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Jack Ma is very very very wrong about the 996 rule

Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese tech company Alibaba, has come out in favor of the so-called 996 rule, i.e. that you should work from 9am to 9pm 6 days a week if you want to have a successful career. For anyone doing the math that’s 72 hours of work a week. Add a 1 hour commute on top of that and there’s very little time left for your family, kids, hobbies, exercise,

His belief in this is unshakeable:
“I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing,” he said. “How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”

He also added that you can only achieve business success through suffering and sacrifice.

I realize I may be wasting my time here by going up against a belief that is so prevalent among business leaders, but there’s no way I can let that kind of nonsense pass and not point out exactly why it’s wrong. Here are 5 quick reasons:

1: Pointing to successful people that achieved success by working 72 hours a week proves nothing. What about all the people that worked just as hard but failed?

2: Many of the mental qualities that make a person successful at work are lost when people are overworked, tired, stressed and unhappy, including networking, creativity and effective decision making.

3: Permanent overwork kills people. For instance, those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke.

4: Permanent overwork doesn’t result in increased output.

5: Many people believe that success can only be achieved through suffering, but they’re wrong. In fact, employee happiness leads directly to higher performance and business success.

So permanent overwork does not lead to increased results and success – in fact it hurts people AND profits.

It’s easy to point to Alibaba and say “But they work really long hours and the company is successful. Check mate!” But that’s just correlation; where is the proof that they are profitable BECAUSE OF the long working hours? Maybe they would’ve been even more profitable if their employees were happy, relaxed and had lives outside of work too? The research certainly indicates that.

So why do so many people still believe this nonsense? As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted, it’s difficult to change people’s minds. Look at this picture:

Every horizontal line is perfectly straight. Don’t believe me? Hold up a ruler to your screen and check. OK, now that you know the horizontal lines are straight, what does your mind see? Bendy lines.

Kahneman notes that cognitive illusions are even more stubborn than visual illusions and the business leaders he has worked with almost never changed their beliefs no matter how much evidence they were presented with.

Fortunately, there are also many enlightened leaders out there:

biden

And US Vice President Joe Biden wrote an awesome memo to his staff that said in part:

I do not expect, nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work.

The upshot

There is strong evidence that permanent overwork hurts people and performance. Let’s stop promoting such a dumb and dangerous idea.

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Try this easy happiness hack in your next meeting

When is your next meeting? Tomorrow? This afternoon? Or are you already late for your next meeting?

We spend a lot of time in work meetings and they don’t seem to make us very happy.

So here’s a simple tip you can try very easily:  Open your next meeting with a round where each person shares something positive. You can pick one of these questions and let everyone share:

  • Name one thing you’ve accomplished since the last meeting that you’ve been proud of.
  • Name a person who has helped you since the last meeting.
  • Mention one thing you’re looking forward to at work in the coming week.
  • What’s the funniest thing someone has told you in the last week?
  • Mention something interesting you’ve learned in the last week.

Don’t spend a lot of time on this, just give each participant about 30 seconds to share something positive. If the group is bigger than 10-12 people, let people share in pairs and then let 3 or 4 people share with the whole group so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes.

It really works wonders for a meeting. One person told me this after trying it out:

Hi Alexander,

I have been reading your work for a few days now, and I cannot get enough.

We have 4 analysts on our team, who touch many if not all groups in our company. Our role often means our view is black and white in order to deliver results, which is often received in a bad light.

So, I tried starting a meeting with something positive. It was like the Jedi mind trick for convincing others to lobby for our interests!

My Sr Analyst was struggling to keep her jaw from dropping. No more than a simple ask of what is the funniest thing your kids have said to you lately. Everyone had a story, and we all laughed for a quick 2 minutes before getting to the agenda.

Just wanted to say, “Thank you,”

All the best,

-Grant

And it’s not only fun, it will also make your meeting more effective as this experiment shows:

Psychological experiments can be very devious, and this one was certainly no exception. The focus was meetings and the format was simple: Groups of people were asked to discuss and reach consensus on a contentious topic.

Here’s the devious bit: Unbeknownst to the other participants one member of the group was an actor hired by the researchers. The actor was told to speak first in the discussions. In half the experiments he would say something positive while in the other half he would start by saying something critical. After that he simply participated in the discussion like the other group members.

The experiment showed that when the first thing said in the meeting was positive, the discussion turned out more constructive, people listened more and were more likely to reach consensus. When the first statement was negative the mood became more hostile, people were more argumentative and consensus became less likely.

The researchers concluded that the way a meeting starts has a large impact on the tone of the discussion and on whether or not the group will eventually reach consensus.

Try it out and let me know how it works for you.

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Employee engagement vs. happiness at work – what should companies focus on?

I met a manager recently who claimed in no uncertain terms that companies should forget all about employee happiness and focus only on engagement.  He argued that people can be happy at work without performing well, whereas employee engagement leads directly to better performance.

I’ve actually heard this claim a few times recently, but it is still wrong. In this article we’ll look at why.

But first let’s define the two terms. Both can be defined in many different ways, which will confuse any discussion, so here are the definitions I will base my argument on.

This is the first result that comes up when you google “employee engagement definition”:

Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

And this is the definition of happiness at work that we use:

Happiness at work is the extent to which employees feel good about their jobs.

Both are clearly emotional at their core (the word “feel” appears in both) but the key difference is that engagement is more about the work and less about the person. It’s not really about how you feel in general, it’s how passionate you feel about your job, how committed you are to the workplace and how much extra effort you put in.

Happiness at work, as we define it, is how work makes you feel more broadly. It’s not about feeling good every second of every work day, but it is about experiencing mostly positive feelings about your job.

Just to make it clear: We think employee engagement is a useful concept and we are not arguing against it. We just want to argue that of the two, it is much more effective for a company to focus on making their employees happy than on making them engaged. Here are the four main reasons why.

1: Happiness is easier to sell to employees

Whether you’re looking to create employee happiness or engagement, you need your employees to be active partners in the process. This is not something you can do to them without their active and willing participation or (even worse) against their will.

Employee engagement, being directly related to commitment and effort, is a very easy sell to managers and companies. Every manager wants employees who are passionate about their work and go above and beyond to do a better job.

But seen from the employee side, it’s a much harder sell. When a manager states that they want their employees to “be more engaged in their work” or “give more discretionary effort” it can easily come off as if they are simply demanding more passion and work from people, without giving anything back.

On the other hand, when a manager sets a  goal to create a happy workplace, the benefits are immediately clear to employees and it’s much easier to engage them in the process.

Ironically, happiness can be a harder sell towards managers, many of whom are skeptical of “all that happiness crap”. This video covers their most common objections and why they’re wrong:

2: Engagement without happiness is unsustainable

How engaged can someone really be if they’re unhappy at work?

This happens. One of our International Partners, Sheona McGraw of Cloud 9 to 5 in Canada has seen it first hand:

Having worked in a number of charities, non-profit orgs and social enterprises, I can tell you that most of these employees are passionate and committed about their org’s cause but unfortunately a lot of the orgs don’t have a very happy work environment and it’s not uncommon at all to find super engaged yet super unhappy employees working in these orgs.

This is something I talk a lot about in my discussions with potential clients. I myself have been in this circumstance a number of times, being super engaged but miserable. And while I performed satisfactorily, had I been happy I would have blown the job out of the water.

A person can be incredibly passionate about their work and totally committed to the workplace, but still be miserable at work. I’ve seen this happen for instance when people are treated badly by their coworkers or manager or when they can’t do their job in a way that satisfies their own professional standards.

In this case, two things can happen:

  1. The employee’s unhappiness can leech away any feeling of engagement, leaving the person not caring about their work.
  2. Or, even worse, the person remains engaged and unhappy – which leads to stress and burnout.

So even if you want an engaged workforce, you still need to focus on making them happy because engagement without happiness is not sustainable.

3: Ultimately, it’s about performance – and happiness drives better performance

As I stated above, some fans of engagement argue that it matters more because it directly drives effort and performance. They also argue that employees can be happy but not productive. Both of these arguments reveal a poor knowledge of the research in happiness at work.

Sure, engagement leads to better performance – but given the definition above that includes commitment and extra effort, that’s almost a tautology.

Furthermore, we know from a large amount of research, that happy employees perform much better. Ed Diener, one of the world’s leading happiness researchers summed it up like this:

In the workplace we know that happiness causes more-productive and more-creative workers.

If you know academics, you know how careful they are about using the word “causes.” In this case, we know that happiness at work causes higher:

  • Productivity – happy people get more work done with the same resources.
  • Creativity – feeling good makes your mind more able to think of new ideas and approaches.
  • Intrinsic motivation – happy people don’t need constant external motivators like bonuses or threats; they want to do good work.
  • Loyalty – happy employees care about the company and stay longer in their jobs.
  • Discretionary effort – employees who like their jobs go above and beyond for the customers, their co-workers and the workplace.

So employee happiness has been shown to directly cause increased performance.

4: Happiness causes engagement

You’ll notice that both loyalty and discretionary effort were part of the definition of engagement that we presented above.

Given that (as we saw in the previous section) happy employees are more loyal and are more likely to go the extra mile, it’s clear that happiness  doesn’t only cause better performance – happiness also directly causes engagement.

Of course, the effects are circular and engagement and happiness will cause each other. But given the results above as well as the fact that engagement cannot last in the absence of happiness, it seems clear to me that happiness causes engagement more than engagement causes happiness.

Gallup does a lot of great work on employee engagement and their Q12 survey is one of my favorite metrics. They also acknowledge that many factors play into engagement, including happiness / well-being, writing:

Leaders have to think about everything from culture to well-being to purpose and meaning — and make it all come to life in a personalized way for employees.

The upshot

Engagement is a great concept but ignoring employee happiness in the pursuit of engagement makes no sense.

At the very least, sustainable engagement requires happiness at work, meaning you can’t ignore the happiness aspect.

When do people feel “passionate about their work, committed to the workplace and give discretionary effort?” When they’re happy at work!

So if you want engaged employees, focus on making them happy and engagement will follow.

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Never ask employees what would make them happy. Here’s why.

Most managers have realized by now that happy workplaces are more productive, more creative, attract better talent and make more money.

So if you were a well-meaning manager or HR person looking to capitalize on this and create a happier workplace, you might be tempted to start by asking your employees some version of this question:

“What would make you happier at work?”

It seems like a great place to start. To make people happier, ask them what they want and them give them that. Right?

Wrong.

Here’s why: We know from the research that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Stop random people on the street and ask them what would make their lives happier and a lot of them will reply “Winning the lottery.” But studies of lottery winners show that they are actually only marginally happier than all of us non-lottery millionaires.

Similarly if you ask employees what will make them happier at work you will most likely get responses like:

  • A raise
  • A promotion
  • A bonus
  • A gym in the office
  • Free fruit
  • Free lunches

But while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable (indeed, you might give some of the same answers if asked the same question), we know from the research that these factors don’t make employees any happier at work. Just to be clear: We cannot ignore them when making workplaces better, because these factors can absolutely make people unhappy when they’re unfair. But once they are fair, increasing them further does not increase happiness at all.

This explains why many organizations spend a ton of time and money on every perk imaginable and employees are still not happy.

Quite simply: giving employees what they ask for is doomed to fail, if they don’t know what to ask for. And they don’t.

What we need to do instead, is help people discover for themselves what really makes them happy at work and there’s a much better question for that:

Tell me about a recent good experience at work that made you happy.

This may look like essentially the same question as the one above so why is this one better? With the previous question (What would make you happy at work) we only get at the things people think will make them happy.

With the latter question, we ask about specific previous experiences that caused happiness. This means that we get directly at what really works.

I have used this question in hundreds of speeches all over the world and never once has anyone told a story of getting a raise, a promotion or a perk. Never once has anyone said “I was really happy last Thursday because I got a free apple.”

The one exception was when I did a workshop at Lego and an employee shared this example:

Every week our team gets a new box of fruit and there’s always only one banana in it. If I get there in time to get that one banana, it makes me really happy!

I’m 98% sure he was kidding!

Invariably, when people reflect on this question their stories fall into two categories.

They either talk about doing good work, achieving great results or making a positive difference for others. This includes things like:

I had a complicated problem on a project and found a really creative solution for it.

A customer liked my work so much they sent me an email with tons of positive feedback.

I helped a coworker by sharing advice and knowledge.

Or they talk about moments of personal connection at work, like:

I came back to the office from parental leave last week and so many people on my team welcomed me back with smiles and hugs.

I had a bad day and my manager noticed and did her best to help me.

We celebrated a team member’s birthday last week with cake and coffee and had a great time together.

Very often their stories contain both elements. That’s why we talk about results and relationships being the two main sources of happiness at work.

The upshot

Don’t ask your employees what will make them happy – because they probably have completely the wrong idea and giving them what they ask for won’t work. Instead, help them connect to past positive experiences because those are a much more reliable predictor of future happiness. And then work on doing simple daily actions that promote a feeling of results and relationships.

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5 reasons why Danish workers are the happiest in the world

You will often see Denmark listed as one of the “happiest countries on the planet.” Interestingly Danes are not only happy at home, they’re also happy at work and according to most studies of worker satisfaction among nations, the happiest employees in the world are in Denmark.

Here’s just one data point: Gallup found that 18% of American workers are actively disengaged, meaning they are “emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.” The same number for Danish workers is only 10%.

But why are Danish workers so much happier than their counterparts around the world? Here are five fundamental differences that explain what’s going on.

1: REASONABLE WORKING HOURS

I once talked to an American who had gotten a job as a manager at a Danish company. Wanting to prove his worth, he did what he had always done and put in 60 to 70 hours a week. After a month, his manager invited him to a meeting. He was fully expecting to be praised for his hard work, but instead he was asked “Why do you work so much? Is something wrong? Do you have a problem delegating? What can we do to fix this?”

Some non-Danes wonder if Danes ever work. Not only do Danes tend to leave work at a reasonable hour most days, but they also get five to six weeks of vacation per year, several national holidays and up to a year of paid maternity/paternity leave. While the average American works 1,780 hours and the average South Korean 2,024 hours per year, the average Dane only works 1,408, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) statistics. Danes also have more leisure hours than any other OECD workers and the link between sufficient leisure and happiness is well established in the research.

The difference to other countries is stark. Many companies around the world celebrate overwork as a sign of commitment. “You have to put in the hours” is the message in the mistaken belief that the more hours you work, the more work you get done. We call this “The Cult of Overwork.” Danish companies, on the other hand, recognize that employees also have a life outside of work and that working 80 hours a week is bad for both employees and the bottom line.

2: LOW POWER DISTANCE

In many countries, if your boss gives you an order, you pretty much do what you’re told. In a Danish workplace, extremely few direct orders are ever given and employees are more likely to view them as suggestions.

Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede has quantified the culture in more than 100 countries on several parameters, one of which is “power distance.” A high power distance means that bosses are undisputed kings whose every word is law. Danish workplaces–with a score of 18-have the lowest power distance in the world. Just for comparison,  Belgium has a power distance of 65, China clocks in at 80 and Malaysia holds the world record at 100.

By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees. This means that Danish employees experience more autonomy and are more empowered at work. Here’s just one example: By law, any Danish workplace with more than 35 employees must open up seats on the board for employees, who are elected to the board by their peers and serve on an equal footing and with same voting powers as all other board members.

3: GENEROUS UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

In Denmark, losing your job is not the end of the world. In fact, unemployment insurance seems too good to be true, giving workers up to 90% of their original salary for two years. In the U.S., for instance, losing your job can easily lead to financial disaster and loss of health insurance. This leads to job lock i.e. staying in a job you hate because you can’t afford to leave.

Simply put: If you’re a Dane and you don’t like your job, you can quit that job without risking serious financial problems, forcing companies to treat their employees well or risk losing them.

4: CONSTANT TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT

Since the mid-1800s, Denmark has focused on life-long education of its workers. This policy continues to this day, with an extremely elaborate set of government, union, and corporate policies that allow almost any employee who so desires to attend paid training and pick up new skills. It’s called an “active labor market policy,” and Denmark spends more on these types of programs than any other country in the OECD.

This lets Danish workers constantly grow and develop and helps them stay relevant (not to mention stay employed) even in a changing work environment. It also makes their jobs richer and more interesting.

5: A FOCUS ON HAPPINESS

Here’s a word that exists only in the Scandinavian languages: Arbejdsglæde. Arbejde means work and glæde means happiness, so arbejdsglæde is “happiness at work.” This word is not in common use in any other language on the planet.

Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal.

For instance, where we Scandinavians have arbejdsglæde, the Japanese instead have karoshi, which means “Death from overwork.” And this is no coincidence; there is a word for it in Danish because Danish workplaces have a long-standing tradition of wanting to make their employees happy. To most Danes, a job isn’t just a way to get paid; we fully expect to enjoy ourselves at work.

In other countries, the attitude towards work is often very different. A few years ago I gave a speech in Chicago, and an audience member told me that “Of course I hate my job, that’s why they pay me to do it!” Many people around the world hate their jobs and consider this to be perfectly normal. Similarly, many workplaces around the world do little or nothing to create happiness among employees, sticking to the philosophy that “If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not working hard enough.”

THE UPSHOT

I’m not trying to paint Danish companies as utopias for workers and their international counterparts as tyrannical hellholes. There are bad Danish workplaces and stellar non-Danish ones–Zappos and Google are two that I’ve personally visited and studied.

But studies have uncovered a number of systemic and cultural differences between Denmark and the rest of the world that serve to explain why Danish workers are on average so much happier.

This goes far beyond happiness. We know from any number of studies that happy workers are more productive and innovative and that consequently, happy companies have happier customers and make more money. This may help explain why Danish workers are among the most productive in the OECD and why the Danish economy continues to do so well.

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5 Ways to Procrastinate Effectively

Procrastinate effectively
If you search for “procrastination” on google you’ll find a massive number of articles on how to stop procrastinating and get stuff done.

These articles will tell you that there is only one reliable way for you to get stuff done:

  1. Check your todo-list for the next item
  2. Complete item no matter what it is
  3. Go to step 1

The message here is that if only you had enough willpower, backbone, self-control and discipline this is how you would work too.

Well guess what: Many people don’t work that way. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a task and doing it is ridiculously easy and a lot of fun. Sometimes doing the very same task feels worse than walking barefoot over burning-hot, acid-covered, broken glass and forcing yourself to do it anyway is a frustrating exercise in futility.

Sometimes procrastinating is exactly the right thing to do at a particular moment. Sadly, this is largely ignored by the procrastination-is-a-sign-of-weakness, the-devil-finds-work-for-idle-hands crowd.

An example: Sometimes I have a great idea for an article, but I can’t get it written. I try writing it one way, I try another but I just can’t get it finished. Invariably, I end up procrastinating. Suddenly while I’m procrastinating, the idea I was missing comes to me and the whole article is suddenly clear in my mind. When I next sit down to write it, it takes no time and writing it is a pure pleasure.

I could’ve forced myself to write that article the first time around – if I’d had enough discipline! But it would have been a struggle all the way and the result wouldn’t have been half as good. I can just hear people crying “Well, your articles still aren’t half as good” :) That’s another discussion!

For me, procrastination is just another tool I use. A way to recharge and get ideas. The important thing is to procrastinate effectively.

Here’s how you do it.

1: Procrastinate without guilt

Do not beat yourself up for procrastinating. Everybody does it once in a while. It doesn’t make you a lazy bastard or a bad person.

If you leave a task for later, but spend all your time obsessing about the task you’re not doing, it does nothing good for you. So procrastinate without guilt.

2: Procrastinate 100%

Do you know those people who procrastinate from some important task – and all they can talk or think about is the task they’re not doing. Often to the point of obsession!

Don’t. Throw yourself 100% into whatever it is you are doing, whether you’re vacuuming, watching TV, reading, surfing the web or out drinking with your friends. Do it and enjoy it to the max.

3: Choose to procrastinate

Don’t let procrastination sneak up on you, so that you suddenly find that you’re doing something other than you should be. Instead, choose consciously to not work on your current task. Instead of fighting it, say to yourself “I will now procrastinate”.

This way procrastination isn’t something that happens to you, something that you’re powerless to control. As if it ever could be :) This way you’re in charge and procrastination is a tool you use.

4: Ask yourself why you procrastinate

There can be many good reasons to procrastinate:

  • Some crucial ideas, notions, thoughts may come to you only when you’re not working on your project.
  • Effective procrastination recharges your batteries and gives you new energy.
  • Maybe there’s something else you could be doing instead and procrastinating means you get it done.
  • Maybe whatever it is you’re supposed to do, turns out to be irrelevant or even a bad idea. Maybe the reason you procrastinated was, that your subconscious knew this before your conscious mind.

Or maybe – and most importantly – you just hate doing whatever it is you’re supposed to do and that’s why you can’t make yourself do it. Many people hate their jobs (20% according to some studies) and constant procrastination can be a sign that you’re one of them. In that case, take it seriously, and do something about it.

Working non-stop means missing out on all of this. When you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself why. Don’t just accept the traditional answer: “There’s something wrong with me, I’m a bad, lazy person”.

5: Take responsibility for procrastinating

When you choose to procrastinate, make sure to update your deadlines and commitments. Let people know, that your project will not be finished on time and give them a new deadline.

Procrastinate now. I dare you!

Procrastination is not bad in itself. Do it right, and it’s a way to be more efficient and have more fun with what you’re working on.

In fact, I challenge you to procrastinate this very moment. Pick a task that you should be working on right now, but where your heart isn’t really in it. Then, rather than work half-heartedly on this task, procrastinate fully and consciously as described above.

Notice how it changes how you think about your task and what it does for you when you procrastinate 100% and without feelings of guilt.

Then write a comment and tell me how it went.

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5 things to know before you try to motivate your employees with money

Do financial rewards motivate employees to work better? I really don’t think so.

Companies that use rewards and bonuses to make employees happier and more motivated are largely wasting their money. The promise of a bonus has never really done anything for me personally, and the research in motivation is very clear: Rewarding people for better performance tends to reduce performance. See the book “Payoff” by Dan Ariely for some great real-life studies.

But maybe I’m wrong – it wouldn’t exactly be the first time :)

So I recently asked this question on twitter and LinkedIn:

Have you ever received a bonus or other monetary reward at work, that was given in a way that made you happier at work and/or more motivated? If so, what about the reward was it that worked for you?

The replies clearly show that we can’t completely dismiss the use of monetary rewards and bonuses at work – and they also reveal when they actually make people happier and more motivated.

Here are 5 lessons from the replies I got.

1: Financial rewards work better when they are surprising

One factor that showed up in may comments was that surprising rewards work much better than expected ones. This is a crucial finding because many companies promise certain rewards when employees achieve certain goals, making the rewards expected and reducing their effectiveness.

Here are some examples:

“My husband recently received an unexpected bonus, for exceptional service. It was not asked for, not expected but welcomed with great warmth and happiness.”

“I have this clear recollection of my former manager handing me a gift certificate for a lunch. Compared to my other bonuses and incentives this was nothing – in a monetary perspective and yet it made a huge impression the reason being that it was unexpected. He just wanted to appreciate my work.”

“Yes I have – the fact that it came out of the blue and was accompanied with a handwritten card from the bosses meant all the difference in the world.”

“One time. It came as a complete surprise (as opposed to those ‘entitled’ bonuses) + some nice personal words to go with the $$$.”

“It came as a surprise, so was a reward rather than incentive, and with a genuine, and face to face, conversation about why it was being given.”

2: Financial rewards work better when they’re clearly tied to recognition

People also found rewards motivating when they were given as recognition for good and meaningful work.

“Yes, when it was clearly linked to the result we as a team had made. Everybody got paid from the hard work and because we succeeded. Being part of a result and seeing that in your wallet – I believed made us happier.”

“I was fortunate to work for an executive who understood the value of appreciation. The company didn’t have a bonus system as such (at least not for my level) – yet, from time to time, when I had done a particularly good job – he would come to my office, give me feedback on the extra value of this effort, an gave me 3 bottle of good red wine, paid for a pair of expensive sunglasses I was looking at, … smaller tings like that.

He frequently gave med feedback on what I have done – but sometimes, it was just a tad more than that – and it made me feel good and truly appreciated … and really wanting to do what it takes to experience that again.

Oh – by the way – the executive was not my immediate manager, but the managers manager.”

3: Financial rewards work better when they are given as a good experience

Many people mentioned that they’d gotten rewards that were given as a good experience rather than as a monetary amount.

“At one of my workplaces the bonus system allowed me to study an MBA. The reward system was built on pretty simple financial KPIs and depending on the result my employer would pay for the following year’s tuition….that affected my motivation positively.”

“Yes – anything you can share with your family is great! They also ‘suffer’ from us working hard :-)”

“Good question Alexander ! I worked during 5 years for a Hotel group chain in the world, with work contracts of limited duration for each mission. One day, between two contracts, my manager offered me (to reduce my waiting of my working visa for Kenya and to thank me), a free Flight where I wanted in the world. 10 days after, i left with my best friend for Mauritius island !! Beautiful reward of my work : to offer me a moment to rest !!!”

“Looking back I am more happy with a dinner my great boss gave me many years ago than a loyalty bonus of substantial value from an ahole years later.”

“Does “go on vacation and bring me the receipts – you look like you need it” count? If so, yes – and what worked was the fact that this particular boss noticed that I was run down and ragged and did, in fact, sorely need a vacation, and that I was going to find an excuse not to go unless she did something about that, too. Also, I couldn’t really afford a trip at the time, so the money did actually matter, too.”

4: Financial rewards work better when people need money

This one ain’t exactly a mystery – if employees need money, giving them money makes them happy.

“A friend of mine once told my managers manager that I was so tired (I was working 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week for 3 months) I had fallen asleep in the cinema watching the latest 007 movie (so, not something by krzysztof kieslowski). My managers manager said that he’d reimburse my ticket. I thought nothing of it, but got a note from him saying that there’s money for a dinner also, and then a 2.500 USD extraordinary payout. It made a huge difference and impact, I felt really appreciated (because money was a factor in my life back then). Today, it wouldn’t make any big changes.”

“Once, when I was young and working at my first real job. When Christmas arrived I got a box full of Christmas related food and snacks. This was also my first time living on my own – I expected nothing and was very happy to get food and snacks that I could not afford on my own back then.”

5: But many say rewards don’t work for them

I got so many replies from people who said that they had never received a financial reward in a way that worked for them. In some cases, they even made things worse. Here are some of the replies:

“I have also tried being incentivized where it felt more like a stressful factor than an incentive. I think – for me at least – the task has to hold meaning and the reward has to be at a reasonable level to balance out the extra effort.”

“Never. I was always rewarded with recognition, a new problem to solve and more responsibility. The pay was always more than I wanted to spend, and I never thought about it”

“Nope. Did once get one so small the entire team thought of giving it back. As a reward for our efforts it was actually a demotivating insult. No bonus is better than a belittling bonus IMO.”

“Yes, momentarily. Because the amount was substantial. Another time, yes, because I didn’t expect it. Both times, the feeling lasted about a week….. then it was ‘same old, same old’🤨”

“Honestly, no, I don’t think I have. I’ve valued the money, and sometimes felt trapped in my role and retained by the expectation of receiving it, but not felt motivated by it. Achievement, thank yous, helping my team, making things better and purpose all motivate me more.”

“Only ever earned sales commission as a bonus, and never has it had any effect on my motivation or behaviour.”

“In the past I’ve received a surprise bonus at the end of a big project and it was a moment of happiness and motivation. “Hey, these people appreciate the work we did!” But when the next three projects finished up and no such bonus appeared, it was demoralizing in that the Board appeared to have lost interest or appreciation for the years of work that went into the projects.”

The upshot

Monetary rewards are one tool that companies can use to motivate employees and keep them happy – it’s just that for some companies it’s the only tool they use reliably and that is doomed to fail.

If your employees need money, giving them money will make them happier. If they don’t, you might find it  much more effective to:

  1. Make the reward a surprise
  2. Give an experience instead of money
  3. Give the reward as recognition for good work

And note that these three can easily be combined, making rewards that much more effective.

And ESPECIALLY note that if when companies give “bad” rewards they can actually backfire and make employees less motivated. How dumb is that?

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How common are good work days and what makes them good? See the results of our international survey.

We all have good days and bad days at work and being happy at work is not just about avoiding having bad days at work – it requires having mostly good days, where we actively enjoy our work.

But how often do people around the world have good work days and what makes them good? Is it about compensation, perks and promotions – or do we value other things more?

Our brand new survey of more than 2,500 people worldwide shows how frequent good work days are and reveals their main causes.

For instance, 1 in 3 say they have a good work day every day or almost every day – while 22% experience at most 2-3 good work days a month!

Here are the most important findings from our survey.

And here’s a video where we explain the survey and the main findings:

 

The Cult of Overwork is Killing Startups

The New York Times has a great article called ”In Silicon Valley, Working 9 to 5 Is for Losers” that examines workaholism in startups. It even quotes one entrepreneur as saying “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” I wonder if he asked his kids if that was a risk they were willing to take.

The piece also quotes from this excellent article by David Heinemeier Hansson, where he points out that startup investors are the main driver of this culture:

There’s an ingrained mythology around startups that not only celebrates burn-out efforts, but damn well requires it.

It’s not hard to understand why such a mythology serves the interest of money men who spread their bets wide and only succeed when unicorns emerge.

There’s little to no consequence to them if the many fall by the wayside, spent to completion trying to hit that home run. Make me rich or die tryin’.

It’s bullshit. Extractive, counterproductive bullshit peddled by people who either need a narrative to explain their personal sacrifices and regrets or who are in a position to treat the lives and wellbeing of others like cannon fodder.

These two articles do a great job of exposing the toxic overwork culture in many startups but I just want to add five few quick points on the topic:

1: If hours are all that matter, an entrepreneur working 80 hours a week will be beaten by one working 90 hours a week. Where does it end?

2: Many of the mental qualities that make a startup successful are lost when people are overworked, tired, stressed and unhappy, including networking, creativity and effective decision making.

3: Permanent overwork kills people. For instance, those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke.

4: Permanent overwork doesn’t result in increased output.

5: Pointing to successful startups that worked 80 hours a week proves nothing. What about all the startups that worked 90 hours a week and failed?

Imagine starting your own company and ending up creating a workplace where you hate to work. How stupid is that?

On the other hand, employees of a startup where people are happy to work and have full lives outside of work, will be more productive, motivated and innovative, boosting the startup’s chance of success.

Even if working crazy long hours did enhance a startup’s chance of success (which it does not), it would still be wrong because it hurts employees physically and psychologically.

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Being great at your work vs. feeling great about your work

If we want to be happy in our jobs, we need to be good at our jobs.

We human beings have a basic need to know that we contribute, create value and can make a difference and effect change in our environment.

That’s why doing a good a job feels amazing. It gives us feelings like pride, accomplishment, fulfilment, growth and worth.

On the other hand, when we feel that we don’t perform well at work, it creates feelings like inadequacy and lack of control plus of course fear that we might lose our jobs.

And it’s also in the company’s best interest to make sure that every single employee and team is getting great results and living up to their potential. Companies typically focus on 4 areas to make that happen:

  • Skills: Training, competencies, job skills match,  …
  • Resources: Time, tools, IT-systems, …
  • Structure: Organization, plans, goals, budgets, strategy, processes, …
  • Support: Coworker+manager support, coaches/mentors, …

These are all important and enable us to get results. If your workplace is not giving employees these 4 things, then how on earth can you expect them to perform well?

If we want people to be happier at work, we can definitely help them get better results. We can give them better training, more resources, more support, etc. in order to help them perform better.

However, many people already get great results – but don’t feel that way. And if that’s the case, then they won’t be very happy at work.

This is a crucial distinction that few companies make – the distinction between getting good results and feeling good about those results. If we want employees to be happy at work, they also need the latter - and many don’t have that.

When that is the case, employees may get great results right now but it won’t be sustainable. When people are not happy at work, it hurts their motivation, productivity and creativity. Stress and burnout tend to follow.

So in addition to helping employees get great results, companies also need to make sure that people feel great about their results.

There are 3 things that give us that feeling of results.

1: Meaning

I saw this sign in the lobby of Danish pharmaceutical company Xellia, carrying probably the simplest and most inspiring company purpose I’ve ever seen.

As you may know, one of the biggest current medical crises is the increasing risk of infection by multi-resistant bacteria, which are immune to traditional antibiotics. Xellia produces an antibiotic that is still effective against multi-resistant bacteria. Their research and products directly saves lives all over the world.

It’s crucial that we know what we have to do at work, but  equally crucial that we know why we do it.

That is what gives work meaning and purpose: when you know why you do each task and how it somehow helps someone.

And it’s not enough that your work is meaningful to the organization – it must be meaningful to you. Your work must have a purpose that you believe is worthy.

On the other hand, if you have no idea why your work matters and no sense that it makes any kind of a difference, it really doesn’t matter how good you are at your job – you won’t be very happy.

Many workplaces take great pains to give employees performance goals to clearly show them what they are expected to do. But we must make equally sure to show employees why their work matters and how it makes a positive difference.

US online retailer Zappos are a great example of this. Whereas most customer service reps are measured on how many calls/emails they handle, Zappos’ employees are measured primarily on how happy they make their customers. The former metric makes sense only to the company, the latter is meaningful for employees too because it shows them that they make a positive difference for the customers.

2: Autonomy

When you are free to do your job your way, you are much more likely to take pride in your results and feel good about them.

On the other hand, if a micro-managing boss is telling you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it, you are much less likely to feel good about the results you get, because they won’t be your results.

As much as possible, we should be free to choose:

  • What we work on
  • Who we work with
  • What approaches and methods to use
  • When and where we work

One of my favorite examples of this is Middelfart Savings Bank in Denmark, one of the happiest workplaces in Europe. How did they achieve that? They gave their employees huge levels of freedom and responsibility. Their former HR directors said this:

“You’d be amazed what happens once people are empowered to make decisions.”

Another amazing example comes from the US Navy, where nuclear submarine captain David Marquet gave his sailors unprecedented autonomy. He explained how he did it at our conference in 2015:

3: Appreciation

And finally, we feel good about the work we do when we are recognized for it.

Harvard Business School professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer talk about this in their awesome book The Progress Principle. They sum up the book’s main message like this:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

Even a small win can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.

Creating a culture of positive feedback in an organization is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to give employees a feeling of results.

When your coworkers, your boss or even the customers praise your good work, it clearly shows that you make a difference and get great results.

On the other hand, if you feel you do good work but nobody ever notices, it becomes much harder to maintain pride in your work. Some companies even take it a step further – they never praise good work, but all mistakes are instantly and severely punished.

Our absolute favorite way to praise others at work is The Poncho. Try it!

The upshot

It’s not enough to help employees get great results – we must help them get a feeling of results.

Of course we first need them to do good work. No one should expect to feel good about their work, if they’re not doing a very good job in the first place.

But that’s not enough.

Happiness at work only comes when people know that their work has meaning and purpose, when they have freedom and autonomy in how they work and when they are appreciated and recognized for their good work.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine that you’re very good at your job and get great results. But you have no idea why any of your tasks matter, somebody else has decided how you work on those tasks leaving you no freedom and autonomy and you are never recognized for any of your efforts.

How happy could you be at work under those conditions? How good would your results be in the long run? How soon would you lose all motivation and burn out?

So improving how people feel about their results is crucial.

It’s also a lot easier. Provided a person is very good at their job already, improving their feeling of results may be a lot faster and easier than improving their actual results.

It’s also a lot more effective, because if we can’t figure out how to make people feel proud and appreciated about their work, it doesn’t matter how stellar their results are – they will never be happy at work and their performance will ultimately suffer.

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