Emotional Contagion in the Workplace – Part I

Sneeze vector

Sneeze vector (Photo credit: 729:512)

Much of the work we do in Strategic Workforce Planning involves taking both internal and external trends, and determining how they might play out for your organisation.  Once you’ve done that, you can determine tactics to harness or address these trends to prepare for the best possible future workforce.

Sometimes, there are clear trends happening inside the organisation that are unsustainable – high performers turning over, key skills being lost, etc.  Identifying those trends through workforce analytics lets you understand the nature and extent of the problem, and determine strategies for addressing them.  By targeting these initiatives to where you need them most, you can ensure that your HR and Talent Management strategies are effective and efficient.

On the other side of the coin, workforce analytics and environment scanning help you to recognise opportunities and areas that the organisation is doing well in, so that you can capitalise on those.  People who are trained in a particular skillset are 20% more productive?  There’s your ROI for the training initiative right there.

One of the key things to recognise in any kind of workforce futuring is that it’s not just about headcount – you need to take into account the skillset and the productivity of the workforce too… and some trends can effect productivity in ways that just can’t be predicted.  Key among these is engagement.  The good news is that engagement (like many emotions in the workplace) is contagious.  The bad news is that disengagement is twice as contagious.  Further, trends that are subject to “contagion” have multiplier effects that can’t be accurately forecast. In a coming post, I’ll be talking about the research that supports emotional contagion in the workplace, the implications of this, and what you can do about it.  Stay tuned.



Are we Jumping the Shark on Big Data for HR?

Jumping the shark is the moment in a TV show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery, where the writers use some type of “gimmick” in a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest.  As a result, the show loses credibility and starts its long decline into irrelevance.  The term Jumping the Shark is actually named after this scene in Happy Days, where Fonzie did actually jump a shark on waterskis, inexplicably wearing both a leather jacket and swimming trunks at the same time:

Big Data Bandwagon

All aboard the Big Data Bandwagon

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of HR vendors jumping on the Big Data bandwagon, and I wonder if as an industry, we’ve jumped the shark on this one.  Many of the articles and whitepapers I’m reading are describing Workforce Analytics, but claiming to be Big Data.  Some of them go to great lengths to define Big Data in ambiguous and overly-generic terms, so that they can claim to be offering a “Big Data” solution.  Let’s be clear – Big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional database management tools.  Think Sentiment Analysis from Twitter feeds; Behavioural Analysis, or Resume Screening for structure and soft skills – these data sources are largely unstructured, and require non-traditional approaches to data analysis like NoSQL and R.  

If you’re crunching internal data about your workforce from your HRIS and ERP systems, even if that data is coming from multiple sources, you’re not doing Big Data – you’re doing Workforce Analytics.  The good news is that:

  1. There are some really exciting potential applications for Big Data in the Workplace; and
  2. Workforce Analytics generates some meaningful and actionable insights for organisations, and is still gaining traction – though it’s been around for much longer than the term “Big Data”.

My concern is that Big Data for HR will go the way of Gamification for HR – another trend where some vendors will add token functionality and claim to be in the space for marketing reasons.  The result of much of this effort will be that, like gamification, clients will become disenfranchised with the field because it won’t deliver results.  The reality is that both gamification and Big Data have great potential – for the right organisations, and using the right tools – but you need to sort out the marketing spin from the significant offerings from vendors who understand and embrace the potential of these concepts.  If you really want Big Data, run a competition on Kaggle.  If you want actionable insights from analytics and, like 95% of organisations out there, aren’t suited to Big Data, then what you’re looking for is Workforce Analytics.

Big Data has big potential – just don’t jump onto the bandwagon until you know how to play an instrument – and remember, the plural of statistic is not strategy.

Jumping The Shark

Steve Carell as Michael Scott on 'The Office', victim of the Peter Principle

Michael Scott and The Peter Principle

Steve Carell as Michael Scott on 'The Office', victim of the Peter Principle

Michael Scott, manager in “The Office” and victim of the Peter Principle

The “Peter Principle” is the idea that when promotions are made on the basis of prior performance, everyone will eventually be promoted to their own level of incompetence.  It still has resonance some 40 years after is was first proposed, and it has an enormous impact on productivity, engagement, and retention in organisations today.

Perhaps one of the most recent high-profile embodiments of the Peter Principle is Michael Scott from the TV Comedy “The Office”.  A great salesman before he was promoted to Regional Manager, Scott can’t seem to cut it in a management position.  He is allergic to conflict, provides cliches in place of leadership, and haplessly implements one half-baked strategy after another – all to hilarious effect.  We laugh along because most of us, at some point in our careers, have known a manager like Michael.

The skills to excel in a technical area are not the same as the skills to manage or lead a workforce.  Many organisations fail to recognise this, or are unable to support employees transitioning into a management role.

Project Oxygen was Google’s quest to use Data Analytics to find a better manager, based on the premise that people leave companies for three main reasons:

1. They don’t feel a connection to the mission of the company, or have a sense that their work matters;

2. They don’t really like or respect their co-workers; and/or

3. They have a terrible boss.

Given the last of these points is arguably the easiest to control, Google sought to find out what actually makes a good manager, and found that  it comes down to these attributes and behaviors, in order of importance:

1. Being a good coach;

2. Empowering their team and not micromanaging;

3. Expressing interest in team members’ success and personal well-being;

4. Being productive and results-oriented;

5. Being a good communicator and listening to their team;

6. Helping their employees with career development;

7. Having a clear vision and strategy for the team; and

8. Having key technical skills so they can help advise the team.

What’s telling about this list that the least important trait of the manager is usually the main reason why people are promoted to technical management roles in the first place.  Without coaching or transition support into management roles, it’s no wonder the Peter Principle is still alive and well today.

Leadership positions (and done well, a management position is one of those) can have a disproportionate impact on the ability of the organization to execute strategy, but what makes a great technician is not what makes a great leader.  How do you support people transitioning to leadership positions in your organisation?

The False Proxy Trap

Back in November, Seth Godin wrote:

“Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.”

We do this all the time in HR out of necessity – we measure employee satisfaction because there’s a connection between satisfaction and productivity, for example; and it’s difficult in many (but not all) roles to measure productivity directly.  Godin goes on to explain how this can become a problem when we focus on the proxy (in this example, employee satisfaction) and forget the goal (in this example, employee productivity):

“…When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead”

I believe we often fall into this trap too – being obsessed with employee satisfaction metrics as if they are an end in themselves, forgetting that the point is to increase employee productivity – and that:

  1. There are many other paths to boosting employee productivity; and
  2. Not all of the ways to increase employee satisfaction will also increase employee productivity.

What are some other examples of the “false proxy trap” in HR?

(This post originally appeared at strategicworkforceplanning.blogspot.com, the other place I blog at from time to time)