1. How to Thrive on Stress

    January 26, 2016 by ahmed


    Originally posted on LinkedIn by Jo Marchant

    We all know that being stressed at work is bad for us. Quite apart from making us aggravated and miserable, stress chips away at our physical health, increasing the risk of chronic conditions from eczema to stroke. But scientists are discovering that stress isn’t always damaging: in the right circumstances it gives us a boost that improves both our mental performance and our physical health. What’s more, by changing how we think about stressful events – an exam or work presentation, say – we can shift our physiology from a harmful state to a helpful one.

    Feeling afraid or stressed has a dramatic impact on the body. If you face a threat, whether it’s a hungry lion or angry boss, your heart beats faster. You breathe more heavily, and your pupils dilate. Blood is diverted away from non-urgent areas such as the gut and sexual organs and towards the limbs and brain. Digestion slows, and fat and glucose are released into the bloodstream to fuel your next move.

    This fight-or-flight response is controlled by stress hormones released into the blood stream, including adrenaline and cortisol, as well as the sympathetic nervous system, which connects the brain to the body’s major organ systems. It has evolved to help us survive in emergencies, and in most animals it switches off as soon as the threat has passed. But humans have the ability to worry all the time, even about things that have already happened or may never happen at all.

    Such chronic anxiety leaves us on constant alert, and over time this can damage the body, increasing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, for example. Stress also triggers an immune response called inflammation, which acts as the body’s first line of defense against infection and injury. That’s great in an emergency but if switched on all the time it can eat away at healthy tissues, exacerbating conditions from diabetes to dementia. Inflammation is even thought to accelerate cellular aging by wearing down the ends of our chromosomes.

    The good news is that stressful events don’t harm us directly. What does the damage is our psychological response to those events, and this we have some control over. In my book, Cure: a journey into the science of mind over body, I investigated the scientific evidence behind a range of stress-busting techniques. For example, mindfulness meditation aims to help us distance ourselves from our worries. We’re encouraged to recognize that negative thoughts are fleeting and don’t represent reality. Trials show that mindfulness training reduces stress and anxiety, protects against depression, and improves quality of life. There’s some evidence that this in turn has physical health benefits, such as easing pain and auto-immune disease, and reducing our susceptibility to infections from the common cold to HIV.

    I was surprised to discover, however, that not all fight-or-flight is the same, and sometimes it can actually be good for us. Psychologist Wendy Mendes of the University of California, San Francisco, uses the example of a skier who unexpectedly comes across a steep icy trail; it’s her only way down the mountain. Her heart rate will rise, but depending on how experienced she is, she might feel either fear or exhilaration. And those have different physiological effects.

    Psychologists call these contrasting states “challenge” and “threat”. “Challenge” is the mindset of a hunter closing in for kill, or a fighter who knows she’s going to win. To put that in a work setting, imagine giving a talk or going into a job interview where you’re confident of success and keen to show off your talents. Your sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, causing your peripheral blood vessels to dilate. This allows your heart to work more efficiently, pumping oxygenated blood to the limbs and brain. People experiencing this type of response perform better than normal, not just physically but mentally too.

    Fear, on the other hand, causes the body to go into damage control mode as it prepares for defeat. You’re being hunted and there’s no escape, or fighting a stronger adversary. At work, going into that presentation or job interview, you feel underprepared. Instead of focusing on the potential rewards, you’re terrified of embarrassing yourself or losing out.

    In this state, psychologists have found that the sympathetic nervous system activates to a lesser extent. Instead of dilating, your peripheral blood vessels constrict and your heart beats less efficiently, meaning less blood is pumped around the body. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense: it minimizes blood flow if you’re caught or injured. But it also impairs performance and strains the cardiovascular system, because the heart is forced to work harder to push blood around the body. A threat response also triggers inflammation, as the immune system prepares for injury and infection.

    When it comes to longer-term health, challenge responses are generally positive, while threat responses are damaging. Mendes has found that people who experience a challenge response bounce back to normal fairly quickly. Mild to moderate bursts of such “positive’ stress, with time to relax in between, are thought to provide a useful workout for the cardiovascular and immune system.

    But people in a threat state take longer to recover, physically and mentally. They worry more about how they performed, and remain more vigilant for future threat. Their blood pressure stays high. Over time, the extra strain on the heart can lead to hypertension, while high levels of stress hormones contribute to chronic inflammation.

    Crucially, it turns out that thinking differently about stressful events – focusing on what we have to gain rather than what we might lose, for example – can help us to shift from a threat state to a challenge state. In fact, Mendes has found that a change as simple as how we interpret our physical response to stress can have dramatic results.

    In one study, she subjected volunteers to a stressful public speaking task. She told one group that if they experienced physical symptoms of anxiety during the test, such as a racing heart, this was a good sign. It meant that oxygenated blood was being delivered to their brain and muscles, she explained, and this would help them to perform better. Just knowing this shifted these volunteers towards a challenge response – with greater vasodilatation and cardiac output, compared to those who were advised instead to ignore the source of their stress, or who received no instructions at all.

    In another study, Mendes found that reframing the body’s responses in this way didn’t just shift volunteers’ physiology, it improved their performance too. She asked students preparing for the Graduate Record Exam (a high-stakes test required for admission into graduate school) to sit a fake test in the lab. Compared to a control group, those advised to interpret their stress as positive had physiological benefits as in the other study. But they also scored higher – not just in the fake test but in the real GRE, which they sat weeks later.

    Changing your outlook isn’t a magical solution to all work stress. If you’re overworked, badly treated, or doing a job you don’t enjoy, consider what you might do to change that. Meanwhile employers have a responsibility to treat their workers well. But all jobs worth doing will challenge and stretch you, and you have more control than you think about how you respond. With even a small shift in attitude, you can start to perform better under pressure. And that may improve your long-term health too.

  2. Business Development Sectors Failing to Use Employee Feedback to Drive Strategic Change

    January 14, 2016 by ahmed


    Originally posted on CXM

    Organisations see the importance of listening to employees, but are failing to collect feedback often enough and are only using it tactically, rather than strategically. These are the headline findings of recent pan-European research carried out by enterprise feedback management software provider Questback.

    70% of respondents said that employee feedback contributes to the delivery of business development strategy and 82% believe the content of staff surveys is aligned with corporate priorities. At a time when most business development sectors face continual business change, the insight staff provide is increasingly valuable, as recognised by the fact that 96% discuss it at senior management meetings.

    However, the vast majority (90%) still carry out employee surveys annually (48%) or every two years (42%). This is far too infrequent given the fast-moving nature of business development, and the desire of staff to give and receive more regular feedback. This is contributing to a realisation that simply running surveys annually is no longer frequent enough – 25% of managers surveyed felt that current timescales were insufficient, with a further 5% unsure on frequency.

    Once it is collected, feedback is being used tactically, rather than to support strategic business goals.

    81% used employee insight to improve the working environment, with 73% seeing it as a way to encourage dialogue between managers and employees. Under half (45%) used feedback to ensure that employees are aligned to strategic priorities and goals and just 48% applied staff feedback to improve business development processes.

    “When it comes to employee feedback, our research uncovered a gap between theory and practice,” said Frank Møllerop, Questback CEO. “On the positive side, senior management say they want to use the insight staff provide strategically – yet this is not translating into regular, integrated programmes that embed feedback into business decision making. Too many companies are stuck in annual survey cycles, rather than opening the two way, continuous dialogue with staff that is necessary in today’s business world. Now is the time to change if they want to bridge this gap and reap the rewards of listening to staff, and acting on their feedback.”

    The tactical emphasis of many organisations was backed up by the other types of surveys they are carrying out with staff. The most popular areas were collecting feedback around training evaluation (64%) and exit surveys (60%). Very few are monitoring the entire employee lifecycle, with just 18% conducting onboarding surveys and only 4% asking for feedback when there are major changes in the employee journey, such as around promotion, changing team, or being assigned a new manager.

    Organisations are beginning to take a more holistic view of employee feedback, with nearly two thirds (65%) able to link data from different surveys together. This will make it easier to gain a complete picture of what their staff are saying, and shows a marked improvement on research carried out by Questback in 2014. This found that just 36% of companies were able to integrate employee and customer feedback, with many blaming technical issues for holding back their plans.

    Questback surveyed 2,000 senior managers involved with employee feedback from organisations across the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. The online research was carried out in the second half of 2015.

    A full management report detailing the findings can be downloaded here.

  3. Why You Should NOT Leave Your Job to Become an Entrepreneur

    December 8, 2015 by ahmed


    Originally posted on LinkedIn by Sallie Krawcheck

    I went to a recent Ellevate Network event, at which we hosted a pretty prominent entrepreneur, who runs a VC-funded start-up that’s gaining some real traction. In other words, she’s “living the dream.” Someone in the audience asked her whether it was fun to be an entrepreneur.

    She paused.

    Her answer? “No. Not really.”

    I can relate. In addition to owning the Ellevate Network, I’ve recently announced a Series A raise for a new business, Ellevest. This is a to-be-launched digital investment platform for women. These after a career at big companies. And not a handful of days goes by that someone doesn’t ask me “Aren’t you having so much fun?”

    The truth is that being an entrepreneur is harder than running Merrill Lynch. (And I’m not just saying that; I actually ran Merrill Lynch.) It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

    Sure, it’s great not to have to attend the Operational Risk Committee meeting and sit through the page-by-page review of the 226-page deck. I can’t tell you how great.

    But for those of you thinking of leaving your big-company job to be an entrepreneur, here’s why you shouldn’t:

    Raising money can be humbling. Really humbling. None of us likes being told our baby is ugly…..again and again and again. “But, hey, keep in touch.”

    B2B sales are humbling….and take longer than you can imagine. No, your phone calls aren’t returned as quickly as when you worked in your big company job. You expect that. The more interesting insight to me has been how often people try to be nice and end up stringing you along. They don’t recognize that a “fast no” is ok; it’s the “slow no” that kills you.

    And even a “slow yes” can put you out of business. I worked with one guy at a big bank who loved a start-up so much…and encouraged them so much…that the start-up ran out of money and shut its doors as all of the approvals for doing business with them were working their way through the system.

    So sometimes a “fast no” can even trump a “slow yes.”

    Hiring people is hard. Hiring people is always hard. But at a start-up, the stakes are so much higher. That’s in part because there are simply fewer people, so one has to be more thoughtful about making sure there aren’t any holes in the start-up team’s skillsets (and that includes filling in the founder’s “flat sides”). That’s why, for me, team diversity is so important.

    And is it just me?? Because I’ve found, amongst entrepreneurs, some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, by good measure; they love the rush of entrepreneurialism and would never thrive in the constraints of a big company.

    And then there have been some others. I’ve come across a couple of screamers. By that I mean, people who scream. At work. A lot. The screamers are filtered out of big companies pretty quickly. So watch for people who’ve bounced around a lot, and particularly watch for people who receive less-than-effusive recommendations. And always, always do back-channel reference checks.

    Hiring people is hard, Part 2. If you come from a corporate background, many of your contacts won’t fit your job descriptions and needs: the jobs pay less cash than what big company folks are making, the jobs may be broader than what they are doing , and parts of the jobs can be more junior.

    (An example: I’m copyediting and have been building earnings models. Not something I would have thought I would be doing at this stage of my career. I happen to love both of those things and find them relaxing. But that may be a personal quirk.)

    I had this issue at Ellevest. As we began to hire, you would have thought I would have known a lot of Chief Investment Officers….and I do. But it took me the better part of a year to find our Chief Investment Officer because I wanted one who had the experience and analytical grounding….but then was able to, and wanted to, approach the puzzle of women and investing in a creative way.

    Office space. When I speak to young-entrepreneur-hopefuls, I hear what they think the office environment will be like. Start with a bit of time in a shared workspace; then move into your own offices with exposed brick walls, a foosball table and beer on tap; and then you’re a billionaire.

    For some, perhaps. Right now, at my start-up, we’re in a space that’s so small I can’t get out of my chair without slamming into the back of our lead designer. At some point, we may fuse into the same person.

    And everybody’s a critic. If your idea is truly innovative, you’re going to hear from the naysayers. After all, if it were such a good idea, someone would have already done it, right??

    Oh, and it’s terrifying. Something I never thought about in my big-company job: cash flow. When your business has billions of dollars in revenue, you can make a lot of mistakes and still have a viable business. But in a start-up, make a few hiring mistakes (it takes several months to find the right person, a couple of months to figure out they’re not the right person, a couple of more months when you try to coach them and give them the opportunity to become the right person, then another couple of months after you part ways to find the next right person)….oh, and the work they’re supposed to be doing doesn’t get done in that period of time….well, do that a few times and you’re out of money.

    Being an entrepreneur is the only time in my career that I’ve lost sleep (and I was on Wall Street during the financial crisis.)

    There is a lot of paperwork…and taxes….and regulations…. I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me they slipped up on some of the paperwork needed for their company. It’s one of the no-fun parts of being an entrepreneur that nobody talks about.

    You can’t coast. You know those days at the office when you used to come in and didn’t really do that much? You don’t have those days as entrepreneur. If you don’t do much, then not much happens. And remember what I said about cash flow? Yeah….that.

    This last paragraph is the one in which I am supposed to say that, even with all of this, I wouldn’t trade being an entrepreneur for anything. And, for me, that’s right. But the failure rate for entrepreneurs is high, so I had to be very, very honest with myself about my, and my family’s, willingness to take on this professional risk.

  4. The Ten Dangers of Sleep Deprivation for Workers

    November 29, 2015 by ahmed

    Originally posted on EHS Today Sandy Smith

    Sleep deprivation is an issue that is often ignored, yet frequently the root cause of decreased productivity, accidents, incidents and mistakes which cost companies billions of dollars each year, reports Circadian, a global leader in providing 24/7 workforce performance and safety solutions for businesses that operate around the clock.

    Often, the experts at Circadian say, employers are unaware of the impact fatigue or sleep deprivation is having on their operation until a tragic accident occurs. Only then do managers ask the question: “What happened?”

    Sleep deprivation is much more dangerous than you might realize. It’s not just annoying, like when an employee snoozes in a meeting or yawns during a conversation. Here are 10 real dangers associated with a sleep-deprived workforce:

    1. Decreased communication: When workers are tired, they become poor communicators. In one study, researchers noted that sleep deprived individuals drop the intensity of their voices; pause for long intervals without apparent reason; enunciate very poorly or mumble instructions inaudibly; mispronounce, slur or run words together; and repeat themselves or lose their place in a sentence sequence.

    2. Performance deteriorates: Performance declines frequently include increased compensatory efforts on activities, decreased vigilance and slower response time. The average functional level of any sleep-deprived individual is comparable to the 9th percentile of non-sleep deprived individuals.

    Workers must notice these performance declines, right? Not quite. In fact, sleep deprived individuals have poor insight into their performance deficits. Also, the performance deficits worsen as time on task increases.

    3. Increased risk of becoming distracted: Sleep-deprived individuals have been shown to have trouble with maintaining focus on relevant cues, developing and updating strategies, keeping track of events, maintaining interest in outcomes and attending to activities judged to be non-essential. In fact, research suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between sleep deprivation and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) due to the overlap in symptoms.

    4. Driving impairments: Due to federal regulations, the trucking industry is well aware of the driving impairments associated with sleep deprivation. However, plant managers are unaware of the ways in which sleep-deprived workers may be dangerously operating machinery (e.g. forklifts or dump trucks). In fact, 22 hours of sleep deprivation results in neurobehavioral performance impairments that are comparable to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level (legally drunk in the United States).

    5. Increased number of errors: The cognitive detriments of sleep deprivation increase concurrently with a worker’s time on a given task, resulting in an increased number of errors. These errors include mistakes of both commission (i.e. performing an act that leads to harm) and omission (i.e. not performing an expected task), which can wreak havoc at any work facility. Errors especially are likely in subject-paced tasks in which cognitive slowing occurs, and with tasks that are time-sensitive, which cause increases in cognitive errors.

    6. Poor cognitive assimilation and memory: Short-term and working memory declines are associated with sleep deprivation and result in a decreased ability to develop and update strategies based on new information, along with the ability to remember the temporal sequence of events.3

    7. Poor mood appropriate behavior: Inappropriate mood-related behavior often occurs in outbursts, as most sleep-deprived individuals are often quiet and socially withdrawn. However, a single one of these outbursts can be enough to destroy the positive culture of a work environment and cause an HR nightmare.

    These behavioral outbursts can include irritability, impatience, childish humor, lack of regard for normal social conventions, inappropriate interpersonal behaviors and unwillingness to engage in forward planning.

    8. Greater risk-taking behavior: Brain imaging studies have shown that sleep deprivation was associated with increased activation of brain regions related for risky decision making, while areas that control rationale and logical thinking show lower levels of activation. In fact, sleep deprivation increases one’s expectation of gains while diminishing the implications of losses.

    What does this mean for your workers? Sleep-deprived workers may be making riskier decisions, ignoring the potential negative implications, and taking gambles in scenarios in which the losses outweigh the benefits.

    9. Inability to make necessary adjustments: Flexible thinking, preservation on thoughts and actions, updating strategies based on new information, ability to think divergently and innovation are all negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. A worker may be unable to fill a leadership role on request when sleep deprived, resulting in a frustrated management team.

    10. Effects of sleep deprivation compound across nights: Four or more nights of partial sleep deprivation containing less than 7 hours of sleep per night can be equivalent to a total night of sleep deprivation. A single night of total sleep deprivation can affect your functioning for up to two weeks. To your brain, sleep is money and the brain is the best accountant.

    According to Circadian, when you have sleep-deprived or fatigued workers, productivity levels and quality of work will be compromised. Furthermore, you create an environment where it becomes not a matter of if your workplace will have an accident or incident but a matter of when, and to what magnitude.

    Sleep deprivation is no laughing matter, no matter how frequently our society treats the issue light-heartedly. Eventually, our biological drive to compensate for sleep deprivation wins, and the loser might be your workers, your employer or even you.

  5. Why More and More Companies Are Ditching Performance Ratings

    November 24, 2015 by ahmed


    Originally posted on HBR by David RockBeth Jones

    A few years ago, I noticed around half a dozen courageous companies beginning experiments to remove ratings from their performance management systems. Companies such as Juniper and Adobe stopped giving people a one-to-five rating or evaluating employees on a “performance curve,” also known as the “forced ranking” approach. They were still differentiating performance in various ways, and still using a pay-for-performance approach, just not through a simple rating system.

    By early 2015, around 30 large companies, representing over 1.5 million employees, were following a similar path. No longer defining performance by a single number, these companies were emphasizing ongoing, quality conversations between managers and their teams.

    At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we’ve been studying this trend closely since 2011. Our interest in the topic was piqued when clients started to tell us how our research on motivation and the brain was explaining why standard performance reviews were failing. In short, we found that social threats and rewards, like one’s sense of status or fairness, activate intense reaction networks in the brain. This explained the intense reactions people had to being assessed on a ratings scale, and it also pointed to ways of designing better systems.

    The idea of removing ratings drives many HR executives a little crazy because companies love to quantify and analyze almost everything. The thought of getting rid of a metric is almost heretical. Executives who contacted us after reading our research often assumed that removing ratings was an anomaly, perhaps driven by smaller companies who don’t realize how important pay-for-performance is.

    Yet in mid-2015, the trend started to accelerate. Consulting firms Deloitte and Accenture, global health services client Cigna, and even GE—the company who popularized the idea of forcing people into a performance curve—all announced changes to their performance management systems. By September 2015, 51 large firms were moving to a no-ratings systems. According to research firm Bersin by Deloitte, around 70% of companies are now reconsidering their performance management strategy.

    This November, coinciding with our annual Summit, we will publish a full set of findings from closely studying 30 companies that have made this change. But we’ve already seen four, clear reasons the trend is gaining momentum:

    The changing nature of work. Numerical performance management systems don’t take into account how work gets done today. Who sets 12-month goals anymore? Some workers need goal cycles of one month, or even one week. Work is also happening in teams more than ever, and many people are involved in multiple teams that often are spread around the world. Few managers accurately know their team members’ performance when that employee is involved in many other teams, often doing work the manager doesn’t see or even understand. In short, standard performance reviews, delivered once a year, are just not relevant to the ways we work anymore.

    The need for better collaboration. Studying companies that have made the change, we are seeing a clear trend: conventional ratings systems inhibit collaboration, making a business less customer-focused and agile. Top ratings lead to high status, promotions, and raises—yet it’s not like at school, where everyone can get an A if they work hard enough. With a forced curve, a manager with a hardworking team of 10 people may only be allowed to give one or two of them the top rating. As a result, people directly compete with each other for rewards, hurting collaboration. As our forthcoming research will show, when Microsoft removed its ratings, employee collaboration skyrocketed.

    The need to attract and keep talent. Companies also remove ratings to get managers to talk to employees about their development more than once or twice a year. Millennials in particular crave learning and career growth. Of the 30 companies we studied, one preliminary finding that jumped out was that after a company removed ratings, managers talked to their teams significantly more often about performance (three or four times a year instead of only once). More frequent communication helps with employee engagement, development, and fairer pay, as managers better understand how their people are doing.

    The need to develop people faster. By removing ratings, early indications of our research are that companies appear to be developing people faster across the board. It’s happening because of more frequent dialogues, which also tend to be more honest and open when neither party has to worry about justifying a rating at the end of the year.

    When Deloitte analyzed their process, they found employees and managers spent around two million hours a year on performance reviews. The problem was that much of this time was spent talking about the ratings themselves. Companies that remove ratings are seeing the conversations shift from justifying past performance to thinking about growth and development. The result is better employee development, which seems to be a win for everyone.

    Companies who have replaced ratings tend to be anxious about it beforehand and enthusiastic about it afterward. Their employees are happier, which encourages more engagement and better performance. It should be no surprise that treating an employee like a human being and not a number is a better approach. Yet it has taken a few bold companies to lead the way and show us that life is better on the other side. Only time will tell how lasting the trend truly is, but I strongly suspect we are at the beginning of something big.