Monthly Archives: August 2015

There has been a bit of a battle brewing between the baby boomers (individualistic, judgmental, established) and the millennials (over-achieving, innovative, and self-possessed). I am a proud member of the frequently-overlooked Gen X, forever sandwiched between these misunderstood head-butters. Given that by 2025, millennials will be roughly 75% of our workforce, the bulk of this article will focus on advice for the millennials about how to effectively work within the constraints of the modern workplace. The boomers, and all other non-millennial groups, should pay attention to the advice and the expectations millennials have accordingly.

Google “millennials at work” and you’ll find an array of articles about how to manage them, how to get them to step up, how to react when they don’t take ownership of their work. You’ll find studies, such as this popular meta-analysis, demonstrating how increasingly, young Americans “believe their lives are controlled by outside forces rather than their own efforts.” This growing external locus of control (lack of taking ownership) corresponds to similar reports of increases in cynicism, individualism, and self-serving biases. It seems the general consensus by the rest of the workforce is that millennials struggle to fully take responsibility for their work.

Science, however, shows that intrinsic motivation is a problem not just for millennials, but for everyone. Dan Pink, in a brilliant talk on the puzzle of motivation, demonstrates that there is a profound mismatch between “what science knows and what business does” when it comes to incentivizing performance. Through an extensive series of experiments offering anywhere from $0 to $600 of compensation, requiring anything from basic motor movements to more critical cognitive skill, and conducted from rural India to MIT, researchers found that how we traditionally motivate people does not work, and even dulls creativity and blocks thinking.

Researchers reported, “As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance… But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.” Money motivates well for single-minded work because it narrows our focus. However, most workers need to be able to think outside the box, and the traditional carrot-and-stick tactic isn’t helping. The secret to high performance is intrinsic drive. Dan Pink identifies these motivators as autonomy (directing our own lives), mastery (getting better at something that matters), and purpose (working toward something larger than ourselves).

There are 53 million millennials in the US workforce (or 1 in 3 workers). If we can collectively learn to harness the power that millennials bring to the business world, it will have huge implications on the overall business landscape. Below are a few pieces of advice that I give to millennials and/or to those managing millennials:

1. Get some grit.
Tenacity, persistence – call it what you will, but it’s a powerful thing. Research by a psychologist who left a high stress management consulting job to teach 7th graders math in NYC public schools (cue applause here) found that IQ was not the most prominent difference between the best and worst students. Success depended on grit: passion and perseverance for long term goals. Even when controlled for other factors (e.g. family income, IQ, safety at school), the most successful students were not necessarily the smartest, but the ones who stuck with it. In fact, she found that grit was usually unrelated or even inversely related to inherent talent. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell goes so far as to suggest that many of the most successful people have succeeded precisely because of their disadvantages and disabilities, which forced them to develop skills and take risks they otherwise would not have considered.

2. Develop a growth mindset.
Similarly, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck advocates for the power of believing you can improve. Too often we approach learning with a fixed mindset: our intelligence is up to the test and we either pass or fail. But failure and ability to learn are not fixed. Every time you struggle to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in your brain form stronger connections and, over time, you get better. In one year with this type of growth mindset-based classroom, a previously far behind 4th grade class in the South Bronx earned the #1 scores in the state of New York on state math tests. When you are faced with an obstacle, it does not mean you are dumb, it means you’re in the process of getting smarter.

3. Practice humility.
Humility is also known as “being a team player” and “not blaming your circumstances.” In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins characterizes top-notch leaders as being the first to accept blame for problems and the first to share credit for a job well done. This one should come easily for millennials, who grew up working on group projects and playing team sports and group chat video games. You thrive on cooperation and collaborative working environments. So own it – think like a team. If the team succeeds, attribute the success to everyone. If it fails, look inward and do something about it. Don’t blame the investors, the product, or the boss.

4. Embrace the near win.
Sarah Lewis delivers an inspiring talk on the power of the unfinished path. Mastery, she says, is in the reaching, not the arriving. The experts have been saying it all along. “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know” (Einstein). Coming close to what you thought you wanted helps you attain what you never dreamed you could. We are at our best when we are not yet finished. Believing you have already arrived will squelch future growth. (The opposite cognitive bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, or “We Are All Confident Idiots” and is often showcased on Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News. I think I’ll stick with the sages.)

All companies and individuals must work to keep intrinsic motivators strong. Millennials, who already care more about things like social responsibility, employee health, environmental impact, content excellence, treating customers and partners as people, innovation, and technology, are well-equipped to make an impact if they take ownership of their success. To millennials – find that autonomy, mastery, and purpose for yourselves. Be gritty, believe you can improve, be humble, and let the near wins propel you forward.

Twenty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) asked people to put their documents online. His suggestion completely revolutionized how we interact with the world around us. Last year, he reflected upon that transformation: “I said, ‘Could you put your documents on this web thing?’ And you did. Thanks. It’s been a blast, hasn’t it?”

Now, Lee is calling people to put their data on the internet. He had an audience chant, “raw data now!” after lecturing on how he believes that the more pieces of data we connect, the more powerful it becomes. Considering his history of incredible foresight, I daresay he’s onto something.

We’re finally taking informational data and placing it within holistic data schemes. On a global scale, people are using data to address mass challenges like feeding people, supplying medical care, providing energy, and averting climate change – and if data can do all that, it can certainly help us keep top talent engaged in our organizations. In business, this data reflects things like culture, engagement, loyalty, and leadership – areas HR professionals care a lot about.

So how can you leverage your data to improve HR decision making? Here are a few tips.

When you frame issues:

– Ask the right questions. Generally, the problem isn’t embracing the concept of analytics, but knowing how to focus them. Asking “how are we celebrating birthdays?” or “how many people signed up for our volunteer day?” won’t create lasting impact. Instead, ask “how is top talent being engaged?” and “what if everyone were able to reach his or her full potential?” Measuring too many things (or too many of the wrong things) leads to watered down results. According to a 2015 survey, one of the least-measured HR metrics is “quality of hire,” which is only being measured by 28.5% of organizations. Of those, more than half ask only one question: how satisfied is the hiring manager with the new recruit. Actionable? Not so much. Data is only as good as the questions it answers.

– Address the big picture. Instead of asking each department to provide three measurements to add to the scorecard, focus on the whole—the why, the root cause—and let those strategies cascade through everything else. Imagine a hierarchy: strategic impact on top, effective processes in the middle, and transactional efficiencies on the bottom. Draw an organizational map to see how the concepts and outcomes relate. Those ground-level tactics may be similar across different businesses, but the top level is unique to yours organization.

– Think forward. The beauty of analytics is that it helps us chart our future course, not just record the past. One of the most popular HR metrics is voluntary and involuntary turnover, measured by 78% of organizations. But if you’re not recognizing valuable talent until it’s walking out the door, you’re missing the power of data. McKinsey tells of an organization that used predictive behavioral analytics to learn that most employees were leaving because of inadequate recognition and limited training. Unknowingly, management had been giving expensive retention bonuses that were “an ineffective and costly Band-Aid.” The company redesigned training and recognition, and consequently reduced its retention bonuses by $20 million and employee attrition by half. Be predictive, not reactive.

– Make it personal. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for data management. Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Zappos might all measure turnover, but they’re using results to address different questions. One reason Google’s intensive people operations team has been immensely successful is because their strategy and tactics are so specific to Googlers. They’ve learned that time off and exposure to senior leaders are more motivating rewards than cash or prizes. A study revealed that their people value even-keeled managers who make time for one-on-one check-ins and help their people solve problems. Using that information, they helped 75% of their least effective managers improve. Rather than try to replicate another company or adopt best practices, measure and understand what works for your organization.

When you whip out your calculators:

– Bring in the right minds. You need business people who address the right problems, statisticians who ensure there’s rigor in the methods, and technologists who make solutions scalable and transparent. Some data collections and analyzations are huge undertakings: statisticians often gather thousands of observations across hundreds of variables. They may need to code non-numerical information (feedback, interview notes) in order to synthesize results and look for patterns. There may be random correlations that look significant but are actually just noise. There may be correlations that shouldn’t be confused with causations. Make sure you have the right people on your team.

– Complement humans, but don’t replace them. In the euphoria of new analytics tools, it’s easy to think a few simple clicks will transform your business. But assumptions can be built into the metrics that are biased and discriminatory, or they could be measuring irrelevant or excessive information. We’re still at the outset of the big data revolution and are learning how to handle it best. These processes require strategy, critical thought, and creativity.

When you get the results:

– Make them visual. As data visionary Hans Rosling said, “Let the dataset change your mindset.” One of the best ways to do so is by visualizing the information. Design it so it makes more sense, tells a story, and lets patterns and connections emerge. Sight is the fastest of our senses, with the same bandwidth as a computer network. But of all the daily visuals and patterns pouring in, we’re only consciously aware of about 0.7% of what we see. Rosling created a free software, Gapminder World, that can animate statistics. Google, ever the early adopter, started using this software in 2007.

– Make them actionable. Without some link to a future course of action, data overload is overwhelming and counterproductive. It’s tempting to throw around best practices and measure everything we can get our hands on. But, we can’t realistically embrace 20 improved practices at once without ranking them by importance. Google figured out they could improve their on boarding process by 25% (a full month faster) by sending a simple reminder email to the hiring manager the Sunday before the new hire starts. The email highlights five quick bullets: have a role and responsibilities discussion, match your new hire with a peer buddy, help your new hire build a social network, set up onboarding check-ins, and encourage open dialogue. That’s it. Their data shows that employees work best under the assumption that they are smart and can figure things out, so the company empowers managers to take care of the rest.

Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor of The Economist, says, “Data doesn’t just let us see more of the same thing we were looking at. More data allows us to see new. It allows us to see better. It allows us to see different.” Some call it “the new oil,” others “the new soil,” but whatever it is, it’s all around us, and it’s a fertile, creative medium. Take these steps to properly refine your data and use it to your advantage.

Also published in FirstPerson.