Category Archives: Executive Coaching

The 5 Whys (and Some Limitations)

Why” by Willbryantplz

I came across this video on the Harvard Business Review website called “The 5 Whys.” Sometimes, a video helps explains an idea better/clearer than just written words alone. However, in oversimplifying a concept, we may sometimes leave out a critical analysis of its weaknesses as well as devising strategies to address them.

The 5 Whys or asking why a problem exists five times is borrowed from the Toyota production system (mentioned in the book “The Toyota Way”). The idea is to get to the root cause, by going deeper with each “Why?”, of what caused something to fail (whether it’s a server crash or product that doesn’t work) and then fix that root cause.

“Behind every seemingly technical problem is actually a human problem waiting to be found.” -Eric Ries, entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School

Had the video used a more interactive graphics that simulates/moves as the speaker is talking, I think that would be even better. That said, here’s the link to that video (sorry, there was no link on HBR to the flash video for WordPress).

5 Whys: Ask 5 Times (here’s an example from Eric’s April 2010 post):

  1. A new release broke a key feature for customers. Why? Because a particular server failed.
  2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.
  3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.
  4. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.
  5. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers, because they are “too busy.”

Nothing is a perfect system and the 5 Whys is no exception. In fact, the more I think about asking “why” the more I think back to my time in undergrad studying philosophy. If we’re not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of asking an endless series of hypothetical/conceptual whys with no pragmatic solutions (this was the reason why I switched from philosophy to psychology).

Anderson (2009) had this to say:

“Under a 5 Whys approach, it is possible to get to root causes in a relatively short period of time. However. . .ease of use and speed also need to be balanced with the risk of failure from recurrence of the problem should the 5 Whys fail to find the true root cause.”

Here is Anderson’s critique of the 5 Whys (in his own words):

  • Using 5 Whys doesn’t always lead to root cause identification when the cause is unknown.
  • An assumption underlying 5 Whys is that each presenting symptom has only one sufficient cause. This is not always the case and a 5 Whys analysis may not reveal jointly sufficient causes that explain a symptom.
  • The success of 5 Whys is to some degree contingent upon the skill with which the method is applied; if even one Why has a bad or meaningless answer, the whole procedure can be thrown off.
  • The (5 Whys) method isn’t necessarily repeatable; three different people applying 5 Whys to the same problem may come up with three totally different answers.

Anderson points out that it’s extremely important to understand the difference between root causes and causal factors. “Causal factors are those factors that contribute to the occurrence of a problem, but are not necessarily the initiating cause of a problem—the root cause. Therefore, causal factors and chains need to be analyzed further to determine their root causes.”

“A robust problem-solving method must be adept at not only identifying a problem’s causal factors, but equally adept at uncovering the root causes that underpin the causal factors.” -Stuart Anderson, president of Kaizen Solutions Inc.

References

Anderson, S. (December, 2009). Quality Digest – Root Cause Analysis: Addressing Some Limitations of the 5 Whys. Retrieved from http://www.qualitydigest.com/inside/fda-compliance-news/root-cause-analysis-addressing-some-limitations-5-whys.html

HBR – The 5 Whys
http://blogs.hbr.org/video/2012/02/the-5-whys.html

HBR – The Five Whys for Start-Ups
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/04/the_five_whys_for_startups.html

Using Reappraisal to Handle an Angry Face


Thinking” by Hans Kristian Aas

An interesting study by a team of researchers (Jens Blechert, Gal Sheppes, Carolina Di Tella, Hants Williams, and James J. Gross at Stanford University) has found that when you tell yourself (i.e. reappraise) that someone is mean to you is simply having a bad day, you may be able to fend off bad feelings.

Reappraisal isn’t anything new. It goes by the name of reframing and is used by cognitive-behavioral psychologists to help clients reframe a distressing problem using a more positive perspective, making it a more a manageable one.

Professor Gross discussed this idea of reappraisal in the book “Developing Your Conflict Competence” by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan. In it, he talked to one of the authors about using cognitive reappraisal by challenging the way you initially interpret things you see. “Cognitive reappraisal involves using alternative interpretations of the meanings about situations” (Runde & Flanagan, 2010, p. 50).

Runde and Flanagan (2010) said: “Reappraisal (also known as reframing) involves a cognitive process through which the facts underlying a conflict are reexamined for nonthreatening, alternative explanations” (p. 49). Incredibly, brain imaging seems to support this and indicate that, with practice in reappraising/reframing your thinking, your negative feelings will be reduced while more positive feelings will surface (Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrieli, 2002).

Ask yourself the following:

  • “Is it the only way of seeing the situation?”
  • “Are there rational, nonthreatening ways of understanding the matter?”

In the study by Blechert and colleagues, participants were shown a series of angry faces and the reactions of the participants were assessed. When participants were told that the angry faces had a bad day, but that it had nothing to do with the participants personally, the participants were able to fend off bad feelings the next time they saw that same angry face. However, when the participants were told to only feel the emotions brought on by seeing an angry face, they remained upset by that face when it was shown to them again.

Bottom line: Blechert says, “If you’re trained with reappraisal, and you know your boss is frequently in a bad mood, you can prepare yourself to go into a meeting” and not be negatively affected by your boss’ bad mood.

References

Association for Psychological Science. (November, 2011). Press Release. The Brain Acts Fast To Reappraise Angry Faces. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/the-brain-acts-fast-to-reappraise-angry-faces.html

Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Rethinking feelings: An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215-1229. doi:10.1162/089892902760807212

Runde & Flanagan, (2010). Developing your conflict competence: A hands-on guide for leaders, managers, facilitators, and teams. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weisul, K. (November 2011). How to handle an angry boss. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-57329138/how-to-handle-an-angry-boss/

Employees Misbehave When They Are Bored

Bruursemaa, Kesslerb, and Spector (2011) conducted a study in which they found that employees who were bored are more likely to also misbehave. Previously, counterproductive work behavior (CWB) were viewed as made up of five types: abuse against others, production deviance, sabotage, withdrawal, and theft.

In this study, the researchers added a sixth type, horseplay. Bruursemaa, Kesslerb, and Spector (2011) studied responses from 211 participants recruited via email in North America. They discovered that being prone to boredom (boredom proneness) and job boredom was strongly associated with certain types of counterproductive work behavior (CWB).

This is actually not surprising to me. In my previous job consulting with educators about classroom management, special education issues, and students with behavioral problems, one of the first things I do when I observe students in the classroom is to watch what they do when they are bored. It never fails because once boredom kicks in, whether it’s because the task is too easy, too hard, uninteresting, etc., the student will almost certainly find a way to misbehave.

Reference

Bruursemaa, K., Kesslerb, S. R., & Spector, P. E. (2011). Bored employees misbehaving: The relationship between boredom and counterproductive work behavior. Work & Stress, 25(2), 93-107. doi:10.1080/02678373.2011.596670

Bosses and Powerful People Do Not Listen


Photo Credit: I’m Not Listening by Suwani

A recent study found that the more power people have, the more likely they will discount advice due to an elevated sense of confidence in their own judgment.

Across four studies, researchers found that “the psychological experience of power elevates confidence and exacerbates the already strong tendency for individuals to overweight their own initial judgments and insufficiently incorporate input of others.” Furthermore, the researchers discovered that “power can lead people to be less open to factual advice, even when that advice can help achieve accuracy objectives and improve performance.”

Study 1 (a field survey): people who see themselves in a power position were viewed by their colleagues as overly confident and less likely to accept advice.

Study 2 (an advice-taking task): those with more self-perceived power also had more confidence in their own judgment and were less willing to adjust their answers in the direction of an advisor.

Study 3 (advice taking experiment): priming a high power mentality increased confidence in a person’s initial answers and led to that person being less willing to accept advice.

Study 4 (experiment with analysis of judgmental accuracy): even with higher confidence levels, higher power individuals had significantly less accurate final judgments than lower power participants.

Take-Away: Power increases a person’s tendency to overestimate his/her own initial judgment. What this means is that powerful decision makers can also be the least accurate.

Reference

See, K. E., Morrison, E. W., Rothman, N. B., & Soll, J. B. (2011). The detrimental effects of power on confidence, advice taking, and accuracy. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2011.07.006

Cut the Clutter – Get Rid of the Nonsense

I hate clutter. If I see clutter, my natural instinct is to clean it up, get rid of it, and/or organize it. I hate clutter so much that I have volunteered to help clean apartments and homes of people who were messy. When I begin a new job, one of the first things I do is to cut the clutter of the individual who came before me and then proceed to declutter unnecessary and/or redundant tasks.

Peter Drucker, the father of management, said that the most serious symptom of poor organization occurs when there’s an increase in the number of management levels. Drucker said it’s best to have the fewest possible management levels and build the shortest, viable chain of command. In other words, cut the clutter.

The crazy thing is that poor organization doesn’t just happen in large, multinational corporations. It can also occur in small to medium-size organizations. I have seen this in the private and nonprofit sectors, from organizations with 10,000+ employees to churches with just 100 parishioners.

I once asked employees at a mental health clinic why mail took so long to arrive at their office. Their answer was that all mail was routed through the central office located in another city, which are then sent to their office. Although one would think that sending and receiving mail should be a priority when it comes to the mental health and welfare of patients, this clinic continues to stick to its “pony express” method. Ironically, while everyone hated that mail took so long and they hated that it “needed” to be routed through the central office, no one ever did anything about it. So the senseless, extra step continues and the clutter lives on.

At another organization, a multinational financial services company, mail delivery is a daily challenge. At one large office complex, there are three buildings with a ridiculous numbering system that employees and mail staff alike cannot seem to figure out. The problem: The rooms aren’t number correctly but rather entails a fondness for decimal points, such that a room number looks something like this: 100.578. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be a rational, logical numbering of rooms. What’s more, there are cubicles with no numbers at all. Thus, every time the mail room staff drops off mail, mistakes are made. The craziest part is that the mail room staff are not employees of the company but rather employees hired by a contractor.

I’m sure there must be sane, reasonable explanations (I’m being sarcastic here) to why there is so much clutter in organizations. And for those who work in such environments, it may be status quo. But if you don’t stop and figure out why something that seems unnecessary, redundant, or nonsensical (like the mail being routed through one office before being sent to another office) is done, then you’re not taking the time to help declutter your organization. It’s easy to say, “Hey, it’s not my job.” The problem is that this type of mindset does little to help an employee thrive in the organization.

Again, we can turn to Peter Drucker for insight and wisdom. Drucker said that employees need to succeed and achieve, and can do so by learning to manage themselves. One question that Drucker advised us to ask ourselves is, “What is my contribution?” If we see that our role in an organization, any organization, is to ask and answer this question, then cutting the clutter and getting rid of the nonsense should be everyone’s job.

Reference

Drucker, P. F. (2008). Management (Revised ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Steve Jobs Resigns – The Failure to Disengage and Price of Workaholism


Illustration: Tsevis Visual Design and Deanna Lowe at Fortune magazine. From http://www.flickr.com/photos/tsevis/2313082920/in/set-72157594536252686

Steve Jobs, the charismatic and visionary founder of Apple Computers has resigned (August 24, 2011). Not to worry, he’s now assumed the Chairman of the Board role at Apple.

Last year, I wrote a post titled “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders” in which I talked about Steve Jobs and the virtues and vices that characterize a charismatic leader. Well, the day has come when he’s handing over his CEO duties. As Jobs wrote in a letter to the Apple board of directors and Apple community, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come. I hereby resign as CEO of Apple.”

Many have written and, no doubt, will write about Apple, what will come of Apple and Mac products, and the financial implications of Steve Jobs — a charismatic and visionary leader — leaving as CEO. The Harvard Business Review even posted “Why Apple Doesn’t Need Steve Jobs.” Just so you know, I disagree with the article (as outlined in “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders“). These quotes below from that post sum up what, I believe, we can expect to see in a post-Jobs-as-CEO Apple:

No American CEO is more intimately identified with his company’s success. Jobs is deeply involved in every facet of Apple development and design, and he’s justly admired for his instinct for the human-factor engineering of Apple products. (Hiltzik, Jan 2009)

What remains to be seen is whether a post-Jobs Apple will retain the corporate traits that made the company successful with its iconic leader at the helm. (Knowledge@Wharton)

Ultimately, some leaders are so irreplaceable that no amount of succession planning will ensure a seamless power transition. ‘In some sense, with the charismatic person, it’s difficult to prepare a successor, because they are bigger than life,’ says John Larrere, general manager at the management consultant Hay Group. (Ante & McGregor, 2009)

Ok, now let’s shift gear a bit because in this post, I want talk about the health, well-being, and the price we pay for not heeding the warning signs of being a workaholic.

Some pundits were surprised that Steve Jobs resigned, but others weren’t. I wasn’t. After a successful surgery to remove a tumor in his pancreas in 2004, he went back to work within a few months. But Jobs’ health has been declining and he looks gaunt. If we analyze this whole scenario from a workplace psychology and occupational health psychology perspective, it’s not difficult to see that Jobs’ relentless drive (whether at work or when he’s at home) and his self-sacrifices (mentioned as a virtue in my “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders” post) have taken an exacting toll on his health and well-being.

In 2009, Jobs took another six-month medical leave and it was later revealed that he had received a liver transplant. Things “appeared” normal as he once again returned to work. But, in January 2011, Steve Jobs announced, yet again, that he was taking a medical leave. Fast forward to August 24, 2011 and the world found out, he was not coming back in his role as CEO.

In his email to Apple employees back in January 2011, Jobs wrote, “At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company…I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can.”

Notice the conflicting priorities – “focus on my health” and yet “I will continue as CEO and be involved…and hope to be back as soon as I can.”

There’s an interesting story on the NPR blog called “A Story About Steve Jobs And Attention To Detail” by Eyder Peralta about Steve Jobs’ attention to (I would say obsession with) detail. It’s a story that Vic Gundotra, the guy behind Google+, posted about Steve Jobs calling him in January 2008 on a Sunday. While Vic’s memory of Jobs calling him on a Sunday unhappy that the second “O” in the Google icon on the iPhone didn’t “have the right yellow gradient” was one of admiration, my interpretation is one of concern. Remember that this is only four years after his pancreatic cancer scare.

There are 3 common characteristics of workaholics (Schaufeli, Taris, & Rhenen, 2008):

  1. Workaholics spend a lot of time on work activities. They are excessively hard workers.
  2. Workaholics have a hard time disengaging from work and when they do, they continue and often think about work even when they are not working. This suggests a preoccupation and obsession with their work.
  3. Workaholics work beyond what’s reasonably expected from them to meet either the organizational or economic requirements. That is, workaholics often work excessively even if they don’t need the money.

Schaufeli, Taris, and Rhenen (2008) explained that workaholics work and push themselves extremely hard, not because of financial rewards, career drives, or even organizational culture. Instead, workaholics work hard because of an inner compulsion, need, or drive.

Shimazu, Schaufeli, and Taris (2010) discovered that workaholism is both directly and indirectly associated with poor health. The researchers found that while workaholics might contribute more to organizational performance than others, “the costs for the workaholic people themselves (in terms of ill-health) are high” (p. 158).

When a workaholic, like a Steve Jobs, is constantly obsessing about work and doesn’t know how or even want to disengage (see my post about failure to disengage) while he’s away from work (e.g., Jobs should have been resting on that Sunday as I am sure his doctors would have told him to do), the end result is that something has to give. In this case, it was his health.

I am a Mac user. I’ve been one for 9 years. I love my Mac and Apple products. I wish Steve Jobs all the best, particularly good health. But if I were him, I would not only resign as CEO, I would also not take on another role, even as a Board member. The health warning signs his body has been trying to tell him should be taken very seriously.

As I wrote back in 2009, approaching work with a 24/7 mindset “is a double-edged sword that in the end [can and does] threaten employee health and well-being” (Sonnentag et al., 2008, p. 273.)

It doesn’t take a doctor to see that Steve Jobs’ workaholic mentality is costing him his health. What a truly sad price to pay when we can’t or won’t disengage from our work.

References

Ante, S.E., & McGregor, J. (January 2009). Apple Succession Plan: Nobody’s Business? BusinessWeek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2009/tc20090115_863327.htm

Apple. (August 2011). Letter from Steve Jobs. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/08/24Letter-from-Steve-Jobs.html

Apple. (August 2011). Steve Jobs Resigns as CEO of Apple. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/08/24Steve-Jobs-Resigns-as-CEO-of-Apple.html

Cheng, J. (August 2011). Steve Jobs has resigned as Apple CEO “effective immediately.” Retrieved from http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2011/08/steve-jobs-has-resigned-as-apple-ceo-effective-immediately.ars

Gundotra, V. (April 2011). Icon Ambulance. Retrieved from https://plus.google.com/107117483540235115863/posts/gcSStkKxXTw

Hiltzik, M. (Jan 2009). Apple’s condition linked to Steve Jobs’ health. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/05/business/fi-hiltzik5

Knowledge@Wharton. Job-less: Steve Jobs’s Succession Plan Should Be a Top Priority for Apple. Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2134

Peralta, E. (August 2011). A Story About Steve Jobs And Attention To Detail. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/08/25/139947282/a-shade-of-yellow-steve-jobs-and-attention-to-detail

Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Van Rhenen, W. (2008). Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well-being. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57(2), 173-203. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2007.00285.x

Shimazu, A., Schaufeli, W. B., & Taris, T. W. (2010). How does workaholism affect worker health and performance? The mediating role of coping. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 17(2), 154-160, doi:10.1007/s12529-010-9077-x

Sonnentag S., Mojza, E.J., Binnewies, C., & Scholl, A. (2008). Being engaged at work and detached at home: A week-level study on work engagement, psychological detachment, and affect. Work & Stress, 22(3), 257-276.

The Three Burnout Subtypes

[NOTE: This post was updated November 2016]

Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion (overwhelming exhaustion), cynicism (cynicism and detachment), and inefficacy (a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment) (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Maslach, Leiter, & Schaufeli, 2009).

More broadly, Maslach and Leiter (2005) said burnout includes losing three things:

  1. Burnout is lost energy.
  2. Burnout is lost enthusiasm.
  3. Burnout is lost confidence.

We typically think of a “burnt-out” employee as someone who has been on the job for a long period of time. A worker who experiences burnout is someone who is exhausted emotionally. This individual exhibits low motivation and lack of energy for the job (Spector, 2008). However, there are, in fact, more than one type of burnout.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a scale measuring burnout, divides it into three components:

  • Emotional exhaustion is feeling tired and fatigued at work (it can result in absence from work).
  • Depersonalization is developing a callous/uncaring feeling, even hostility, toward others (either clients or colleagues).
  • Reduced personal accomplishment is feeling you (the employee) are not accomplishing anything worthwhile at work. This can lead to a lack of motivation and poor performance.

The Burnout Clinical Subtype Questionnaire (BCSQ-36), another scale, also divides burnout into three subtypes:

  • The “frenetic” type describes involved and ambitious subjects who sacrifice their health and personal lives for their jobs.
  • The “underchallenged” type describes indifferent and bored workers who fail to find personal development in their jobs.
  • The “worn-out” type describes neglectful subjects who feel they have little control over results and whose efforts go unacknowledged.

In a study of 409 employees at a university in Spain, Montero-Marín and colleagues (2011) discovered that those who work more than 40 hours a week faced the greatest risk for “frenetic” burnout. They found that administration and service personnel encountered the greatest risk of “underchallenged” burnout compared to teaching and research staff. Finally, the researchers found that employees with more than sixteen years of service in the organization faced the greatest risk of “worn-out” burnout versus those with less than four years of service.

Take-Away: The “frenetic” profile is associated with the number of hours per week dedicated to work. The “underchallenged” profile is related with the type of occupation and the “worn-out” profile is associated with the cumulative effect over time of the characteristics of an organization.

Suggestions: There are two, rather obvious, ways to reduce burnout. One is to take a vacation (Fritz & Sonnentag, 2006), even though a few weeks after returning to work, feelings of burnout often return. The second way to reduce burnout is to have supervisors offer emotional support to workers through positive feedback and discussions about the positive aspects of the job (Kahn, Schneider, Jenkins-Henkelman, & Moyle, 2006).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership, Training, and Talent Consultant

References

Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2006). Recovery, well-being, and performance-related outcomes: The role of workload and vacation experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 936–945. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.936

Kahn, J. H., Schneider, K. T., Jenkins-Henkelman, T. M., & Moyle, L. L. (2006). Emotional social support and job burnout among high-school teachers: Is it all due to dispositional affectivity? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 793–807. doi:10.1002/job.397

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P., & Schaufeli, W. (2009). Measuring burnout. In S. Cartwright & C. L. Cooper (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of organizational well-being (pp. 86-108). Oxford: Oxford Univerrsity Press.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Montero-Marín, J., García-Campayo, J., Fajó-Pascual, M., Carrasco, J. M., Gascón, S., Gili, M., & Mayoral-Cleries, F. (2011). Sociodemographic and occupational risk factors associated with the development of different burnout types: The cross-sectional University of Zaragoza study. BMC Psychiatry, 11:49. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-11-49

Spector, P. E. (2008). Industrial and organizational psychology: Research and practice (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Failure is a Better Teacher than Success

“Failure is not fatal. Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. It should challenge us to new heights of accomplishments, not pull us to new depths of despair. From honest failure can come valuable experience.” -William Arthur Ward, American author and teacher

We prize success over failure. You see articles and book titles with the words “success” or “succeed” splattered on bookstore shelves. However, research shows that when it comes to learning, failure may just be good for us after all. In fact, failure is a better teacher than success. Madsen and Desai (2010) discovered that the knowledge gained from our failures lasts longer than those from our successes. They advise organizations, to neither ignore nor dismiss failure but to, treat failure as a learning opportunity.

To illustrate the point, they used the flights of the 2002 space shuttle Atlantis and 2003 space shuttle Columbia. During the 2002 Atlantis flight, a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission or the program. However, there was little follow-up or investigation.

During the launching of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, another piece of insulation broke off and struck the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing. When Columbia reentered the earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission, “damage sustained from the foam’s impact compromised the orbiter’s thermal protection system, leading to the failure of the left wing and to the eventual disintegration of the orbiter” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 451).

Tragically, all seven astronauts on board were killed. The Columbia disaster resulted in the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes to prevent future disasters.

Obviously, the point is that, while we should not fail on purpose, failure (while sometimes tragic) is an important teacher. For organizations, the advice is this: study your small failures and close calls to extract useful information instead of waiting for a major catastrophe.

“Organizational leaders should neither ignore failures nor stigmatize those involved with them; rather, leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them” (Madsen & Desai, 2010, p. 471).

Reference

Madsen, P. M., & Desai, V. M. (2010). Failing to learn? The effects of failure and success on organizational learning in the global orbital launch vehicle industry. Academy of Management Journal, 53(3), 451-476.

Whining Is Caused by Thinking Errors

The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) defines whine as a verb that means: complain in a feeble or petulant way.

Whining is a powerless way to complain about something to which we do not believe we have the power to change.

In the world of counseling, therapists/counselors/psychologists often bring up an idea called locus of control. Locus of control is the belief we have about the location (source) of the causes of events in our lives. There are two types of locus of control – internal (within you) and external (outside of you) (Donatelle, 2011).

People with an internal locus of control are those who believe that their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and that they have control over those things they can change. Because individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they are in control over their circumstances, they tend to manage stress better. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control see their behaviors and their lives as being controlled by luck or fate. These individuals often view their lives and circumstances as victims of life and bad luck.

Having an internal locus of control (believing you have power over your own actions) is tied to self-efficacy, which is the belief you have about being able to do something successfully (Donatelle, 2011).

Generally, people who whine are those who tend to be preoccupied with cognitive distortions or thinking errors. Thinking errors are our tendencies to focus on insufficient or inappropriate information and then jump to conclusions or make predictions (Palmer & Szymanska, 2007). These patterns of thinking often are the causes of negative thinking and lead to the nasty habit known as whining.

Some common thinking errors include:

  • Mind-reading/Jumping to conclusions – jumping to a conclusion without the relevant information.
  • All-or-nothing thinking – evaluating experiences on the basis of extremes. For example, “I always lose.”
  • Blame – not taking responsibility and blaming someone else or something else for the problem.
  • Magnification – blowing things out of proportion.
  • Personalization – taking things personally.
  • Fortune-telling – thinking you know what the future holds.
  • Labeling – labeling or rating yourself. For example, “I’m a loser” or “I’m an idiot.”
  • Minimization – minimizing the part one plays in a situation. For example, “It must have been an easy test because I got a good grade.”
  • Low frustration tolerance or ‘I-can-stand-it-itis’ – lowering our ability to endure frustrating or stressful situations by telling ourselves, “I can’t stand it.”

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.”
–Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

References

Donatelle, R. (2011). Health: The basics (Green ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

McKean, E. (Ed.). (2005). The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Palmer, S, & Szymanska, K. (2007). Cognitive behavioural coaching: An integrative approach. In S. Palmer and A. Whybrow (Eds.), Handbook of coaching psychology: A guide for practitioners (pp. 86-117). London: Sage.

Information Overload-When Information Becomes Noise

In “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions,” an article for the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), Joseph Ruff says that we are bombarded with so much data that we’re on information overload. Simply put, information overload is when our ability to process information has passed its limit, and further attempts to process information or make accurate decisions from the surplus of information leads to information overload.

Ruff argues that information overload interferes with our ability to learn and engage in creative problem-solving. For instance, venture capitalists with too much information cannot make accurate adjustments to their evaluation process, and because of this their learning is impeded.

“Once capacity is surpassed, additional information becomes noise and results in a decrease in information processing and decision quality…[H]aving too much information is the same as not having enough” (Ruff, 2002, p. 4).

There’s even a new name for it, Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS). Its symptoms include:

  • Poor concentration due to the overloading of short-term memory
  • Polyphasic behavior or multi-tasking often resulting in diminished rather than increased productivity
  • Hurry sickness, which is the belief that one must constantly rush to keep pace with time
  • Pervasive hostility resulting in a chronic state of irritability near anger or even rage
  • Habituation or over stimulation which causes the brain to shut down and enter a trance-like state
  • “Plugged in” compulsion is the strong need to check email, voice mail and the Internet in order to stay “in touch”
  • Traditional stress including lowered immune response, endocrine imbalance, depression and the experience of “burn out”

Ruff offers a list of strategies to manage information overload. He divides the solutions into proactive and reactive strategies. Proactive strategies are attempts at preventing information overload. Reactive strategies, on the other hand, are implemented after information overload has occurred. Below is Ruff’s list (verbatim) [to see a more detailed list click on the link to his PDF* in the reference section or click HERE]:

Proactive

  • Devise a pulse-taking system to form a constantly changing up-to-date mental model of the organization and key stakeholders
  • Create a personal system for storing and retrieving information (i.e. notebook, planner, system for filing and organizing email)
  • Do not overwhelm yourself with a waste-not want-not mentality; throw it away or delete it
  • Time management training
  • Business writing training
  • Software and technology training
  • Information literacy training
    • Traditional and digital communication skills
    • Thinking and decision making skills
    • Creativity, innovation and risk taking
    • Computer literacy
    • Subject matter literacy
    • Learning how to learn
    • Electronic resources
  • Chunking and mnemonics training
  • Perception’s role in information overload training

Reactive

  • Filtering – focusing attention only on the most useful and essential information while purposefully ignoring other sources
  • Multitasking – performing two or more job functions at the same time [See my post Multitasking Doesn’t Work]
  • Queuing – performing initial steps to tasks that will be completed at a latter time
  • Escaping – eliminating disturbances by psychologically or physically limiting disruptions from outside world (i.e. not answering phone, closing door)
  • Prioritizing – determining and approaching most important tasks first
  • Delegating – determining which tasks can be given to other workers
  • Refusing – determining which tasks can be left undone
  • Limiting – not being seduced by thinking that more information is better
  • Satisficing – seeking “good enough” solutions; not perfection
  • Altering – changing perception of a task by performing it in a different way or place (i.e. view documents on paper instead of a computer screen; move to a lounge or coffee shop)
  • Shifting – changing perception of situation by accepting it as just part of the job

Reference

Ruff, J. (2002). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA). Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions.pdf [*PDF now hosted on WorkplacePsychology.Net for convenience.]

Failure to Recognize and Address Issues Quickly

The ability to manage conflicts is one of a leader’s greatest challenges. Many teams and entire organizations struggle with the different/conflicting views about how things should run and how change should be implemented. It is crucial for a leader to possess the ability to manage people’s differences in a way that reduces their destructive energy while channeling their constructive energy.

There are two things that a leader can do to ensure this happens (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002):

  1. Create a safe place to allow for the conflicts to come up.
  2. As the conflict is boiling, make certain that you, the leader, control that it doesn’t boil over.

In one company, middle managers were unhappy with their leader because they felt restricted about not being able to run their departments in a manner that they believe is best. When the managers raised their concerns, the leader would often respond with minimizing statements or just outright dismiss the concerns as insignificant.

It’s easy to see that the leader’s tendency to minimize and discount concerns created a growing level discontentment that eventually led to the exit of one of the managers.

In “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave (2005),” Leigh Branham outlined the reasons why employees often head for the exit door:

  • Reason #1: The Job or Workplace Was Not as Expected
  • Reason #2: The Mismatch Between Job and Person
  • Reason #3: Too Little Coaching and Feedback
  • Reason #4: Too Few Growth and Advancement Opportunities
  • Reason #5: Feeling Devalued And Unrecognized
  • Reason #6: Stress From Overwork and Work-Life Imbalance
  • Reason #7: Loss of Trust and Confidence in Senior Leaders

There are two distinct periods when someone considers quitting. The first period is the time between the first thoughts of leaving and the later decision to leave. The second period in which the employee considers leaving is the time between the decision to leave and actually leaving.

For this middle manager, the two biggest reasons were: (1) too few growth and advancement opportunities (reason #4), and (2) feeling devalued and unrecognized (reason #5). The manager had devoted a considerable amount of time and energy into developing his expertise and competence, only to discover that there was not an opportunity for him to advance. Furthermore, when the manager brought up his concerns or offered suggestions or ideas for improvements, he never felt “heard.”

Unfortunately for the company, when an opportunity came, the manager happily jumped ship and accepted a position where his skills and work ethics were appreciated.

There are three tips that the leader could have followed to avoid losing this valuable manager:

  1. Inspire confidence in a clear vision, a workable plan and the competence to achieve it.
  2. Back up words with actions.
  3. Have trust and confidence in your workforce.

References

Branham, L. (2005). The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave. Broadway, NY: AMACOM.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). A survival guide for leaders. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 65-72.

When Clowns Run The Circus

We all know the “bossholes,” Robert Sutton’s description of a boss who’s domineering or overbearing, an a$$hole. But it takes more than simply avoiding the land mines of the world of “bossholes” to qualify one to be a good boss. Effective bosses understand that having authority means being able to use power appropriately and timely. In “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” Sutton says one mindset that is characteristic of a good boss is the ability to find a balance between over-managing (or micromanaging) and under-managing. He says good bosses know when to exert more control and when to back off. They know when to coach and when to discipline.

If you ever watch the circus, you have probably seen clowns running around. They’re really entertaining and often add to the overall experience of going to the circus. However, you might also notice that clowns never take charge. They don’t take charge over the circus because that’s not their role. Instead, clowns always take their cues from the ringmaster — the boss of the circus.

In a similar fashion, bosses are not that different in their roles at work from circus ringmasters. When the boss is “too nice,” the jerks, bullies, and bigmouths who report to them will actually be the ones running the show. Sadly, these poor bosses are viewed as powerless pushovers, leaders by title but not by respect. In these situations, the clowns in the office are running the circus (aka, the workplace).

In one workplace, a manager often relinquishes authority over to an administrative assistant who has been with the organization for almost two decades. When ask why she does this, the boss explains she doesn’t want to upset the assistant. It is actually fascinating to watch because there exists a very clear power struggle between the manager and secretary. While the manager doesn’t like it, she would always reluctantly, but surely, give in to the demands of the office assistant. Part of her fear of not doing so is the rationalization that this secretary is simply too valuable to let go. Thus, each day brings with it a different drama, depending on the fickle mood swings of this secretary.

In a post that parallels some of what I’ve just shared, Jill Geisler has a nice piece titled, “What Great Bosses Know About the 7 Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss.” In it, she outlines seven things that can go wrong when a boss is too nice.

The Seven Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss (verbatim from her post):

  1. Your ideas get overshadowed by others in the organization who are more assertive about making their cases.
  2. Workplace problems fester as you postpone dealing with them.
  3. Mediocrity flourishes as you hold back from challenging underperformers.
  4. Needed change is delayed as you hesitate to nudge people out of their comfort zones.
  5. You do other peoples’ work when they complain about schedules, shifts or duties.
  6. Bullies and bigmouths win.
  7. You can lose respect — from your bosses, other managers, your staff — or all of them.

Take-Away Message

  • Good bosses know when to exert control and when to back off. They know when to coach and when to discipline.
  • Bosses who are “too nice” or who are viewed as pushovers will be dominated by office clowns (the jerks, bullies, and bigmouths subordinates who report to them).
  • When the office clowns run the show, drama and problems will arise, and the workplace will start to look like a circus.
  • “Too-nice” bosses will not gain the respect of their employees.

References

Geisler, J. (2011). What Great Bosses Know About the 7 Deadly Sins of the Too-Nice Boss. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/leadership-management/what-great-bosses-know/125251/what-great-bosses-know-about-the-7-deadly-sins-of-the-too-nice-boss/

Sutton, R.I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best…and learn from the worst. New York: Business Plus.

Humans, True Grit, and Teaching Resilience

In an HBR article titled “Building resilience,” Dr. Martin Seligman (2011) talks about building resilience after failing. Failure is a common trauma we all face in life. But each of our responses is different. While some seem to bounce back shortly after, others seem to spiral more and more into depression and despair, paralyzing them to even think about the future.

Seligman contends that resilience can be measured and taught. In fact, the U.S. Army is putting Seligman’s ideas into practice through its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program. In essence, CSF’s goal is to prepare soldiers psychologically for stress and trauma just like boot camp prepares them physically for battle. A key part of CSF is something called “master resilience training” (MRT) where drill sergeants learn to embrace resilience and then pass it on, by building mental toughness, signature strengths, and strong relationships.

Challenging Seligman’s idea, Stix’s article (“The neuroscience of true grit”) in Scientific American (2011) offers what I consider a much more balanced perspective to resilience and the human capacity to recover. Beyond the hype about teaching resilience, the article points out that people do, in fact, recover from disasters and they do so more often than many people realize. While each person’s way towards recovery is different, coping ugly as a researcher in the article says, it serves to help him/her adapt to the crisis.

George A. Bonanno of Teachers College at Columbia University has devoted his career as a psychologist to documenting the varieties of resilient experience, focusing on our reactions to the death of a loved one and to what happens in the face of war, terror and disease. In every instance, he has found, most people adapt surprisingly well to whatever the world presents; life returns to a measure of normalcy in a matter of months.

And it’s Bonanno who raises concern about Seligman and the military’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program and its lack of evidence for its effectiveness. More importantly than whether it works or not, I agree with Bonanno that there’s a potential for a much greater danger – whether more harm than good might result from interfering with people’s ability to naturally bounce back.

If most people are resilient, as they seem to be in all the studies we’ve done, what happens to those people if you give them stress-inoculation training? -Dr. George A. Bonanno

What’s more, even those in the military aren’t jumping on Seligman’s resilience training. “William P. Nash, a physician formerly charged with overseeing stress-monitoring programs for the U.S. Marines, says there is little evidence for prophylactic resilience training” (Stix, 2011, p. 33).

Take-Away Message

  • Humans have an amazing capacity to recover and bounce back from disasters and traumas, even without assistance or, in the case of resilience training, interference.
  • It is critical to always consider whether more harm than good might result from interfering (this includes interventions to teach resilience) with people’s natural ability to bounce back from trauma.

References

Seligman, M. (2011, April). Building resilience. Harvard Business Review, April, 100-106. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2011/04/building-resilience/ar/1

Stix, G. (2011, March). The neuroscience of true grit: When tragedy strikes, most of us ultimately rebound surprisingly well. Where does such resilience come from? Scientific American, 304(3), 29-33.

Successful Strategic Execution Is Hard

Successful strategic execution is hard to achieve because of five key reasons (Franken, Edwards, & Lambert, 2009):

  1. Relentless pressure from shareholders for greater profits. This forces top business leaders to redefine their strategy more often.
  2. Increased complexity of organizations. For example, the activities it requires to create products and services span various functional, organization, and even geographical boundaries.
  3. Balancing demands of executing complex change programs with business performance. In particular, in cases where management is tied to rewards based on performance, it can be difficult to get buy-in into creating strategic plans for the future.
  4. Low levels of involvement of managers at the beginning stages of strategic execution.
  5. Difficulty securing the required resources to execute the strategy. As a result of the large number of concurrent change programs, many of the company’s resources will already be allocated and even if they are available, managers will aggressively compete for them.

Reference

Franken, A., Edwards, C., & Lambert, R. (2009). Executing strategic change: Understanding the critical management elements that lead to success. California Management Review, 51(3), 49-72.

Creating an Ethical Organizational Culture

[NOTE: This post was updated October 2016]

“Having an organizational culture that emphasizes ethical behavior can cut down on misbehavior of organizations. Research shows that whether an organization develops a culture that emphasizes doing the right thing even when it is costly comes down to whether leaders, starting with the CEO, consider the ethical consequences of their actions. Leaders with a moral compass set the tone when it comes to ethical dilemmas” (Truxillo, Bauer, & Erdogan, 2016, p. 385).

Robbins and Judge (2009) offer a nice list of what management can do to create a more ethical organizational culture. They suggest a combination of the following practices:

  1. Be a role model and be visible. Your employees look to the behavior of top management as a model of what’s acceptable behavior in the workplace. When senior management is observed (by subordinates) to take the ethical high road, it sends a positive message for all employees.
  2. Communicate ethical expectations. Ethical ambiguities can be reduced by creating and disseminating an organizational code of ethics. It should state the organization’s primary values and the ethical rules that employees are expected to follow. Remember, however, that a code of ethics is worthless if top management fails to model ethical behaviors.
  3. Offer ethics training. Set up seminars, workshops, and similar ethical training programs. Use these training sessions to reinforce the organization’s standards of conduct, to clarify what practices are and are not permissible, and to address possible ethical dilemmas.
  4. Visibly reward ethical acts and punish unethical ones. Performance appraisals of managers should include a point-by-point evaluation of how his or her decisions measure up against the organization’s code of ethics. Appraisals must include the means taken to achieve goals as well as the ends themselves. People who act ethically should be visibly rewarded for their behavior. Just as importantly, unethical acts should be punished.
  5. Provide protective mechanisms. The organization needs to provide formal mechanisms so that employees can discuss ethical dilemmas and report unethical behavior without fear of reprimand. This might include creation of ethical counselors, ombudsmen, or ethical officers.

A good case study of an unethical organizational culture is the now defunct Enron. Sims and Brinkmann (2003) described Enron’s ethics as “the ultimate contradiction between words and deeds, between a deceiving glossy facade and a rotten structure behind” (p. 243). Enron executives created an organizational culture that valued profits (the bottom line) over ethical behavior and doing what’s right.

“A business perceived to lack integrity or to operate in an unethical, immoral, or irresponsible manner soon loses the support of customers, suppliers and the community at large*” (Tozer, 2012, p. 476).

*In addition to losing customers, suppliers and the community, I would also include losing the support of employees and managers.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Consultant

References

Robbins, S.P., & Judge, T.A. (2009). Organizational behavior (13th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Sims, R.R., & Brinkmann, J. (2003). Enron ethics (or: Culture matters more than codes). Journal of Business Ethics, 45(3), 243-256.

Tozer, J. (2012). Leading through leaders: Driving strategy, execution and change. London, UK: KoganPage.

Truxillo, D. M., Bauer, T. N., & Erdogan, B. (2016). Psychology and work: Perspectives on industrial and organizational psychology. New York: Routledge.