Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn.

Are you successful at coaching your employees? In our years studying and working with companies on this topic, we’ve observed that when many executives say “yes,” they’re ill-equipped to answer the question. Why? For one thing, managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.

According to Sir John Whitmore, a leading figure in executive coaching, the definition of coaching is “unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” When done right, coaching can also help with employee engagement; it is often more motivating to bring your expertise to a situation than to be told what to do.

Recently, my colleagues and I conducted a study that shows that most managers don’t understand what coaching really is — and that also sheds light on how to fix the problem. The good news is that managers can improve their coaching skills in a short amount of time (15 hours), but they do have to invest in learning how to coach in the first place. This research project is still in progress, but we wanted to offer a glimpse into our methodology and initial findings.

First, we asked a group of participants to coach another person on the topic of time management, without further explanation. In total, 98 people who were enrolled in a course on leadership training participated, with a variety of backgrounds and jobs. One-third of the participants were female and two-thirds were male; on average, they were 32 years old and had eight years of work and 3.8 years of leadership experience. The coaching conversations lasted five minutes and were videotaped. Later, these tapes were evaluated by other participants in the coaching course through an online peer review system. We also asked 18 coaching experts to evaluate the conversations. All of these experts had a master’s degree or graduate certificate in coaching, with an average of 23.2 years of work experience and 7.4 years of coaching experience.

Participants then received face-to-face training in two groups of 50, with breakouts in smaller groups for practice, feedback, and reflection around different coaching skills. At the end, we videotaped another round of short coaching conversations, which were again evaluated by both peers and coaching experts. In total, we collected and analyzed more than 900 recorded evaluations of coaching conversations (pre-training and post-training), which were accompanied by surveys asking participants about their attitudes and experiences with leadership coaching before and after the training.

The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, “First you do this” or “Why don’t you do this?”

This kind of micromanaging-as-coaching was initially reinforced as good coaching practice by other research participants as well. In the first coaching exercise in our study, the evaluations peers gave one another were significantly higher than the evaluations from experts.

Our research looked specifically at how you can train people to be better coaches. We focused on analyzing the following nine leadership coaching skills, based on the existing literature and our own practical experiences of leadership coaching:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

Using the combined coaching experts’ assessments as the baseline for the managers’ abilities, we identified the best, worst, and most improved components of coaching. The skill the participants were the best at before training was listening, which was rated “average” by our experts. After the training, the experts’ rating increased 32.9%, resulting in listening being labeled “average-to-good.”

The skills the participants struggled with the most before the training were “recognizing and pointing out strengths” and “letting the coachee arrive at their own solution.” On the former, participants were rated “poor” pre-training, and their rating improved to “average” after the training was completed. Clearly, this is an area managers need more time to practice, and it’s something they likely need to be trained on differently as well. Interestingly, the most improved aspect of coaching was “letting coachees arrive at their own solution.” This concept saw an average increase in proficiency of 54.1%, which moved it from a “poor” rating to “slightly above average.”

More generally, multiple assessments of participants by experts before and after the training course resulted in a 40.2% increase in overall coaching ability ratings across all nine categories, on average. Given that this was a very short training course this is a remarkable improvement.

What can organizations learn from our research? First, any approach to coaching should begin by clearly defining what it is and how it differs from other types of manager behavior. This shift in mindset lays a foundation for training and gives managers a clear set of expectations.

The next step is to let managers practice coaching in a safe environment before letting them work with their teams. The good news, as evidenced by our research, is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in months of training to see a difference. You do, however, need to invest in some form of training. Even a short course targeted at the right skills can markedly improve managers’ coaching skills.

Regardless of the program you choose, make sure it includes time for participants to reflect on their coaching abilities. In our study, managers rated their coaching ability three times: once after we asked them to coach someone cold, once after they were given additional training, and once looking back at their original coaching session. After the training, managers decreased their initial assessment of themselves by 28.8%, from “slightly good” to “slightly poor.” This change was corroborated by managers’ peers, who reduced their assessment by 18.4%, from “slightly good” to “neither good nor bad,” when looking back at their original observations of others. In other words, if managers have more knowledge and training, they are able to provide a better self-assessment of their skills. Organizations should allocate time for managers to reflect on their skills and review what they have done. What’s working, and what they could do better?

Our research also supports the idea of receiving feedback from coaching experts in order to improve. The risk of letting only nonexperts help might reinforce and normalize ineffective behaviors throughout an organization. Specifically, coaching experts could give feedback on how well the coaching skills were applied and if any coaching opportunities have been missed. This monitoring could take the form of regular peer coaching, where managers in an organization come together to practice coaching with each other, or to discuss common problems and solutions they have encountered when coaching others, all in the presence of a coaching expert. Here managers have two advantages: First, they can practice their coaching in a safe environment. Second, coaches can discuss challenges they have experienced and how to overcome them.

If you take away only one thing here, it’s that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time. Fortunately, even a small amount of training can help. Not only does a lack of training leave managers unprepared, it may effectively result in a policy of managers’ reinforcing poor coaching practices among themselves. This can result in wasted time, money, and energy.

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, the original published version of this article did not include the author’s final edits. The piece has been updated.

Julia Milner is a Professor in Leadership and the Academic Director of the Global MBA program at EDHEC Business School in France and an Honorary Professorial Fellow with the Sydney Business School in Australia. She has recently been selected as one of the World’s Top 40 under 40 Business Professors by Poets & Quants. Her research focuses on leadership, high performance cultures, and technology usage.

Trenton Milner is the General Manager of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching focusing on leadership development programs. He is a management consultant with a diverse background and over 20 years experience managing large training projects across different cultures. His research focus is strategy, finance, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

How to Move from Self-Awareness to Self-Improvement

  • Category EQ

We know that leaders need self-awareness to be effective. That is, an understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, feelings, thoughts, and values — as well as how they affect the people around them. But that’s only half of the story. Self-awareness is useless without an equally important skill: self-management.

A client of mine, we’ll call him Rick, serves as a case in point. He has been given repeated feedback that he speaks too often and for too long in meetings. He has told me that he wants to improve this behavior and learn how to be a more productive participant in order to help his team make better decisions. After a recent meeting with 15 people where he spoke for 30% of the time, I asked him to evaluate his participation. He replied, “I know I talked too much but I had a lot of points to make.” He then continued to tell me more about his ideas. Rick is very self-aware, but he isn’t as effective as he could be because he doesn’t self-manage.

Self-management is a conscious choice to resist a preference or habit, and instead, demonstrate a more productive behavior. It’s a four-step process:

  1. Be present. Pay attention to what is happening in this moment — not what was said 15 minutes ago or what will happen in your next meeting.
  2. Be self-aware. What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, doing, saying, and considering?
  3. Identify a range of behavioral choices. What do you want to do next? What are the possible consequences of each action? What feedback have you gotten that might inform your choices? What are some alternative choices you can make — even if they’re not what you want to do or what you usually do?
  4. Intentionally choose behaviors that are believed to be the most productive. What behavior will generate the best outcome — even if it’s not the behavior that comes easiest to you?

For Rick, self-management would look like this:

  1. Be present: “I’m focused on this conversation, really listening to everyone’s comments, and paying attention to what is happening.”
  2. Be self-aware: “I notice I’m excited and eager to share my ideas. I want to give an example. I also recognize there are a lot of people in the room who are trying to speak, and I know I have a tendency to speak too often in meetings, which can stop others from participating.”
  3. Identify a range of behavioral choices: “I could explain my ideas, ask a helpful question, invite others to share their ideas, or listen silently.”
  4. Intentionally choose behaviors that are believed to be the most productive: “I’m going to withhold my comments and instead listen to what others are saying. Even though I really want to share my ideas, I’ve been repeatedly told that I talk too much, and don’t give others a chance to contribute. If I listen now, I will finally be giving others that chance.”

What makes self-management so hard goes back to the definition. The most productive behaviors are often not aligned with our habits and our preferences. (If they were, we would not need to manage ourselves.)

Behaving in ways that aren’t aligned with your preferences can make you feel uncomfortable (“I always respond first in a Q&A. I worry others won’t get it right”), unskillful (“I don’t know how to give negative feedback”), and even unpleasant (“I like being direct and get impatient when I have to choose my words carefully”).

Operating in ways that contradict our habits can evoke similar negative reactions. With a habit, our brain creates a shortcut and moves from stimulus to response without thinking, saving both time and effort. But non-habitual behaviors require us to think about a situation, consider choices, make a choice, and then demonstrate the behavior that aligns with that choice. This takes work. The auto-pilot efficiency of habits is what make them so hard to change. It’s easier and more pleasant to default to an old habit than it is to invest the energy in creating a new one.

Despite these barriers, self-management is a learnable skill. This is how you can start:

  1. Decide where you want to self-manage. Pay attention to how you typically operate — what you say and do and what you don’t say and don’t do. Identify instances where your current approach is not working as well as you’d like, and self-management might be useful. For example, maybe, like Rick, you talk too much in meetings.
  2. Notice and reflect on what’s driving your lack of self-management. In those moments where you’re not self-managing but would like to, notice how you feel, what you want, and how you are interpreting what’s going on around you. What is driving your actions? Is it lack of awareness in the moment, wanting to look good, lack of skills, insecurity, or something else? If you talk too much in meetings, for example, consider why you do that. Maybe you like your own ideas better than others, or it never occurred to you to talk less. Those of us who have a bias for action may be tempted to skip this step of reflection and move straight to planning and practicing — but don’t. Understanding why we make the choices we make is crucial to changing those choices.
  3. Consider your choices and your reactions to those choices. Instead of your default behaviors, if you were self-managing, what else could you do? What is your reaction to those options? Notice how your preferences and habits show up here, and ask yourself what you are trying to avoid when you default to those habits and preferences. Sticking with the example of talking too much in meetings, one option you might consider is waiting for others to speak before offering your perspective. Now, consider your reaction to that option. Are you afraid someone else will make your point and you won’t’ get credit for it, or that others won’t have ideas that are as relevant as yours and a bad decision will be made
  4. Make a plan. Now that you know what you want to change, better understand what’s driving you, and have identified some options, think of concrete steps you can take. If you talk too much, your plan might include deciding how many times you will speak in a meeting and for how long, or in which meetings you will only listen and not speak.
  5.  Practice. Old habits are hard-wired into our brains. To change them, we need to create new neural pathways (new habits), and this requires practice. If we stay with the example of talking too much in meetings, practice might look like counting your comments and stopping when you hit your maximum — even if you have just one more very important thing to say. Do this repeatedly until you are consistently able to self-manage that behavior. At the same time, explore your reactions to your practice. What can you learn from what you’re doing, and from how you’re reacting, that can inform your continued practice?
  6. Repeat the process. Go back to step two and observe your efforts, reflect on your choices, revise the plan, and practice some more. In each successive iteration, you’ll learn a bit more about how you’re operating, what’s driving your behavior, and how you can improve it.

It’s natural to behave in ways that feel good and familiar — to not self-manage — and yet, if we did this all the time, we’d never get better at anything. To become as effective as possible, leaders need to move beyond self-awareness to self-management. Start by recognizing your current actions, considering alternative options, and then putting in the hard work required to resist what may be most familiar or comfortable. Instead, commit to effectively executing what is most productive.

Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.

Stop Lying to Job Candidates About the Role

  • Category Teams

Too many hiring managers avoid telling candidates the truth about a job. Their logic is that if applicants find out how hard they will work or how boring the core of the open jobs are, they will walk away. This is a mistake. To hire effectively, you have to be honest about what working at your firm is like and what it takes to be successful.

The interview process should be about finding a genuine fit. If a candidate doesn’t think they match up with your company or the role, they are probably right. Having them decline the role will save you from wasting substantial time and resources on onboarding, training, and starting to rely on a bad hire, who will probably leave prematurely anyway. The real costs of a hiring mistake are surprisingly significant.

Therefore, we counsel firms to design a process and train employees in letting job applicants interview them as much as they interview the applicants. In line with Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio’s advice in his book Principles: Life and Work, we encourage our clients to “Show candidates your warts.”

The truth is you have no choice. In past decades, recruiting was easier. Investment banks, consulting firms, and other companies could come to college campuses to host events, in which they presented well-orchestrated pitches and painted their firms in the best possible light. Student questions could be met with the canned responses. And before any potential candidates were able to probe any further, the company representatives were gone. Finding out more would have required hours of outreach to company employees and alumni, so most students simply accepted employers’ self-portrayed images as close enough to the truth.

Today, organizations trying to apply such tactics will have a rude awakening. In the era of Glassdoor and LinkedIn, savvy candidates will research the good, bad, and ugly about your company before interviewing. If you distort the truth by trying to project a purely positive image, they will know it.

Smart organizations instead use the interview to show that they can be transparent and that they expect the same candor from employees.  This is an opportunity to set the tone for the relationship, so you want to model the right behavior. Do be positive. You can, for example, talk about why your happiest employees love working for you. But also be frank about the realities of your workplace and the job. Explain what some candidates may find tough, what motivates people to thrive in the role despite perceived downsides, and the key elements of your corporate culture, which could be a positive for some but not right for everyone.

We recommend that hiring managers spend a good deal of their time asking questions designed to help candidates lower their guards and truly understand if they will be happy in the roles to which they are applying. For instance, a recruiter might say one of the following:

  • We have asked you several questions to make sure you will be a good fit for us. I’d now like to make sure that we will be a good fit for you. I’m sure it’s important for you to be happy in your next job, so the more open you are with me, the more helpful I can be to you.
  • Let’s fast-forward two months, would you be happy with [some demanding aspect of the job]?
  • You told another interviewer you were okay with traveling 80% of the time. Are you sure that won’t become too much?

Research shows that asking direct and blunt questions is the best way to elicit honest answers. Unfortunately, many of us instead tend to try to read between the lines of interview conversations and come to our own conclusions about a candidate’s preferences. For example, the CEO of a billion-dollar company with whom we worked would ask candidates, “What is your long-term career goal?” If they did not respond with one specific idea or could not clearly articulate it, he would take it as a sign that they were not ambitious enough and probably not willing to work long hours. He almost certainly would have received better outcomes by simply asking people if they were happy to come early and stay late in pursuit of success. Another hiring manager we know used to avoid asking sales rep candidates if they were fine with high-volume calling. He simply assumed that those who had past experience with that approach would be amenable to doing it again for his firm and vice versa. When we proposed to him that he ask candidates about this issue, he chuckled and responded, “Of course they will say they are OK with those volumes. They want the job.”

But, in our experience, most people at more senior levels will not misrepresent themselves just to get offers. Hiring managers thus overestimate the risk of being lied to, while underestimating the risk of people genuinely not understanding whether or not they are suited to certain roles and organizations. If you still have trouble believing that, you might find a simple comparison helpful:  Do you think that some 40% of U.S. marriages end up in divorce because brides and grooms intentionally lie to each other? Or is it that most don’t ask themselves enough tough questions about whether they are good long-term fits as spouses?

Vincent Szwajkowski, a Boston Consulting Group alum and currently the chief marketing officer of ArcLight Cinemas, goes so far as to ask top candidates if they would like to conduct reverse reference checks on him. If they accept, he introduces them to two of his past direct reports — typically including one person who didn’t work out — and encourages them to ask any and all questions they have.  “Don’t get me wrong,” Szwajkowski told us, “I don’t want to lose a great candidate, but I’d really hate to have to re-fill this position in six months because the candidate didn’t like working for me.”

At the same time, there are also steps you can take to help ensure candidates are honest with you. First, make sure to approach all interactions with a dose of humility; studies have found that people are very poor lie detectors. Understand that you cannot read minds and might have to work to get at the full truth. Second, let them know that you intend to pursue references. This will scare away the bald-faced liars. (One point of caution is that candidates may perceive this to be intrusive, become less likely to accept a potential offer from you and also leave a negative review on The tone, wording, personal maturity, and natural charm of the person handling the interaction matters.) Finally, ask probing follow-up questions, ideally preceded by a softening statement that encourages honesty — for example,  “I want to make sure I understand you correctly, do you mean that?” or “I want to be certain that we are aligned. Are you sure that you would be OK with that aspect of the role?”

Neither organizations nor employees benefit when the wrong people are hired. Organizations should take the lead in promoting more truth in the hiring process.

Atta Tarki is the founder and CEO of specialized executive-search and project-based staffing firm ECA. He is also the co-author of the upcoming book, Evidence Based Recruiting.    

Jeff Weiss is founder and managing director of CCI, a national CEO network, and Assistant professor, adjunct at UCLA School of Medicine.

Preventing Busyness from Becoming Burnout

For most of my working life, I’ve felt way too busy. Sometimes heart-stoppingly, wildly so — working long hours, missing out on family time or fun, and stressed beyond belief. And yet, a few years ago, as I was cleaning out my file cabinet before leaving the Washington Post after nearly 20 years, I found folder after folder of half-reported stories that would have been good. Really good. If only I hadn’t been too busy to actually work on them.

In the years since, I’ve thought about that moment with a mix of shame and regret. I largely blamed myself for not making the time to do more ambitious, high-priority work, or managing to get it all done within reasonable hours and have more time for life. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see how I was trapped in a busyness tunnel.

During the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on a project with researchers from ideas42 (a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve real world problems) to explore whether behavioral science design can help solve issues of work-life conflict. Our research finds that this conflict — which is a potent cause of stress and a key contributor to increases in poor health, a drop off in productivity and the stall in gender equality — is largely the result of how workers experience busyness.

And perhaps most importantly, we’ve concluded ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on our own. The most promising solutions are at the organizational, not the personal, level.

How Workers Experience Work-Life Conflict

It’s taken some time to get to these insights. In the first phase of the project, researchers with ideas42 spent about a year working with three different nonprofit philanthropic organizations around the country. They made a couple of site visits to interview and observe the work styles of workers, managers, and leaders; the work culture; and how people interacted with their work environment to better understand the factors that drive work-life conflict. In the current phase, ideas42 scoped out five other nonprofit organizations and are working with three that have committed to design and test specific behavioral interventions to try to reduce it.

As we reviewed some of the most recent site work, I was struck by one powerful disconnect that came up over and over again: At virtually every organization, everyone interviewed said that work-life balance — the ability to work effectively and have time for a fulfilling and healthy life outside of work — is a core value of the organization. And yet, every organization (including ideas42 and the Better Life Lab, the nonprofit program I now direct) struggles to live that value. Emails can fly at all hours. Work spills into nights, weekends, vacations, hospital waiting rooms, and family celebrations. People are feeling burned out. And yet despite this, many workers very publicly wear this overworked, overly busy work martyrdom like a badge of honor. At one organization, workers said they felt that no one should work more than 45 hours a week. Yet the typical employee actually works more than 52.

Mission driven non-profits face a particular challenge. Workers there often think that their work is so important that it matters more than their compensation, health, or work-life balance — in fact, one recent study found that as many as half of all nonprofit employees are either burned out or on the verge of it. On the site visits, some workers said that, while they saw the benefit of work-life balance, they worked to the point of exhaustion because they love what they do. “We think [our work is] important, so it creates a disincentive in some ways to turn it off,” one participant told us. “If we all hated our jobs, it would be much easier to create work-life balance.”

Leaders didn’t fare much better. While they expressed a desire for better work-life balance — if not for themselves, at least for the rest of their staff — they were often among the worst offenders, texting at 9 PM, emailing over the weekend or at night, and rarely taking vacation. Some leaders weren’t even aware how what they did (overwork) undermined what they said they believed (that work-life balance is important). Others leaders knew they weren’t walking the talk: “We do a poor job modeling work-life balance,” said one.

I realized then that really creating better work-life effectiveness would require more than just telling people to log out of  email at night. Everyone at these work sites knew what they should be doing, but actually doing it was a different story. So whatever behavioral interventions researchers designed would have to address workplace cultures trapped in a broader busyness paradox.

The Busyness Paradox, Explained

Here’s how the busyness paradox works: When we’re busy and have that high-octane, panicked feeling that time is scarce — what one participant called the “sustained moment of hecticness” through the work day — our attention and ability to focus narrows. Behavioral researchers call this phenomenon “tunneling.” And, like being in a tunnel, we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front of us. (Research has found we actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state.) We run around putting out fires all day, racing to meetings, ploughing through emails, and getting to 5 or 6 PM with the sick realization that we haven’t even started our most important work of the day.

So we stay late at the office, or take work home in the evenings or weekends, and effectively steal time for work away from the rest of our lives. “If you’re in this firefighting state of time pressure and tunneling, you’re not making time to meet long-term goals. You’re not dealing with any of the root causes that led to the firefighting in the first place,” said Matthew Darling, ideas42 vice president and project lead. “The tendency is to do the stuff that’s easy to check off. That’s all you have the bandwidth for.” Tunneling and busyness are mutually reinforcing, Darling added. “Focusing on short-term tasks makes you not make strategic plans, which causes you to be busy.”

In theory, workers could just ignore any work they didn’t complete before, say, 5 PM, and call it a day. But it’s hard to break out of the tunnel now: Unlike a century ago, when Americans showed their status in leisure time, busyness has become the new badge of honor. So even as we bemoan workplaces where everyone is busy and no one is productive, busyness has actually become the way to signal dedication to the job and leadership potential. One reason for this is is that, while productivity is relatively easy to measure on a factory floor, or on the farm, we have yet to develop good metrics for measuring the productivity of knowledge workers. So we largely rely on hours worked and face time in the office as markers for effort, and with the advent of technology and the ability to work remotely, being connected and responsive at all hours is the new face time. “Tunneling” is no longer something that happens by accident,” Darling explained. “It’s a condition that workers are forced into by standard management practices.”


So how can behavioral science interventions begin to nudge this powerful busyness bias that keeps us all so stressed out?

One key will be to construct new mental models of the ideal worker. Right now, the model is someone who comes in early, eats lunch at their desk, stays late, emails at all hours, is always busy and always available to put work first — a definition that excludes anyone with caregiving responsibilities (which, in the U.S., is primarily women) or the desire for a healthy work-life balance.

So the interventions ideas42 are designing to improve work effectiveness and work-life balance may also wind up nudging the idea that an ideal worker in the 21st century is someone who does great work, is well-rested and healthy, and has a great life outside of work — not someone who’s trapped in the busy tunnel, chasing their tail, thinking small and on the road to burn out. These interventions are designed with the very foundation of behavioral science in mind: that human decision-making is shaped not by individual personality or willpower, but by the environment.

3 Ways to Break Your Employees Out of the Busyness Paradox

Recognize the power of social signals. When we’re at work, all we see are other people working. And when we see late-night emails or texts, we assume that our coworker or boss has been working all day or night without interruption, when perhaps they’d been out walking the dog or having dinner with their families. But that life outside work doesn’t register because we don’t see it. (More, we often don’t want to share our lives outside work with coworkers and bosses in order to preserve the busyness myththat we are always working.)

“You end up miscalibrating,” Darling explained, or thinking that people are working more than they actually are, so you automatically think you have to as well in order to keep up. Researchers point to a classic study of such “norm misperception” and how prevalent and damaging it can be: one nationwide survey found that a large share of college students overestimated the amount of alcohol their peers consumed. Over time, the best predictor for how much students wound up drinking was how much they thought their peers were drinking, even though, in reality, their peers weren’t drinking that much.

To correct that “always-on” misperception, researchers at ideas42 are testing the idea of making non-work time more visible. They’re asking managers to be more open about: taking lunch breaks, leaving the office on time, working flexibly, going on vacation, talking about life outside of work or care responsibilities, and more demonstrably encouraging others to do the same — potentially even including life events on shared calendars. Another experiment involves automatic reminders. These reminders would go out at the beginning of every year and would prompt people to schedule their vacations.

Researchers are also working with teams to design email, phone, and texting protocols to cut down or eliminate work communication outside of normal hours, particularly from leaders who set expectations for everyone else. Behavior might be tracked and made transparent so that, through the powerful nudge of social comparison, people and leaders would be held accountable and the new systems more likely to stick.

Build in slack for important work. Humans are terrible at estimating how much time and effort are actually needed to accomplish things. It’s called the planning fallacy, and the busyness paradox only exacerbates that tendency to underestimate and overpromise. So one intervention being tested is for workers to intentionally create slack in their calendars every week — in other words, intentionally schedule a block of slack time to finish up any work that got delayed after an emergency popped up, or to finish a project that took longer than you thought it would. The team at ideas42 came up with the idea based on a study of hospital operating rooms that found leaving one room unused for emergencies, rather than booking to 100% capacity, actually increased the number of surgical cases and revenue while cutting down on staff overwork

Another idea is to create “transition days” at work before and after vacations, where the only expectation of workers would be to wrap up work before leaving, and catch up on what they missed while they were out. That would give workers a better chance of truly unplugging and recharging during vacation, and help people ease back into work after. People won’t feel as compelled to answer emails throughout for fear of falling behind, or dread juggling the awaiting inbox with immediate work demands. “You almost always need a lot more slack than you think you will,” Darling explained, “and it is actually markedly important for doing good work.”

Slack time requires a new mental model — recognizing that, no matter how carefully we plan, work emergencies and unexpected demands will always crop up and projects and tasks will usually require more time than we’ve allocated. So creating blank space isn’t slacking off (pun intended); it’s time that enables you to get your most important work done effectively and keeping it from spilling over into the rest of your life.

Increase transparency into everyone’s workload. Many people participating in our project felt they were always busy — going to meetings, answering emails, collaborating with others — but not necessarily productive. They found it difficult to find chunks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on a big project, much less plan or think or strategize. Some even said they used their paid time off just to have a day of uninterrupted, independent work.

So one intervention ideas42 researchers are experimenting with is an effort to “concretize” work by actually scheduling in time to work on the week’s priorities and making actual workloads transparent to bosses and coworkers. The thinking is that that transparency is likely to create positive friction every time someone wants to call a meeting. With priority work made more transparent, calling a meeting won’t be seen as cost free, but a values trade-off: what is everyone not doing because they’re at this meeting? And is the meeting the better use of everyone’s time?

Another idea involves “meeting hygiene” — can meetings become more efficient with a required agenda, limited time, and concrete action plan? Researchers may also test meeting and email black out days to encourage concentrated work time.

In the end, the hope is that these interventions will help people begin to act their way into a new way of thinking. If they see they can work more effectively and have a healthier work-life balance, perhaps instead of praising people who brag about being super busy and working all the time, they’ll begin to think: If workers aren’t getting their most important work done, are on the verge of burnout, and have little time for life, what needs to change at this organization?

Brigid Schulte is a journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One has the Time and director of the Better Life Lab at New America.

Why You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Younger EmployeesWhy You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Younger Employees

A lot of companies struggle with two apparently unrelated problems: disengaged younger workers and a weak response to changing market conditions. A few companies have tackled both problems at the same time by creating a “shadow board” — a group of non-executive employees that works with senior executives on strategic initiatives. The purpose? To leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to.

They seem to work. Consider Prada and Gucci, two fashion companies with a good track record of keeping up with — or shaping — consumer tastes. Until recently, Prada enjoyed high margins, a legendary creative director, and good growth opportunities. But since 2014, it has witnessed declining sales. In 2017, the company finally admitted that it had been “slow in realizing the importance of digital channels and the blogging online ‘influencers’ which are disrupting the industry.” Co-CEO Patrizio Bertelli said, “We made a mistake.”

Over the same period, under the direction of CEO Mario Bizzarri, Gucci underwent a comprehensive transformation that made the company more relevant to today’s marketplace. Gucci created a shadow board composed of Millennials who, since 2015, have met regularly with the senior team. According to Bizzarri, the shadow board includes people drawn from different functions; they’re “the most talented people in the organization — many of them very young.” They talk through the issues that the executive committee is focused on and their insights have “served as a wakeup call for the executives.” Gucci’s sales have since grown 136% — from 3,497 million Euro (FY2014) to 8,285 million Euro (FY2018) — a growth driven largely by the success of both its internet and digital strategies. In the same period, Prada’s sales have dropped by 11.5%, from 3,551 million Euro (FY2014) to 3,142 million Euro (FY2018).

We researched companies that use shadow boards, trying to understand what they really contribute to the organization and what best practices look like. We focus here on three companies’ experiences.

Business model reinvention. Facing increasing pressure from Airbnb, French AccorHotels needed a new business model. Top management asked marketing to develop a brand for Millennials. However, after two years marketing came up empty. Arantxa Balson, chief talent and culture officer, decided to turn the project over to a shadow board. In 2018, the Jo&Joe brand was born. Considered “an urban shelter for Millennials,” the brand communicates creativity, flexibility, and a strong sense of community. According to Balson, the shadow board succeeded in part because they focused on their vision and developed their point of view “regardless of all internal and cost constraints.” The shadow board then gave birth to another innovation, the Accor Pass, a hotel subscription that provided people under 25 with a place to stay while they hunted for a permanent residence.

Process redesign. Stora Enso, a Finnish paper and packaging company, used their shadow board (which they call Pathfinders and Pathbuilders) to revise how the executive committee assigned work. Until this shift, work was assigned to groups that the executives considered experts and therefore best suited to the assignment. The shadow board convinced them to assign certain tasks to non-experts, arguing that an unbiased view would increase the chance of breakthroughs. One project, aimed at reducing supply-chain lead time, had stumped a supposedly expert team. The new team came up with a workable plan within six months. No team members came from the business unit in question, nor had they any prior supply chain experience.

Organizational transformation. CVL Srinivas, the CEO of GroupM India, needed to implement a three-year digital and cultural transformation. With that end in mind, he created the YCO (Youth Committee). Since its inception in 2013, the YCO has led GroupM’s Vision 3.0, making digital the centerpiece for driving future growth. Working across departments, the shadow board also led a scoping initiative focused on the digitalization of contracts. It strengthened GroupM’s ecosystem by increasing the number and improving the nature of partnerships with media owners, data providers, consultants, auditors, and start-ups. Additionally, the group noticed that there wasn’t much cross-agency interaction. To promote meaningful conversations, the YCO developed a social media platform (Yammer) that facilitated conversations between management and lower-level employees across agencies.

Increased visibility for Millennials. Research suggests that Millennials crave more visibility and access, which shadow boards deliver. This visibility often results in significant career progression for shadow board members. At Stora Enso, a female shadow board member was a group-level financial controller when she began the program. As a result of her impressive work on a project involving one of their legacy businesses (paper), she was promoted to be the sales director of the largest paper segment a few months after the program’s end. As HR director Lars Haggstrom stated, “This [promotion] would never have happened had it not been for the shadow board program.”

What are the best practices for implementing a shadow board?

Look beyond the “high-potential” group. Many companies staff shadow boards exclusively through executive-committee nominations or with already identified high potentials. Millennial participants tend to prefer a more open process. Stora Enso’s Haggstrom pushed for an open-application process — allowing anyone who fit certain criteria to apply. Doing so not only created a more diverse cohort; it also allowed the company to discover some hidden gems who would not otherwise have been on the radar. Interestingly, they tested the performance of the company’s top forty high potentials (who were clear shoo-ins for the program) against the employees chosen via open enrollment. On abilities such as data analytic skills, sense-making, and teamwork, the open-enrollment members outperformed the high-potentials.

Make it a CEO-sponsored program. In order for the program to have maximum impact, support needs to come from the top of the organization (though most are coordinated on a procedural level by HR). For example, AccorHotels’ shadow board program succeeds because CEO Sebastian Bazin plays an active role by interviewing potential members and regularly interacting with existing members. At Stora Enso, members reported directly to the CEO on issues related to the Pathfinders and Pathbuilders work.

Keep evaluating and iterating. All of the companies we profiled adjusted the programs as they learned what worked (and what didn’t). For example, Stora Enso’s leaders reviewed the program annually and as a result added resources to better capitalize on diversity within the shadow board and interactions between the shadow board and executive committee. And while GroupM’s YCO program originated as a 12-month program, the organization extended it by one year in order for the YCO to maximize potential contributions.

Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Her research focuses on power, ethics, leadership, and the intersection of these topics.

Michael Sorell is a research associate at IMD.


How to Be Resilient in the Face of Harsh Criticism

Most of us have been “feedsmacked” at some point in our life. In the midst of a meeting, an innocent walk down the hallway, or a performance review, someone delivers a verbal wallop that rocks our psychological footing. We looked at 445 such incidents when we conducted an online survey asking people about the hardest feedback they ever received.

Some of the comments were downright harsh (“Think about leaving — I need warriors not wimps” and “You only want to be right. You are manipulative. You don’t care about others”) and others were less intense while still direct (“When you lose your temper, it can make others feel less respected” and “You need to improve your emails by only stating facts and not making them so flowery or soft”).

Many respondents to our study were still haunted by a harsh comment they received decades ago. I know this feeling from personal experience. I still feel a tightness in my chest and a sense of profound dread when I recall an episode where a colleague who didn’t like the way I handled an email called me a “f—ing idiot” and threatened to destroy me.

My hunch was that those who received such high-octane criticisms were likely to feel worse than those who received gentler comments. But, surprisingly, people who received less severe comments reported being just as overwhelmed and upset.

I was also surprised that few in our study became combative in the face of criticism, regardless of its severity. In fact, close to 90% described their immediate emotional response with words like dumbfounded, flabbergasted, shocked, stunned, or numb and 40% described a “shame”-related emotion like: embarrassment, worthlessness, hurt, sadness, and self-doubt. A scant 15% reacted with feelings that focused on the other person: anger, betrayal, or violence.

Why would anodyne observations create just as much agony as scathing assaults? The answer is this: we all crave approval and fear truth. And critical feedback feels traumatic because it threatens two of our most fundamental psychological needs: safety (perceived physical, social, or material security) and worth (a sense of self-respect, self-regard, or self-confidence).

Let’s address safety first. There are times when feedback does include financial threats (“I’m going to fire you”), relational threats (“I’m going to leave you”), or even physical threats (“I’m going to hit you”). In these instances, fear is the right response. But our analysis of the 445 episodes people reported in our study showed that immediate threats are a rare exception. In most cases, it is our defensive, combative, or resentful response to feedback that puts us at risk more than the feedback itself.

Now let’s talk about worth. If learning truth is beneficial, why would its reception provoke shame, fear, and anger? Because we live with an undercurrent of terror that we aren’t worthy and feedback risks pointing this out.

Many in our study argued that feedback hurts worse when the messenger has malicious motives. In truth, motive is irrelevant. The reality is that most of us crave the approval of powerful people. Our secret hope is that their positive endorsement might finally quiet feelings of nagging inadequacy. But it doesn’t.

I’ve spent much of my life believing that the best way to help people receive and act on negative feedback is to help those who are delivering it to improve their message. But I’m now convinced I was wrong. Rather than focusing on saying things the “right” way, we need to all get better a finding truth in negative feedback, no matter how it’s delivered.

I’ve witnessed first-hand how people can do this by taking responsibility for their own safety and worth. For the past three years, I have studied and worked with a nonprofit called The Other Side Academy (TOSA) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Approximately one hundred adult men and women with long histories of crime, addiction, and homelessness live at TOSA in a self-reliant community that thrives on feedback. Their fundamental belief is that relentless exposure to truth is the best path to growth and happiness.


Twice a week, students engage in a process called “Games,” which is two hours of nonstop feedback. It can be loud. Vocabulary is sometimes raw and colorful. And a single student can be the focus of relentless attention for 20-25 minutes from as many as two dozen colleagues. Peers present you with evidence that you are dishonest, manipulative, lazy, selfish, or mean. There is little emphasis placed on diplomatic delivery of the message. Instead, they focus on helping the individual learn to “take their game.”

A few students react to their game defensively. They’ll withdraw, deny, or lash-out against those who are telling them things they don’t want to hear. But most don’t. They quickly learn that they are the primary source of their own safety. Reassuring themselves of their own efficacy is the fastest path to peace, and the best way to increase their self-efficacy is to scour the feedback for truth. The feedback is either true, false, or more often, a mix of the two. And if the truth is going to hurt you, it is more likely to do greater damage when you don’t know it than when you do. So, learning it is always beneficial.

What I’ve learned from the TOSA students is that we need to build our resilience in the face of criticism. Here are four steps you can try the next time harsh feedback catches you off-guard. I’ve organized them into an easy-to-remember acronym — CURE — to help you put these lessons in practice even when you’re under stress.

  1. Collect yourself. Breathing deeply and slowly reminds you that you are safe. It signals that you don’t need to be aroused for physical defense. Noticing your feelings helps, too. Are you hurt, scared, embarrassed, ashamed? The more connected you are to these primary feelings the less you become consumed with secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or exaggerated fear. Some students collect themselves by consciously connecting with soothing truths, for example by repeating a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe.” or “If I made a mistake, it doesn’t mean I am a mistake.”
  2. Understand. Be curious. Ask questions and ask for examples. And then just listen. Detach yourself from what is being said as though it is being said about a third person. That will help you bypass the need to evaluate what you’re hearing. Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story.
  3. Recover. It’s often best at this point to simply exit the conversation. Explain that you want some time to reflect and you’ll respond when you have a chance to do so. Give yourself permission to feel and recover from the experience before doing any evaluation of what you heard. At TOSA, students sometimes simply say, “I will take a look at that.” They don’t agree. They don’t disagree. They simply promise to look sincerely at what they were told on their own timeline. You can end a challenging episode by simply saying, “It’s important to me that I get this right. I need some time. And I’ll get back to you to let you know where I come out.”
  4. Engage. Examine what you were told. If you’ve done a good job reassuring yourself of your safety and worth, rather than poking holes in the feedback, you’ll look for truth. If it’s 90% fluff and 10% substance, look for the substance. There is almost always at least a kernel of truth in what people are telling you. Scour the message until you find it. Then, if appropriate, re-engage with the person who shared the feedback and acknowledge what you heard, what you accept, and what you commit to do. At times, this may mean sharing your view of things. If you’re doing so with no covert need for their approval, you won’t need to be defensive.

It turns out that the misery we feel when “feedsmacked” is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Those who acknowledge and address this deeper issue don’t just get better at these rare startling moments of emotional trauma, they are better equipped for all of life’s vicissitudes.

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.

Every New Employee Needs an Onboarding “Buddy”

  • Category Teams

Bringing a new employee onboard is both an exciting and stressful time. And while managers play a critical role in shaping a new employees’ first weeks and months, a broader team effort can ensure the experience is both positive and productive.

Over the last few years, Microsoft has been working to improve its onboarding process. At the outset, we learned that a seemingly simple action — managers having one-on-one meetings with their new hires during their first week on the job — has outsized benefits. Through our continued research, we’ve also come to another conclusion: Onboarding buddies play an important role in ensuring a successful onboarding experience. While this may seem obvious, much like our findings on one-on-ones, it’s often missing in a new employee’s introduction to a brand new company. After piloting a buddy program involving 600 employees across the organization, we found that onboarding buddies help our hires in three key ways:

Onboarding buddies provide context. For tenured employees, the context surrounding most of their work has been so well established, it’s in the folds of every email written, every meeting attended, and every PowerPoint presented. For new hires, context is a precious commodity. Without it, a new hire will likely struggle to fully understand their role or how to contribute to their team’s success. Onboarding buddies can give the type of context you won’t find in the employee handbook. For instance, knowledgeable onboarding buddies can help new hires determine who relevant stakeholders are, how to navigate the matrix of different organizations, and think strategically when problem solving. They can also shed light on cultural norms and any unspoken rules that exist, which could lead to a much smoother transition into the organization.

Onboarding buddies boost productivity. Speed to productivity is often a concern for both the company and the new hire. By filling the position, the company satisfied the need for a certain skillset and now wants to see a quick return on its investment. Meanwhile, the new hire is likely experiencing the tension between wanting to ramp up quickly but also needing to take time to learn the job. At Microsoft, we found the more the onboarding buddy met with the new hire, the greater the new hire’s perception of their own speed to productivity: 56% of new hires who met with their onboarding buddy at least once in their first 90 days indicated that their buddy helped them to quickly become productive in their role. That percentage increased to 73% for those who met two to three times with their buddy, 86% for those who met four to eight times, and 97% for those who met more than eight times in their first 90 days. Clearly, that additional layer of support is critical to a new hire’s success.

Onboarding buddies improve new employee satisfaction. With over 120,000 employees, it’s not hard to imagine the overwhelming challenges one might face entering such a large and complex organization. In order to truly understand the value of onboarding buddies, we looked at the difference in hires who were assigned onboarding buddies versus those who were not. Our research found that after their first week on the job, new hires with buddies were 23% more satisfied with their overall onboarding experience compared to those without buddies. This trend continued at 90 days with a 36% increase in satisfaction. Those with buddies also reported receiving more active support from both their manager and the broader team.

After careful observation of our data, we decided to expand our onboarding buddy pilot program by creating an internal site for hiring managers to match new hires with an onboarding buddy, along with guidance on what makes a good match. For instance, buddies should have sufficient knowledge about the new hire’s role or the nature of the work, a strong job performance history, and the time to assist a new hire. Once matched, automated reminders were sent to the new hire, the manager and their buddy to encourage consistent engagement, particularly during the first 90 days of employment.

We still have quite a bit to learn as we continue to adapt and broaden our program, but here are some of our early insights and tips:

Reprioritize the workload. When matching a new hire with an onboarding buddy, consider the onboarding buddy’s current workload. In some cases, you may need to help reassign or deprioritize work so the buddy has time to support the needs of the new hire.

Communicate timing. Let both the new hire and the onboarding buddy know that this is a time-bound partnership. Buddies may be more likely to offer their services if the duration of the engagement is established in advance.

Reporting structures matter. Our research has shown that onboarding buddies reporting to the same manager receive more favorable ratings than those who report to different managers. Why? We think it’s because buddies who report to the same manager may also be more familiar with the new hire’s role and responsibilities. If the onboarding buddy lacks an understanding of the new hire’s role it can create frustration for both parties.

Being a buddy is mutually beneficial. It’s not just the new hire who can benefit from this relationship. Serving as an onboarding buddy provides an opportunity to demonstrate and develop managerial and leadership skills. A few years ago, we surveyed our employees to understand the attributes of a successful manager. Two of the top five attributes, communication and support, are also components for a successful buddy relationship. Additionally, teaching others can strengthen one’s own knowledge base, enabling buddies to develop a deeper level of expertise.

Ultimately, we’ve found that successful onboarding doesn’t require an overcomplicated playbook. It’s important to have a multi-dimensional onboarding plan in place, of course, but remember the most important thing a new hire needs for success is support. All it takes is a planful manager and a dedicated onboarding buddy to ensure their new hire has a positive and productive first few months on the job.

Dawn Klinghoffer is the General Manager of the HR Business Insights team at Microsoft. Her responsibilities include advanced people analytics and research for Microsoft’s business units globally; analytics; and reporting support for HR programs such as Global Diversity & Inclusion, Global HR Services, Talent Management, and Learning & Development. She is also responsible for reporting tools/technology for HR and employee data privacy.

Candice Young, Ph.D., is a Senior Data Analyst at Microsoft, where she acts as a research advisor to program managers in the areas of onboarding and manager capabilities. She is responsible for developing and implementing research methodologies used to provide evidence-based solutions to improve organizational practices and procedures that impact culture, onboarding, and career development.

Dave Haspas is a Data Analyst at Microsoft, where he works on analytics to support various aspects of the employee lifecycle, generating data-driven insights that inform our program teams on hiring, onboarding, internal movement, and engagement.


Five myths about the future of work

In a new world of gigs, unicorns and automation, change in the workplace is inevitable but it doesn't necessarily mean that you will be out of a job.

About 50% of all jobs that exist today could already be automated with existing technology. This sobering statistic from global management consulting firm McKinsey raises a number of questions about job security against the backdrop of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But fear not: mass unemployment is just one of the myths associated with the future of work. In part one of this Investec Focus Radio podcast, we dispel a few more.

The future of work: part one

We talk to Investec's head of Organisational Development and Human Resources, Marc Kahn, and a host of other experts about what the workplace of the future could look like.

Myth 1: Automation will take away our jobs

Tech replacing jobs is nothing new; it's been a major cause for concern in all of the previous industrial revolutions. But, as history shows, new technology has the power to create as much work as it displaces.

"If you look at any 10-year period, in most economies, developed and developing, something like 10% of the occupations are ones that didn't exist in the previous 10-year period," says James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, the firm’s business and economics research arm.

On a macro level, technology grows the number of jobs because it increases productivity, which drives economic growth and creates new jobs and entire new industries like online shopping.

Uber drivers, web designers, 3D printing technicians, social media managers – these are all completely new jobs we didn't dream of when we were growing up. "Some occupations decline, but many others actually grow and rise, and quite often, many that grow and rise, are ones we could never imagine," explains Manyika.

What is changing in this new era is that the kinds of jobs we're automating are no longer only physical work but what Manyika terms "knowledge work" – cognitive tasks like image recognition and data analysis.

Myth 2: Your industry won't be disrupted

Unicorns – start-ups valued at $1bn or more – are no longer rare. There are currently more than 300 unicorns disrupting everything from healthcare to financial services, manufacturing, food and travel, and the number is growing rapidly.

"You might think that in your industry you're safe; that there's no way that digital technology or exponential technology is going to disrupt you. But I'll tell you, people in food thought that, and people in taxis thought there's no way they'll be disrupted by cellphones; but of course, they have been. So, you might be too." Sage words from renowned futurist Ramez Naam, who spoke to us at the recent SingularityU South Africa Summit.

History is littered with examples of companies and industries that were caught unawares by technologically advanced challengers. Don't let your company be one of them.

Myth 3: You need an innovation hub to innovate

While individuals may be concerned about their own future prospects, companies are grappling with how they can keep up with the explosion of exponential technology that is already disrupting industries globally. The response from corporates has been a proliferation of innovation hubs and incubators sitting on the periphery of the company.

Marc Kahn, global head of Organisational Development and Human Resources at Investec, believes that innovation doesn't happen in the confines of a hub.

"You want to create a total and holistic environmental shift for the entire organisation … that innovation is the primary task of the normal course of work on a day-to-day basis, and that's the real challenge. You don't do that by stripping out innovation and putting it in a separate place, because that means the innovation doesn't happen in the main and it de-authorises the ability to innovate if you aren't in that box."

To make the whole company a hotbed of innovation, Kahn believes that failure needs to be tolerated and hierarchy demolished. "Rule number one for future workplaces is that failure is an option. So, you need to create an environment that tolerates risk more, not unlike a start-up, and that has in place mechanisms to manage failure and encourage experimentation," he says.

"Hierarchy is death to innovation," adds Kahn, because it stifles bottom-up innovation. Instead, ideas from all areas of the business should be encouraged and rewarded.

Myth 4: The gig economy is a threat to employers

Far from being a threat to companies, employers themselves could become the biggest beneficiaries of the gig economy – a labour market made up of freelance, short-term, flexible, on-demand work.

More than a third (36%) of US workers are foregoing the 9-to-5 workday to perform more lucrative 'gigs' and about 15.6% of the UK’s workforce are giggers. This challenges the notions of employer loyalty, company culture and institutional memory, but it also opens up possibilities for businesses to save money on benefits, office space and training, and makes getting the best talent more affordable.

Kahn believes that the gig economy is fuelling a revolution in the definition of what a company is. A business is real by virtue of its people and assets, he says, "but what if all the people employed in the company are employed as gigs? Where is the company?

"We start thinking about capability, and capability becomes detached from an individual and it becomes a commodity that's moving around in a free-flowing environment. People cluster together in sensible ways and then uncluster and reconnect in various gigs to deliver a very agile value chain," explains Kahn.

This, he says, is all "loosely coordinated by a leadership function without too much management control, but enough to manage the risk in a very fluid environment".

Myth 5: You will have one career your entire life

Job-hopping will become the new normal. Millennials today will hold four jobs by the time they are 30 years old – twice the number of job changes than Generation Xers, says a report from LinkedIn.

We spoke to 25-year-old Stacey Ferreira, a San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur who has held four different jobs since she was 18.

She says that continuous learning is the best way to prepare yourself for the future of work. "We need to continue to learn about new things, so that 20 years from now, we aren't saying: 'Oh, I don't know anything about this new technology that exists.' We've actually kept up with it."

Kahn adds: "Instead of thinking about a career in a particular craft that you have for 30 years, you need to think about being multiskilled, independent and massively flexible in as many different working environments as possible."


Ingrid Booth

Digital content producer, Investec

The Financial Upside of Being an Optimist

Under the weight of chronic stress at work, optimists are winning.

It’s hard to escape the fact that chronic stress is one of the greatest threats to well-being in modern times. In a report published by The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, 75% of workers say they are more stressed than the previous generation, and 40% place themselves on the high end of the stress spectrum. In a large-scale study of more than 11,000 people, researcher Shawn Achorand I found that 91% of people had maladaptive responses to stress that exacerbated circumstances and decreased well-being. In the face of this mounting reality, some argue that chronic stress is a “modern day birthright.” It is not. Chronic stress is a trap we’ve fallen into — one that we can get out of with intentionality.

An antidote to chronic stress is cultivating an optimistic mindset — and it serves us well over the course of our careers. In a new study I conducted in partnership with Frost Bank, we found that when it comes to money, optimists are more likely to make smart moves and reap the benefits.

We surveyed more than 2,000 Americans, testing for optimism, financial health, and attitudes and behaviors around money, using scientifically validated measures such as the Life Orientation Test and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Well-Being Scale.

After controlling for wealth, income, skills, and other demographics to level the playing field, the data clearly showed that optimists were significantly more likely to experience better financial health than pessimists, and engage in healthier habits with their money. For instance, we found that 90% of optimists have put money aside for a major purchase, compared to 70% of pessimists. Nearly two thirds of optimists have started an emergency fund, while less than half of pessimists have. Additionally, optimists are more likely to seek out and follow advice from someone they trust. In my opinion, the most compelling finding was how optimists felt, reporting that they stressed about finances 145 fewer days each year as compared to pessimists.

Optimism is a lucrative investment beyond one’s finances. Optimists do better over the course of their careers as well. They make more money and are more likely to be promoted. Achor and I developed a scientifically-validated optimism scale to test professionals at hundreds of companies across industries, and we found that “Visionary Work Optimists” — those that are in the top quartile for optimism as compared to their peers — are 40% more likely to get a promotion over the next year, not to mention six times more likely to be highly engaged at work, and five times less likely to burnout than pessimists.

A landmark study by my former research partner Dr. Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. As a result of this study done at MetLife, the insurance giant changed its hiring practices to include a screening for optimism, which improved retention and saved the company tens of millions of dollars.

But thinking like an optimist isn’t all rosy. One study found that while most successful entrepreneurs will call themselves optimists, optimistic entrepreneurs earn 30% less than pessimistic ones on average. That might be because they are taking greater risks and failing more often. (That same study found that optimistic employees do earn more than pessimistic colleagues.) But studies highlighting the negative side of a more positive mindset are few.

Optimism sometimes gets a bad rap because people often connect it with Pollyanna and her rose-colored glasses ignoring reality. One time a manager told me during an upcoming restructuring at his company that the best way to help his team stay positive was to not talk about what was going on. You can imagine it was no surprise when a few months later I received word from his boss that he had been let go for mismanaging his department. Optimism does not mean ignoring reality. In our work, we define optimism as the expectation of good things to happen, and the belief that behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges. A rational optimist is able to see reality for what it is, while maintaining the belief that actions can improve the situation. This solution-focused mindset propels positive action. Rational pessimists also see what’s really happening; they just don’t believe there is much they can do about it. For pessimists, circumstances overwhelm. For optimists, mindset wins.

Optimism is a lucrative investment for professionals, which is why I’m on the road more than 120 days a year (with my family, including two kids under 5-years-old in tow — yes, I am an optimist!) to help employees assess and strengthen their optimism. It’s just like a muscle, and you can build it.  Here are some of the same positive habits I share during my keynotes at organizations to help build optimism:

Focus on what’s working: Start the day by practicing gratitude. Instead of grabbing your phone first thing to check the headlines or your email, create a “media moat” and start your day by listing three things you’re grateful for, and why. This two-minute daily practice rewired elderly pessimists to become more optimistic after just two weeks.


Seek progress, not perfection: Don’t wait until you’ve perfected the plan. Whether you’re trying to switch roles at work or launch a new idea, waiting for perfection can be your greatest enemy. Set a meaningful goal, and take the smallest measurable step towards achieving that goal. That win will propel continued positive action as your brain gets a boost from perceiving progress.

Meaningfully connect with others: Send a two-minute email each day to someone new and different, praising or thanking them. This habit is my all-time favorite, because these notes often brighten the day of family members, colleagues, or friends, but they are also good for you. Your brain starts to more deeply recognize all the people who care about you. Social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness, and it is strongly correlated with optimism.

Consider testing your optimism before and after adopting these habits using the Success Scale. These small habits could help you take back 145 stress-free days each year, not to mention fuel your happiness and work success as well.

Michelle Gielan, a national CBS News anchor turned UPenn positive psychology researcher, is now the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness. She is partnered with Arianna Huffington to research how transformative stories fuel success.

A Good Meeting Needs a Clear Decision-Making Process

The tension in the room was rising. The group had been at it for hours. In fact, this same team of 12 had been through essentially the same discussion on three previous occasions but still couldn’t reach a decision on a critical issue: Should the organization divest their South American operation or shift to a different strategy?

They reviewed the pros and cons of both options yet again. Each side paraded their own experts, data, and recommendations. And yet they remained at an impasse.

What should a team do when it’s tasked with making a decision or recommendation but can’t reach consensus?

In our 60+ years of combined experience working with boards and senior executives at organizations ranging from Fortune 10 multinationals to German mittelstand companies, we’ve seen leaders give plenty of thought to the data and analysis needed to kick off and carry on these sorts of discussions. But they typically don’t consider how they’d like to finish them.

We’re not suggesting they should know in advance what decision will be made. But they should know how a decision will be made if people can’t agree.

In situations where everyone in the room reports to a common manager, and that person is present, there’s not much of an issue. If the team can’t decide, the boss will. But in today’s highly matrixed organizations, closure in the absence of consensus can be an enormous challenge. Team members — even an individual executive — may well have multiple reporting lines. Finding a “natural tiebreaker” — whether one person or another group — may involve decisions bumping up two or even three levels — which is an impractical solution in many cases, and one that risks casting an unfavorable light on the group.

When we ask our clients, “What’s going to happen at the end of the conversation if the decision isn’t obvious? How exactly will it be made?” the answers often include: “Let’s see how it goes,”  “We’ll figure it out,”  or the classic “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

We think that’s a bad idea. Your team shouldn’t try to make an important decision unless everybody understands what’s going to happen if its members can’t reach an agreement.

So, before a decision-making meeting starts, be crystal clear about how the decision will be made. For example, tell the group there will be 90 minutes of discussion and if there is no resolution after that time, the issue will be put to a vote. While this may seem obvious, be sure to consider how the results will be used in the room. Does the verdict rest directly on the vote, or is the vote merely advisory for the accountable executive? Most decision-making models, such as RACI, suggest that one person be accountable for making the final call, but if your organization takes a more collaborative approach, you need to clarify what a vote means. If it determines the decision, what is required? A simple majority? A two-thirds vote?  Is anyone given veto power?

Also consider what happens if the executive or team with final authority isn’t in the room. How should the issue get elevated? Will the vote be enough input? Should majority and minority viewpoints be documented? If so, how?

Once you’ve outlined a plan, share it with key stakeholders early so they can ask questions or suggest changes. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it should be clear and simple so that everyone understands the process.

Early in his career Tom Wilson, now chairman, president, and CEO of The Allstate Corporation, used to end each major meeting with a simple chart. For each significant decision there were three boxes: “Yes,” “No,” and “Defer.” Under the latter, there was space to indicate the date to which the issue would be deferred and what additional actions or data were required to move to a “Yes” or “No” at that time.  This helped drive clarity and closure and made his meetings more efficient and decisive.

Teams don’t need to get stuck spinning around a whirlpool of indecision. Meetings just need to start with everyone crystal clear on how they will end.

Bob Frisch is the managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy. He is also the co-author of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015), the author of Who’s In The Room? (Jossey-Bass, 2012), and four Harvard Business Review articles, including “Off-Sites That Work” (June 2006).

Cary Greene is a partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy, and co-author of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015) and the Harvard Business Review article “Leadership Summits that Work” (March 2015).  He writes frequently for