You’ve checked all the boxes. You’ve graduated from the right college, held the right internship, flourished in the right graduate program, and landed the right job at the right company. You’ve followed the path that everyone else told you would be the one to lead to success — to your dream job — only to find that your dream job doesn’t feel so dreamy after all.
The good news is that you aren’t alone. Across each generation, the realization that success hasn’t brought with it the expected happiness has created a zeitgeist moment where conversations about purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction reign supreme. In fact, a 2015 study by Gallup showed that only one-third of the American workforce feels actively engaged in their work.
Each generation is experiencing its own work identity crisis, trying to determine why their work isn’t working for them. Millennials — social media natives who have never lived separate lives at work and at home — don’t look for work-life balance, but rather work-life alignment, where they can be the same person, with the same values, at home and in the office. Boomers are turning the standard retirement age of 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day, but are not ready to put their hard-earned toolboxes on the shelf to gather dust. One-third of Americans over the age of fifty —nearly 34 million people — stated that they were seeking to fill their time with some professional (paid or unpaid) purpose beyond just the self. GenXers, finding themselves caught between raising children and nursing aging parents, are looking for work that contributes to managing these demands rather than working against them.
While these generations may differ in terms of what’s most meaningful to them, across each generation, meaning matters. Continue reading →
I was moderating a panel on leadership for a client of mine and received the bios of the three very accomplished executive panelists. All three bios were simply a list of credentials— impressive credentials, but that was it.
There was nothing human. Nothing personal. Nothing that gave the audience any understanding of their thoughts on leadership or success. This robotic resume in prose form is all too common, and it erases our most valuable asset: our humanity. Especially in our digital world, being yourself—your unique, human self—gives you a distinctive competitive edge.
Yet somehow we have been led to believe that at work, we must diminish our humanity, behaving (and appearing) like robots who are prized for their automation and conformity. When we get to the office, we leave our true selves at the door, ramp up our “work” mindset and keep our human traits muzzled until we leave for the evening. The belief that we need to be as efficient as an LED bulb and as knowledgeable as Wikipedia, as productive as an assembly line and as human as a doorknob, might have worked in the industrial age, but we have been in the relationship economy for decades.
Today, we can’t afford to forget the one ingredient that’s essential for business success— humanity. After all, relationships are the currency of business. More than ever, business is a truly human endeavor. Continue reading →
by Shannon G. Taylor Donald H. Kluemper W. Matthew Bowler Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben
Bad behavior at work can have very real consequences. People who experience workplace rudeness, for example, report lower engagement, suffer more mental and physical health problems, and are more likely to burn out and quit their jobs. And nearly all of us are affected by rudeness and other types of workplace misbehavior, like interrupting and exclusion: Estimates suggest 98% of employees are on the receiving end over the course of a year.
Given bad behavior’s prevalence and impact, surely leaders take reports of it seriously, get the facts, and punish offenders, right? Some scholars have noted that, when information about misbehavior surfaces, savvy leaders know better than to blame the messenger. Unfortunately, our research paints a picture that is much bleaker.
We set out to investigate how people in positions of power view victims and perpetrators of workplace misbehavior. We first studied an organization that operates a chain of casual dining restaurants. We gave each employee a list of the names of every other employee who worked in their restaurant, and asked them to report who they were rude to and who was rude to them. We then asked managers to evaluate the behavior of each employee. Across the five restaurants we studied, 149 of the 169 employees (88%) and 13 of the 14 managers (93%) participated. Notably, those employees who reported being victims of rudeness were largely perceived by their managers as perpetrators of rude behavior. And the employees who were reported as being rude to others weren’t seen that way by their managers under two conditions: they had a tight relationship with the boss or were high performers. Continue reading →
Most of us are so digitally connected that we have become utterly disconnected.
Michelle, the COO of a multinational corporation, was one of the most respected executives in her industry. A true workhorse, she was famous for her ability to multitask and constant online presence. While her staff admired the way she worked, they felt pressured to do the same. Recently, several of them were signed off from work, citing burnout, and two others had handed in their resignation.
During a session with her executive coach, Michelle described how she exercised every day before going to the office and used that time to discuss work with colleagues over the phone. Similarly, she optimised every minute of her travel time in her car or on planes. Any spare time was devoted to maintaining a strong presence on LinkedIn and other social media. She took pride in replying to all the messages and comments she received.
Michelle wondered whether this busyness had begun to hurt her ability to concentrate and think for the long term. She found it hard to sleep at night and had a creeping sense of feeling overwhelmed. She believed this caused her to make more mistakes and be less productive than usual. “Could mindfulness training be of help?”, she asked.
The heavy toll of tech-enabled productivity
Given Michelle’s work habits, what is happening to her and her team should come as no surprise. They suffer from technostress, the inability to cope with the digital world in a healthy manner. Digital technology was supposed to make us more productive – and it has to some extent – but those benefits have not come without costs.
The combined pressure of constant virtual presence and continuous information bombardment have had negative consequences on our health. Aside from creating potential work overload, technostress has paved the way to anxiety, feelings of frustration, job dissatisfaction, poor job performance, absenteeism and retention problems. Burnout and mental health problems, including digital addiction, always lurk in the shadows.
When RescueTime (a time management software company) ran a survey on the use of digital technology in the workplace, only 10 percent of respondents said they felt in control of how they spend their days. Data from more than 50,000 RescueTime users showed that people have only 1 hour and 12 minutes a day when they aren’t using communication tools or being distracted by them. The survey also found that 70 percent of employees keep their inbox open all day and only 20 percent have a deliberate strategy for dealing with their e-mails.
The tricks our brains play on us
Why are we obsessed with being constantly connected? Why do we find it so hard to resist the beeps and alerts of incoming messages and notifications? Obvious explanations include the fear of missing out, the need to feel (or be perceived as) productive, procrastination and the compulsion to feel connected in an increasingly virtual world. The latter is especially true for senior executives who often suffer from the loneliness of command.
Underlying these motivations are deeper biochemical and psychological forces which bear a strong resemblance to those seen in gambling addiction. Just like compulsive gamblers who live for the thrill of the occasional win, we feel compelled to constantly check our inbox as it may contain a message we are eagerly awaiting or some other “nice surprise”. In both cases, random rewards stimulate the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that motivates us to repeat the triggering behaviour.
In the corporate world, there is a growing awareness that people must disconnect in order to carve out time for reflection. This shift is great news, but we must guard against quick-fix solutions. For example, a high performer like Michelle cannot work manically and then expect a few mindfulness sessions to save her from impending burnout.
Learning to self-manage
The challenge for people like Michelle is to learn how to keep technostress at bay. This requires self-control. Leaders must create environments that satisfy the human need for connection while also enabling their people to disconnect at times. It is about recapturing what was once a sacred space – the one reserved for reflection and creative thinking.
To free themselves and their staff from the prison of technostress, executives must define clear boundaries for how and when to use digital communication tools. This could include guidelines about appropriate response time to different types of contact. Some suggestions are:
As a rule, e-mails should not require an immediate response. Truly urgent issues should be resolved through a phone call.
Staff should refrain from accessing e-mail outside of working hours or whilst on holidays.
People should not stay in the office outside normal hours unless absolutely necessary. The same applies to virtual meetings out of hours.
Another measure to combat technostress consists of a brief, automated e-mail response indicating that the message has been received but will only be addressed within a particular time frame (e.g. at a specific hour in the morning and in the afternoon).
There is a difference between a lightning-fast response and one that really adds value. In this context, it is also worthwhile to clarify that nobody in the office is expected to know everything.
It is up to leaders to promote a “work-smart” mindset that advocates taking breaks for reflection. Even when it seems that we are not doing anything, our brains are often working on important issues surreptitiously.
Considering this reality, is your commute really the time to check messages or call team members and clients? Or should it be ‘news’ time, a space to disconnect from work while staying abreast of political and economic developments? Could you use this time to read some fiction or just look out the window and enjoy the scenery?
If you can’t block time alone for reflection when you’re in the office, why not step outside to get some fresh air and have a stroll? A short nap can also be very helpful, as it is a proven way to restore our alertness, memory and decision-making ability.
There are many ways to disconnect from the virtual world to create the headspace needed to engage in truly important activities, such as rethinking corporate strategy or creating a vision for the future. These moments of deliberate disconnect are a countervailing force against dopamine-driven, compulsive behaviours.
Executives should do everything in their power to avoid becoming digital roadkill. They would do well to realise that the more digitally connected they are, the more they disconnect from their fellow human beings. Although communication tools have their uses, face-to-face interactions have the most potential for meaningful and durable impact.
By Benjamin Kessler, Managing Editor; Clarissa Cortland, INSEAD Post-Doctoral Research Fellow; and Zoe Kinias, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour
To enable women’s advancement where it’s needed most, individual, interpersonal and institutional changes are required.
When it comes to developing gender balance, organisations in male-dominated fields such as venture capital, STEM and the “greedy professions” (as well as in leadership roles within most companies) have a two-fold problem. First, they may face challenges in recruiting women: Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes about which jobs are appropriate for women can affect both women’s career aspirations and hiring managers’ decisions. Second, many women bravely venture into these organisations only to confront a steeper path to advancement than their male peers. In the finance industry, for example, the representation of women across all levels declines from nearly 50 percent to a mere 15 percent as one ascends from the professional to the executive level.
The INSEAD Gender Initiative’s 2019 Women at Work conference, recently held in Singapore, concluded with a research session on how organisations can dislodge the built-up biases that impede women’s career progress, creating new pathways to leadership for deserving women.
The glass cliff
What can be worse than organisations without meaningful career opportunities for women? Arguably, those offering opportunities that can actually be traps. First recognised in a 2005 paper by Professors Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, the “glass cliff” is a widely noted phenomenon whereby women are installed as leaders at times of potential crisis, thus essentially being set up to fail.
At the INSEAD conference, Ryan said she became aware of this “think crisis – think female” association after reading an article in TheTimes newspaper, which argued gender balance was bad for business, citing supposed linkages between the presence of women directors and corporate underperformance. Using detailed archival examination, Ryan’s subsequent research found that the newspaper got the causation backwards. It wasn’t that having women on the board was a liability, but rather that women tended to be appointed at moments of poor company performance (as measured by a decline in share price).
Why are women singled out for these unenviable posts? “Stereotypes of women mediate that effect,” Ryan says. “We think women are good at crisis, but we also think women make good scapegoats.”
In later research, Ryan and her co-authors tested the behavioural basis for the glass cliff, launching several studies in which participants were asked to nominate a leader for a fictitious company that was either flourishing or in decline. Men were chosen slightly more often than women to helm successful companies. When the company was in trouble, both male and female participants showed a clear preference for women.
As the concept of the glass cliff gained recognition, some studies and articles appeared purporting to debunk it, while others presented confirming evidence. Apparently contradictory findings may create confusion as to whether the glass cliff is real or not. Ryan has recently tried to make sense of it all with a meta-analysis of all available data relevant to the concept. She found a “small but significant” overall effect, affecting women as well as racial/ethnic minorities who end up balancing precariously on the edge in newly appointed positions of leadership. In related work, Ryan finds that this glass cliff effect varies in size depending on a number of factors. For example, when the new leader is well supported and has more financial resources, the crisis leadership situation is no more likely to bring in a woman leader. It is really the most precarious leadership positions that compel decision makers to see women as a better fit than men.
That the glass cliff is a contingent phenomenon does not make it any less real. Ryan explained: “It didn’t start from theory; it was an explanatory mechanism for data that were out there,” she says. The glass cliff is not universal, but it offers an explanation that sheds light on a set of circumstances that unites women leaders as disparate as Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who were handed the rudder of unwieldy ships at moments made especially perilous by their immediate male predecessors.
Ryan’s research underscores a clear need: Companies (and governments) must provide women and minority leaders with a broader range of opportunities to enable them to also show what they can achieve when all is working smoothly.
The emotional basis of backlash
Despite leaders’ good intentions, many men within predominantly male organisations actively resist working with and for women. Backlash has serious implications for women’s advancement, both in its subtler forms and when it manifests as outright sabotage.
Managers should strive to create processes to prevent bias and address discriminatory behaviour swiftly and decisively. In addition, Chiara Trombini, Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, suggests that a psychological intervention that addresses negative emotional reactions could be key to reducing backlash.
Trombini theorises that some men may be unsettled by the stereotype-shattering prospect of a more gender-balanced workplace. This is especially true when women display more assertive behaviour that goes against cultural and societal norms. Men’s feelings of anxiety and threat thus give rise to backlash.
Fortunately, there is a simple intervention proven to calm those exact emotions: self-affirmation. It involves asking people to reflect upon the values that matter most to them or to think about the best version of themselves. The exercise is designed to boost psychological resilience and offer protection from self-doubt in ways that subsequently reduce defensive reactions to threatening information.
Trombini and her co-authors carried out a series of studies with men and women participants to test the emotional threat hypothesis. First, participants were shown videos of women negotiating assertively during a job interview. Then, they were asked to put themselves in the place of a hiring manager. One group of participants did a self-affirmation exercise prior to viewing the videos; a control group did not. No differences were found between the women in the two groups. Among the men, however, the values-affirmed group displayed much more openness to the women interviewees in the video who negotiated assertively, indicating that self-affirmation can lead men to be more accepting of assertive women.
A later study bore out Trombini’s hypothesis about the emotions that precipitate backlash. After viewing videos, participants rated their own feelings of anxiety and apprehension, as well as how hostile and arrogant they felt the job-seeker in the video was. Replicating the first study, the self-affirmation exercise didn’t influence how women participants rated the job-seeker. For men, however, there was a difference. The control group participants perceived both their own anxiety and the job-seeker hostility as higher than did the self-affirmed men similarly evaluating an assertive woman.
In the final study, the researchers manipulated men’s anxiety levels by exposing them either to hyper-competitive, stereotypically masculine work norms (such as overt displays of confidence and physical stamina) in the high anxiety condition, or to psychologically safe work norms (such as collaboration, sharing and valuing others’ perspectives) in the low anxiety condition. Participants then chose between assisting a woman in a demanding task or withholding help (i.e. sabotage). As expected, anxious men were more likely to sabotage, unless they were self-affirmed.
Trombini’s research has implications for corporate cultures and the norms and values they espouse in a larger sense. “Anxiety is important in context,” she says. “Organisations where stress plays a role have heightened potential for stereotyping.” Overall, and especially in high anxiety contexts, self-affirmation can protect against bias by helping men to feel more secure.
Combating backlash is an important strategic objective in addressing bias that prevents women from advancing in masculine spaces. An equally crucial objective is cultivating active support for gender balance amongst the male majority – enabling men to be allies.
In research presented at last year’s Women at Work conference, Toni Schmader, the Canada Research Chair in Social Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and her co-authors discovered that conversations with male – and only male – colleagues that were not experienced positively were linked to increased burnout and social identity threat among female STEM professionals. In other words, the absence of clear male allies may hold women back in ways that parallel clear-cut incidents of bias.
At this year’s conference, Schmader talked about her role as co-leader of a research team called Project RISE (Realising Identity-Safe Environments), where she is about to launch a workshop designed to foster gender inclusion in STEM. Her team will recruit more than 400 scientists and engineers working in team environments as workshop participants. “Both men and women say they are highly motivated to be allies in their organisation, but they’re not quite sure how to go about doing it,” Schmader says. The Project RISE workshop will focus on laying the emotional groundwork for allyship as well as developing the necessary skills.
Two features of the workshop show particular promise, as reflected in pilot data. One key component is the affirmation of shared values, which lowers social identity threat for both women and men. Another is a dialogue task where two-person teams respond to questions about diversity and implicit bias, such as “What is one of your biggest concerns or worries when talking about gender bias issues?” In a trial run involving engineering students, both men and women – but especially men – found these dialogues beneficial when their conversation partner was of the other gender.
An honest conversation between two people can be surprisingly impactful, Schmader says. “The more men converse with women about bias, the more they show an increase in the ability to take women’s perspective and believe women can succeed, and there is an indirect effect on support for gender-inclusive policies as well.”
A multileveled approach
Qualified women must perceive that avenues to success are available to them within an organisation. For that to happen, organisations should increase the visibility of female role models and make a concerted effort to signal a wider cultural shift.
In her own talk, INSEAD’s Clarissa Cortland described how the year-long iW50 campaign – spanning the 2017-18 academic year and celebrating the past and present of women at INSEAD, as well as the vision for the future – delivered on three conceptual pillars:
Highlighting gender-balanced models of leadership through communications campaigns both on- and offline, prominent women speaking on campus, etc.
Raising awareness through research, alumni- and student-led events
Engaging men in all INSEAD communities, including faculty, staff, alumni, and notably via the introduction of an official group of male MBA allies called Manbassadors
The iW50 campaign may be over, but the work of the INSEAD Gender Initiative continues. In any large organisation, there is always the danger that progress will pause when gender balance is no longer top of mind. Empowering women to achieve their full potential in spaces where they are underrepresented is not a one-off project, but a long-haul effort requiring maintenance and frequent reassessment.
As INSEAD Gender Initiative’s leader Zoe Kinias said at the conclusion of the conference, “Diversity initiatives need to be perceived and enacted more like change management.”