Why employees hate virtual collaboration and what to do about it

This post was adapted from APQC’s report "Preparing for the Future of Work." Download an overview or view a webinar highlighting the findings.

This post was written by Lauren Trees, a principal research lead at member-based nonprofit APQC (www.apqc.org), the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.

It’s hard to achieve efficient, effective collaboration in the workplace. And employees have noticed.

In a global survey of more than 1,000 professionals, APQC asked about respondents’ current collaboration habits and the changes that would make them happier and more productive. The results suggest that employees want to improve how they communicate and work together, but they need updated technology, clearer policies to guide interactions, and more targeted and consistent leadership support.

The continued allure of face-to-face contact

Today’s employees are confronted with a dizzying array of virtual communication and collaboration tools. But when you ask them how they prefer to innovate and solve problems, they almost invariably point to in-person challenges. Scheduled face-to-face meetings top the list of favored methods on APQC’s survey, followed by spontaneous in-person interactions and face-to-face conferences/working sessions (Figure 1).

APQC Figure 1
Figure 1

And despite the stereotypes about millennials preferring to text or Snapchat than talk to people, these trends are relatively consistent across the three main generations that comprise today’s workforce.

Creating face-to-face collaboration opportunities -- much less spontaneous ones -- is challenging in a world of globally dispersed teams, full-time remote workers, and shrinking travel budgets. But the desire for contact is hardwired into the human psyche, and organizations benefit when they take steps to accommodate employees’ need for in-person interaction.

With a centralized or co-located workforce, this can be accomplished by providing ample meeting rooms, designating spaces for socializing and networking, and designing offices to maximize impromptu encounters among people from different teams and functions. The barriers are obviously greater when colleagues are far-flung, but it is still worth the investment to bring virtual teams and networks together (at least occasionally).

At first glance, managers may hesitate to incur travel expenses when a virtual meeting could achieve similar objectives. But research suggests that even infrequent in-person meetings can build trust among virtual team members and improve their interactions when they return to their respective offices.

On the flip side, however, employees’ preference for face-to-face collaboration may reveal a degree of discomfort with virtual encounters. And where this is so, organizations need to address the problem head on. In-person meetings can foster collegial relationships, but global teams and all-virtual jobs are becoming more mainstream, and people must learn to communicate effectively regardless of location.

What’s the problem with virtual collaboration?

Based on the data, employee attitudes toward virtual collaboration have not evolved as quickly as the enabling technology. Despite the constant influx of new tools, most workplace communication still occurs through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and email.

Admittedly, some newer options have gained traction. For example, 61% of survey respondents reported using work instant messaging daily, and 53% said they participate in virtual meetings more than once a week. However, these media simply replicate the private, one-on-one and small-group conversations enabled by previous technologies while doing little to bring new voices into mix, increase traceability, and facilitate knowledge reuse.

To improve the efficiency and quality of workplace collaboration, employees need to transition at least some of the interactions taking place privately in meetings, phone calls, and email to open forums such as communities of practice, enterprise social networks, and collaboration spaces. These platforms for “working out loud” allow people to canvass a wide range of colleagues (including ones they do not know personally) while creating a searchable record of any knowledge exchanged. They can also improve collaboration efficiency by, for example, allowing experts to post publicly accessible answers to common questions and thus cut down on duplicate expertise requests.

But adoption of enterprise communities and networks is not happening as rapidly as one might expect, given the speed with which people have embraced Facebook and Twitter in their personal interactions.

The good news is that most survey respondents have at least experimented with social collaboration in the workplace. For example, 77% have used a community message board or discussion forum at some point, and 70% have posted to an enterprise social network.

However, true adoption rates are much lower: Only one-quarter of respondents report using either of these platforms at least once a week. And when asked how they prefer to innovate and solve problems at work, fewer than 7% listed communities or enterprise social networks among their top three modes of collaboration (Figure 2).

APQC Figure 2
Figure 2

Millennials were slightly more likely than older colleagues to favor social collaboration tools. But even among this group, preference for communities and networks was dwarfed by partiality for established channels such as phone calls and email.

It’s clear that, although enterprise communities and social networks are out there, they are not fully integrated into most organizations’ work patterns and processes. Use is infrequent and limited to very particular types of exchanges. And that does not bode well for the future of virtual collaboration.

Getting employees to adopt new collaboration habits

Despite the challenges, there is an appetite to integrate new collaboration tools more extensively into day-to-day work.

According to the survey results, a majority of employees recognize the need to streamline their communications and shift more conversations into one-to-many channels. With employees often drowning in emails, nearly half said they would be more productive with fewer email exchanges and other direct messages (Figure 3). Yet 64% believe more activity in strategic or purpose-based communities of practice would boost their productivity, and 43% believe their workplaces would be more productive with more activity in enterprise social networks and virtual forums.

APQC Figure 3
Figure 3

So what can organizations do to shift people toward leveraging one-to-many virtual collaboration tools, at least in those situations where they are appropriate?

Part of the equation involves enhancing the underlying technology so that it works better and replicates more of the vibrancy, spontaneity, and fun of talking to someone directly. The survey results reflect this need, with 69% of respondents indicating that more advanced technology to enable virtual collaboration would make them and their colleagues more productive (Figure 4).

An even larger majority -- 79% -- believe productivity would rise if they had better tools to find and connect with experts and potential collaboration partners (this was the highest rate of consensus across all 24 proposed changes APQC asked about on the survey). Leaders should keep these perceived connections between technology upgrades and productivity in mind when considering the potential return on IT investments.

APQC
Figure 4

However, putting the right technology in place is only half the battle; organizations must also address the underlying policy, process and change management issues. A majority of respondents to APQC’s survey acknowledged this, saying that improvements in the policies and processes that guide virtual collaboration would make their workplaces more productive.

As a baseline, organizations must do more to make employees aware of the collaboration tools available to them and how to use them effectively. In many cases, technology rollouts are left in the hands of IT, whose guidance tends to focus on how-to tutorials, rather than the broader context of why a new tool is being introduced or the benefits it provides.

Employees may need more comprehensive onboarding that builds their confidence in the tools while conveying the purpose, ground rules, and expected outcomes of each type of collaborative exchange.

Such guidance can also improve efficiency by directing employees to the best option for a given scenario. Often, dislike of virtual collaboration stems from people being overwhelmed by the array of available alternatives or from using the wrong tool for the job (e.g., inserting a complex, multi-part expertise request into a casual social networking conversation). APQC suspects that, if employees receive better information about how to incorporate new modes of collaboration into their daily work, adoption rates would improve significantly.

In addition, leaders must do a better job of conveying the value of one-to-many communication via communities and networks, both from an enterprise perspective and for the individual employees involved. People already know what they like about calling a colleague or sending an email, and convincing them to instead post their ideas and questions in an open forum requires a significant shift in mindset.

However, consistent messaging from the top -- especially if executives actually use the platforms they endorse -- can reinforce how social collaboration can save employees time, give them access to richer insights feedback than they could ever acquire by reaching out to their limited private contacts, and allow future knowledge seekers to benefit from the answers they receive.

 

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Promote people who say “no” to the boss

I like to refer to my wife, a successful health care executive who works with physician leaders, as Dr. No. What she lacks in medical insight she makes up for in business acumen and decisiveness.

She is adept at weighing options and providing clear and cogent advice. More important, she is not afraid to speak truth to power.

Every organization needs people like my wife. To encourage others like her, Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt advises rewarding people who have the gumption to challenge their bosses.

An executive need not heed every bit of contrary advice, but every executive should demonstrate the courtesy of listening.

Executives whom I admire encourage their direct reports to speak up. To mitigate such fear, executives should reward people who do speak up with increased levels of responsibility.

These are the executives who can be groomed for greater roles because they have demonstrated that they have the guts to voice opposition when they believe it is necessary.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2017, Trust Across America named him a Top Thought Leader in Trust for the fourth consecutive year. Global Gurus ranked John No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named John to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to subscribe.

Promote people who say “no” to the boss

I like to refer to my wife, a successful health care executive who works with physician leaders, as Dr. No. What she lacks in medical insight she makes up for in business acumen and decisiveness.

She is adept at weighing options and providing clear and cogent advice. More important, she is not afraid to speak truth to power.

Every organization needs people like my wife. To encourage others like her, Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt advises rewarding people who have the gumption to challenge their bosses.

An executive need not heed every bit of contrary advice, but every executive should demonstrate the courtesy of listening.

Executives whom I admire encourage their direct reports to speak up. To mitigate such fear, executives should reward people who do speak up with increased levels of responsibility.

These are the executives who can be groomed for greater roles because they have demonstrated that they have the guts to voice opposition when they believe it is necessary.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2017, Trust Across America named him a Top Thought Leader in Trust for the fourth consecutive year. Global Gurus ranked John No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named John to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to subscribe.

9 common business obstacles successful entrepreneurs face

The Young Entrepreneur Council is an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. Read previous SmartBrief posts by YEC.

If you enjoy this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter for entrepreneurs.

Q. If you could be more organized in one area of your business, where would it be and why?

1. New-business development

The new-business pipeline is one of the most important and also one of the most chaotic pieces of our company. While there are tremendous tools (both large and small) for this process, it still seems to always end up a little unorganized and frenetic. Better organization of basic information, lead flow tracking and then sales process prompting is something we've always struggled to pull together. -- Andrew Howlett, Rain

2. Delegating tasks

One of the most challenging jobs for entrepreneurs is delegating tasks. To do so, you need to have standard operating procedures in place so that your team members can perform tasks without your involvement. SOPs require a lot of attention at first, energy that will only be paid back in the long term. Being organized with your procedures is key in successful delegating. -- Diego Orjuela, Cables & Sensors

3. Documenting company processes

Developing and documenting a process within a startup is the most overlooked task. As a company who has been around for five years, I look back and wish I had documented everything. Every leader should document every process within a company from recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, off-boarding, account management and sales, to marketing, finance and payroll. This saves time and quickens training. -- Shalyn Dever, Chatter Buzz

4. Managing teams across the country

With me in New York City and various team members living on the west coast, getting everyone together for meetings — and making sure that all participants stay engaged — can be difficult. Keeping weekly check-ins with everyone, delegating tasks, following up, and making people feel like I’m in the room when I’m not there are things I constantly strive for. -- Jojo Hedaya, Unroll.me

5. Streamlinging email

So many digital organization tools have popped up during the years, but the one area that can still be a struggle is email. Switching to Gmail a few years ago has definitely helped, but I think there is untapped potential in finding a better way to organize and streamline email communications. -- Leila Lewis, Be Inspired PR

6. Direct-sales outreach

It is easy to focus on smaller problems that offer immediate psychological return like a small programming issue or simple accounting fix. However sales outreach can be a drag, where you put in hours of time for no immediate payoff. If I could organize and force a certain amount of hours per day into direct sales outreach, I could ensure consistent monthly recurring revenue growth for my business. -- Michael Averto, ChannelApe

7. Prioritizing tasks

With an overwhelming amount of work on a day-to-day basis, it is hard to focus and prioritize my daily tasks by what is most important. I wish I had the time to write out my tasks for the day every morning, and color code them according to how urgent or important they were to get done. There are too many times when I get a lot done in one day, but forget about the most important thing that I had to do. -- Chad Keller, Eyeflow

8. Filing paperwork

It's so easy to throw receipts, invoices, tax, payroll data into a bucket and hope that it magically gets filed by someone, sometime. Admittedly, that's kind of the hope here, and usually once or twice a year, we hit a day of reckoning where we have to purge and file it all away! I'd really like to work on our system for this, and would love to see a list of pointers to do so! -- Josh Sprague, Orange Mud

9. Time for companywide professional development

In a fast-paced agency with looming deadlines every month, it's difficult to find the time and implement a system for continued professional development across the company. There is a "jump in the deep end" mentality that works well in many cases, but often leaves gaps in people's skill sets over time. Ideally, we'd have a way to fill these gaps without impacting time for client work. -- Ross Beyeler, Growth Spark

9 common business obstacles successful entrepreneurs face

The Young Entrepreneur Council is an invite-only organization composed of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. Read previous SmartBrief posts by YEC.

If you enjoy this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter for entrepreneurs.

Q. If you could be more organized in one area of your business, where would it be and why?

1. New-business development

The new-business pipeline is one of the most important and also one of the most chaotic pieces of our company. While there are tremendous tools (both large and small) for this process, it still seems to always end up a little unorganized and frenetic. Better organization of basic information, lead flow tracking and then sales process prompting is something we've always struggled to pull together. -- Andrew Howlett, Rain

2. Delegating tasks

One of the most challenging jobs for entrepreneurs is delegating tasks. To do so, you need to have standard operating procedures in place so that your team members can perform tasks without your involvement. SOPs require a lot of attention at first, energy that will only be paid back in the long term. Being organized with your procedures is key in successful delegating. -- Diego Orjuela, Cables & Sensors

3. Documenting company processes

Developing and documenting a process within a startup is the most overlooked task. As a company who has been around for five years, I look back and wish I had documented everything. Every leader should document every process within a company from recruiting, hiring, on-boarding, off-boarding, account management and sales, to marketing, finance and payroll. This saves time and quickens training. -- Shalyn Dever, Chatter Buzz

4. Managing teams across the country

With me in New York City and various team members living on the west coast, getting everyone together for meetings — and making sure that all participants stay engaged — can be difficult. Keeping weekly check-ins with everyone, delegating tasks, following up, and making people feel like I’m in the room when I’m not there are things I constantly strive for. -- Jojo Hedaya, Unroll.me

5. Streamlinging email

So many digital organization tools have popped up during the years, but the one area that can still be a struggle is email. Switching to Gmail a few years ago has definitely helped, but I think there is untapped potential in finding a better way to organize and streamline email communications. -- Leila Lewis, Be Inspired PR

6. Direct-sales outreach

It is easy to focus on smaller problems that offer immediate psychological return like a small programming issue or simple accounting fix. However sales outreach can be a drag, where you put in hours of time for no immediate payoff. If I could organize and force a certain amount of hours per day into direct sales outreach, I could ensure consistent monthly recurring revenue growth for my business. -- Michael Averto, ChannelApe

7. Prioritizing tasks

With an overwhelming amount of work on a day-to-day basis, it is hard to focus and prioritize my daily tasks by what is most important. I wish I had the time to write out my tasks for the day every morning, and color code them according to how urgent or important they were to get done. There are too many times when I get a lot done in one day, but forget about the most important thing that I had to do. -- Chad Keller, Eyeflow

8. Filing paperwork

It's so easy to throw receipts, invoices, tax, payroll data into a bucket and hope that it magically gets filed by someone, sometime. Admittedly, that's kind of the hope here, and usually once or twice a year, we hit a day of reckoning where we have to purge and file it all away! I'd really like to work on our system for this, and would love to see a list of pointers to do so! -- Josh Sprague, Orange Mud

9. Time for companywide professional development

In a fast-paced agency with looming deadlines every month, it's difficult to find the time and implement a system for continued professional development across the company. There is a "jump in the deep end" mentality that works well in many cases, but often leaves gaps in people's skill sets over time. Ideally, we'd have a way to fill these gaps without impacting time for client work. -- Ross Beyeler, Growth Spark

Boost buy-in and bolster your professional boundaries

You have an unpublished science fiction novel in your head. You know the one -- the "stories" about why other people's behavior is "wrong" or "right" according to your rules. Think about this: Multiple stories have been written about you based on your actions or inaction. While these unvalidated stories may seem real in your head, they are fiction.

A perception gap exists between what you think (interpret) and see (behavior) when working with others. The assumptions behind these perceptions feed the "story" stirring miscommunication and misunderstanding. So what does this have to do with boundaries?

When you’re not transparent with colleagues about what you need and the impact their actions and behavior are having on you, productivity and communication decline. In fact, one report on workplace conflict highlights that it’s not skills causing these breakdowns; employee tension is the root of 60-80% of difficulties in organizations.

From CEOs to interns, communicating boundaries is an essential step to easing tension. Discussing what you need opens up the dialogue for what your colleagues need from you. Clarifying boundaries enables understanding by establishing limits, expectations, constraints, and deadlines.

Setting boundaries with co-workers

Start by outlining who does what, how teammates should work together, and which tools everyone will be using.

In one case study, an employee nicknamed "slacker" annoyed everyone because he used outdated tools and missed deadlines. A co-worker, realizing he took more time to complete assignments because he lacked research skills, advocated for the “slacker” to receive more on-the-job training. Soon, he was no longer the office pariah.

Also, get clarity on what “deadline” means. People view time differently. Reach an agreement with co-workers on specific dates and times to ease confusion about what "on time" means to everyone.

Setting boundaries with employees

As a people manager, define "surprises" and how you want to be informed.

At Microsoft, I sourced authors and vendors for leadership events. Our policy was to pay vendors for one day of international travel. At the last minute, one vendor said he wouldn't show up without two travel days paid.

With 10 days until the event and no backup, I made the call to pay for both days — a good decision that went sour because I did not inform my manager. I was reprimanded for not looping him in on the situation and for being over budget. This surprise could have been mitigated had I informed him by outlining my decision and rationale.

Make it clear how, why, and when employees are to inform you of unexpected changes, no matter how minor they might seem at the time.

Setting boundaries with clients

Focus on what's in scope with your clients. If you notice scope creep, call it out.

When clients ask for something beyond what is contracted for, let them know it's outside of the contracted scope and likely to increase the budget. Then, ask whether this is still of interest to them. If you can’t provide what they need, offer alternatives so you're still providing value.

My core client base is comprised of C-suite executives. A key business client asked me to coach 10 frontline managers. I was already working with the CEO, so saying yes to the frontline manager opportunity would have diluted my C-suite value. I chose to decline and hire a talented resource who would mirror my coaching methodology for lower levels in order to create consistency with the coaching process internally.

Success depends on clear, transparent communication about what is in and out of bounds. Don't get sidelined by assumptions and surprises.

 

Mary Rezek is a disrupter known to ask the tough questions that incite awareness and inspire change. With more than 25 years of on-the-ground experience coaching executives from all over the globe, Mary enables leaders to find a new way forward and witness behavior change to gain better results. Through her offering as a global-executive and TED speaker coach, her insight and focus have earned her the nickname “Consigliere” from her clients. Known for saying “So what?” when coaching leaders, she transforms ordinary leaders to extraordinary storytellers. Read more of her work, and find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Does your company have a “values operating system”?

I interviewed a key leader in a client organization recently.

She was tired. Her six-member team has been running shorthanded over the past year. They have three open positions. “Everyone is running hard. The workload just doesn’t let up,” she told me.

“We don’t get any recognition for the extra work everyone is doing,” she said. “We feel like cogs in a wheel. No one is paying any attention to us.”

This leader and team are experiencing the negative impact of the improving job market. People are confident that they can get a better job quickly so are leaving their current, probably uninspiring roles by the thousands. The most recent US Department of Labor data shows that there were over 5 million separations in March 2017. The number of those that were voluntary separations (people quitting)? 3.1 million.

This leader and team are also experiencing a lack of appreciation for their efforts, which is all too common. TinyPulse’s 2014 engagement and culture report found that only 21% of employees feel strongly valued at work.

Why do leaders ignore genuine contributions by teams and players? It may be that these leaders believe that effusive praise and encouragement is fluff. These leaders think, “I’m paying them fair wages. I don’t need to thank them every minute, do I?”

Or it may be these leaders simply don’t think about praise and encouragement, at all. They didn’t get it from their bosses so they don’t think it’s important today.

Or, it may be that these leaders are spread thin themselves. They know that they’re not providing positive, validating feedback to their employees but don’t know what to do about it.

Effective leaders express genuine appreciation and validation of efforts daily. That investment builds employee engagement and well-being, which, in turn, inspires employees to apply their skills in service to team goals and customers.

Employees are not cogs in a wheel. They are the face of your company and the foundation of your organization’s products and services. Treat them well, daily.

Subscribe to my free twice-a-month newsletter. Subscribers enjoy free resources including a preview of my Amazon best-seller, "The Culture Engine," which helps team and company leaders create a powerful, purposeful, positive, productive work environment.

And, subscribe to my YouTube channel, where you’ll find more short, crisp, and clear episodes of my "Culture Leadership Charge" video series.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.

What’s the most dangerous mistake you can make when writing a strategic plan?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from more than 210,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our e-newsletter.

What's the most dangerous mistake you can make when writing a strategic plan?

  • Only pursuing small initiatives: 4%
  • Only pursuing huge initiatives: 3%
  • Only focusing on your core business and not new ones: 6%
  • Lacking a coherent theme or direction for initiatives: 35%
  • Pursuing too many initiatives at once: 52% 

Get direction and focus. Strategy is about saying “no” and clearly that’s a big challenge for many of you. 52% of you are chasing too many opportunities. I’d venture to guess not all of them are big or strategic. In a world of limited resources, every minute you spend on something small or distracting is a minute you’re taking away from the big and meaningful stuff. Prioritize and narrow your list of initiatives. The way to do that is through a solid strategic planning process that helps you avoid common strategic planning errors. Spend time setting a clear direction for your organization. Once you know your desired destination, it’s easier to say no to distracting initiatives that aren’t aligned with your strategic objectives. These two approaches will solve the big problems 87% of you have identified as plaguing your business.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

6 key factors for managing young talent

Each year about this time, my mind turns to the new batch of graduates about to enter the workforce, but perhaps this year my interest is more intense.

You see, my son is among the class of 2017 graduates, so examining the kind of leadership he will experience in his first post-graduate job is more than just an intellectual exercise, it’s personal. Like every parent, I want my child to be wildly successful and to thrive throughout his career, but whether that happens depends not only on his own drive and resilience, coupled with the choices he makes, but will also be influenced by how others commit to his development.

Since none of us rises to our own greatness in a vacuum, how leaders manage and nurture young talent is a critical responsibility in every organization.

Over the last four years, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experiences that my son and his friends have had in internships and jobs. It’s remarkable how many of the companies they worked for missed the opportunity to achieve maximum benefit from this cohort of talent. Despite the workplace models that we’ve come to adore from companies like Apple and Google, keeping young new hires engaged is about a lot more than ping-pong tables in the break room and company-sponsored parties. This generation wants to feel that they are a part of something that matters, and that their opinions and insights are valued.

So how can you create an engaging environment inside your organization? How does leadership mindset need to change to embrace all that these new graduates can offer? It’s a shift, a subtle but powerful shift, and one that can make all the difference.


Graphic provided by Alaina Love

Accomplishing this shift will require a wholesale re-examination of how new hires are introduced to their job roles, how they experience the culture of the organization, who (other than their manager) is involved with their development, how the playing field is leveled so that each employee has equal access to success, and how the organization encourages boundary-stretching thinking.

When this commencement season has passed, we’ll have a group of new hires that will be entering a global business environment, the likes of which no generation before has experienced. Technology continues to evolve at a breathtaking pace, geographic boundaries are increasingly irrelevant and the access to information consumers have to guide their product and service choices will only expand.

In fact, many of the jobs these new hires will be competing for 10 years from now don’t even exist yet. The real question is: How ready are your leaders to leverage the bright young minds joining your organization today so that your company is relevant in the next decade?

 

Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.

How to succeed instead of barking up the wrong tree

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty … I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Barking Up The Wrong Tree bookThat quote from the 26th president of the United States is more than a century old, and his admonition can feel quaint as we stumble about, obsessed with the next nugget of information, the easiest, quickly, least intensive way to fix something, advance in life or entertain ourselves.

That impulse is understandable and sometimes even important in a world where we also like to burn ourselves out. But there’s something tying together these twin impulses of easy gratification and overwork: The mistaken belief that big changes can -- easily -- be accomplished in one fell swoop, whether through a burst of output or the right lifehack.

Eric Barker’s “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” (May 2017, HarperCollins), the book adaptation of his long-running blog, might be mistaken as a promise to fulfill all your life and career hopes and dreams. It is not. Barker’s book can be a guide, a way to weed out some of the worst advice and reflect on yourself and your goals, but it cannot solve your life for you.

I’ve long admired and learned from the way Barker synthesizes the science, social or otherwise, about human behavior and outcomes and gives people practical ways to inform themselves and take action. This is not easy to do with credibility, and sometimes even means revising your earlier advice as new science becomes available. Talking about career and life success can also lead writers to rely on platitudes, something Barker said he was keenly aware of in writing this.

You want to be positive, useful and helpful, he told me, but you also have to be truthful and "intellectually honest."

I recently spoke with Barker about the book, his approach and the long journey he’s taken from a blog idea to a powerful brand and, now, published work.

The origins of “Barking Up The Wrong Tree”

Like many things on the internet, Barker’s blog started as a way for him to share what was on his mind. He described a career "at a crossroads," which included being an undergraduate philosophy major, writing screenplays and getting an MBA. After graduating, he started to notice that "the maxims of success" everyone hears about were contradictory, or didn't apply to him, or were mixed in among piles of research or the rest of the internet. "The good answers are equally buried in with the bad answers!" he told me.

At first, the blog featured abstracts from scientific studies. As time went on, Barker began to combine various sources of thinking and research, advancing next to interviewing researchers directly to get further into their work and insights. That’s how the blog evolved -- and the book is a way to explore these ideas, note which work and which don't, and do so "in exhaustive detail."

"To be great, we must be different."

That quote, early on in Barker's book, stuck with me throughout my reading and even into my conversation with Barker. This doesn't mean one can't do well by following the rules and guidelines, but it does offer a challenge -- and an opportunity.

I asked him how he worked to define "success," as the precise definitions of the words we use are cricial to this book and most of our discussions about careers and leadership. "I address this directly in the work/life balance chapter, where one of the biggest problems I think people experience comes right down to that definition," Barker told me. Society has this idea of "success" that doesn't necessarily leave room for people's goals to differ from the public standard based on context, or strengths or wants.

Having a personal definition of success matters. So does having a strategy, though not all are productive. Barker cites the "collapsing strategy," in which everything rises or falls based on one metric.

"The problem with that, that's kind of like saying, 'Screw happiness, screw my health, my relationships, the only thing that matters is money, and I want to make that number go up. And I'm going to devote every hour of my day to that. Well, guess what? You'll probably be successful at making that number go up. Of course, you'll find your're miserable, you're divorced, your kids don't want to talk to you, and you're going to have a heart attack."

Another common mistake in the pursuit of success is what Barker calls "sequencing." Essentially, you decide to focus on one area, then shift to another, and so on, regardless of the demands of the moment.

Barker instead pointed me toward the researchers Nash and Stevenson, who devised the four key metrics worth seeking in a successful life:

  • Happiness
  • Achievement
  • Significance
  • Legacy

Keeping track of all of that looks tough. "But if you look at your hours, you look at the time you're spending in your day, and you're making regular little donations into each one of those four buckets, then you're doing pretty well," Barker told me. "So, we can have four metrics we can use to kind of determine success, but the specifics of the goal are specific to the person. You don't have to be a billionaire, you can be a stay-at-home mom -- either one has a definition of success, and that's something we need to tailor to our goals and our strengths."

OK, success. Got it. What do I do next?

Barker's book can help you examine the common beliefs about networking, career aims, risk-taking, perserverance and grit, and more. He does so by looking at all of the ideas, not just the ones you might think are correct or that he mgiht think are correct. There are a lot of ideas in this book -- here is just a sampling of the topics covered:

  • How successful are valedictorians?
  • What can we learn from people who literally cannot feel pain?
  • Why gangs and pirates are more cooperative than you might think?
  • When you should quit, and when should you push forward?
  • Why Paul Erdos had little of what you might call social skills but was the greatest collaborator mathematics has ever seen.
  • The good and bad of baseball (and fishing!) legend Ted Williams’ legendary focus and competitiveness.
  • When is working more worse than working less?

The book is probably best as a straight read-through, at least the first time around. I base this off my own reading and talking with Barker about it. You can jump into, say, Chapter 5 and not feel lost, but again, we're trying to build a habit of contributing to each of those four buckets mentioned above, not simply improve one area at the expense of the others.

Risk, trends and contrary examples

One reason success is so difficult to plan for is because, well, life has variables and outliers. Trends don't account for every individual experience, and one can usually make a counterargument even if in the long run the other side wins out.

This extends into much of the research Barker talks about. For instance, nice guys don't necessary finish last, as trust and fairness are incredibly important to the fabric of a society -- even, maybe especially so, to pirates and.prison gangs. At the same time, many nice people do have worse outcomes. This seems confusing, right? Barker quotes Adam Grant, who did the research into these nice people called "Givers".

"I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who's at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to dicsover, it's the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom but also at the top of most success metrics."

While there are also lots of jerks who do well, particularly in the short run, Grant found the "Givers" at the top also made more money.

In another chapter, Barker documents a Boston College researcher's look at salutatorians and valedictorians. Nearly all graduated college, a majority going on to finish graduate school, and they've generally enjoyed success. "But how many of these number one high school perfomers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero," Barker writes. These high performers do well within the system, so why would they break it.

A third example from Barker: Research by Gautam Mukunda has shown that when we think of great leaders, we're really thinking about two types: "filtered" and "unfiltered." The former are like those valedictorians, following the process through and through. The unfiltered leaders aren't reliable in this way. They will change or break systems.

Being a maverick sounds great, right? And certainly, if you look at your strengths and goals and see that conforming to the system won't help you, you might want to become a maverick. But Barker has a word of caution for these care-free sorts, as these people can have qualities that "were often negative at the mean -- qualities you and I would consider 'bad' -- but due to the specific context, they became positives. Like [Winston] Churchill's paranoid defense of the British stage, these qualities were a posion that under just the right circumstances could be a performance-enhancing drug."

"Barking Up The Wrong Tree" is full of these examples of how research into both sides matters, and how context matters and that individual results may vary. In all these cases, though, it's better to have all this information than to make a decision without it.

One of Barker's strengths is being able to work through all this science and research without making it abstract and impenetrable, but also without condescending, oversimplifying or making leaps beyond that of the text. These questions don't have easy answers, and all one can do is bringing "intellectual honesty" to the questions, helping people see the truth, whatever it is.

But sometimes the science is muddied by new findings, or even reverses itself. Social science is imperfect. Barker’s had to deal with this in the blog, and he’ll probably have to continue doing so. But, as he pointed out, it’s not like any science stands still, whether social science, medicine, or otherwise.

"Science is always progressing, and we're always learning new things," he said.

What can’t this book do?

Any helpful business or career book, like "Barking Up The Wrong Tree," will spur you to rethink how things are done and why. It will give you ideas and insights you wouldn't have encountered elsewhere. But such books are guides at best, not answers in themselves..

As I wrote last year, citing David Burkus’ “Under New Management,”

“If you’re seeking inspiration on doing things differently and smarter, this type of book might help. Notably, though, it won’t guarantee success or prescribe a specific solution for your organization – that hard work is up to you.”

If you're looking for a way forward, but don't expect all the answers to be magically delivered, "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" -- the blog and the book -- might be for you. As Barker told me, "This is meant to be, ''Here’s the best we’ve got right now,' because that's the only thing that's honest, and fair."

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and other fields. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.