Archive for March, 2011
A blog post on Harvard Business Publishing, Are Happy People Dumb? by Shawn Achor, got me thinking about this old but interesting question. The theory often touted is that anyone with the intelligence to keep up with what’s going on in the world couldn’t possibly be happy about it. This is part logic and part stereotype; the stereotype part comes from our arsenal of historical figures who were alcoholic writers or manic-depressive artists or musical geniuses who committed suicide. We’ve come to associate above-average intelligence with emotional disturbance, so we think there must be a causal factor.
Achor quotes research that shows that when you take a smart, successful person who’s unhappy and raise his level of positive emotion, he performs even better. “Doctors primed to be positive come to the correct diagnosis 19% faster when primed to be positive as opposed to negative,” he says. “Salespeople have 37% higher levels of sales when optimistic. In fact, a meta-analysis of employees at companies reveals that nearly every single business outcome improves when a brain is positive. Happiness is a significant advantage.”
That puts a whole different spin on mood, doesn’t it? Achor goes so far as to say that happiness is the single greatest competitive advantage an organization can have, because it broadens the neural pathways that tell us what is possible in the world and thus leads to greater creativity. It isn’t the guy brooding on the problems of the world who is “deep,” but rather the guy who can see past those problems to the solution.
Once you start thinking about what we all know about employee engagement, it becomes more intuitive. Take Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s “theory of employee happiness,” for example. Hsieh talks about happiness instead of engagement, not just because it’s different and catchier, but because it’s what truly matters. Employees will be engaged in their work if they’re happy being there. And they’ll perform better as a result. It’s that simple.
So what about that tense, angry high-level executive who makes everyone miserable, but whom we tolerate because she’s smart and she gets things done? Now we have to think about her on two levels. How much smarter and more personally effective would she be if she stopped being unhappy? And how much more effective would the organization be if she stopped playing Genghis Khan and bringing down the general happiness level of the staff? A smart, unhappy person at the top of the organization has a ripple effect that just shouldn’t be tolerated.
Imagine that suddenly, a new federal regulation was released that said you must take a test in order to prove you know what you’re doing in your job. If you fail the test, you’ll no longer be able to do that job. And imagine that you’ve been doing your job for 30 years and are considered an expert. But perhaps you’ve been out of school for a very long time, and your reading comprehension and test-taking skills are not what they used to be. Or perhaps they were never that great to start with. Maybe you never finished high school. Maybe you can’t even read very well. Suddenly, after many years of being competent and respected in your work, all your experience means nothing. You have to take the same test that someone brand new to the job might have to take. And you’re afraid that you might not be able to pass it.
I imagine you’d feel all kinds of emotions, none of them positive. Fear, anxiety, anger, embarrassment and indignation, just to name a few. You’d look at other industries and professions and wonder why they weren’t subject to the same injustice. You might even consider looking for a new career.
That’s the situation many crane operators are now in, due to new OSHA regulations that require them to be licensed by 2014. Don’t get me wrong—there have been a rash of fatal crane accidents over the past few years and I believe OSHA is doing what needs to be done to make the industry safer. And yet, as a training and development professional I see the challenges that lie ahead. For some companies, their best and most experienced crane operator might be the very guy least likely to pass the written test. And that’s going to be a problem.
So why is a leadership and team building consultant writing about crane operators? Because my brother is a crane operator, and we’ve teamed up to offer solutions for the industry. We’ve recently become approved by the Crane Institute Certification (CIC) organization to offer training and nationally accredited testing, and we plan to specialize in helping the very folks I’ve been talking about—experienced operators who will need some extra help preparing for a written exam. You can read about our programs here: www.newenglandcraneschool.com.
And if you’re a training, HR or OD professional like me, be thankful for what we have. In our industry, experience is still what counts most.
An interesting column in Newsweek, High on Anxiety by Casey Schwartz, details research on emotion regulation that says some people seek a feeling of anxiety because that’s what they’re used to. It isn’t that it feels good, exactly, but rather that it feels familiar; and that boosts performance.
Schwartz quotes psychiatrist Harris Stratyner of Mount Sinai School of Medicine: “Some people get addicted to feeling anxious because that’s the state that they’ve always known. If they feel a sense of calm, they get bored; they feel empty inside. They want to feel anxious.”
Is that what makes some people say, “I perform best under pressure”? My brother, whose nickname is “last-minute Larry,” has always said that. And I’ve always thought that it was just an excuse for procrastination. Perhaps it’s actually an addition to certain brain chemicals.
The other question that comes to mind has to do with pressure to perform as a trainer or public speaker. Recently a colleague told me I was a “little too comfortable” with what I do, and perhaps if I upped my level of nervous tension I would generate more energy in the classroom. But I hate that feeling of being nervous before an event and I’ll do anything to avoid it. What does that mean? Am I boring because I’m not anxious enough? Have I conditioned myself to be addicted to the wrong brain chemicals?
Perhaps the lesson is not so much what state of emotion you need to cultivate before an important job or event, but rather, that we need to be cognizant of how we’re conditioning our neurotransmitters in general. Are we allowing ourselves to get habituated to something uncomfortable, and becoming addicted to it in the process? That seems like something you could consciously reverse if you were aware of it. I’d rather be addicted to feeling at ease.
Watching the Academy Awards the other night I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if every industry had a recognition event like that? I believe in the power of recognition to deepen employee engagement, or “employee happiness” as my hero Tony Hsieh (of Zappos) would say.
Years ago I worked as a corporate HR director for a big hotel company that used to put on annual conferences and award dinners for its general managers and directors of sales. The GM conference in particular was a big deal; getting an invitation to attend, if you were not a GM, was like getting a ticket to the Oscars. Our chief operating officer, a man who truly understood how to create a unique and motivating organizational culture, would spend months planning for the conference. His team would assemble photos of the award winners to beam on the big screen and would find out their favorite songs, so that when they came up on stage they felt like rock stars. He shot video in advance, and created hilarious little skits and jokes that played on the personal strengths, quirks and foibles of the general managers, or on some of the company’s significant achievements or bloopers that year. Everything was put together by talented and creative audio-visual experts to make a full night of entertainment; one year when the conference was in LA, he even hired an A/V company that had done some work for the Academy Awards ceremony before.
The banquet room was usually set as though it was Oscar night too, with glitter and glitz and mood lighting and beautifully decorated tables. I remember feeling a sense of enchantment when the doors opened each year and we all streamed into the ballroom to find our name cards and see who we were sitting next to.
It cost the company a lot of money to do this every year, not only because of the expense of the evening but because the GMs had to fly in from all over the country. Sometimes I would hear some of the other executives criticizing our COO for spending so much money on one event. But every time I saw the look in a GM’s eyes as she climbed the stairs to the stage, every time I visited a hotel and heard a GM say, “I want to be on that stage next year,” I knew it was money well spent.
What do you do to make your people feel like rock stars?