what Lisa would’ve hoped for, the situation has provided Lisa with the opportunity to learn from company leaders she otherwise wouldn’t have met. She says: “I’ve been able to seek feedback, challenge myself through new opportunities, and perform effectively in my role despite the leadership vacuum.”

Case Study #2: Stay focused on your own growth and development

Mark Barnaby* has risen through the ranks at several different investment banks, but with a string of managers who were either completely hands off or overly involved, staying motivated hasn’t always been easy. He coped by staying focused on his own ambitions. “Focusing on my manager’s faults just distracted me from my own goals, so I made it my priority to find ways to help him succeed while learning myself.”

He figured out what his bosses weren’t good at and stepped into the gap. “One of my bosses was a big picture thinker, but her approach wasn’t the right one for our work. I helped her by drilling down into fine points of regulatory policy, providing much needed detail in meetings, and being an in-house resource for her. Doing all of this helped me develop the subject matter expertise I needed to continue to move forward professionally.” Developing and meeting his own objectives kept Mark going even when his bosses didn’t.

Early on, Mark knew his growing interests would serve him well. “There is enormous demand for this kind of knowledge,” he explains. “During the past decade, regulatory policy has emerged as a critical focus of the banking industry.” Even though Mark admits that helping managers who weren’t helping him was frustrating, he acknowledges that it was the right decision for him and for everyone involved to approach each situation with a positive, goal-oriented attitude. He advises, “No matter what, never make an enemy of your boss.”

*not their real names

 

Everwise: Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Does your company provide a learning work environment? Is your company helping you improve your customer service and/or productivity skills? Another resource is Lumber Buildings Material Foundation (LBMDF) for educations seminars and online learningLMS.  Below is a blog from Everwise by Nicole Beckerman:

Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Successful organizations emphasize ongoing professional development and gaining new knowledge. A learning culture benefits companies by enriching the employee experience, boosting productivity and innovation, and curbing turnover. It is an essential priority to remain competitive in today’s rapidly-changing landscape. Employees must be prepared to learn and adapt to rapidly changing conditions and new technologies. Employers would do well to provide an environment for doing so internally.

While modeling curiosity and prioritizing a passion for knowledge starts at the top, growing an organization-wide learning culture requires on-the-ground efforts. Though employees are busier than ever, there are simple, cost-effective ways to integrate learning into their work experience. Here are seven tactics to get you started:

  1. Learning lunches: Change things up at lunch time by giving employees a chance to increase their knowledge. Mid-day is an ideal moment to shift gears from active work to take in an educational presentation. As this is typically a break time and people will be eating, it’s a good time to present knowledge directly rather than with interactive formats. If employees need extra enticement to attend, offering free food or dessert is always a crowd-pleaser.
  2. Staff presentations: Having employees share their expertise is a great way to capitalize on in-house knowledge and make people feel valued. Setting up presentations where your employees educate each other in person or via online tools is a powerful way to foster connection and learning. This is also a chance to expose people to new experiences outside of their department. Even simply having staff share with each other what it is that they do and what they are working on helps build interpersonal relationships and a clearer picture of the organization for everyone.
  3. Speakers: Industry experts are a valuable source of the latest trends, and inviting them to work with your employees brings a useful outside perspective. If they are physically visiting an office, get the most out of their presence with an interactive format such as a workshop or a small group activity. Make sure to prepare employees to take full advantage of guest speakers by promoting their arrival, distributing background information in advance about them, and sharing related learning materials to spark questions.
  4. Webinars: As a useful way to spread information among a large group of people, webinars are an essential part of efficient learning. They can be one format option for delivering a presentation from an employee or a guest speaker as discussed above, but to keep it more engaging consider putting together a panel discussion. This way, even if employees are passively watching the webinar or are engaged in another activity (like email) at the same time, they will still take in a variety of perspectives and insightful questions.
  5. Distribute resources and news: Most professionals have a genuine interest in their field and want to stay up to date, so employers can facilitate learning by bringing news and resources directly to them. This might look like an organized list of resources for learning that employees have easy access to, or even a more dynamic method like periodic emails with news, relevant articles, and links to short-form video clips.
  6. Stipends: A direct and straightforward way to promote learning is to simply subsidize it. There a variety of ways to provide funds for education, so organizations should consider how predictable they would like this expenditure to be, and how much direct control they would like over the learning process. Some organizations offer an educational stipend as a simple cash bonus add-on to the employee benefits package and let people use it as they see fit. Others will pay for particular courses from approved providers. Another related option is to pay for employee’s’ membership in professional organizations so they can continue to network and learn via a trusted third party.
  7. Office Library: If you have an open office plan, chances are the environment can get noisy and social, which might be great for morale but not conducive to learning. Consider designating a space or specific room as a quiet area, and supplementing it with learning resources to create an office library. Create an employee book exchange or facilitate monthly book clubs. This separate space can be a strong part of emphasizing learning culture by making it clear in a tangible, visible way.

This list is a place to begin your journey towards a learning culture and spark ideas. However, change efforts should always be tied to an organization’s large-scale development strategy. In implementation, make sure these efforts are also tailored to the unique style and priorities of your staff. Finally, modeling learning culture from the top is essential to reap the full benefits, so leaders must walk the talk.

Culture evolves when an entire organization gets on board, and producing a company of nimble, motivated learners is a worthy goal for everyone.

 

HBR: A 2×2 Matrix to Help You Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right Now

Take time to reflect on the mix of activities in your working day. What would help you the most? Learning to write more clearly, improving meeting skills, or learning to manage your time more productively? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Marc Zao-Sanders.

A 2×2 Matrix to Help You Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right Now

So much to learn, so little time.

The world is bursting with learning. There are several million business books, 3,000 TED talks, 10,000 MOOCs, hundreds of thousands of e-learning courses, and millions of self-published articles on platforms such as LinkedIn and Medium. The article you’re reading right now is just one of thousands of articles on HBR.org. Picking the best and most relevant from all this is hard.

Yet it’s essential. The modern worker has very little time for learning — less than 1% of their time, according to Bersin, a division of Deloitte. And it’s more important than ever to learn continuously as the shelf life of skills shorten and career paths meander and lengthen.

So there’s a significant pressure on us all to learn the right stuff. How do we identify what that is?

One approach is to apply a time-utility analysis (similar in form to a cost-benefit) to the subjects you’re interested in learning. “Time” is time to learn. It’s effectively the opportunity cost to you of achieving competence. “Utility” is how much you’re likely to use the desired skill. For example, today’s manager spends a lot of time emailing, gathering data, running meetings, and making spreadsheets, so the utility for improving at these activities is especially high.

Combine time and utility, and you get a simple 2×2 matrix with four quadrants:

  • Learn it right away: high utility, low time-to-learn
  • Schedule a block of time for learning it, ideally in your calendar: high utility, high time-to-learn
  • Learn it as the chance arises — on a commute, lunch break, and so on: low utility, low time-to-learn
  • Decide whether you need to learn it: low utility, high time-to-learn

2x2 Learning.png

Once you’ve decided what you want to learn, you can use this same framework to zero in on specific skills to focus on.

Let’s illustrate the method with a single workplace activity with high utility: spreadsheeting. Knowledge workers spend almost half an hour in a spreadsheet every day. And in major corporations, this is almost synonymous with using Excel: there are almost a billion users of Microsoft’s spreadsheet program, and more than four-fifths of businesses globally use Excel. A time-utility analysis might suggest you want to get better at it.

But Excel contains over 500 functions and many more features; that’s a lot to learn. Where would you even begin? For a time-utility analysis to be of any use, we need it to help us at this level, down here in the weeds. To get a sense of utility, we reviewed dozens of articles written by Excel experts about their preferred Excel features. We used this analysis to compile a list of the 100 most useful Excel functions, features, tips, tricks and hacks, ordered numerically by utility. We combined this with our own data on how long each of these features takes users to learn, and plotted the two against each other. (Yes, we got a little excited about this project. Don’t worry, you don’t have to delve into this level of detail when you’re prioritizing your own learning.)

Exel Learn.png

As you’d expect, there’s some correlation (r=0.3), so the more useful items take longer to learn in general. But the scattered effect gives rise to some useful, tangible pointers for prioritizing what to learn.

You’ll find the quickest wins in the bottom-right quadrant, which we’ve labeled “Learn it right away.” In here we have time-saving shortcuts that can be applied frequently, like Ctrl-Y (redo) and F2 (edit cell) and a nice combination formula that cleanses your spreadsheet of errors (IF(ISERROR)).

The quadrant “Schedule a block of time for learning it” hosts the highly useful but more complex features, such as conditional formatting and pivot tables — these were deemed the two most useful on the entire list.

Bottom-left is those less useful but quick-to-learn items like Ctrl-5 (strikethrough) and Show Formulas (Ctrl¬).

Finally, in the top-left quadrant are the theoretically least appealing items, such as Get External Data and Text to Columns.

But for all of these, you, the individual learner, will impose your own opinions and experience on an analysis like this: “Actually, I already know Ctrl-Y, and I’ll never need to get external data.” And that helps filter out even more items, leaving you with an even more manageable list.

How would you apply this to your working, learning life? You probably don’t want to learn only about spreadsheeting, and you’re unlikely to have the kind of data we’ve used above at your fingertips. But you may have an idea of some of the skills you’d like to acquire or develop.

Consider the mix of activities in your working day. What would help you the most? Finally being able to use Photoshop, getting a grip on Agile or Waterfall, learning to write more clearly? Are there meta-skills that would help you do all of these things better — like coming across the way you intend to in meetings, or learning to manage your time more productively? You could assign approximate scores for time (to learn) and utility for each of these and plot a scatter chart like the one above. Or you could just estimate: Classify the skills on your list as either low or high in utility and time to learn, and place them in the corresponding quadrant. Either way, what shows up in the bottom-right quadrant? You may discover some learning bargains.

You can use this approach just for yourself, or across a team, department, even your entire company. Since you probably don’t have much time to learn, learn to make the most of what you have.

 

HBR: The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Are you multitasking? What do you do to stay focused on one task? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Ron Friedman :

The Cost of Continuously Checking Email

Suppose each time you ran low on an item in your kitchen—olive oil, bananas, napkins—your instinctive response was to drop everything and race to the store. How much time would you lose? How much money would you squander on gas? What would happen to your productivity?

We all recognize the inefficiency of this approach. And yet surprisingly, we often work in ways that are equally wasteful.

The reason we keep a shopping list and try to keep supermarket trips to a minimum is that it’s easy to see the cost of driving to the store every time we crave a bag of potato chips. What is less obvious to us, however, is the cognitive price we pay each time we drop everything and switch activities to satisfy a mental craving.

Shifting our attention from one task to another, as we do when we’re monitoring email while trying to read a report or craft a presentation, disrupts our concentration and saps our focus. Each time we return to our initial task, we use up valuable cognitive resources reorienting ourselves. And all those transitional costs add up. Research shows that when we are deeply engrossed in an activity, even minor distractions can have a profound effect. According to a University of California-Irvine study, regaining our initial momentum following an interruption can take, on average, upwards of 20 minutes.

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious . An experiment conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

The trouble, of course, is that multitasking is enjoyable. It’s fun to indulge your curiosity. Who knows what that next email, tweet or text message holds in store? Finding out provides immediate gratification. In contrast, resisting distraction and staying on-task requires discipline and mental effort.

And yet each time we shift our focus, it’s as if we’re taking a trip to the store. Creativity expert Todd Henry calls it a “task-shifting penalty.” We pay a mental tax that diminishes our ability to produce high-level work.

So what are we to do?

One tactic is to change our environment to move temptation further away: shut down your email program or silence your phone.  It’s a lot easier to stay on task when you’re not continuously fending off mental cravings. This approach doesn’t require going off the grid for a full day. Even as little as 30 minutes can have a major impact on your productivity.

The alternative, which most of us consider the norm, is the cognitive equivalent of dieting in a pastry shop. We can all muster the willpower to resist the temptations, but doing so comes with considerable costs to our limited supply of willpower.

Another worthwhile approach is to cluster similar activities together, keeping ramp-up time to a minimum. Instead of scattering phone calls, meetings, administrative work, and emails throughout your day, try grouping related tasks so that there are fewer transitions. Read reports, memos and articles one after another. Schedule meetings back-to-back. Keep a list of administrative tasks and do them all in a single weekly session. If possible, try limiting email to 2 or 3 predetermined times—for example 8:30, 12:00 and 4:30—instead of responding to them the moment they arrive.

In some jobs, multitasking is unavoidable. Some of us truly do need to stay connected to our clients, colleagues, and managers. Here, it’s worth noting that limiting disruptions is not an all or nothing proposition. Even small changes can make a big difference.

Remember: it’s up to you to protect your cognitive resources. The more you do to minimize task-switching over the course of the day, the more mental bandwidth you’ll have for activities that actually matter.