Category Archives: Productivity

New study confirms that positive feedback increases performance

Thumbs upYet another study confirms what we all know: Giving employees positive feedback leads to more happiness at work, less stress and better performance:

In the study, participants… were asked to solve problems. Approximately half of the participants were told to ask friends and family members to send them an email just prior to their participation that described a time when the participant was at his or her best.

Overwhelmingly, those who read positive statements about their past actions were more creative in their approach, more successful at problem-solving and less stressed out than their counterparts.

For instance, participants had three minutes to complete Duncker’s candle problem. Fifty-one percent who had read emails prior to the task were able to successfully complete it; only 19% of those who did not receive “best-self activation” emails were able to solve it.

Those who received praise were also significantly less stressed than the control group.


Which is kinda sad, when we know how many employees feel under-appreciated.

In our recent study of what makes people unhappy at work, a lack of praise and recognition was one of the major causes. 37% of participants in our survey mentioned it as something that made them unhappy at work.

So get praisin’. Positive feedback takes no time and costs no money. It does require you to actually pay attention to other people and be able to see their good work and positive qualities. But if we can’t even do that, there is something more fundamentally wrong.

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.


The fundamental unfairness of the vacation auto reply


With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacation auto replies.

Here’s the problem: Although anyone who sends you a mail is told not to expect a reply until you get back, they probably still expect an answer at that point. This is fundamentally unfair.

You’re away from work. As part of your contract with the company, you have some time off and yet some of the work from your vacation time is thereby shifted into your post-vacation work days.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a company that plans for their employees to have extra time after a vacation to deal with the emails that came in during the vacation. Therefore this becomes extra work you have to do on top of your regular tasks.

One consequence of this is that many people end up checking their emails and responding to them during their holidays, which is also unfair. You’re entitled to time away from work. That’s what a holiday is.

One of the most insidious effects of this is that taking 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 time off or at the very least increase stress around any time off.

What can we do about it? This policy from Daimler is the solution:

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.

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

I think this is the perfect solution and I would love to see more companies adopt it. Maybe this is something unions could work for in the 21st century.

Your take

Do you have a vacation auto reply? Do you check and reply to emails during your vacation or handle them all when you’re back?  If you go on vacation for 2 weeks, how many mails are going to be in your inbox when you get back? How much time will it take you to deal with them and how do you plan for it?

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


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:


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:


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:


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?

Related posts

Stop obsessing about working hours

I’ve written a lot about the obsession companies have with tracking and increasing employees’ working hours – based on the myth that working more hours leads to better results.

But the clearest and most concise commentary on this comes from Zach Holman of American software company GitHub, who puts it like this:

Hours are bullshit!

I could not agree more. Stop focusing on hours worked and start focusing on results delivered. And realize that there is not a linear relationship between the two.

Read more about what makes GitHub an awesome workplace here.

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The seeeeeeriously cool way out of a downturn

wimThe economy may be bad but Wim Roelandts isn’t really bothered much by that because, as he told me, this is his 8th recession so far.

Wim’s worst crisis as a leader came in 2000 when Xilinx, a computer chip manufacturer based in  Silicon Valley, got hit hard and fast by the dot-com crisis. In the December 2000 quarter their revenue was $450 million – 9 months later, their revenues for the September 2001 quarter was down to only $225 million.

Something had to be done, and fast, but what? Wim Roelandts, an affable Belgian who is usually seen with a smile on his face, was the CEO back then and was clearly facing some tough choices. And while Xilinx’ competitors wasted little time in laying off a large percentage of their staff to cut costs, Wim felt here had to be a better way.

He came up with a plan for his organization and the 2,800 people in it and called it “Share the pain”. The plan had three major components.

1: Cut salaries, not jobs

Wim felt strongly that if they laid off people now, they’d just need to rehire them 5 or 6 quarters later when business improved. Couldn’t there be a way that kept people on even during the crisis?

So they instituted a pay cut that was progressive and voluntary. Progressive meant that your pay cut depended on your salary – the higher your salary, the higher your pay cut. These were some typical pay cuts:

Job Pay cut
Production-level employees 0%

Junior-level engineers

Senior engineers and middle managers 9%
Directors 12%
Vice Presidents 15%
CEOs (that’s Wim!) 20%

So while production employees were not affected at all, Wim himself took the largest pay cut – 20% of his salary.
They might have given everyone a 10% pay cut, but chose this way because it shares the pain – not the pay cut. When you’re a production-level employee with a salary of around $30.000-40.000 trying to live in the Silicon Valley area, a 5% or 10% pay cut could really damage your quality of life. When you’re a VP, 15% is entirely survivable.

Secondly the pay cut was voluntary. This wasn’t part of the original plan but it turned out that Xilinx employees in Europe would have to agree to take the pay cut voluntarily, so Wim decided to make it voluntary for everyone.

Amazingly, every one of the 2.800 employees chose to take the pay cut – except one. And no, that one person was not singled out for reprisals of any kind. Voluntary means voluntary. Thinking back to this entire time, the one thing that Wim is the most proud of, is that everyone agreed to the pay cut in order to save their co-worker’s jobs.

Later in the process, when the pay cuts turned out not to be enough to keep the company profitable, they introduced more measures, like closing the company for one day every other week and the option of taking a paid leave of absence to take an education.

Though Wim was very careful never to promise that there would be no lay-offs, this plan meant that Xilinx got through the crisis without laying off one single, solitary employee.

2: Communicate openly

Wim knew that honest communication was essential. His motto was to “keep communicating and force his management team to communicate.”

In practice, he organized meetings with his entire management staff and the managers below them as well. He knew, that when employees had questions, they wouldn’t come to him or the VP’s, they would come to the managers closest to them, so it was important that they knew what was happening and remained optimistic.

This is not easy, as Wim readily admits. “I didn’t know any more than anybody else what was coming and so the tendency is to close your office door and don’t talk to anybody because if you talk with someone, they can ask questions that you don’t know the answers to.

But that’s actually the wrong thing to do, you have to get out there. You have to talk with people and even more important you have to force your management to get out and talk, talk to people, tell them when you don’t know but also tell them all the things you know and good friend to give people some hope that things will get better soon.”

In these sessions with the managers, Wim would go over the company’s situation honestly and thoroughly and then they would discuss how to communicate this to the employees. Typical topics of discussion were:

  • What can we do as managers?
  • What do we say?
  • How do we act?

A key aspect of these meetings was also to listen to the middle managers, so they felt good about the company’s situation and could pass that feeling on to their people.

3: Involve employees in decisions

They involved people in all new initiatives by consulting focus groups of employees. They’d get 20 employees together, tell them about what they were planning to do and get their honest feedback.

One specific decision that came out of these focus groups concerned new employees. Originally, the company had planned not to include them in the pay cuts. When this was tested, the new employees protested – they wanted to be treated like everyone else and “share the pain” too.

An intended byproduct of the focus group sessions was that information about the crisis and how it was being handled spread quickly throughout the organization. When the initatives were announced to the employees, most people had heard about them already, which created more trust.

Wim himself

That was his plan for the organization, but there was another equally important aspect: Himself!

On a purely personal level, Wim did three things to handle the crisis. First, he did his best to be positive. Yes, the very survival of the company was at stake, but he still had to believe that there was a way out.

Wim put it like this:

“You have to be positive yourself. If you are negative and you come in the factory everybody’s going to be looking at you and getting depressed. So however bad it is, however sad you feel, however worried you are, you come to work in the morning and you put on a big smile and you feel optimistic and you exude optimism and positive thinking.

When you are the CEO and you see the numbers go down every week or every day, it’s very easy to become depressed yourself and you really have to find the inner strength.”

Secondly, he saw the crisis not only as a threat but also as an opportunity. This has become something of a stale and ridiculed cliché (the next time some tells me, “We don’t have problems, we have opportunities,” I may punch them) but Wim saw this crisis as a chance to get creative and try something new. To him, creativity and innovation shouldn’t just be applied to creating new and exciting products but also to leadership – to find new and exciting management solutions.

And thirdly, Wim saw this as a chance to prove that there is indeed a better way to handle a crisis than the tried-and-stale ones. He wanted to show the world, that this can be handled differently. “I’m gonna show them” may not be the noblest motivation, but it’s not uncommon. All the leaders I interviewed for this book expressed the same desire to “show them!”

Now make no mistake, Wim faced a lot of resistance to his approach. He had heated discussions with some board members, who wanted to know why he didn’t just lay off 10% of the employees when everyone else in the industry was doing it. The same arguments came from outside the organization from financial analysts, who also would have been much more comfortable with the traditional approach.

Time proved Wim right and the result of this creative approach to crisis leadership was amazing. The results were:

  • Profitability – Except for the second quarter of 2001, when there was an inventory write down, Xilinx was profitable every quarter of that recession.
  • Customer satisfaction – Xilinx kept the same people in sales so the customers saw the same people they were used to talking to.
  • Market share – Xilix gained 15 point of the market share during the crisis. Because they kept their people they could keep momentum.
  • Product development – They had time and people to keep developing new products – essential in their high-tech industry.
  • Recruitment and training savings – After three quarters the market started to improve. Because Xilinx had kept their people, they did not have to spend a ton of money hiring and training new people.
  • Motivation and happiness at work – This showed employees that they were truly valued. Not just on paper and in good times, but also in a down-turn.

At first employees were skeptical, seeing it as a cheap trick. “Yeah, you say you’re not doing lay-offs, but it’s just a matter of time,” was a common attitude. But as many other companies in the area had mass lay-offs and Xilinx employees saw friends losing their jobs and having to sell their houses they started to come around. During that time Xilinx participated in the Fortune Magazine 100 best places to work and came in the top 10 – in the middle of the company’s worst crisis ever.

The effect was also felt outside the company. One day, about two years after the crisis when Xilinx was back on track, Wim was just arriving at the office when he was approached by a female employee who happened to arrive at the same time.

She told him this story:

“My husband got laid off and so yesterday evening we had a family meeting with the children. We had to tell them that their father had been laid off and that they had to do some savings and we had to be very careful how we spend money, to make sure that we get through this tough time until our dad finds a job again.”

One of my children asked ‘but mom what is going to happen if you get laid off’. and I was so proud to say that I work at Xilinx and Xilinx doesn’t lay off people.”

Wim told me that this was his proudest moment in the whole process.