Wednesday, December 29, 2021

A Lesson In Setting (and Achieving) Our Goals

Source: Mission to Learn

We can learn a great deal about setting and achieving goals by studying how people engage in physical exercise. That's precisely what University of Pennsylvania scholar Katy Milkman has done very successfully in her career. She features some of that insightful research in her terrific new book,

In one study, Milkman examined the behavior of approximately 2,500 employees at Google.  She studied their exercise habits.   In this NPR interview, Milkman explains the motivation for and structure of the study: 

And we had this insight from research on habits that it seems like the kinds of people who form the stickiest habits have a really consistent routine. They do it in the same time, at the same place over and over again. And so we thought, OK, what if we sort of adopt that insight and build it into our program? One group was basically encouraged to go to the gym at a really consistent time. Then we have a second group, and this is the comparison, where they also told us their ideal time, say, 9 a.m., and we reminded them to go at that time, but we encouraged them to go whenever it was convenient for them. And as a result, that group went at about the same frequency but in a more varied manner. So half of their gym visits were at this consistent time and the other half were all over the place.

What do you think?  I bet you think that the group committed to always going to the gym at 9am would adhere to their exercise goal more successfully.  Well, that's what I thought before I read the results too.  However, that did not turn out to be the case!  She explains why: 

But the big surprise to me was that it was actually the group who had gone at the same frequency but in a more varied way. And when we dug into the data, we figured out why. The answer seems to be that the people who had formed those routines that were really consistent were really rigid. So more often than not, they're going to the gym at that time if they're going, and they actually did form a slightly stickier habit after the end of our program around visiting the gym at that usual time. But if they don't go at that time, they don't go at all, right? So you miss your 9 a.m. slot? Oh, I'm not going to the gym today. Whereas the other group, they go to the gym at 9 a.m. a lot. But if they missed 9 a.m., they have a fallback plan. So then they make it at noon or at 5. And as a result, net net, they're going to the gym more. And so what this taught us was that a really important component of habit is actually having some flexibility. It needs to be I have a first best plan, but when that doesn't work, I'm going to get there anyway.

The lesson here regarding flexibility seems especially important as we navigate unpredictable and turbulent circumstances in our external environment these days.  However, remember that the flexible group still aimed for that 9am gym visit.  They didn't leave their goal completely wide open.   However, they did have a contingency plan - a commitment to get to the gym whenever convenient if they could not visit at 9am.  That combination of a routine coupled with some flexibility seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to successfully achieving our goals.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

It's More than OK to say "I don't know."

Source: Lean Enterprise Institute

Mandy Gilbert, Founder and CEO of Creative Niche, wrote an interesting article several years ago for Inc.  The title of the essay was, "Why Saying 'I Don't Know' Is a Sign of a Strong Leader."  The article reminded me of a conversation I had with a UK-based CEO in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  She recounted a story of her first meeting with her top management team after shutting down the corporate offices in March 2020.  This CEO started the meeting by telling the team, "I just want to remind you all that I haven't been through a global pandemic either.  So, let's figure this out together."  Here's what Gilbert wrote in her article that reminded me very much of this story of the CEO confronting the pandemic with her senior team: 

When faced with an obstacle, your gut reaction may be to exert your expertise and quickly provide a solution. However, a much more powerful alternative would be consulting your team out of the gate.ate. "Let's figure this out together" will only have positive outcome. Not only will this show you value their opinion, but it will also help the team come to the right solution. Your colleagues could have been through something similar in a previous role, and consequently offer valuable insight on what the next steps should be.

Some of the biggest wins can come out of not knowing. Admitting you don't know what to do evens the playing field. When everyone feels equal, the problem solving process becomes collaborative rather than authoritative.

Success achieved through a group effort is much more powerful than when achieved through a single person. Imagine the camaraderie and culture that will start to cultivate when the team solves a problem or reaches a target together? As a leader, collaboration should always be your number one priority -- not your self-pride.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Think about the "Why" as You Ask People to Return to the Office

Source: Glassdoor

Dr. Alexandra Samuel has written a thougthful piece for the Wall Street Journal titled, "How Bosses Can Lure Remote Workers Back to the Office."  According to Samuel, tather than insisting that people return and risking the loss of many talented employees, managers should focus on making it attractive to come back to the office.  She argues that employees need to understand the purpose of coming into the building, rather than continuing to work from home.  Here's an excerpt:

Remind people of the creative, collaborative and collegial benefits of time on site. That may mean reorganizing their work so that you shift people away from tasks that are best done solo (like writing or data analysis) and toward work that really thrives on in-person collaboration (like brainstorming or strategic planning).

As much as possible, give priority to projects that involve people working closely together. This is a great time to bring forward a neglected project that requires a lot of creativity and intellectual engagement, and is likely to be fun and engaging for your team...

Offer a range of spaces that encourage conversation, gathering and collegiality: Not just enclosed boardrooms for 20 but small meeting rooms for two to six people, conversation clusters made up of a few easy chairs or sofas, cafe tables with two or three chairs, and big communal tables where people can perch and chat if they need to check email or take care of a little work in between meetings. (After all, there’s no point in sequestering people in solitary cubicles once they’ve come into the office: For quiet, focused work, it makes more sense to spend the day working remotely.)

I think Samuel makes a very important point here.  Asking people to return to the office simply to work alone at their cubicle makes little sense.  On the other hand, employees will see the value of in-person interaction if the work requires intense collaboration, interpersonal communication, and group problem solving.  Giving them a challenge that is stimulating will also be enticing.  Making sure they have some autonomy with regard to how to solve the problem you put in front of them is very important too.  

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Challenge of Leading with Empathy

Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis     Source:

Fortune writer Chris Taylor has written a thought-provoking and informative column titled, "Empathy is the go-to leadership skill of the moment—and yes, it can be learned."  Taylor begins by profiling Kristin Peck, CEO of Zoetis (a Fortune 500 pet health company).   Peck used empathy effectively during the early portion of the pandemic and has acheived very high levels of employee engagement as a result.  Taylor goes on to outline more generally the benefits of leading with empathy:

The positive results of an empathic approach are undeniable: In a 2021 Empathy in Business survey by consulting giant EY, 89% say empathy leads to better leadership, 85% say it boosts productivity, and 87% say it increases levels of trust among employees and leaders.

The issue appears especially important to younger employees. According to the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy survey from benefits administration firm Businessolver, 90% of Gen Z respondents say they are more likely to stay with an empathic employer.

On the other hand, Taylor describes some unsettling data regarding empathetic leadership.  As it turns out, leaders worry about how they may be perceived if they demonstrate empathy.  Moreover, employees often view leaders' attempts to be empathetic as inauthentic... perhaps even as a charade.  Fortunately, Peck avoided these pitfalls.  

On the one hand you have leaders, who may not be comfortable expressing vulnerability because of how they might be perceived. In the Businessolver survey, 68% of CEOs said they feared they would be less respected if they show empathy—a shocking 31-point rise from the previous year.

On the other hand you have employees, who are often skeptical that the company is interested in their welfare, and don’t feel that they are truly in a safe space to discuss or reveal such issues. In fact in the EY survey, 46% of employees said they thought their companies’ efforts at promoting empathy were dishonest.

Leaders at all levels should consider this final point very seriously.  Nearly 1/2 of the respondents in that EY survey were highly skeptical of leaders' efforts to demonstrate empathy.  Think carefully, then, about how to genuinely try to stand in your employees' shoes, understand their needs and pain points, and perceive the workplace as they do.  Be ready to back up your words with actions.  Be consistent in your behavior.  Don't just feel their pain; do something about it.  Remember that listening without action may be perceived as just an empty gesture.  Employees may wonder if you were really listening at all.