Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose

Some years back I had a brief discussion with the Senior Vice President (SVP) of Human Relations for an oil exploration company about performance management.  He was at a loss as to why so many of the employees at his company hated (his words) their performance appraisal system that the organization developed a few years previously.

After a few questions, I learned the following about his approach to performance management:

  • He wanted a level playing field for everyone
  • He thought that his organization’s 7 – point rating system was very fair
  • He could not understand why so many people considered a rating of 4 an insult
  • He believed that pay should be tied directly to performance

His organization consisted primarily of individuals with advanced degrees.  He pointed out that various people participated in developing the performance management system, and he was proud of the result. Why, then, was it not working?  He was talking to me because he wanted help from someone with an outside perspective.

In a nutshell, I said:

  • People do not like the process of appraisal, especially if it is directly tied to salary
  • Conceptually, most people accept a multi-point system as long as they are at the top
  • PhDs, CPAs, and lawyers are self motivated and trained to believe they are exceptional – anything below a 6 is an insult – and they are not too crazy about 6’s either
  • From their perspective, there is a difference between someone with a master’s degree and a terminal degree.  The SVP had a Master’s Degree.

The SVP was very resistant to this perspective.  It did not make sense to him.  He was trying to level the playing field.  He did not see the connection between school work and work performance ratings.  Not everyone can be a 7, especially if the organization is tying pay and performance together while trying to manage budgets.

Over the years I have come to realize that this discussion was as much about motivation and emotional commitment as it was about performance management.  If I could do it over, I’d make some changes in the delivery of my message, although the content would remain relatively the same.  What I failed to recognize was the emotional ownership this SVP had in the system he developed and was responsible for implementing.  I would try to recognize his investment while attempting to separate the components of the system – performance, motivation, salary administration.  I would talk about each separately and then how they work collectively.  I would also talk about the definition of a level playing field, fear of judgment, self worth, the competitive spirit, and how people react to each.  All of these have an effect on the success of a performance management system.

This conversation took place before the internet and Youtube.  Today I would show him the following by Dan Pink called, “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us “:

Rather than focus on the educational degree issues, I would ask him how his system promotes Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I’d also ask what the downside is to the organization when it focuses on pay for performance in an imperfect system, especially with the realization that performance is one component of salary administration.

Given the research, as long as organizations view a direct relationship between pay and performance as the sine qua non for performance management, there will be large numbers of dissatisfied, negatively motivated employees and frustrated SVPs.

Sleep – Policy and Science are in Conflict

Policy and science are in conflict.  A real life example.

In the last two months, at least seven air traffic controllers have fallen asleep while working overnight shifts.  Air traffic controllers may choose their shifts, and many choose a shift schedule called a 2-2-1, or the rattler shift – two swing shifts, two daylight shifts and one night shift.  A minimum of eight hours must be taken between the second day shift and the overnight shift.  Controllers choose this shift pattern because it allows them three days off between shifts.

In response to the news of sleeping controllers, Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, insisted that air traffic controllers would be well rested and professional.  He increased the minimum time between shifts from eight to nine hours, but he also said that napping would not be tolerated.

Harrison and Horne discuss the issues related to sleep deprivation.  Lack of sleep affects the pre frontal cortex in the following ways:

  • impaired language skills-communications
  • lack of innovation
  • inflexibility of thought processes
  • inappropriate attention to peripheral concerns or distractions
  • over-reliance on previous strategies
  • unwillingness to try out novel strategies
  • unreliable memory for when events occurred
  • change in mood including loss of empathy with colleagues
  • inability to deal with surprise and the unexpected

Basically, the opposite of all the things you would want an air traffic controller to experience who might be watching your plane.

Harrison and Horne also made this interesting observation.  The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Davis-Beese, and Rancho Seco were all made in the early morning.  In each case the managers on duty misdiagnosed the depth of the problem, and showed an inflexibility of thought process and an over-reliance on previous strategies.

They also discuss the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident concluded that the decision to launch should have been made “based on engineering judgments … but that irregular hours and lack of sleep contributed significantly” in the decision making process.  Further, three of the 13 managers in the decision making process to launch slept less than eight hours in the 48 hours between January 26 and January 28, with one sleeping less than five.

Harrison and Horne also point out that the use of stimulants only marginally affects pre frontal cortex activity.  Coffee is not really an option.

Maybe you are not an air traffic controller or someone who works on the Space Shuttle.  Can you still work long hours without a degradation in performance?  No – at some point lack of sleep affects us all.  It does not matter what your job is.  Highly committed people tend to work long hours.  In fact, many of us take great pride in—and get recognized by our superiors for— outworking everyone else in the room.

The science shows that while we can force ourselves to stay awake, we lose function fairly rapidly.  We also tend to deny that we are having functional loss – we do not self-monitor well.  When stating policy we are quite capable making dogmatic pronouncements such as, “We will not pay our employees to nap…we expect them to be well rested and professional”.

Nasa research in 1999 shows that we are built to want to sleep at two times during a 24 hour period – 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm and 3:00 am to 5:00 am.  Naps are quite helpful in countering these cycles.  A 1994 study performed by NASA demonstrated that naps improve performance when compared to those who do not nap.

Culturally, we tend to deride things that fall outside our definition of work.  Unfortunately, sleep and rest are considered leisure activities, when in fact both are important components in maximizing our considerable mental, emotional, and physical abilities – all things needed to do our best work, consistently.

Policy, in this case, should follow the science, not conflict with it. Let them nap—just plan for it so it is done safely and purposefully.


Focus, Focus, Focus…What Did I Just Miss?

Our ability to concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of others can be practical and efficient. It is also a coping mechanism. Selective attention provides a way for us to navigate through the maze of data that comes our way every second of the day.

We can:

  • Tune our ears – a mother reacting to a baby’s crying in the middle of the night,
  • Focus our vision – finding your child’s face in a large crowd,
  • Train our noses – some people learn to love the smell of brussels sprouts,
  • Latch onto an idea to the exclusion of others – this is the best way to get this done.

By selectively attending we can get a number of things done.

We can also miss a lot of things, too.  Take a look at the following from Christopher Chabris and Daniel J. Simons.  Focus on counting the number of passes between team members with white shirts.  Bounce passes count, too.

Well, how did you do? What did you attend to and what did you disregard or minimize?

In some cases selective attention is not only helpful, but required.  On the other hand, selective attention can have negative effects.  On October 21, 2009, two pilots on Northwest Airlines Flight 188 overshot their airport destination by 150 miles because they were having a deep discussion about what they were viewing on their personal laptops.  They later said that they could hear voices on their cockpit radios but ignored them.  Those voices were from ground controllers trying to get the pilots’ attention to find out if they were alright. The pilots’ licenses were revoked.

It has become popular today to take pride in one’s ability to multitask.  The brain does not really multitask when concentrating. It task switches and then attends to that task to the exclusion of others until you task switch again.  Task switching is a form of selective attention.  The pilots of Flight 188 thought they were multitasking.  They were not.  Instead of flying the plane, they task switched, becoming two more passengers on Flight 188.

So what do you do to minimize the negative effects of selective attention?

Before starting something:

  1. Fight slipping into automatic behavior by visualizing what you are about to do,
  2. Avoid task switching activities that are not directly related to the task at hand –  i.e. while you are driving – no texting, putting on make-up, eating your breakfast, reading the newspaper, shaving, or paying more than scant attention to that gift from God in the back seat in the safety restraint,
  3. Use soft eyes – focus as much on the general as the specific.

Call Collect? – The Analog World Works If You Know About It

The generations at the end of the alphabet (X, Y, Z, Millennials – I know that’s not a letter) of today are amazingly savvy when it comes to electronic media, technology, and ways to use them.  This knowledge also allows them to be very self-sufficient.  When it comes to problem solving, the technology of today is at their finger tips and they know how to use it.

When Internet service is down, and cell phones are inoperable, something interesting happens.  A lot of them do not know what to do in order to communicate or function efficiently in a purely analog world.

My son is by all objective criteria, a smart, level headed, problem solving, fun loving young man of 16.  He knows what he knows, and he knows a lot.  I am always amazed at what he knows.  He knows songs from the late 60’s, can hold his own in a political conversation with adults, built his own computer, enters writing contests, and is creative with video software.  He can thumb text with the best.  In short, he represents his age group well in our digital times.

Somehow, my wife and I have failed him.

He went to Italy to celebrate the New Year with his school’s choir.  Ten days in Rome, Assisi, and Florence.  He knew his cell phone probably would not work, but he was sure he’d be able to reach us through the group’s Facebook page or a blog he was writing.  He also knew that one person in his group had a world phone. No problem.

He was gone about five days, and we had not heard from him.  The two group Facebook postings were thin, promising more to come, and no blog.  While waiting, we went from not wanting to interfere to wondering when we would hear something to frustration and anger.  It just about ruined New Year’s Eve for us.  We had spent all that time getting him ready, saved the money for the trip, and took him to all those early morning choir practices.  All we wanted him to do was pick up a phone and call home.  Not a difficult thing to do–so we thought.

Finally, on day five the phone rang, and there he was.  Before we could say anything, he apologized for how long it had taken him to phone home.  He wanted us to know that he had been trying very hard to reach us, but:

  • The internet service was undependable and appallingly expensive at the hotel;
  • Most of the Internet Cafés were closed during the holidays or had erratic schedules; and
  • The only available cell phone worked intermittently and was in heavy demand during limited breaks.

We wanted him to know that when faced with this in the future, he could call us collect.

This is the point where we failed him – “call us collect.”

What is collect?”  “How do you do that?” he asked.

We turned to his sister who was listening in, also an international traveler herself, and asked her, “Do you know how to call collect?”

What’s collect?  What does that mean?”

She’s as smart as he is.  We failed her too.

It was so simple and obvious to us because we had the experience. We did not know what they didn’t know, and they didn’t know what they didn’t know.  A case of misplaced anger on our part.  We assumed everyone was backward compatible.

I have spoken to a number of adults born before 1990 and asked them what call collect means.  Everyone knew the answer.  I have asked the same question to those born after 1990, and they looked confused.

There is an abundance of young, smart, technologically proficient people in our world today.  They can do a lot with the things they know.  It looks like they can do anything.  But they, like all of us, are limited by the things they do not know they do not know.  We forget this sometimes because they are so talented and technologically savvy.

So, what to do to keep from failing those important to you?

  1. Understand what they do not know,
  2. Help them prepare a plan B for the times when the technology disappears,
  3. Encourage them to seek help from more than one person and from some born before 1990,
  4. Trust that with a little help they can figure things out, and
  5. Have them watch any season of MacGyver – its free – He is amazing with a gel pen ball point pen.

Cooperative Elephants

I’ve written about Angry Elephants venting their frustrations on vans rather than people. Now I’d like to show you that elephants also can cooperate with each other at a high level. I think it is interesting that, without language skills, these elephants seem to know when to:

  1. wait for help,
  2. find creative ways to accomplish a task, and
  3. when not to try.

Just think what they could do if they could talk!

The following was reported at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, published on March 7, 2011.


Pitchers and Catchers Report…

For almost twenty years in early February, an email with the heading “Pitchers and Catchers report…” either appears in my Inbox or is sent from mine to a very close friend who lives far away.  I think he started it.  I’m so glad he did.

There are years I remember to send it first.  I spontaneously smile as I hit the send button.  I feel a sense of contentment.  I am reminded of the days that I played, the coming of spring, the possibilities of new beginnings.  And I know that the reaction will be the same on the other end.  In those years that he is ahead of me and sends the message first, I enjoy all the same feelings.  It’s just a short reminder:

Pitchers and catchers report next week.  I hope you are well.”

That’s usually it, but it speaks volumes.

I wish I could bottle the feeling.  It is a guaranteed smile when it appears in my mail or I send it to him.  Neither of us thinks about it much throughout the year.  Something occurs to one of us in early February – an awareness – a sense not to forget something, and off the message goes.  It is something that is done as it occurs to us – not put off or relegated to later.

It is small moments such as these, with my immediate, positive reaction, that remind me of how much is going on in our brain just below the surface, waiting to be expressed, waiting for Spring…

“Calmness” before the Dow Up Tick

“Calmness”, an emotional state that was analyzed from over 9 million Tweets, predicted the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, with an 87.6% accuracy rate – four days ahead of time.

Hard to believe? Listen to this NPR: All Things Considered report by Guy Raz interviewing Johan Bollen about his just released study, Twitter Mood Predicts the Stock Market.

With Huina Mao and Xiao-Jun Zeng, Dr. Bollen investigated, “whether public sentiment, as expressed in large-scale collections of daily Twitter posts, can be used to predict the stock market.”  They investigated emotional states, rather than the usual logical indicators – basic market fundamentals, past history, market trends, the charts. Using two assessment tools, OpinionFinder and Google Profile of Mood States, they found that the mood state with the highest predictive accuracy value is not happiness but calmness.  So when the group of 2.7 million Twitter users is calm, the market goes up – four days later.  When they are not calm, the market goes down – four days later.

What does this mean?  Hasn’t happiness always been associated with productivity and success?  Aren’t happy workers good workers? Real California Milk even has an advertising campaign contending that happy cows make great cheese.

But maybe we have overlooked the value of calmness in our personal and professional lives, especially in our current economic and political environment.  Many people may be happy to have a job, but they may not be calm about their environment.  Calmness may be the better indicator of the decisions people consider risky in this economy – such as short-term investments, critical hires, pay raises – than happiness.  It may have an effect in less risky situations, such as work output, too.

Bollen, Mao, & Zeng’s work makes intuitive sense – when people are calm, they analyze financial risks differently than when they are not calm.  Their work may have organizational implications, too – a sense of calmness in the work environment can have a very positive effect on decision making and work output.

As you analyze the environment of your organization, think beyond whether people are happy and consider their level of calmness.

Whazup – with them texts?

How did we get from a time when our earliest ancestors had to pack a lunch and roam around looking for someone to talk to, to 10,000 texts a month?

Let’s do some math:

  • Average month – 30.42 days
  • 10,000 texts per month; 329 per day; 18 per hour (18 hour day – everyone sleeps); 1 per 3-4 minutes
  • 3,500 texts per month; 115 per day; 6.5 per hour; 1 per 10 minutes

This does not include reading, composing, sending time, and mental waiting time. Those statistics really irritate some people as an inappropriate use of time. Texting does not make sense to them.

But texting may not be just about sense. It may be about the instant gratification you get when there is a response to a text – the anticipation, the interaction, the speed; the endorphins that are released.  I’d like to see how the frontal cortex explains 10,000 texts a month other than – it can be done, and, it really feels good. That makes sense.

Nielsen Wire reports some interesting patterns:

U.S. Teen Mobile Report: Calling Yesterday, Texting Today, Using Apps Tomorrow

Usage is up from last year in all categories. Even those users in their early fifties are averaging 15 – 20 texts per day.

It looks like teens are using text messaging to let Mom and Dad know that they arrived safely at their destination.

Just as an aside, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that young and teen-aged users can pack more than 10.75 hours of media use into 7.5 hours per day. Wow! Talk about multi-tasking.

So, people, especially the youngest generations who will be the new workforce in 10 years; are getting jazzed by a device that is small, vibrates, and runs on batteries.  What can we learn from this?

Texting is here. In certain groups, it is ingrained in the brain. The two highest use groups (13-17 & 18-24) are in the midst of their own brain development. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the types of rewards members of these groups will expect, or seek, as they mature into adulthood. If you are in one of the groups that text less, you may have to increase your use to get the high user’s attention. If you do not text, you may need to start to take advantage of communications opportunities that presently exist for different age groups.

That does not mean, however, that we completely give into our mid-brain. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that when parents set media use rules, children respond by dropping media use by more than half when compared to children whose parents do not establish rules. Further, light media users report higher grades than heavy media users.

The challenge is to establish appropriate ground rules that allow us to take advantage of new media without succumbing to their instant gratification. Those of us in the lower use age groups can let our mid-brains react by getting angry, but we would do better to spend some time understanding the phenomenon and helping to establish a culture of use that leads to better work outcomes.

What’s been your experience?

Colbert vs. Stewart, or the Amygdala vs. the Pre-Frontal Cortex

The March to Keep Fear Alive vs. the Rally to Restore Sanity.

“Freedom, Liberty, and Fear” pitted against “A Call to Reasonableness”.

The symbolism is terrific.

Stephen (Amygdala) Colbert  represents the antecedent to reason, a base emotional response – fear.  When triggered, the fear response is a process that takes milliseconds to make.  John (Pre-Frontal Cortex) Stewart represents the analysis of the emotion – a reasoned response.  As compared to the Amygdala, it is a process that usually takes seconds to make.

How will people respond to this if they participate in the festivities?  Which group will be larger?  Will the Amygdala have more supporters due to its millions of years developmental advantage, or, will the Pre-Frontal Cortex with its more advanced, if younger, ability to coordinate concepts with emotions draw the larger crowd?

Automaticity – Help or Hindrance

As with all species, our brains are designed to recognize certain things and disregard or minimize the importance of other things. Face recognition, for example, is developed in humans at a very early point, beginning in the first month of life.   Shankar Vedantam, in The Hidden Brain, discusses an experiment that he performed using his month old child, one he repeated a number of times.  He wanted to see how well his daughter could track his face as he moved around her crib.  To his surprise, she locked onto his face and did not look away as he walked completely around her crib.  As Mr. Vedantam points out, this ability to locate and recognize faces is rooted to our primitive needs to survive.  Differentiating between the draw of a mother’s face and that of a cuddly looking (predatory) animal is an important one.

Face recognition is so automatic in humans; we see them in the most unlikely places.

Face recognition is not the only brain activity to automate.  As we learn and experience different physical, emotional, or mental activities, we transfer the learning from active attention to automated action.  Cameron Carpenter demonstrates this point quite well in the following.

Notice, as one commenter does, that there was no music for him to follow, and beginning at minute 1:52 he is doing five different things at once.

There are times, however, when automatic processes can interfere with performance processes. Take the following test. It is a demonstration of the Stroop Effect – see how well you do.

As was just shown, even when we know what we are supposed to do, our automated brain can get in the way. The Stroop Effect demonstrates that performing a task counter to our automatic response can be difficult. Only by consciously focusing on the task and taking our time are we able to complete it successfully.

Here then is the caution on automatic responses – while they can enhance performance in some situations, they can also interfere with performance. They can be detrimental when trying to solve a problem. Sometimes we have to go beyond our assumptions or build in safeguards. For example, pilots are instructed and trained to rely on their instruments when IFR conditions exist, because reliance on physical senses while operating a plane can be misleading when there are no spacial cues. Pilots receiving this certification are taught to counter an automatic response and force themselves to read the dials for their own safety.

The challenge with automatic responses is that, usually, they are not obvious to us on an awareness level; we have to purposefully focus on them (e.g. countering the Stroop Effect). Before you can help your organization, you have to analyze the things you do automatically. Then you can ask yourself if these actions are helping you or holding you back. For those that are, the question then becomes, “What do you do to minimize the negative effect?”

There will be more on this.