Engaged employees perform best.

Gallup Organization has been looking at employee engagement for many years. They’ve famously found that only a small percentage of our workforce is actively engaged at their jobs. Often, company discussions about people policies center around employee well-being as an underlying principle driving HR policies. Wellbeing refers to perqs like vacation time, flextime, and so on.

I just read this Gallup research summary that asks: Should a company put effort into employee wellbeing policies, or into employment engagement policies? It turns out to be easy to answer: the greatest driver of wellbeing is employee engagement, not perqs. The research shows that engaged employees perform far better than non-engaged employees, even if those non-engaged employees are given a lot of workplace perqs (e.g. more vacation time, etc.).

Also interesting, though not mentioned in the conclusion, is that flextime is also tremendously important. Having engaged employees and giving them flextime gives the greatest boost to wellbeing.

I know when I’m engaged, my whole life seems better. Next time you’re wondering how to improve workplace morale, instead ask how you can help improve engagement. That answer might change your entire culture.

Internet: mass manipulation tool?

I’m downloading Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday, about media manipulation on the internet, at the recommendation of a professional journalist friend.

As I read a few of Ryan’s blog articles and PR interviews from the book, I’m struck by how much his experience matches mine. Though I’ve not tried the kind of conscious manipulation he describes, I’ve seen it all over the place and noticed the same lack of basic fact checking in various stories I’ve been involved in.

My most striking example of this was several years ago when a Fortune 500 company revealed to me how easy it is for them to engage in mass manipulation now that the blogosphere lets them leak stories from different sources and have it all build to appear to be a preponderance of independent evidence.

Another Ryan, the amazing and awesome Ryan Allis (founder of iContact, uber-optimist, and serial entrepreneur) and I spoke about this over dinner a few weeks ago. His view is that the internet has evolved to the point where the truth will come out, despite attempts at manipulation. Especially with the rise of social media, manipulation doesn’t stand a chance because the truth will get out via informal networks.

What do you think?

How do you find real community in a wired world?

I really enjoyed Marina Keegan’s article “The Opposite of Loneliness.” The word I’d use as the opposite of loneliness is “community.” Community has been shown to be an important part of a happy, fulfilling life. Of course, there’s no economic model attached to community, so not only do we not manage it, we disregard it in our calculations and decisions.

It’s something I’ve thought a lot about the last 5-10 years, as it’s become apparent to me that the grown-up world we’ve created doesn’t provide much opportunity for it. Any sense of “we’re in this together” that may have existed in America seems to be long gone. The prevailing question seems to have become “How can I get mine and avoid giving any of it to anyone else?” Of course, if you feel like you’re in a community, getting yours becomes much less important, since you feel like someone’s there to help if you really need it.

The very things that we call “progress” are, I believe, a big part of the problem. Easy transportation and telecomm have made it easier ad easier for us to isolate ourselves in suburbs, with our work lives being played out far away, with people who don’t share our interests, who don’t like us, and who don’t live near us. Seeing someone once a month at a planned dinner out for two hours becomes the new definition of “friendship” (second only to the definition of friendship that involves reading someone’s status updates on social media).

If you have hobbies or interests that naturally lend themselves to seeing others (e.g. team sports), that can be a source of connection. But even there, it’s not clear to me that it’s the kind of connection Keegan is talking about in her article. I recall the feeling she’s discussing, and indeed, college is the last time I felt it.

For all you post-college folk out there, please share! How do YOU find community in your life?

Our Intuitive Knowledge Isn’t Always Right!

I was recently listening to a lecturer discuss how risk-taking is an integral part of “the entrepreneurial mindset.” He was very inspirational. Unfortunately, he was also flat-out wrong. There has been a lot of research into the psychological qualities of entrepreneurs. What has it concluded? There is no “entrepreneurial mindset”–entrepreneurs are a very diverse group. But especially among lifelong entrepreneurs who have experienced multiple successes, there is no evidence that they are any more risk-taking than anyone else. In fact, they do everything they can to mitigate risk.

My point, however, has nothing to do with entrepreneurs. It has to do with conventional wisdom. We intuitively (or culturally) want to believe that entrepreneurs are a special breed of person. That way, we have an excuse to be an entrepreneur if we deem ourselves “that breed.” Or we have an excuse *not* to be an entrepreneur if we aren’t “that breed.” Either way, we get to shift the responsibility for the decision to our personality type, rather than our decisions and efforts. That makes the very notion of an “entrepreneurial mindset” attractive, as a flexible rationale we can use for all kinds of stuff.

A lot of conventional wisdom is similar. The American myth that CEOs are somehow to credit for the entire performance of their companies, for example, is unsupported by any data whatsoever. W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who created the Total Quality movement, said that no more than 10% of a company’s performance could be attributed statistically to the CEO, and then only in highly unusual cases.

The problem is that our minds aren’t very good at understanding complex things. For 100,000 years, our minds weren’t able to do much beyond farm. Then we invented the scientific method, which was the first time we had a rigorous way to separate our intuitive-but-wrong ideas from the nonintuitive-but-accurate ways the world really works.

There is a lot of poorly-done science in the works. There is also a lot of excellent science, which is why we live 2x as long as our ancestors, in comfort, with electric lights and polar fleece.

Especially in the human potential fields–self-help, business leadership, etc.–there is a substantial body of research about how people and human systems actually work. Much of that research has even been popularized and published in books accessible to everyday people.

Before jumping on the pleasant, inspirational stories propagated in our cultural myths, take the time to read some of the research-based books on the topics. You can even go further and read the studies the books are based on. Some of the science (or the way it is being interpreted) may be ‘iffy,’ but some may be solid. And you may learn how the world *really* works, which will only make it easier for you to create the life you want.

(*) this is what I did for the Get-It-Done Guy episodes on visualizing for results. “The Secret” doesn’t work. They’ve done controlled experiments to find out. But some slight tweaks in the visualization technique *has* been shown to boost results. Not because of a deep spiritual principle, but because the right visualization gets people motivated and moving to make their dreams come true.

Meritocracy: A Fine, But Mythological, Idea

I love the idea of a meritocracy! It’s a glorious myth that makes a wonderful story. But if you look at how resources, wealth, prestige, etc. get distributed, it’s very hard to make a case for meritocracy.

It’s no surprise we believe in meritocracy. We spend our entire first 18-25 conscious years in school. School is a true meritocracy. The more you work at mastering the material, the more you earn good grades. I don’t know about you, but school was the last meritocracy I had the privilege to enjoy.

At my very first job out of college, I was told, “You do the best job of anyone here, but you’re too young to be making any more money.” Sadly, I persisted in thinking that doing a good job was the way to get what I wanted out of life. I still think that way in my gut, even though I continue to see little evidence of it.

Many very successful people talk a lot about meritocracy and how they just worked hard to succeed. That’s all fine and good, but they’re looking at only their own story. They’re not looking at the vast majority of people in the world who work very, very hard, and don’t get rewarded nearly as well. I’ve also noticed that the people who are highly successful/rewarded/prestigious have a tremendously powerful psychological vested interest in believing in and trumpeting the idea of meritocracy. Otherwise they would have to confront the idea that maybe they don’t deserve all that money/power/fame, and it simply came to them because they were born to the right parents, or were in the right place at the right time.

In capitalism, we give the bulk of the value created by an enterprise to the owners. It’s far better to own 50% of the equity in a successful company that you left 6 months after founding it than to work your ass off for 12 years making that same company a success, but working on salary. What matters as far as material reward isn’t the work/merit, but the capital and ownership structure. (That’s a true story, by the way. The company founder never worked again. The employees, while doing reasonably well, are still working at the same or other companies to earn their daily bread.)

If you want to do a good job, by all means, do it. Personally, I like to be proud of my work, and I strive to do the very best. But don’t confuse that with getting what you want. When you’re designing your life, remember that producing good work may be something you do for the psychic and self-esteem rewards. When you’re going after other rewards, say, money, be as clear-headed as you can about what will help you reach that result. Hard work and skill may not have anything to do with living the kind of life you want.

Why I Like Paper

A reader wrote in:

I read your suggestion about the 3×5 pad and it sucks! That’s because I hate paper and pen note-taking. I want something that I can carry with me anywhere on my handheld and which will also prompt me, just like a personal assistant, not something which will load me with the extra work of transcribing to a master list! As if I am not burdened enough already! Look, I need something to help me gain lost time each day. Something to boost my productivity and tidily organise my intended activities in a manner that enables me to take action on them!

My reply:

The reason I like paper is that the transcribing *forces me* to confront whether or not a particular task is important enough to copy by hand. If it isn’t, that’s a sign that it probably isn’t important enough to keep on my list. The key to freeing up time, ultimately, is saying “No” to commitments and then vigorously protecting the time you’ve freed up.

If time is getting lost, you need to stop doing the things that you define as “losing” it. Smartphones are often big time losers. Yes, the phone is a fun toy, and yes it can do cool stuff, but measured *in terms of my getting my important work done* (as opposed to my unimportant, imagined work), it’s probably doesn’t make me that much more productive.

The problem is that it speeds up some things, but it slows down others. For example, I type about 1/3 the speed on my smartphone as I do on my desktop. I may find it convenient to respond to email on my smartphone, but it’s actually making me *less* productive. And even if I could answer email at the same rate, the moment I click on a link and spend 5 minutes web browsing or playing a game, any email productivity gains get lost as I waste time goofing off.

If you’re brave enough, try keeping a log for a couple of days. Note what you get done on your smartphone and what you get done at your desk, and how much time each takes. You may find your smartphone boosts your productivity. Or you may find it doesn’t. For looking up phone numbers and addresses, my smartphone is awesome. But does it really save time? I used to clip someone’s business card into my rolodex and I’d memorize it after 2-3 calls. Now I have to retype or scan-plus-double-check each card to get it into my address book (or pay someone to do it, which means earning the money to pay them). And then I *always* have to look them up, because I no longer memorize.

Assuming I make 5-6 calls a day, am I really more productive with an electronic address book when you take all that into account? I suspect yes, but I probably save a few minutes a month, *not* hours.

In short, I like paper because it forces me to think. I like technology because it’s fun and sometimes convenient. But I never assume that paper is automatically bad, nor do I assume technology is good. Like any tool, test it out and be careful that adopting a new, faster tool in one area doesn’t slow you down in another.