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Bad bosses – why they’re bad and what to do about them

bad-bossOur brand new study of what makes people unhappy at work has a number of interesting findings but none more relevant (or discouraging) than this one:

The #1 cause of unhappiness at work is bad bosses.

This is hardly news – we know this already from several other studies.

It’s partly about results

So why are bad bosses bad? Partly, there’s a sense that the boss is not there for employees work-wise, is always too busy with his own tasks to help them or simply has no insight or no interest in the work they do.

40% of respondents in our survey mentioned “A lack of help and support from my boss” as one cause of their most recent bad work day. 37% mention “Uncertainty about the workplace’s vision and strategy.”

One person wrote:

I love my actual job. It is rarely job specific tasks that make my days go bad. It is almost always frustration about having to work through hierarchy despite that fact that my boss is recognized as ineffective throughout the organization. (just writing that made my day better!)

Another wrote:

“My boss suddenly started to instruct me on things that I’ve done for 15 years. Very annoying.”

When you lack support from the boss, it becomes unreasonably hard to do your job well and get good results. And getting great results that you can be proud of is a major source of happiness at work.

… But it’s also about relationships

35% of respondents name bad behavior from bosses as one cause of unhappiness at work. One person wrote:

“My boss contributes to the bulk of the cause of everything else that is bad at work. We have a new director, and my job has not changed. Just bosses changed. I used to love my job. Now I hate it.”

Good workplace relationships and social support are crucial for our happiness at work and studies show that the most important workplace relationship is with the immediate manager.

When employees have a good relationship with the boss, they are much more likely to be happy at work. When they know that the boss sees them, respects them, trusts them and appreciates them personally and professionally.

On the other hand, when bosses show that they don’t care about their people, e.g. by being rude, disrespectful or simply by ignoring them, it is a clear sign of bad relationships and this makes employees miserable.

Crucially, this bad behavior can come from both the immediate manager or from executives higher up on the org chart. One respondent wrote:

“I love my new boss, but the c-suite is clueless and mean.”

Another wrote:

“My VP is an HR nightmare. He constantly makes derogatory remarks about employees behind closed doors during meetings that I’m forced to attend.”

So it’s not enough to have a good team managers, the whole company must have a good leadership culture and top executives who are highly visible inside the organization must be good leaders.

Dire consequences

Almost 2 out of 3

The negative effects of bad bosses are profound.

Our study showed that 2 out of 3 employees had at least 1 bad work day every week. 19% say they have a bad day at work “every day or almost every day.” When the bad work days become too many,  they can really harm people at work and at home. And as mentioned, the #1 factor that makes bad work days bad is the boss.

Respondents wrote:

“This is the first position I have ever held where I actually hate my job. I never understood people who say ‘I hate my job!’ or who constantly complain about their work lives until this last year. Now I know what those people are talking about.”

“I don’t sleep well at night, when I have a bad day at work because the anticipation and anxiety of the next day is always on my mind.”

Bad bosses are bad. Thank you, Captain Obvious. So what do we do about them?

Given that bad bosses are the most common cause of unhappiness at work and given the negative effects they have on employees and on the company’s results, we clearly need to do something about this problem.

Here are our top 5 suggestions.

1: Realize that good leadership is about happiness

Good bosses are happy themselves and do their best to make the employees, the customers and maybe even the world a little happier. Therefore, workplaces must realize the value of these happy leaders and do everything they can to celebrate and spread their good example.

2: Hire and train managers for happiness

On an organizational level, we can recognize that good management skills are not an inherent trait in most people. It’s something we can look for when we select people for management positions, and something we must systematically train bosses to do well.

The best way to do that, is to realize that the best leaders have excellent relationship-building skills. They are excellent at understanding and relating to many different kinds of people – bad bosses relate only to people who are like themselves.

3: Listen to employees’ problems

Additionally, managers need to listen to employees and take them seriously when they see problems in the workplace. Bad bosses can’t take criticism and don’t care about any problems their employees face.

4: Stop bad managers

And crucially, we need to stop bad managers. Every workplace has them; bosses who should not be bosses because they lack the professional or personal skills to manage well. If bad bosses can not learn to be good bosses, they need to stop being bosses altogether.

One company even let’s all employees rate their managers twice a year and the resulting scores are published for the whole company to see, creating massive pressure on bad bosses to mend their ways.

Most importantly: Never ever accept jerks in management positions. They’re incredibly toxic.

5: Learn to recognize and deal with bad bosses

On an individual level, each of us can learn to recognize bad management when we see it and realize exactly just how badly it affects us professionally and personally.  And if you find yourself working for a bad manager with no desire or skill to improve their ways, the best (or even the only) solution may be to quit and go work somewhere else.

Our new study shows bad work days are too common and what causes them

Almost 2 out of 3

Everyone has bad days at work – those really frustrating and stressful days that we just want to be over. But how how often do we have bad work days and what causes them?

Our brand new survey of over 700 employees worldwide shows that bad work days are disturbingly common and reveals some of the main causes.

See the main findings here - it’s pretty fascinating stuff.

 

Top 5 Myths About Quitting Your Job

Quityourcrappyjob

I’ve been pretty unhappy in my job for quite a while now. The workplace is fairly stressed, I feel completely unappreciated and I can’t really see the purpose of most of the work I do.

I want to get out of there but whenever I discuss the idea of quitting with my friends and family, I get the same reactions: “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? Surely your job can’t be that bad. Maybe things will get better.”

My parents were worried how I would provide for my family and basically called me selfish for not just sticking with it. One friend even warned me “quitting will look bad on your CV.”

Quitting  a job you don’t like is a tough call and it’s made tougher by some very persistent myths. These myths create a social stigma around quitting – which is silly because quitting is perfectly natural. In fact, 10-15% of us do it every year.

These myths keep us stuck in bad jobs and give bad leaders and toxic workplaces much more power over us than they would otherwise have. Let’s change that. Here are the Top 5 Myths About Quitting.

Myth #5: Quitting = failure

  • “Don’t be a quitter.”
  • “No one likes a quitter.”
  • “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

Do any of these sound familiar? According to traditional thinking, once you’ve started something you should never quit and if you do it’s a clear sign of failure.

I say that’s completely wrong and sometimes quitting is exactly the right thing to do. I’m reminded of the story of Danish opera soprano Tina Kiberg.

As a child, Tina was a pretty good violinist and spent her free time practicing and practicing. One day she participated in a violin contest and realized that she would never be more than a mediocre violinist and that she also enjoyed singing more. She quit the violin, took up singing and became a leading international opera singer.

If she had seen quitting as always the wrong thing to do, she might have been stuck with the violin.

Also, try to guess what these somewhat successful people have in common: Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Tiger Woods, Reese Witherspoon, John McEnroe and John Steinbeck?

Yep, they all dropped out of Stanford.

Truth #5: Sometimes quitting is the way to success in something else and staying = failure.

Myth #4: Quitting is the easy way out

You quit your job? Well, I guess you don’t have what it takes to succeed. Too bad you couldn’t hack it and chose the easy way out.

Some people see quitting as a sign of weakness. I say that’s nonsense. In fact, the easy thing to do is to just keep mindlessly going into that job you hate day after day, year after year. It may be horrible, but you know what you have and you avoid the uncertainty of making big life-changing decisions.

Quitting on the other hand takes guts.  In fact, quitting a workplace that is toxic or getting away from a boss who’s a complete jerk can be a downright heroic act.

Truth #4: Quitting can be a courageous (or even heroic) act.

Myth #3: Quitting is selfish

How can you be so selfish and quit your job? You’re letting down the workplace, your customers and your coworkers. Also, think of your family – how are they going to manage if you quit?

Wrong.

If you don’t like your job, you’re doing no one a favor by staying. When you’re unhappy at work, it tends to affect everyone around you through a phenomenon called emotional contagion and there’s a good chance you’re making your coworkers and possibly even customers less happy.

As for your family, maybe they would be happier if you didn’t come home from work every day tired and frustrated. You might even set an example for your kids. A member of the audience asked me this at one of my speeches last year:

If you go into work day after day, year after year,  and really hate your job and come home stressed and angry – what are you teaching your kids?

Truth #3: Quitting is not inherently selfish.

Myth #2: Quitting is risky for your career

If you quit your job it’s going to look bad on your CV and your career will take a hit.

Yes – and staying for years in a job you hate and that is slowly wearing you down is going to be AWESOME for your career.

This myth completely ignores the career risks of staying in a job you hate. In fact, the longer you stay, the more you lose the energy, motivation and self-confidence you need to advance your career.

Truth #2: Sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do for your career.

Myth #1: Quitting is a last resort

Sure you can consider quitting, but you should exhaust all other options first. You only quit when everything else has failed.

For people who believe this myth, quitting is the very last option. It’s what you do once you’re too broken and exhausted to possibly stay on at your current job.

That makes this potentially the most dangerous of the myths listed here, because it means people stay in bad jobs until (or past) their breaking points.

Truth #1: Quit when it’s the right thing to do – not when it’s the only option left.

The upshot

Whenever a friend tells me they’ve quit their job my instant reaction is always “Awesome! You made a tough career decision. You took initiative and decided to move away from a bad job or into something even better.”

I say we start celebrating those who quit their jobs for the brave, motivated and proactive individuals they are.

Your take

Did I miss any myths about quitting? Have you encountered any of these in your work life? How do you react when someone close to you talks about possibly quitting their jobs?

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5 awesome corporate email policies

If you feel like email is stressing you out, there might be something to it. A study conducted at the University of California found that giving people uninterrupted time where they weren’t dealing with email generally made them less stressed and better able to focus:

Without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus, as measured by a lower frequency of shifting between windows and a longer duration of time spent working in each computer window.

Further, we directly measured stress using wearable heart rate monitors and found that stress, as measured by heart rate variability, was lower without email.

This Fast Company article has a great overview of the findings. It’s a rather small study, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does support the sense that emails are a source of stress and distraction at work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against email. It’s an awesome communication tool, but in many workplaces it is used poorly, and mostly the burden has been put on employees to figure out strategies for dealing with the resulting email onslaught.

I think it’s time for workplaces to take responsibility for this issue at a corporate level and fortunately, some workplaces have done just that and are trying new and better email policies.

Here are the 5 best we’ve found.

5: In France you can check out at 6pm

French trade unions recently negotiated a deal for some of their members, which:

…allows staff to shut down their phones and computers after 6 p.m. and not have to worry about checking in.

Part of the deal is that companies can’t pressure or make their employees feel bad about not checking or responding to their email either.

This is a good first approach to reduce the pressure to handle emails outside of working hours. While it can definitely help, it has the limitation that it puts full responsibility on employees to not check emails. Which is why I like the next one even better.

4: Email not delivered after hours at Volkswagen

VW made an agreement with the company’s work council to limit employees’ access to email on their Blackberry devices outside of working hours:

Under the arrangement servers stop routing emails 30 minutes after the end of employees’ shifts, and then start again 30 minutes before they return to work.

The staff can still use their devices to make calls and the rule does not apply to senior management.

I really like this idea. Now it’s not up to employees to not check emails in their free time, email is just not delivered.

3: Quiet Tuesdays at Intel

Intel tried an experiment where 300 engineers and managers went “offline” every Tuesday morning.

During these periods they had all set their email and IM clients to “offline”, forwarded their phones to voice mail, avoided setting up meetings, and isolated themselves from “visitors” by putting up a “Do not disturb” sign at their doorway.

The purpose was to see the effect of 4 hours of contiguous “thinking time”.

The experiment was a hit:

It has been successful in improving employee effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life for numerous employees in diverse job roles. 45% of post-pilot survey respondents had found it effective as is, and 71% recommended we consider extending it to other groups, possibly after applying some modifications.

However it’s telling that this experiment was conducted in 2008 and nothing’s changed inside Intel. It shows just how ingrained corporate attitudes to email are.

2: Email not delivered during vacation time at Daimler

One of the most insidious effects of email overload is that any longer stretches of time away from the office is punished immediately upon return, because your inbox will be full to overflowing. I haven’t seen any research on this, but I could easily imagine that this would subconsciously discourage people from taking vacations or at the very least increase stress around any time off.

And that’s why this policy from Daimler is so awesome:

The car and truck maker has implemented a new program that allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation.

When an email is sent, the program, which is called “Mail on Holiday,” issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted, while also offering the contact information of another employee for pressing matters.

So you can go on vacation knowing that when you come back your inbox will contain the same number of emails as when you left.

1: No internal emails at Menlo Innovations (and many others)

US software company Menlo Innovations have ditched internal emails in favor of what they call “High-speed voice-activated technology.” Yes, if you want some information from a coworker, you’ll have to actually talk to that person.

Several other companies have done something similar. Typically, employees can still receive emails from external sources like clients and vendors but there is no way to email colleagues.

This makes a lot of sense considering all the great tools that can replace emails in many cases. We use Podio internally and it has seriously cut down on the number of internal emails we need to send. Others use Yammer or chat or even facebook.

Update: Markus Schröter alerted me to another cool email policy:

from now on, each Ferrari employee will only be able to send the same email to three people in-house.

 The upshot

Email can be awesome. It can suck. It’s time for workplaces to create policies that address some of the problems and reduce the stress.

Your take

What’s your take on this? How is email affecting you? Which of the policies above would you like to see implemented in your workplaces? Know of any other great corporate email policies?

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Positive thinking doesn’t work (and makes us unhappy)

I recently wrote an article called 5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes Us Miserable At Work. Among other things I argue that faking happiness and positivity is stressful and contributes to quelling dissent and problem-solving.

And now I can add a 6th reason: positive thinking doesn’t work. From the article:

across dozens of peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of positive visions of the future on people pursuing various kinds of wishes — from health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or recovering quickly from surgery, to the improvement of professional or academic performance (for example, mid-level managers wishing to reduce job-related stress, graduate students looking for a job, or school children seeking to get good grades) — we’ve consistently found that people who positively fantasize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t.

So while happiness at work is a fantastic thing that we should all strive for, positive thinking is not the way to do it.

5 things businesses should NEVER copy from sports – and 3 they should

Many companies look to sports for cues on motivations and performance and star athletes and coaches and make big bucks as corporate speakers. There is this unquestioned assumption that if you’re successful in sports, you can teach workplaces something that will make them more effective.

I’d like to challenge that assumption :)

In fact, I believe there are so many fundamental differences between running a business and (say) coaching a football team that it becomes almost impossible to transfer any principles or practices.

Here are 5 things businesses should definitely not copy from sports:

5: Abrasive coaches

It seems like sports team coaches are given license to be complete jerks. They can throw tantrums, yell at referees, badmouth opposing players (or even their own players) in public – and be celebrated for all of this because it shows “passion”.

Nobody wants that kind of behavior from their manager at work. Steve Ballmer tried this sort of thing as CEO of Microsoft and has been deservedly ridiculed for it.

4: Adulation for star players
Sports teams have a few stars and many supporting players. In a workplace you need everyone to perform at their best.

3: Intense competition
It’s a common belief that competition makes people perform better, but research shows that it’s actually the other way around – competition makes people achieve worse results.

2: Rewards for results
Athletes are almost always rewarded for results – win that tournament and there’s prize money. Again, research shows that bonuses in the workplace make people less productive on any task that requires creativity and independent thinking.

1: Focus only on the next game
In sports, the focus is often only on the next game. In business, you need to be able to think long-term and create success not just for this week but for years in the future.

Each of those 5 practices are very common in sports but just don’t work in business.  That being said, there are a few practices in sports that businesses should absolutely emulate. Here are three:

3: Make time for training
Athletes spend many more hours training for matches than actually in matches. This gives them a chance to improve their skills and a risk-free environment where they can try out new approaches and plays and see how they work.

In the workplace however, there is rarely a chance to try out new ideas without risking failure. Employees are always playing for points and never playing to learn.

2: Celebrate success
Athletes are very good at celebrating wins. They even celebrate partial progress towards a win when they score a goal or similar.

In many workplaces, success is met with a shrug and wins are rarely celebrated.

1: Include restitution
Every successful athlete know that you get stronger by training and THEN RESTING. Without restitution, you’re actually just continually weakening yourself.

Workplaces on the other hand consistently underestimate the need for restitution. Employees are worked hard constantly and breaks and time off work are seen as a necessary evil. In fact, employees are implicitly told that they can show “commitment” by giving up weekends and vacations and working more hours.

There is no reason why we should try to follow the lead of athletes and coaches in our efforts to create better and more successful workplaces. Many of the practices from sports just won’t work in a workplace – you could even argue that many of them don’t even work that well in sports.

And don’t even get me started on copying practices from the military :)

Your take

Has your company ever had a star coach or an athlete come in and speak? What did they say, that you found useful? What do you think workplaces should or shouldn’t copy from sports? Write a comment and let me know your take.

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Natural and Synthetic happiness at work – Here’s why you need both

This article was written byTais Lyager Rasmussen and Woohoo inc’s newest employee Thomas Christensen .

What do you do when you do not get the happiness you wanted? You make it yourself!

As a child growing up, you quickly learn that you do not always get what you want. This is pretty much a fact of life. You wanted the red electronic toy car but instead you got told to use your imagination and go play outside. Your favorite band is playing tomorrow night – sorry, you have to work late.

Everyone experiences these kinds of situations and everyone hates them. When life fails to match your expectations, for whatever reason, a gap is created between the expectations of your life and the realities of your life.  Obviously, this makes you unhappy, life was revealed to be less than you thought it was. But is this always the case? Research has shown that our ability to cope with unfavorable situations is greater than previously thought – because of a mechanism called synthetic happiness. Synthetic happiness is a form of personal psychological happiness.

According to Professor of Psychology at Harvard University Dan Gilbert there exist two different kinds of psychological happiness, the natural kind and the synthetic kind. Gilbert explains that: “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”. Hang on; is happiness not just the result of getting what you want? Surely it is not something you can just make up yourself. People that say that they are happier about the outcome they did not want are just fooling themselves, right? Well it turns out that it is actually possible to create your own happiness, called synthetic happiness, and that this form of happiness is equally as good as natural happiness.

The name “synthetic” carries with it some associations that are less than ideal.  A more fitting name would be personal happiness, because the internal validation that adds value to a choice you have already made is just that, internal and personal.

Dan Gilbert’s fascinating experiment

Gilbert did an experiment with individuals suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition making it impossible for them to acquire new memories – think of the movies “50-first dates” or “Memento”. Gilbert approached these individuals and asked them to rank 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least.

The idea of synthetic happiness

Gilbert explained that they would receive a poster of one of the paintings. They could choose between number 3 and 4. Almost all individuals chose number 3, because they liked it a little more than number 4. Gilbert then went out of the room and came back moments later. Since these individuals have anterograde amnesia they could not remember who he was, that he was just in the room or that they owned a poster of painting number 3. He asked them to rank the 6 paintings from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least. Surely they would rank the paintings in the same general order?

Actually, individuals now ranked the poster they owned at number 2 (previously ranked 3) and the poster they had said no to (previously number 4) was now ranked number 5. Indicating that these individuals liked the poster they now own more than before they owned it, even when they do not remember that they own it!

They also like the poster they gave up less, even when they do not remember that they gave it up!

These startling results indicate that not only can individuals make their own synthetic happiness but they do this unconsciously. Gilbert also found that this unconscious ability to synthesize happiness happens more often in situations where you do not have a say in the matter.

Dan Gilbert talks about the experiment in this TED talk:

4 reasons why this is important when thinking about happiness at work

Before going into the 4 points, a crucial observation must be made. In the experiment presented above, the choice of the pictures is presented in a low risk environment. There are no wrong choices, and no one to criticize their choice once it is made. Obviously this situation does not reflect the reality of most peoples lives. Rather than considering this to be just a criticism, it would be much more prudent to consider it an argument for fostering a low risk environment, so people are less likely to second guess themselves, because it is okay to be wrong.

1: A happy life is not always about getting what you want. It is about learning to enjoy what you get.

While this might read like “Don’t worry – be happy”, Gilbert’s experiment allows us to dig a little deeper. When your boss hands you a crappy assignment it is possible to end up feeling genuine personal happiness. Even if you have no choice in accepting the assignment or not because of #2.

2: Synthetic happiness is not “cheating” yourself to happier. The experiment with the amnesiac patients demonstrates that the happiness created by themselves is true and genuine.

The idea of “Synthetic” happiness sounds like you are somehow cheating. How can you be happy when your life does not match up to expectations, or the expectations of others. Thinking of “synthetic” happiness as  “personal” or “private” happiness is a much better metaphor. If you find yourself enjoying the crappy assignment your boss gave you, do not think of it as cheating or selling out.  Do not worry, it is allowed to enjoy things you did not choose.

3: Natural happiness primarily relies on external factors whereas Synthetic happiness primarily relies on internal factors. As such, Synthetic happiness can be a more long-term, stable form of happiness than natural happiness.

If you have to rely on always getting what you want to be happy there is a good chance that you will be unhappy, since life is unpredictable. Happiness derived from learning to live with any outcome is much more stable in that it is applicable to every outcome and not only those where you obtain what you want.

4: General happiness in life comes from the relationship between Natural happiness and Synthetic happiness.

This is probably the most important point. The idea of synthetic or personal happiness is not to suggest that you should be less involved in your decisions or just go with the flow. There is absolutely a time and place to stand your ground. The idea behind the division of happiness is to be more reflective of the idea of happiness. If you know that you can be happy from getting what you want but also from not getting what you want, it will take some of the pressure off on always having to achieve. Enjoying something you were told to do without feeling shameful, or like a quitter, has to go hand in hand with the ability to proactively seek out what you want. This is going to take a lot of practice. Thinking of happiness in these two metaphors can be really difficult, but ultimately rewarding. Having a sense of “personal” happiness that is removed from external factors requires discipline and practice, but it will lead to a happier life.

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Why every company needs to give employees Free Time on the job

My first “real” job was for a large and very famous Danish company who’d hired me fresh out of university to work on one of their big new products. One day, about a month into my employment there, I was sitting at my desk thinking big thoughts.

To other people it might have looked like I was slacking – I’d put my feet up on the desk and was staring into the air – but in reality I was considering if the approach I’d chosen to solving a particular task was the right one or of there was a smarter, faster way.

And for that I was reprimanded. When my manager walked by and saw me sitting there, he criticized me for goofing off. As long as he could see me pecking away at my keyboard, he felt confident that I was productive. Seeing me with my feet up automatically made him assume that I was wasting time.

Companies everywhere are looking to increase productivity. Employees are asked to work more efficiently and get more done faster. But it seems to me that the constant focus on short-term productivity gains is hurting long-term results because employees’ work days are filled to capacity (and over) with tasks, meetings, deadlines, projects, etc.

What’s missing from that picture? Free time. Or as some call it: Slack.

In the excellent article ”In Praise of Slack: Time Is of the Essence” from The Academy of Management Executives M. B. Lawson writes about the importance of having time during your work day that is not already taken up with tasks. From the article:

Slack is important for organizational adaptation and innovation.

Increasingly complex systems and technologies require more, not less, time for monitoring and processing information. Future demands for strategic flexibility and for integrating learning and knowledge throughout organizations highlight the need to reexamine the importance of time in organizational work – and to recognize that all organizational resources cannot be committed to immediate output efforts if we are to have time to pay attention, think and benefit from the knowledge gained.

Some managers (among them my first team leader) see all free time as wasted time, but they’re completely wrong. When every moment of the work day is taken up with tasks and work, it damages the organization in many ways. Here are some we’ve seen among our clients:

  1. Creativity is lost because there is no time to come up with and act on new ideas.
  2. No one helps anyone else, because people are booked 100% (or more) on their own tasks
  3. There’s no time to learn new skills
  4. We end up always doing things the same way because there’s no time to optimize processes
  5. Customers become less happy because there is no time to go the extra mile and deliver great customer service.
  6. Everything becomes a chaotic mess because there is no time to organize and structure things
  7. Flexibility is lost because everyone is too busy to deal with changing circumstances
  8. Employees become less happy and more stressed because there is no time to deepen your skills

In short, organizations without slack become stiff and brittle and lose the ability to lift themselves out of their current problems and create ongoing improvements. These organizations become extremely fragile in the face of any unforeseen changes.

So slack is great for employees and for the workplace. But it must be created consciously. Workplaces must make a concerted effort to show employees

How do you do that in practice? Here are 5 ways we have seen work well in practice.

  1. Hackathons are well-known in software companies. Employees are given time (frome 1 day to several days) to work in groups on any project of their own choosing. At the end, teams present their results.
  2. 20%-time (popularized by companies like 3M and Google) means that employees can devote up to 20% of their work week to projects they come up with themselves.
  3. Training and development is crucial. In the company I co-founded, every employee had an annual training budget of 2 weeks and 8,000 USD, which they were required to use.
  4. Minimize time spent on useless meetings, status reports and similar.
  5. Plan for slack so that employees’ work week can not be booked 100%. Software company Menlo Innovations in the US, only let their people budget for 32 hours a week – they know that the rest is spent on planning, training, coordinating, etc.

Of course workplaces need to become more competitive and productive. Of course we must constantly try to do more with the resources we have. But we can’t expect people to become more effective, if they never have time to reflect, plan, learn or try out new ideas. That takes slack.

Your take

Do you have free time at work? Or is every minute filled already? Are people in your workplace rewarded or punished for stopping what they’re doing, so they can figure out a better way to do it?

Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

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5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes Us Miserable at Work

One German IT company has come up with the perfect solution to whining in the workplace – it’s made cheerfulness a contractual obligation. What’s more, the CEO has declared that those who don’t measure up to the prescribed level of jollity in the morning should stay at home until they cheer up.

The idea of positive thinking (and therefore banning negativity) is not new, but is affecting us now more than ever – at home and at work. And ironically, its effects are mostly negative. Yes, forced positive thinking makes us less happy.

Positive thinking is a poorly defined concept which at its most extreme says, that in every situation you can choose your own mood and your own reactions. No matter what happens to you, you can always choose a positive attitude.

“Fake it till you make it,” they say, claiming that faking happiness actually makes you happier. Basically, if you don’t feel happy every moment of your life, it’s just your own damn fault for not trying hard enough.

Now, this idea is not completely unfounded. In many situations, you can actually change your mood and outlook through conscious effort. Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic on your way to work. In a situation like that you can probably change your mindset and switch from being annoyed about the delay to a more positive interpretation of the situation. “Great, I have more time to listen to this interesting radio program,” or whatever. Nothing wrong with that.

But the most fanatic proponents of positive thinking (especially fans of The Secret and similar pseudo-scientific nonsense) go much further. They claim that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter. No matter what situation you’re in, they say, you can simply choose to be happy.

Tell that to someone who’s seriously ill, who’s just been fired or who is suffering from severe depression. Actually, you should never tell them that, because telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.

You could say I positively hate positive thinking :)

There is nothing wrong with the milder form of positive thinking, but the extreme version is bad for you in life and at work. Here are 5 ways positive thinking screws up our workplaces.

1: Faking emotions at work is stressful

German researchers set up an experiment to test what happens, when we force people to fake being happy at work:

The team set up a fake railway customer complaints call centre and asked 80 university students to take part in experiments while acting as staff. Half of the group were told that they could verbally defend themselves against rude customers, but the other half has to remain friendly and polite at all times.

The volunteers’ heart rates were measured and preliminary results showed that the group that was allowed to verbally defend themselves had only a slightly increased heart rate. But the heart rates of the group who stayed polite shot up and continued to beat at a noticeably greater rate long after they had ended their telephone calls.

Professor Zapf said, “Based on previous stress research, we know an increased heart rate can lead to cardiovascular problems and is a clear indicator of a higher psychological workload. It’s about time we did away with the concept that the customer is always right and showed more respect for those in customer service jobs.”

“We call this kind of faked emotion ‘emotional dissonance.’ We found that the amount of time actually spent with customers was irrelevant when measuring stress compared to the amount of time workers had to demonstrate emotional dissonance.”

So faking happiness actually makes you less happy and more stressed.

2: Positive thinking makes it even worse for people who are unhappy at work

According to the extreme version of positive thinking, if you’re unhappy at work, you’ve only got yourself to blame. It may be that your boss is a jerk, your coworkers bully you and the culture is completely toxic – you should just “have a positive attitude” and “make the best of it”.

So not only are you miserable, but now it’s all your fault. That makes things even worse.

3: Negative emotions are a natural part of work

Here’s a story I once shared from my previous career in IT consulting:

I had a big client in France who couldn’t make up their mind. In every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it this way, then that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Finally, I lose it in a meeting. They introduce change number 283 (by my loose count), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”.

In this situation I felt AND showed anger – a negative emotion. I could’ve forced myself to be positive in that situation, but it would have been a betrayal of my work and myself and it would have felt even worse. Not only was authentic by being angry, that outburst finally got the client to respect me.

The thing to remember is that negative emotions are not called that because they’re wrong, but simply because they’re unpleasant. Sometimes a negative emotion is exactly the right emotion and if you’re always forcing yourself to be positive you’re being both less authentic and less effective.

When your circumstances are bad, there is nothing wrong with being unhappy; it is only natural. In fact, negative emotions tend to drive us to action more than positive ones, so feeling bad about a bad situations helps you do something about it.

4: Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace

Ever heard someone say “In this workplace we don’t have problems, only challenges”?

I hate that phrase with a vengeance, partly because it’s wrong but mostly because it’s so often used to stifle dissent and criticism.

No workplace is perfect. No job is without problems.  If we consistently marginalize and criticize people who are unhappy at work by telling them to be positive and never complain, we lose some very valuable voices of reason and realism in the workplace.

5: It doesn’t work

This excellent article from HBR examines the science behind positive thinking and concludes that:

across dozens of peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of positive visions of the future on people pursuing various kinds of wishes — from health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or recovering quickly from surgery, to the improvement of professional or academic performance (for example, mid-level managers wishing to reduce job-related stress, graduate students looking for a job, or school children seeking to get good grades) — we’ve consistently found that people who positively fantasize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t.

So let’s give negativity it’s central place in the workplace – as a perfectly natural, even helpful, state of mind. And that, ironically, will lead to more happiness at work!

Your take

Have you ever felt pressured to be happy at work when you weren’t? What did that do to you? What constructive role do you see negativity play at work? Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

A quick note: One thing that often bugs me is that some people confuse positive thinking with positive psychology. We base a lot of our work on positive psychology which is the branch of psychology that studies what makes people thrive and feel happy, where traditional psychology focuses mostly on mental illness. The only thing they have in common is the word “positive”.

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What do you do when there’s just too much work?

graph

Last year I did a workshop for a client in Copenhagen whose main problem was that they were just way too busy. They’re a trade union and new legislation meant that they got an influx of new government-mandated tasks but budget constraints meant they couldn’t hire more people.

Consequently they were increasingly falling behind on their work, through no fault of their own. They have an internal IT system that tracks every open case and they were currently 3,000 cases behind.

Even though this was due to circumstances outside of  their control, knowing that they were behind made everybody stressed and irritable. They also felt a responsibility towards their members – every delayed case meant that one of their union members was waiting for an important answer or potentially weren’t being paid money they were owed.

This situation is becoming familiar in many workplaces where there is simply more work than resources. Typically management will bombard employees with information showing the current lag, which only serves to make people frustrated and unhappy at work.

So what can you do instead? Here’s what we did in our workshop with this client.

I pointed out the fact that they were currently behind by 3,000 cases. Everybody had heard that number - it had been sent out en emails and mentioned in countless meetings. I then gave the group 30 post-its notes and told them that each post-it represented 100 open cases.

I asked them to stick those post-its on the wall. It looked like this:

Resultater_med_postit_II

I asked how looking at that made them feel and they said things like “I feel hopeless,” “I feel like we’re failing our members,” and “I don’t see how we can ever catch up.”

Then I gave them 900 more post-it notes and asked the group to stick them on the wall next to that. It looked like this:

Resultater_med_postit

I told them that I’d checked their IT system, and in the last 12 months they had completed 90,000 cases. Each post-it represents 100 cases – hence 900 post-its.

I asked how they felt looking at this and they said things like “I feel proud,” “I feel like we’re making a difference,” and “I feel hopeful.”

Interestingly, the year before that they’d processed 73,000 cases so they had actually become much more productive, but had never focused on that. Instead their focus was only ever on how much they were falling behind.

This gave them renewed energy to tackle their increased case load. They also came up with their own way to track progress, using a whiteboard in their cafeteria:

Resultater

They use it to track monthly completed cases. They’d set a goal for March of 1,000 cases – and reached  it on March 17th. Note how they had to extend the scale upward with a piece of paper because they completed much more work than planned.

In short, focusing on the work they completed (instead of how much they were falling behind) allowed them to catch up over a period of a few months.

Sadly, many workplaces do the exact opposite. When teams fall behind, they are constantly told exactly how much. I’ve seen workplaces send out weekly emails with red graphs showing the current lag. I’ve seen the same graphs hanging in offices, cafeterias and being presented in every department meeting.

The problem is of course that this makes employees frustrated, hopeless and unhappy. The work of Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has shown that the most important factor that makes us happy at work is perceived meaningful progress in our work and that the absence of progress makes us unhappy.

And of course we know from the research that happy employees are more productive, creative and resilient.

In short, this means that most workplaces set up a vicious cycle:

  1. There’s too much work compared to the available resources
  2. Employees are constantly told that they’re falling behind
  3. Employees become unhappy at work
  4. Employees become less productive
  5. Less work gets done
  6. Back to 1

So that’s my challenge to your workplace: How can you highlight and celebrate the work that gets done, instead of only feeling bad over the work that’s not yet completed?

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