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Is It Time to Let Employees Work from Anywhere?

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Despite a few high-profile retreats from remote work policies in recent years, data on the U.S. workforce suggests that remote work is increasing. A 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43% of employed Americans had spent at least some time working remotely, and US Census data released in 2018 reported 5.2% of U.S. workers being based entirely at home.

Even as working from home (WFH) becomes relatively commonplace, a new form of remote work is emerging: working from anywhere (WFA), in which employees can live and work where they choose, typically within a specific country, but in some cases, anywhere in the world with a reliable internet connection. While many companies are just starting to consider allowing employees to work from anywhere, developed WFA programs can be found at firms such as Akamai and SAP.

Employees value the option to work remotely. A 2017 study even found that the average worker was willing to accept 8% less pay for the option to work from home.  This indicates that workers assign monetary value to the flexibility provided by a WFH policy. And with a work-from-anywhere policy, employers add even more value to employees by granting geographic flexibility.  It’s a significant difference: while a WFH employee can choose to pick the kids up from school or spend lunch hour walking the dog, a WFA employee can do all of those and also relocate closer to aging parents or to a location with a lower cost of living.

In our experience, however, managers often worry about remote employees working less, or multitasking, mixing personal responsibilities with work.  There are also concerns that allowing employees to work from anywhere could decrease communication and collaboration among coworkers and might constrain the informal learning that typically happens in the office.

But one 2015 study based in a Chinese travel agency found that when call-center employees were shifted to working from home, their productivity increased by an average of 13%, apparently due to a reduction in break time and sick days combined with a more comfortable work environment.  This finding raises the question: Could employees in a work-from-anywhere program also benefit from similar productivity increases?

In a working paper currently under review, we studied the effects of a work-from-anywhere program initiated in 2012 among patent examiners at the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO). We analyzed productivity data for patent examiners (highly educated and specialized professionals) who switched from work-from-home work conditions to the WFA program.

Our results indicate that examiners’ work output increased by 4.4% after transition to WFA, with no significant increase in rework (re-writing of patent decisions upon appeal from inventors). Supplemental analysis also showed that patent quality (as measured by examiner-added citations) did not deteriorate . The 4.4% productivity increase represents up to $1.3 billion of annual value added to the U.S. economy, based on the average economic activity generated per additional patent granted. (While not the focus of our study, we also found a correlation between working from home and increased productivity relative to working in the office, consistent with the findings of the earlier study.)

In supplementary analyses, we also found that examiners transitioning to WFA relocated, on average, to locations with significantly lower costs of living, representing an effective increase in real salary for these employees, with no increased cost to the organization.

Interestingly, examiners who had been on the job longer (that is, those closer to retirement) were more likely to move to the “retirement-friendly” coastal areas of Florida than their lower-tenured peers.  While this correlational finding is not predictive, it suggests that granting employees the ability to work from anywhere could yield some career-extending benefits to both employees and the organization, by encouraging valued senior employees to remain in the productive workforce longer.

We observed that WFA examiner productivity increased more if they were located within 25 miles of other WFA examiners, but only if the clustered examiners worked in the same technological unit.  Clustered examiners from different units experienced no additional gains in productivity. This finding suggests that geographically clustered WFA workers whose job content is similar may learn from each other informally, similar to the way that co-workers learn from each other through informal interactions in the office.

So, what should managers consider as they set WFA policies, and remote-work policies more generally?  Here are a few recommendations:

  • Employers who allow employees to work remotely should grant these employees true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their remote work. Our results comparing WFH and WFA employees indicate that granting greater autonomy can actually enhance employee productivity.
  • Managers of WFA employees should mandate use of a common set of technology tools. Our study found that when the USPTO began to mandate the use of the agency’s common IT tools (e.g., VPN and messaging) by examiners, early-career WFA examiners who needed more approvals from their supervisors realized an additional 3% increase in productivity.
  • WFA employers should leverage any geographic clusters of WFA employees that emerge, especially among employees doing similar types of work. Providing funding for periodic informal meet-ups is a small investment for a potentially significant amount of employee learning. Managers can also rotate team off-site meetings among locations with significant clusters of WFA employees, so that the WFA employees can connect with in-office employees as hosts, introducing them to their corner of the world.
  • Based on our research – which focused on already-experienced employees – it seems best to keep newly hired employees co-located in the office with experienced peers long enough to benefit from the informal learning that happens organically in a face-to-face environment. Additional research is needed to determine whether or not newly hired employees could experience the same productivity benefits on WFA as the experienced employees we studied.
  • Finally, consider the type of work itself. We found that if a job is very independent – that is, the employee can carry out most job duties with little or no coordination with co-workers (as can a patent examiner) – the transition to WFA is more likely to result in productivity increases. More research is needed to identify the productivity effects of WFA for jobs with lower levels of independence.

A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work – that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well – implementing WFA can benefit both the company and the employee.  What jobs in your company might be well suited to a WFA policy?


Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury is the Lumry Family Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School. His research focuses on the Geography of Work: how geography mobility and location affect the productivity and career outcomes of knowledge workers. He also studies how firms can create value from mobility frictions via strategies such as migration arbitrage and work from anywhere policies. He has a Doctorate from the Harvard Business School, degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Management and was on the faculty of Wharton. Prior to academia, he was an Engagement Manager at McKinsey, a Regional Business Manager at Microsoft and an AI programmer at IBM.


Barbara Z. Larson is executive professor of management at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Her research focuses on the personal and interpersonal skills that people need to work effectively in virtual environments, and she works with collaborators in both academia and industry to develop training methods and materials to enable more productive virtual work. Prior to her academic career, Professor Larson worked for 15 years in international finance and operations leadership, most recently as Director of International Finance at R.R. Donnelley.


Cirrus Foroughi is a doctoral candidate in the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on IT and the future of work, namely how IT facilitates alternative work arrangements, and whether and how IT complements or substitutes workers of different skill levels. Prior to HBS, Cirrus held research assistantships at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and is a graduate of Dartmouth College.

 

3 Questions Hiring Managers Want You to Answer

Interviews have an outsize influence on whether you land the job you want. Even though your application materials reflect your lifetime of experience, a few hours of interaction with a recruiting team often ends up being the determining factor in whether you actually get hired. So, clearly you need to stand out.

To do that, it helps to be mindful of what recruiters and hiring managers are trying to accomplish with the interview and prepare accordingly. Below are three of the questions they want answered and advice on how to address them.

“What will it be like to work with you?”

People can’t know from your résumé or cover letter what it will be like to have you work for them. You want to demonstrate to your prospective employer that you will be a valuable colleague and someone with whom they will enjoy interacting. That means that a lot of what will determine the success of the interview is social. Yes, you need to be knowledgeable about your field, but you also need to help people envision you as a member of the team.

One mistake job hunters often make is to treat interviews like exams — ones that they hope to ace, or at least not bomb. The problem with this framing is that it assumes the interviewer is doing an assessment and looking for a correct answer, which can lead people to subconsciously slip into a too-adversarial stance or work too hard to reply with what they think their counterparts want to hear.

If you instead think about interviewers as people looking to find potential colleagues, and the conversation as an opportunity for everyone to get to know one another, the relationship changes. You and the recruiter or hiring manager share the same goal, and your meeting becomes a joint problem-solving effort: Do we want to work together? You will probably display your expertise as you chat, but you will also be demonstrating your ability to establish a rapport.

Another benefit to this approach is that it encourages greater synchronization between your and the interviewer’s brains. This is something that happens in most conversations. People speak quickly to transmit information in a timely fashion, and your brain, to better understand what they are telling you, predicts the words, grammatical structure, and tone of voice they will use. In a positive, engaging conversation, you mirror those elements of speech back to them, and vice versa. A wonderful paper by Martin Pickering and Simon Garrod summarizes how this happens.

If you treat your interviewer the way you would a trusted colleague — smiling, leaning forward, talking in a friendly way with energy and enthusiasm, and making eye contact — they should begin to use the same language mechanisms they already use with their favorite people in the workplace, and begin to think of you as someone who belongs at the organization too.

“Can you learn?”

You probably have the basic skill set required to do the job for which you are applying, but you’ll also need to learn as you go. (And if you’re completely prepared for the role, you probably set the bar too low.) How can you demonstrate that you’re willing and able to learn?

Chances are that there will be at least one question during the interview that you are not entirely sure how to answer. Maybe it is framed in a confusing way, so you’re not sure what’s being asked. It might use unfamiliar terms. Or you might understand the question completely but have no idea what to say. Don’t be tempted to bluff your way through an answer. Good interviewers can smell a phony response. (They probably hear a lot of them.)

Instead, admit that there is something you do not know or understand. A number of organizational behavior researchers have found that people don’t like to admit ignorance because they are concerned that it will make them look weak. But interviewers want to see that potential employees will ask questions, seek additional information, give more informed responses, and show initiative in developing themselves. And as studies have shown, you cannot ask for help unless you first let other people know what you do and do not know.

When you’re stumped by a question, ask for clarification. Rephrase the question or suggest a couple of possible interpretations. If you’re still not sure how to proceed after they’ve responded, explain that you haven’t encountered this issue before.

If the question that brings you up short involves addressing a scenario from the workplace, ask the interviewer whether you should think through the question aloud so that they can see how you work on new problems, or if they would like to talk with you about how this issue is normally handled within the organization (or both). Your goal here is to show the interviewer how you approach challenges while demonstrating that you are open to learning.

Another way to show that you intend to keep expanding your skills and knowledge is to ask about continuing education opportunities. Does the company routinely offer internal classes or seminars? Does it have tuition assistance or another benefit that allows you to take classes or certificate programs? Inquiring about these resources makes it clear that you are interested in further development.

“Do you take initiative?”

Interviewers want self-starters who take initiative (so much so that it’s become a cliché). The best way to demonstrate your effort and commitment is to arrive completely prepared. You should have a very clear idea of what the company does, its history, its strengths, and its weaknesses. If you know people who work for the company (or have worked there in the past), ask them for inside information.

Then, prepare for the interview by practicing your answers to common interview questions. There is a big danger in what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil call “the illusion of explanatory depth,” or our tendency to believe we understand the world better than we actually do. In studies, these researchers found that people had difficulty explaining devices and routines in which they thought they had expertise. Thus, going into an interview, most of us might assume we can effectively describe key aspects of our work and how it relates to our prospective employers. However, in the moment, we can’t.

That is why practice is so important. It helps you to notice gaps in your knowledge while you still have an opportunity to fill them and to recognize places where you stumble, so you can say it the right way when the time comes.

One reason people don’t practice interview answers is they worry that overpreparing will make them sound rehearsed rather than spontaneous. But you will probably get several unanticipated questions, so there will be ample opportunity to show off your improvisational skills. In addition, your preparation for the interview will be noted, and that will count significantly in your favor. So, don’t skimp on getting ready.

No matter how qualified you are for a position or how prepared you are for the interview, you still might not get the job. If you feel that you developed a good rapport with the interviewer, reach out and ask for feedback. When you make this connection, focus the conversation on what you can do to improve your interview performance. Don’t ask the company to justify why you didn’t get the job.

Ultimately, the best way to stand out in interviews is to think carefully about what prospective employers really want to know about you before you are hired. From there, you will be able to address concerns before they even have them.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career(HBR Press).

 

How to Take Criticism Well

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to run an organization. I was excited about the possibilities ahead of us and the goals we could realize. However, instead of receiving unanimous enthusiasm for what I thought was an exciting vision, some team members found fault with my ideas and judged me personally. They said my agenda was too ambitious and self-serving. Some thought I wasn’t listening to what my constituents wanted.

Even though three-quarters of the team supported my vision, I fixated on the quarter that did not. I knew I was generally well-liked because I spent a large portion of my time and energy on pleasing others. The thought that some people didn’t like me felt like a punch in the gut. I lost sleep, couldn’t concentrate, and lost five pounds in one week (not how I wanted to lose those pounds). I started to consider how I could give in to what the naysayers wanted, even though it wasn’t the right thing for the organization.

Eventually, after a lot of hard work, I figured out how to be resilient when being criticized. This enabled me to stand my ground and take actions that benefited the organization, not just my self-worth. Here are the lessons I learned from that experience:

Be prepared; don’t freeze. Criticism is inevitable, especially if we invite diverse perspectives and boldly lay out a big vision. Unfortunately, our response to the disapproval of others may not be entirely within our control. Feeling “attacked” may trigger an involuntary fight-flight-or-freeze response in the amygdala. We may capitulate, cry, or lash out — actions we’ll probably regret later. We’ll probably also think of the perfect response but only after the fact. Instead of being caught off guard, prepare a list of three to five ways to respond to critics in the moment. Have these responses handy on your phone or a sticky note in case your brain draws a blank. For example, you might paraphrase what you heard to ensure you correctly understood what was said and demonstrate to the other person that you’re listening. Or you could say something like, “This is a new perspective. I appreciate your willingness to share a different point of view. I’d like to give this genuine consideration and get back to you.”

Calibrate; don’t catastrophize. If it’s very important to you that people like you and your ideas, you may be particularly sensitive to any form of censure. But try to keep things in perspective. For example, in a meeting, small gestures from the team such as throat clearing or focusing on a phone during your presentation may be the result of an allergy or distraction not negativity toward your ideas. Instead of jumping to conclusions, ask what’s going on. You might say, “I notice you’re frowning. Is it related to what we’ve been discussing?” If the person expresses a concern, make sure you understand the degree of intensity, importance, or urgency of their disapproval. You might say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how frustrated are you about this?” or “How important is this to you?”

Accumulate; don’t react. If it’s the first time you’ve heard a certain judgment, become curious about the broader picture. Are you hearing this because this person is the canary in the proverbial coal mine and  is the first to say something? Or is this a single instance, best set aside until you hear similar comments from others?

Apply the criticism to your role, not yourself. We often mistake our role for ourselves. We take things personally that are not personal at all; they are a condition of the job we’re in. For example, the head of sales might find fault with the head of products — no matter who occupies that position. Instead of conflating yourself and your role, determine whether the criticism is about you or the issues and tensions your role naturally evokes.

Connect with your personal board of directors; don’t isolate yourself. When we’re reeling from criticism, we tend to withdraw from others. Instead, reach out. Cultivate a diverse group of six to 12 people who are invested in your success and who will tell you the truth. Contact the members of this personal board of directors, share how the negative comments affected you, and seek their perspective and advice.

Take care of yourself; don’t try to push through. If your colleagues’ comments are particularly painful, it might take a psychological and physiological toll. You may find it hard to sleep or eat well. During these times, carve out more time for yourself. Identify two to three small rituals or practices that help renew your energy. It’s important that these actions are fairly simple so that you actually do them. Some examples might be taking a three-minute walk outdoors to get some fresh air, connecting with a friend on your drive home, journaling for five minutes at night, or waking up each morning and thinking about one person you’re grateful for in your life. (Bonus points if you then send that person a note expressing your gratitude.)

After many long walks, I realized that even though I’d spent most of my life trying to be likeable, it was an illusion to believe that I would be universally beloved. To move forward as a successful executive, I had to develop a stomach for criticism — even if it meant a bruised ego. In the end, I talked to the people in my organization and acknowledged their various opinions. Then I clearly stated what the plan would be going forward and told the group that I hoped they would join me in working wholeheartedly toward the goals I had presented. Most of them did. Over time, I increased my resilience by following the steps above. I’ve learned to face the realities and benefits of diverse opinions and to value the parts of myself that others may criticize.


Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDxand has written for FastCompany.comInc.com, and Forbes.com, in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter.

How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually

As the psycholinguist Herb Clark has pointed out, human communication is optimized for small numbers of people to talk together face-to-face in real time. The further we get from this ideal situation, the more opportunities there are for communication to go awry.

And, yet, so many of us work with people who we never see in person because they (or we) work remotely, are in different offices, or in different parts of the world. This can make communication challenging. This is particularly true when the situation or topic of conversation is going to create stress for you, the other person, or both of you.

When you are trying to explore topics with your colleagues that are emotionally or conceptually difficult, it’s good to get as close to the ideal situation as possible. Being able to interact in real time lets people interrupt a speaker if they get confused or have trouble following the conversation. This coordinated negotiation is a hallmark of effective communication.

When a situation is emotionally challenging, visual contact is even more important. Facial expressions provide a lot of information about what people are feeling. Even fleeting changes in what people display, so-called micro-expressions, can provide useful information about people’s initial reactions to information. When you’re exchanging emails or texts, or even if you’re on the phone, you’re likely to miss momentary changes in people’s facial expressions — and the meaning they convey.

If you need to have what you expect to be a challenging conversation with someone, there are several things you can do.

Create a sense of co-presence. The more difficult the conversation you are having, the more you need to think about the technology you are using and how to make it as seamless as possible. You need to create a sense of co-presence, which is the ability to feel as though you can interact effectively with another person. For example, you might consider using a phone connection for voice and to reserve bandwidth for video if you do not have a great internet connection. Also try to keep the environment free from distraction so everyone can concentrate on the conversation itself. This is particularly important if you work in an open office environment.

Have eye contact, if possible. When having emotionally difficult conversations — particularly when delivering bad news — it’s best to be able to make eye contact with the person you are talking to and to present information in a sympathetic and caring manner. It can be difficult to use your facial expression and tone of voice to convey your attitude in virtual environments. Try to use technology like videoconferencing or Skype if you can’t get together.

Be specific. There are two kinds of distance created by virtual conversations. One is physical distance. The second is that the barriers to making a connection can increase the sense of distance between people in a conversation. Research on construal level theory points out that the more distant you are from something or someone socially or in time or space, the more abstractly you are likely to think about them. However, having difficult conversations often requires providing specific feedback not abstraction. This is particularly true when addressing problems with someone’s performance at work, where you need to give specific demonstrations of problems and particular actions that someone can take to fix the problem.

Take care to override the effects of distance and make your discussion as specific as possible. It can be helpful to take notes before a conversation so that you have particular examples to bolster your main points. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a conversation that does not help people to address the difficulties you have noticed.

Having difficult conversations is hard to do successfully under the best of circumstances. When you must have that conversation virtually, a little extra preparation can go a long way toward making the interaction feel more like it would if you were in the same place at the same time.


Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).

Managing an Underperformer in a Family Business

In family businesses, leaders sometimes make hiring and staffing decisions based on relationship and obligation as much as on competence and experience. After all, one purpose of these firms is to provide employment for family members. But that doesn’t mean all family members perform effectively. A few may feel so entitled or untouchable that they slack off or stop collaborating, and sometimes they get a pass for their mistakes or behaviors. At times, they may even be disruptive to the smooth running of the business.

As a manager, whether you’re part of the family or not, what do you do about these under-performers?

The good news is that even though you don’t always have the leeway to manage a family member in the same way as an unrelated employee, you don’t have to stifle your concerns. There are several productive approaches you can take to make the best out of an uncomfortable situation while reducing the disruption and risk caused by someone who is no longer effective — or may never have been to begin with.

Start with an open discussion about accountability. It’s fine to show deference for family membership, but it’s still essential to be candid about business needs. In an initial conversation with the family member, probe and listen deeply to understand how they see themselves, and what they believe they can contribute. Respond with a kind, unambiguous description of the expectations you and the rest of the leadership have for them, and restate those expectations in a follow-up email thanking them for the conversation. After you’ve gone on record, it’s a little easier to refer to those expectations in subsequent conversations about performance.

If something about their history or connections, or your relationship with them, makes it risky or uncomfortable to deliver direct feedback to them, consider having a neutral third party convey the feedback to ensure that the message is on point and that they have understood. I have often played this short-term role if a family-member manager was concerned about hurting their relative’s feelings, or when an unrelated manager feared losing status with the family by being the bearer of bad news.

Shift their role or responsibilities. Can they work as an independent contributor or as a subject matter expert? You have to be realistic about status and image. They may get to keep their VP title, for instance. But you can shift them to be VP of an area that has no employees, or that doesn’t interact directly with customers if that’s not their strength. For instance, at one of my clients, after assessing the technical competence of a senior agency executive, it turned out he was more successful with external audiences and customers than collaborating with teams internally, and he was reassigned as a sales leader. At another client company, based on personal interest and style, a family member was shifted to a compliance role where she didn’t really have to coordinate with others and could be referred to as a technical expert.

Reassign the family member to a non-family leader. Internal rivalries are common between family members and can arise from painful feelings about ownership and hierarchy just as easily as from performance and accountability issues. You may be able to reassign a family member who had been reporting to another family member to a strong executive who doesn’t have to be concerned about keeping the peace at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s crucial for the non-family leader to be confident that they have the backing of the senior leadership, including family. At one client company, I was brought in to coach both the new non-family leader and the family member who was being reassigned. I facilitated their early discussions together, to emphasize the benefits of the change for the business and to ensure that they would get off on the right foot.

Construct off-ramps when necessary. At some point you may need to consider alternatives that preserve dignity while clearing the way for more productive staffers. A family member may recognize that they’re no longer in the running for a top job but aren’t ready to retire, or feel stuck because they know they can’t get a comparable job in the open market. Consider designing a sabbatical process for long-standing employees, or experiment with part-time, flex-time or remote assignments. One of my clients created an “on call” mentor role for a family member who serves as the “keeper of the flame” and historian to tell the stories and describe the company’s background and mission in a way that is inspiring without a day-to-day role.

Opportunities to lead community or industry groups can help sidelined family members preserve status and connection in a figurehead role that also serves the business. They might head the family council, host community events, or as at one of my clients, chair the family foundation, which meant less pressure and exposure than in the business but still afforded the pleasures of both decision-making and public leadership. If any of these off-ramps do eventually lead to retirement, be sure to celebrate in a way that the family member feels loved and recognized for their loyalty, years of service, and standing in the family. Prepare plaques, mementos, and appropriate speeches so the transition out is smooth, satisfying, and minimizes disruption.

Family members who have been turned aside can burn with resentment, and may still maintain some ownership. So if you must exit a family member suddenly or harshly, make sure a human resources expert or legal counsel checks all the details of your plans and language. But by using a combination of these four approaches, you may be able to avoid a forced exit and instead help the family member be a productive participant in the company.


Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.

Managing an Underperformer in a Family Business

In family businesses, leaders sometimes make hiring and staffing decisions based on relationship and obligation as much as on competence and experience. After all, one purpose of these firms is to provide employment for family members. But that doesn’t mean all family members perform effectively. A few may feel so entitled or untouchable that they slack off or stop collaborating, and sometimes they get a pass for their mistakes or behaviors. At times, they may even be disruptive to the smooth running of the business.

As a manager, whether you’re part of the family or not, what do you do about these under-performers?

The good news is that even though you don’t always have the leeway to manage a family member in the same way as an unrelated employee, you don’t have to stifle your concerns. There are several productive approaches you can take to make the best out of an uncomfortable situation while reducing the disruption and risk caused by someone who is no longer effective — or may never have been to begin with.

Start with an open discussion about accountability. It’s fine to show deference for family membership, but it’s still essential to be candid about business needs. In an initial conversation with the family member, probe and listen deeply to understand how they see themselves, and what they believe they can contribute. Respond with a kind, unambiguous description of the expectations you and the rest of the leadership have for them, and restate those expectations in a follow-up email thanking them for the conversation. After you’ve gone on record, it’s a little easier to refer to those expectations in subsequent conversations about performance.

If something about their history or connections, or your relationship with them, makes it risky or uncomfortable to deliver direct feedback to them, consider having a neutral third party convey the feedback to ensure that the message is on point and that they have understood. I have often played this short-term role if a family-member manager was concerned about hurting their relative’s feelings, or when an unrelated manager feared losing status with the family by being the bearer of bad news.

Shift their role or responsibilities. Can they work as an independent contributor or as a subject matter expert? You have to be realistic about status and image. They may get to keep their VP title, for instance. But you can shift them to be VP of an area that has no employees, or that doesn’t interact directly with customers if that’s not their strength. For instance, at one of my clients, after assessing the technical competence of a senior agency executive, it turned out he was more successful with external audiences and customers than collaborating with teams internally, and he was reassigned as a sales leader. At another client company, based on personal interest and style, a family member was shifted to a compliance role where she didn’t really have to coordinate with others and could be referred to as a technical expert.

Reassign the family member to a non-family leader. Internal rivalries are common between family members and can arise from painful feelings about ownership and hierarchy just as easily as from performance and accountability issues. You may be able to reassign a family member who had been reporting to another family member to a strong executive who doesn’t have to be concerned about keeping the peace at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s crucial for the non-family leader to be confident that they have the backing of the senior leadership, including family. At one client company, I was brought in to coach both the new non-family leader and the family member who was being reassigned. I facilitated their early discussions together, to emphasize the benefits of the change for the business and to ensure that they would get off on the right foot.

Construct off-ramps when necessary. At some point you may need to consider alternatives that preserve dignity while clearing the way for more productive staffers. A family member may recognize that they’re no longer in the running for a top job but aren’t ready to retire, or feel stuck because they know they can’t get a comparable job in the open market. Consider designing a sabbatical process for long-standing employees, or experiment with part-time, flex-time or remote assignments. One of my clients created an “on call” mentor role for a family member who serves as the “keeper of the flame” and historian to tell the stories and describe the company’s background and mission in a way that is inspiring without a day-to-day role.

Opportunities to lead community or industry groups can help sidelined family members preserve status and connection in a figurehead role that also serves the business. They might head the family council, host community events, or as at one of my clients, chair the family foundation, which meant less pressure and exposure than in the business but still afforded the pleasures of both decision-making and public leadership. If any of these off-ramps do eventually lead to retirement, be sure to celebrate in a way that the family member feels loved and recognized for their loyalty, years of service, and standing in the family. Prepare plaques, mementos, and appropriate speeches so the transition out is smooth, satisfying, and minimizes disruption.

Family members who have been turned aside can burn with resentment, and may still maintain some ownership. So if you must exit a family member suddenly or harshly, make sure a human resources expert or legal counsel checks all the details of your plans and language. But by using a combination of these four approaches, you may be able to avoid a forced exit and instead help the family member be a productive participant in the company.


Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.

The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback

Feedback is a daily staple of my work as an executive coach. I am often giving direct feedback to the leaders I work with, sharing 360-degree feedback from the leader’s colleagues, and then helping them process and reflect on the feedback they receive.

One piece of feedback that the executives I coach receive over and over again from their direct reports is: “She doesn’t give enough helpful feedback.”

When I ask these direct reports about the impact this has on them, I find that, in the absence of understanding why they’re getting so little feedback, they often make up their own explanations.

Here are three of the most common stories that employees tell themselves about what their manager is thinking when they don’t get enough helpful feedback, why these stories are a problem for them (and for you), and what you can do as a manager to rewrite these stories:

Story 1: “As long as I’m not creating trouble for my manager, I’m doing fine.”

Why this is a problem: While some people are perfectly satisfied just staying out of trouble, most professionals would rather know what impact they’re having — both the good and the not-so-good. If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee,” then your bar is way too low. And, as a result, you will likely get more of what you focus on, which means a whole bunch of “non-troublemakers” as opposed to high-performing, committed, and engaged professionals.

Furthermore, communicating this mindset (overtly or covertly) is likely to keep an employee from bringing important issues to your attention for fear that they might “create trouble” — and then lose out on the only input they’re getting from you.

What to do instead: “Not creating trouble” should become your minimum expectation, not the highest goal you set for your people. And after you change your expectation, change your mindset and your language. Let your employees know specifically what you appreciate and value when they meet or exceed expectations, and also share your perspective on what they could do differently when they fall short. Also let them know what constitutes unacceptable “trouble” (like making inappropriate remarks, repeatedly showing up late, poor follow-through on tasks) vs. acceptable “trouble” (such as difficulty obtaining a resource, not knowing how to do something, or needing a personal accommodation).

Story 2“My manager doesn’t think I can take feedback well.”

Why this is a problem: Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job. It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety — which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake — for a direct report to receive feedback well.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

If you’re not giving feedback because you actually fear that it won’t be well-received, then you’re falling short on three counts: first, you’re not helping your direct report to have more impact (which also means, by extension, that you’re not supporting her to better help the team, the clients, and the organization). Second, you’re not modeling accountable behavior if you skip giving feedback because you fear how it will land. And third, you may be contributing to a lack of psychological safety by failing to create the opportunity for your direct report to experience support rather than retribution.

What to do instead: Separate out the story from the facts of how your direct report receives feedback. If you aren’t giving regular feedback because you assume or fear that your colleague won’t receive it well, ask yourself, “What concrete, observable evidence am I basing that assumption on?” If the list includes behaviors like, “He walks out of meetings abruptly when he hears something he doesn’t agree with,” or “She often asks, ‘Am I going to get fired for this?’ when I bring a client concern to her attention,” then you may be justified in your concerns. In my article,“When Your Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback,” I suggest that managers start giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback (or in this case, how you think he or she is likely to receive feedback based on similar situations).

And if it turns out that you don’t have compelling evidence to support your belief that he or she won’t receive it well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it.” Give your employees the feedback they crave.

 

Story 3: “My manager doesn’t think I can change.”

Why this is a problem: If you actually believe that your employee cannot change, you will not offer him the resources or opportunities to do so. This will set you up to be right, but at the expense of your employee’s current success, and future career trajectory. As Chris Miller, a program director at UNC Executive Development, writes in his white paper, “Expectations Create Outcomes: Growth Mindsets in Organizations”: “managers with fixed mindsets often fail to recognize positive changes in employee performance. They are also less likely to coach employees about how to improve performance or to offer constructive feedback…This leads to a loss of talent in organizations.”

What do to instead: Adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. As Miller writes, “Employees with growth mindsets welcome challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, which makes them more successful learners and better contributors to their organizations than employees with fixed mindsets (Briceno, 2015).”  If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome — and rise to — the challenge. And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.

As Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior

Look around your workplace and you are likely to see people from across the age span, particularly as more Americans are working past age 55. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management argues that there are a full five generations on the job today, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z.

A result of this boost in age diversity are conversations about how generational differences will impact the functioning of our organizations. After all, Millennials only want to communicate with coworkers via text — and Baby Boomers don’t text, right? And you need to attract those tech-y Millennials with promises of flexible work schedules, but their older counterparts all want a traditional workday, correct? Well, actually, wrong.

Most of the evidence for generational differences in preferences and values suggests that differences between these groups are quite small. In fact, there is a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups. For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups. It found that, although individual people may experience changes in their needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.

So what might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.

Why Do We Have Inaccurate Beliefs about Age?

An emerging area of research in the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology considers age-related beliefs from two different but intermingling angles. Work on age stereotypes looks at the content and impact of beliefs about people from another age group. A stereotype about young people, for example, might be that they are narcissistic.

A relatively newer concept called age meta-stereotypes looks at what we think others believe about us based on our age group.  A young person, then, might worry that other people think they are narcissistic, even if the other people are not actually thinking this. If both of these processes are occurring in an age-diverse workplace at the same time, employees are likely having knee-jerk thoughts about what other people must be like (stereotypes) while simultaneously assuming that the same people are making assumptions about them (meta-stereotypes).

Our research suggests that workplaces are brimming with age-related stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, and that these beliefs are not always accurate or aligned. In one survey of 247 young (18-29), middle-aged (33-50), and older workers (51-84), people described the qualities that might be true of people in another age group (their stereotypes). They also described the qualities that other people might have about their own age group (their meta-stereotypes).

The pattern of their responses varied by age group. People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature.” Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.” The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (“ethical”), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (“energetic”).

Stereotypes about younger workers were somewhat less positive, however, resulting in more of a range of stereotypes from positive (“enthusiastic”) to negative (“inexperienced”). Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they actually did (“unmotivated” and “irresponsible”). Broadly, these results demonstrate that older and younger workers believe others view them more negatively than they actually do. These cases confirm that neither age-related stereotypes or meta-stereotypes are accurate.

How Do Inaccurate Beliefs About Age Affect Our Workplaces?

Despite their inaccuracy, people’s beliefs have critical implications for workplace interactions.  In one laboratory experiment, we asked undergraduate students to train another person on a computer task using Google’s chat function. Another undergraduate was asked to listen to the training and then perform the task.  We varied whether each person — the trainer and the trainee — appeared to be old (approximately 53) or young (approximately 23) using photographs and voice-modifying software.

 

We found that stereotypes about older people’s ability to learn new tasks interfered with the training they received. When trainers believed that they were teaching an older person how to do the computer task, they had lower expectations and provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching a young person. These results demonstrate that poorer training is a direct result of age stereotypes. The potential consequences of these findings are alarming, as inferior training can result in reduced learning and ultimately interfere with employees’ job performance.

Moreover, people’s beliefs about what others think about their age group — their meta-stereotypes — can also interfere with their work behavior. A recently published studyexamined how people react to meta-stereotypes over the course of a work week.  As expected, sometimes people react with a sense of challenge (“Oh yeah? I’ll show them!”) and sometimes they report more threat (“Oh no, what if I live up to this negative expectation?”).

Importantly, these reactions can also impact interpersonal behaviors at work. Both threats and challenges led to conflict at work (things like arguing or not getting along with colleagues) and avoidance behaviors (things like keeping to oneself and avoiding interacting with others).

We also considered the implications of meta-stereotypes for mentoring relationships in law and in medicine in another study that we recently presented at a conference with our colleagues. Surveys of mentor-protégé pairs suggested that protégé attempts to overcome meta-stereotypes sometimes had a negative effect on their relationships. Specifically, when protégés tried to deemphasize their youth by appearing or acting older, their mentors were less supportive.

So What Should Managers Do?

If there are not real and consistent differences between people of different age groups, but these stereotyping and meta-stereotyping processes end up creating artificial generational divides, what is a manager supposed to do?

First, openly talking about these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes can be a great first step. Combining this effort with practices in perspective-taking (e.g., role-taking, role reversal exercises), cooperating (e.g., emphasizing the advantages of working with an age-diverse group), and sharing of stories among age-diverse employees can help people recognize and possibly call attention to these processes when they creep into the workplace.

Another strategy that can be effective might be emphasizing shared goals. By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common directioncan reduce perceptions of “us” versus “them” and can create or reinforce a sense of “we.” 

Finally, managers would benefit from recognizing that employees often change over time due to varying priorities, demands, experiences, and physical capacities. These changes can take many forms. For instance, research has shown that people face different types of work-family conflict at different stages of their lives, from young adulthood through middle adulthood and into late adulthood. However, not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same exact time. Therefore, engaging in an ongoing and open dialogue with employees to discuss shifting needs can help managers keep their hard-working and experienced employees engaged, happy, and productively collaborating with others for the long haul.


Eden King is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. She is pursuing a program of research that seeks to guide the equitable and effective management of diverse organizations. She has also partnered with organizations to improve diversity climate, increase fairness in selection systems, and to design and implement diversity training programs.


Lisa Finkelstein is a professor in the social and industrial-organizational psychology area of the psychology department at Northern Illinois University and a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She conducts research on diversity, stereotypes, and stigma at work, including age, disability, body weight, and gender, among others. She also studies mentoring relationships, high potential designation, and humor at work.


Courtney Thomas is a doctoral candidate in the Social-Industrial/Organizational program at Northern Illinois University. She conducts research on person perception related to topics like stereotyping, stigma, and diversity. While her research mainly focuses on the aging realm of diversity and inclusion, she also conducts research on other stigmatized identities like disability and obesity.


Abby Corrington is a fifth-year graduate student who spent time in the corporate world prior to joining the Industrial/Organizational Ph.D. program at Rice University. She conducts research on the different ways that people express and remediate discrimination. She has received several grants for her work and has published in Journal of Vocational Behavior and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion.

How Leaders Can Ask for the Feedback No One Wants to Give Them

Tad knew he was losing his hearing. What he didn’t know was that everyone around him knew as well.

Tad (not his real name) was a senior executive in a multinational company. Much of his work was done in lengthy meetings with dozens of participants. His hearing loss was making it difficult for him to keep track of what was happening in meetings — but his vanity kept him from getting a hearing aid. So instead, when he missed important points, he would try to decipher what was happening from slides or fill in the blanks from the fragments of conversation he could catch. Others in the meetings were, by turns, embarrassed for and frustrated with him. People began trying to hold meetings without him in order to improve efficiency. They would feign strong emotion when making a point so that they had an excuse to raise their volume. But no one dared raise the issue.

It turns out, Tad is not alone. Most managers aren’t aware of what their employees really think about them.

We and our colleagues at VitalSmarts recently conducted an online study to understand if employees feel comfortable and able to share critical feedback with their manager — especially when the feedback is about the manager’s behavior. Eighty percent of the 1,335 respondents said their boss has a significant weakness that everyone knows and discusses covertly with each other, but not directly with their manager.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If there’s something about your boss that frustrates you (and everyone around you), here’s how you can broach the subject in a thoughtful, productive way — and what managers can do to encourage their employees to open up.

How to Share Uncomfortable Feedback with Your Boss

Don’t start with your complaint. Start with consequences. Help your boss understand not just what the problem is (they overschedule and then cancel meetings) but why they should care. If the boss has a why for listening to uncomfortable feedback, they’re more likely to hear what you’re saying. For example: “As you know, we’ve missed three customer deadlines in the past six months. The problem is fixable, but it involves working with you differently in the future. May I describe what I see going on?”

Offer workarounds rather than turnarounds. It would be nice if your boss committed to a major personality change as a result of your conversation, but don’t bet on it. Even if they listen well and care about your concerns, their behavioral patterns may be so longstanding that they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. That’s why you should propose a workaround that mitigates the boss’s weaknesses. For example: “I’ve examined the kinds of things we wait on you to decide. Of the eight kinds of decisions, four of them are ones you have followed the team’s recommendations on 100% of the time. We can eliminate a chunk of our delays, and free up significant time on your calendar, if you delegate those to the team. We would notify you so that you could countermand the decision if you have concerns, but if we don’t hear back in 24 hours we will move ahead. Would that work?”

Suspend judgment. Find a way to replace your judgments with empathy. If you’re juiced up on resentment when you approach your boss, no amount of fakery will keep you from telegraphing your frustration. Conversations like these work only if the other person feels safe with you. And nothing destroys safety more reliably than a sense of derision. Examine your weaknesses. Examine your boss’s strengths. Be honest with yourself about the ways in which you are part of the problem. For example, has procrastinating on having this conversation made matters worse? We’ve found the longer you wait, the more your resentment grows toward the other person. It’s easy to let our own faintheartedness alchemize into disgust toward the boss.

How to Encourage Your Employees to Give You Feedback

The main thing leaders can do is make it safe to point out their weaknesses. This demands humility.

Sharing this article with your team is a great way to open this topic. Email it to your direct reports with the following statement: “This made me think about me and us. I want to know what everyone but me knows about what I can do better. In coming days, I want to create some opportunities for you to help me learn how I can support you better.”

Then, use these three suggestions to follow through on that commitment:

Make it normal. Make employee-to-manager feedback a regular agenda item at team meetings. If you have made commitments to improve, take a moment to report on what you have done, and then ask team members to rate your effort on a scale of 1 to 10. They’ll struggle the first few times you do it, but frequency will overcome timidity. Make it normal and it will feel less risky.

Adopt a coach. Ask a direct report who’s usually candid to be your coach. Meet regularly to request feedback. Make the coaching relationship public to demonstrate your sincerity about improving.

Prime the pump. One of the most powerful ways to encourage feedback in a group or one-on-one setting is to “prime the pump.” Give examples of concerns your coach has raised to demonstrate that it is safe to share tough feedback with you. For example, you might say, “What can I do better? I’ve heard from Gail that I am often inaccessible. I spend a lot of time out of the office, which makes it difficult for you to involve me in critical issues. I am working on a plan to fix that. What else would you like me to do better on?” If you can quote feedback you’ve received in a way that shows you aren’t threatened by it, you generate evidence for your team that other issues might be safe as well.

The old cliché is wrong — ignorance is not bliss. The frustration and concern people keep from their bosses eat away at productivity, performance, and results. Our research shows that what people don’t talk out, they will act out in the form of resentment, turnover, apathy, or deference. The path to results is paved with candid and direct communication. Leaders aren’t exempt from bad behavior — and they shouldn’t be exempt from feedback either.


Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.


Brittney Maxfield is the Director of Content Marketing at VitalSmarts.

 

What Good Feedback Really Looks Like

According to a recent Harvard Business Review cover story, it’s rarely useful to give feedback to colleagues. The authors argue that constructive criticism won’t help people excel and that, when you highlight someone’s shortcomings, you actually hinder their learning. They say that managers should encourage employees to worry less about their weaknesses and instead focus on their strengths.

Our research and experience at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) lead us to a different conclusion: Feedback — both positive and negative — is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading.

There are several ideas in the article with which we agree:

  • Harsh feedback does not help people thrive and excel. Indeed, effective criticism needs to be delivered with respect and care. Frequent or exclusively negative comments can spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation.
  • Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are often quick to notice what’s wrong, but it’s equally important to pay attention to and provide input on what is working to support development.
  • Telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. You’ll foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching people into exploration and experimentation.

However, we disagree with other points:

  • People are unreliable assessors of others and thus give feedback that is more distortion than truth. Feedback is never purely objective since it is delivered from a human being with a unique perspective. However, for a leader, knowing how others see and experience her is incredibly valuable since those people make decisions based on their perceptions—decisions about who to listen to, cooperate with, trust, support and promote.
  • Feedback about weaknesses creates a threat that inhibits learning. Research indicates that 360-feedback recipients who get unfavorable ratings tend to improve their performance more than others. And, in CCL’s work, we’ve found successful executives credit all types of potentially threatening events (e.g., horrible bosses, making a business mistake, being demoted, and firing employees) as key drivers of their development.
  • People should just focus on their strengths. Our work has shown that ignoring one’s weaknesses is one of the greatest contributors to individual derailment in organizations. No matter how well-tuned a leader’s strengths are, one unaddressed “fatal flaw” (e.g., arrogance, inability to build a team or difficulty adapting to a new context) can lead to failure — particularly if it is unacknowledged by the individual.
  • You can best help your organization by getting better at the things you are already good at. This assumes that everyone is already good at the right things — that they have the critical skills and competencies that organizations need to succeed. Our colleague Jean Leslie’s research demonstrates that this is rarely the case. In fact, she found that leaders are weakest in the four most important future leadership skills—inspiring commitment, leading employees, strategic planning and change management.

When you focus only on strengths, you lull people into believing there are no areas in which they need to improve. It also lets managers off the hook for fostering necessary — and sometimes difficult — development in their reports and co-workers, which ultimately compromise organizational effectiveness.

So, instead of encouraging people to avoid negative feedback, we should focus on how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the threat response. At CCL, we teach an approach to delivering feedback called Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) to address both strengths and weaknesses in a clear, specific, professional and caring way.

Feedback providers first note the time and place in which a behavior occurred. Then they describe the behavior — what they saw and heard. The final step is to describe the impact the behavior had in terms of the feedback providers’ thoughts, feelings or actions.

Here’s an example: “In our staff meeting this morning when we were discussing strategies for funding the new initiative, you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, “That idea will never work,” before she had a chance to finish. This left me feeling disappointed I didn’t get to hear more from her, and I was intimidated about sharing my ideas with the group.”

Such feedback is not judgmental (“You were wrong to interrupt Jessica”), not generalized (“You are always interrupting people”) and doesn’t analyze the reasons the individual behaved as he did (“Do you have no respect for other people’s ideas?”). As a result, it is more likely to be heard and considered rather than defensively rejected.

By all means, we encourage organizations, managers, and employees to recognize and leverage strengths. But you ignore weaknesses at your own peril.


Craig Chappelow is a leadership solutions facilitator, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.


Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow, Americas, at the Center for Creative Leadership.