Caught In The Act!… of doing something right: A neurobiological approach to high performance management – by Michael McIntosh

There is no shortage or theories on how to manage and lead – every day we witness new insights from the famous, talented or deceased. But how might we enact good management on a daily, hands-on basis – and, just as importantly, why? It turns out there is genuine science to this question, and if we understand and apply some basic neurobiological principles, the gap between mediocre and high performance becomes bridgeable quite quickly. Here’s why and how:

Adrenaline

neurobiology of high performance management - adrenaline

A good place to start is with three naturally occurring chemicals that our bodies produce instantly and one that takes a few moments more to generate but lasts a LOT longer. The first two are pretty good – epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) work together to prepare and mobilise the body for action. Increasing blood flow, attention and concentration, they help to sharpen the mind, improving task focus while blocking out, at least to some extent, distractions such as sounds, pain, fatigue and so on. In practise, they allow me to achieve a state of highly productive flow in my work while not hearing a single track on the CD that’s playing in the background. They also give me the energy to finish a cycling or kayaking trip without much discomfort, whereas a short while later, when their effects subside, my body complains in the most vociferous terms about the harsh punishment it has just endured.

Dopamine

neurobiology of high performance management - dopamine

In a professional context these two hormones are important for motivating us to tackle challenging tasks, providing the energy and focus to perform them to a high standard. Ideally, they are accompanied by dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel good by triggering our internal rewards systems, giving us a natural high, increasing positive feelings, optimism, camaraderie and sociability while reducing fear sensitivity and (some) inhibitions. Dopamine is a key ingredient in fostering our social drives and behaviours.

If you have ever enjoyed the feeling of having achieved something difficult, whether related to a sporting or work achievement, that’s dopamine doing its thing – and it can be even better if you were a part of a close-knit team at the time. Our intrinsic desire for those addictive dopamine pleasure dumps means that, unless fear of failure or other potential physical or psychological risks is stronger, most people continually seek new challenges and greater achievements, finding, despite the difficulties involved, them to be more stimulating than the uninspiring predictability of repeating the things we’ve done many times before. Together, the focus and energy provided by epinephrine and norepinephrine allow us to perform at a higher level, and if we take a positive view to those challenges dopamine is likely to be present throughout as well – it’s a naturally occurring behaviour-shaping system that lives within all of us.

Cortisol

neurobiology of high performance management - cortisol

To mess up this massively enjoyable party the fourth guest is cortisol – commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol responds to danger, just as epinephrine and norepinephrine do, but one of its primary roles is to protect and repair us. Taking a little longer to take effect, it helps us to be more alert to potential sources of danger, reducing our optimism, appetite for risk and sociability. Amongst other things, cortisol also prepares parts of the circulatory system for repair after the physical exertion that used to be an appropriate response to most causes of fear and danger. In a modern context, the chronic exposure to cortisol that results from sustained high levels of mental stress has been shown to be very damaging to physical and mental health, increasing illness in both frequency and severity, reducing quality and length of life. And whereas dopamine often lasts around 2 to 4 hours, cortisol can last up to 24 hours – or even longer when prolonged dwelling on negativity extends its influence.

Brain chemistry and fairness

Research shows that, potentially due to the power and longevity of the danger-sensitive cortisol in comparison to the pleasure-rewarding but shorter-lived effects of dopamine, employees need to feel they receive more positive than negative feedback. To put a number on the ideal proportion, it seems that around 5 positive things (ie compliments, good news, encouragement, positive social interactions) for every piece of negative feedback is likely to create a balance where people feel appreciated and fairly treated.

Management Practice

How does this inform management practice? The first thing is to understand that meaningful challenges provide motivation, energy and connection. This means that if managers want their teams to do “more” or “better”, they had better feel challenged – preferably by something that connects with their own values and interests, furthers their own development and success and they see as worthwhile socially. As noted earlier, raising the bar on challenges also raises the bar on motivation and intrinsic reward – on the basis that psychological and physical safety exists and employees feel empowered, competent, supported and sincerely appreciated for taking on that challenge and achieving those new goals. This is contrary to the view of some managers who hesitate to ask for “more” for fear that team members will be displeased, or whose demands for “more” are met with active or passive resistance. But in most cases this lack of employee task engagement is an artificial construct – most people want to do great things and feel great about what they achieve in a field that is of interest to them while feeling they are making a contribution to something worthwhile – it’s why most people choose their jobs, careers and hobbies. It’s also why every year a little over 1/3 of all Australians perform volunteer work for no financial reward. (If those intrinsic connections appear to be absent from an employee’s normal habits, it may be useful to view the employee within the workplace systemic context, rather than simplistically on his or her own.)

It also suggests that managers need to be aware of how their own natural danger-aversion instincts are holding them,and their teams back, as evolution taught them to: A million years ago those who recognised danger and reacted fastest survived, and so in an environment where we were just another item on the menu our ancestors evolved to be sensitive to danger as their highest priority – a natural behavioural trait that remains today, often manifesting itself as fear or anxiety (fear of the future) despite the absence of such predatory threats. As a part of this sensitivity, we are very good at ignoring the normal, instead spotting the exceptional, with dangerous exceptions prioritised over pleasurable ones.

In a work context, this means that conscientious managers are alert to problems, mistakes, conflict and anything else “bad” (or their potential), and react according to their own perceptions, biases and habits around dealing with that kind of threat. This is nothing for those in supervisory roles to be ashamed of, it’s simply a lifetime of learning and a few million years of evolutionary instinct in practice – nothing could be more natural. It’s not necessarily “wrong” either – a manager who is not alert to, or able to react to, threats is likely to be an incapable one.

Most managers, when not overly burdened with stressful concerns, also notice exceptionally good things, reacting with praise and sincere appreciation. But with the stronger influence of cortisol arising from the negatives, the overall impact is to create an environment where positives feel outnumbered and outweighed by negatives, commonly leaving employees feeling stressed about their work, unappreciated and, as a part of a prolonged pattern, disengaged.

The fix, however, is amazingly simple. As a for-instance, let’s assume that an employee has performed six tasks on a particular day. One of them was executed very well, one unacceptably poor and the other four of them unremarkably, ignore-ably, invisibly average. On the assumption that the four average performances were to a standard of proficiency that was perfectly acceptable, then surely the employee should not only be recognised for the single exceptional performance but, albeit to a lesser extent, all four of the “average” outcomes as well. If we now add in the single poor performance, as long as the manager ensures that all six pieces of feedback are honest, sincere and consistent, and that the five good achievements aren’t dismissed in time or appreciation on the way to an intense focus on only the poor outcome, an ideal feedback ratio is automatically achieved.

Example

This fairly common type of conversation:

  • “That was a really good job you did with the apples but the bananas ended up bruised and damaged – the customer’s not happy. What happened?” (Likely to be met with a defensive, blame-shedding “not-my-fault” or situational victim response.)

Might easily become this more collaborative, but rarer, conversation:

  • “How was your day? I heard about how you solved the apple problem – how did you manage that?” (Allow employee to share the story of success – the manager might even learn something about the problem-solving capability of the employee and/or there may be lessons for continual process improvement)
  • “I also see you managed the oranges, tomatoes, potatoes and pineapples to plan – were there any challenges?” (Allow employee to be and feel heard and appreciated again.)
  • “And I heard from the customer that there was a difficulty with the bananas – what was your take on that? (Allow employee to lead discussion on the problem and suggest own improvements, with manager acting as a collaborative supporter for the employee’s efforts to correct his or her own performance without avoiding the problem or lowering expectations.)

Bonuses

With this “fairer” feedback practice as a normal, everyday management habit, employees are more likely perform most tasks well, raising the bar on “average” due to the “addiction” to the dopamine motivations and reward in positive feedback that validate feelings of accomplishment. Employees are also more likely to volunteer problems rather than wait to have them brought up, feeling that it is safe to do so in the prevalent “fair” environment. In fostering this behaviour, it is apparent that the good feelings (dopamine) from the trusting and positive conversation and relationship (learned reward from this management practice) are preferable to the stress (cortisol) of attempting to hide, minimise, blame or avoid (learned coping mechanism from other life experiences). Through repeated application as a result of management habit, these universal, powerful, chemically-fueled neurobiological rewards and penalties teach either problem-avoidance or challenge-seeking as default behaviour for employees, with a good chance that, if widely and consistently practiced, they will also shape the dominant organisational culture.

As an extra bonus, there is another dimension to this study of chemical cocktails – the effect on the manager. It turns out the very same chemicals act upon the feedback giver as the receiver – meaning that managers who look for good news and sincerely compliment and support others more often are also more likely to be more motivated, more engaged, more responsible and more satisfied with their work and professional relationships. And with employees who are more proactive about fearlessly identifying and solving problems, there is every chance the actual number of problems managers have to deal with will reduce over time – turning perceptions into aspirational behaviours into a new normality.

So it seems that the manager who catches people in the act of doing something right is also doing the same for themselves, with the same powerfully positive benefits. And that’s not just my opinion – it’s our neurobiology.

©Michael McIntosh April 2016

Notes:

  • The accuracy of some of the research behind an “ideal” ratio of praise to criticism of 5.6:1 by Heaphy and Losada has been questioned, but nonetheless there is common agreement that, notwithstanding differences between individuals, sincere, positive good news and praise serves as an effective incentive for, and reinforcement of, desirable behaviours. In order to foster positive intentions, behaviours and outcomes over a sustained period of time, a ratio that strongly favours positive feedback over negative is most likely to be effective.
  • In the short-term, the threat of loss is generally more effective than the promise of reward, but people, over time, act in more permanent ways (eg resignation, sabotage, enlisting trade or labour union support) to minimise threats, including those on self-esteem through a lack of appreciation. In any case, what does it say about a supervisory manager if the main (disciplinary or otherwise) tool used is to threaten employees with a loss of some kind? Similarly, what does it say about a supervisory manager if there is an aversion to showing regular, honest and sincere appreciation?
  • Underlying the effectiveness of this type of approach are themes like integrity, intention and connection. Through non-verbal clues and behavioural consistency, employees are likely to, either immediately or over time, “see through” disingenuous comments and insincere behaviours, resulting in a severe breach in trust and substantial amounts of disengagement, certainly with the supervisor involved and potentially with the organisation on a larger scale. However, where a supervisory manager’s intention is to help an employee to be successful in their work, for their own benefit as much as anyone else’s, and subject to external influences or pre-existing baggage, it is likely that this process will be highly effective in preventing or removing misunderstandings and in enhancing relationships, performance and job satisfaction for all concerned. In this vein, I believe it is the primary role of supervisory managers to assist their subordinates to succeed, both as a moral purpose and a practical one – for how can a supervisory manager be successful in his or her role if his or her subordinates are not successful in theirs?

Nerdy stuff –

  • Dopamine is a neurohormone that acts as a neurotransmitter. It is produced in a few different areas of the brain and released by the hypothalmus, with effects that include influencing emotions (eg motivation, reward, sociability) as well as energising through increased pulse and blood pressure.
  • Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland on instruction from the pituitary gland, which is located near the brain stem. Like dopamine, its effects are numerous and include those listed in this article.
  • Adrenaline is produced in the medulla in the adrenal glands as well as in some neurons within the central nervous system, and also has numerous effects on the body as a part of its major fight-or-flight survival purpose. These occur commonly where the energy released is not used, which can result in irritability, nervousness, insomnia and even heart damage, and for these reasons I recommend physical exercise not only for its inherent benefits, but as a preferred natural use of the energy released by adrenaline as a part of a balanced, healthy and sustainable mental and physical lifestyle.

Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others – By Anita Wolley,Thomas W. Malone and Christopher F. Chabris

Psychologists have known for a century that individuals vary in their cognitive ability. But are some groups, like some people, reliably smarter than others?

Working with several colleagues and students, we set out to answer that question. In our first two studies, which we published with Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi of M.I.T. in 2010 in the journal Science, we grouped 697 volunteer participants into teams of two to five members. Each team worked together to complete a series of short tasks, which were selected to represent the varied kinds of problems that groups are called upon to solve in the real world. One task involved logical analysis, another brainstorming; others emphasized coordination, planning and moral reasoning.

Individual intelligence, as psychologists measure it, is defined by its generality: People with good vocabularies, for instance, also tend to have good math skills, even though we often think of those abilities as distinct. The results of our studies showed that this same kind of general intelligence also exists for teams. On average, the groups that did well on one task did well on the others, too. In other words, some teams were simply smarter than others.

We next tried to define what characteristics distinguished the smarter teams from the rest, and we were a bit surprised by the answers we got. We gave each volunteer an individual I.Q. test, but teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score much higher on our collective intelligence tasks than did teams with lower average I.Q.s. Nor did teams with more extroverted people, or teams whose members reported feeling more motivated to contribute to their group’s success.

Instead, the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

In a new study that we published with David Engel and Lisa X. Jing of M.I.T. last month in PLoS One, we replicated these earlier findings, but with a twist. We randomly assigned each of 68 teams to complete our collective intelligence test in one of two conditions. Half of the teams worked face to face, like the teams in our earlier studies. The other half worked online, with no ability to see any of their teammates. Online collaboration is on the rise, with tools like Skype, Google Drive and old-fashioned email enabling groups that never meet to execute complex projects. We wanted to see whether groups that worked online would still demonstrate collective intelligence, and whether social ability would matter as much when people communicated purely by typing messages into a browser.

And they did. Online and off, some teams consistently worked smarter than others. More surprisingly, the most important ingredients for a smart team remained constant regardless of its mode of interaction: members who communicated a lot, participated equally and possessed good emotion-reading skills.

This last finding was another surprise. Emotion-reading mattered just as much for the online teams whose members could not see one another as for the teams that worked face to face. What makes teams smart must be not just the ability to read facial expressions, but a more general ability, known as “Theory of Mind,” to consider and keep track of what other people feel, know and believe.

A new science of effective teamwork is vital not only because teams do so many important things in society, but also because so many teams operate over long periods of time, confronting an ever-widening array of tasks and problems that may be much different from the ones they were initially convened to solve. General intelligence, whether in individuals or teams, is especially crucial for explaining who will do best in novel situations or ones that require learning and adaptation to changing circumstances. We hope that understanding what makes groups smart will help organizations and leaders in all fields create and manage teams more effectively.

Why multitasking is bad for our brains – by Ben Slater

Ben Slater is Sales & Marketing Director at Seed, a platform that applies marketing automation and data science to hiring. Follow @BenJHSlater. This post first appeared on the Seed Jobs blog. 


How many browser tabs do you have open right now?

I’m guessing it’s over 10, maybe 20. Some may be for research, some to help us stay in touch with clients and colleagues , maybe some are little guilty pleasures – whatever they are, they’re not helping.

It’s almost impossible for us to sit down and work on a single task – I’ll admit that there’s little chance of me writing this blog post without checking my email or responding to a tweet or two!

Switching between different tasks leaves us feeling breathless – we’ve had ‘one of those days’, where we’ve felt insanely busy yet have achieved little.

Even in the evening we don’t learn – we eat dinner with the television on, we listen to the radio while we read a book – why are we so bad at sitting down and focusing on one thing?

It distracts us from our main objective, but there is also evidence to suggest that multitasking is bad for our brains! Sounds serious – maybe it’s time to work out a new work routine…

Why do we do it?

The simple answer? It’s so hard not to.

Technology has made everything so quick and easy. Our smartphones are Swiss army knife-like devices that let us do pretty much anything – from booking a holiday to tuning your guitar, they’ve got you covered.

With an app for everything, it’s hard not to try and squeeze value from every second of the day. Walking to the supermarket? Why not write up your shopping list while listening to podcast sensation ‘Serial‘. Having lunch with a friend? Make sure you check Facebook to see what your other friends are up to!

multitasking 520x326 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

The science behind it

So what’s the science behind our obsession with not wasting a second in the day?

Why it feels good

Our brain is excellent at tricking us into thinking we’re being efficient. Studies show that multitasking tends to lead to the release of dopamine – ‘the happy hormone’. We’re eager to reward ourselves for getting so much done at once!

Our attention can be easily captured by something shiny and new – almost akin to a magpie! Ironically it’s the section of the brain that we need the most to help us stay focused that suffers the most.

The reward-seeking centres of the brain are delighted when we switch between tasks – every time we take a look at a shiny new email, tweet or text message we’re releasing small pleasure impulses. No wonder it’s so easy to get distracted.

Why it’s actually bad

It makes us stressed. Multitasking has been proven to trigger the release of stress-hormone cortisol which affects everything from your mental capacity to your muscle density – say goodbye to that hard-earned six-pack!

Want to avoid that? It must be as easy as ignoring those new emails right?

Wrong. Recent research suggests that even having the opportunity to multitask lowers our ability to solve problems and effectively manage tasks by roughly 10 IQ points. Merely having an email sitting unread in your inbox might be ruining your productivity!

Here’s a quick example to show how serious this loss of mental capacity is:

We sometimes discuss the effect of marijuana on our ability to think clearly – the same study showed that multitasking may have an even more negative cognitive effect.

Is anyone good at multitasking?

You would think that constant exposure to a number of things at once would make some people experts in switching between different tasks. You would think that some people would become adept at filtering information and would become even more productive.

That would be logical right?

Well, logical or not, that doesn’t happen. Research suggests that multi-taskers are actually far worse at switching between different tasks and tuning out irrelevant information.

There are a couple of isolated examples of ‘supertaskers‘ who seem to be able to handle the workload but, as a rule, it seems that multitasking is something to avoid.

What’s our main distraction?

What’s the number one distraction you face at work?

The seemingly unstoppable flood of emails is mine, (I’m sure many of you face a similar problem). Friends and colleagues report the same problem. We feel like we’re obliged to respond, but doing so makes it impossible to get anything else done.

 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

It’s become such a dominant part of our workflow that we now obsess over getting to Inbox 0. The moment when we are finally back on top – Mashable even describes it as the ‘holy grail‘ of the digital lifestyle.

Whether you’ve hit Inbox 0 or not, I have several problems with email:

1 – People expect an instant reply

The steps that it takes to write and deliver a letter buy you some time. People understand that you’re not going to get back to them straight away – you can put a letter to one side and deal with it when you’re ready.

In today’s digital world, we’re always available. Out of the office? That’s fine, you can pick up your new messages on your shiny new iPhone or tablet. There’s no excuse to postpone your reply!

Social expectation also dictates that we respond – we don’t want to upset the sender. I use a Gmail plugin from RelateIQ that lets me see when someone has opened my email – despite my feelings on email I find it difficult not to get slightly annoyed when I see someone has opened my message but has chosen not to reply.

2 – Anyone can email you

We tend to be pretty selective with ‘snail mail‘ – it’s rare that you would write to someone you don’t know.

Our approach to email is totally different. We’re prepared to use any trick in the book to get someone’s email address, I’m no different – I use a great tool from Spokepoint. Once we’ve verified that it’s correct it’s open season – email is sufficiently impersonal that we don’t mind sending hundreds of messages to people we’ve never met.

These ‘cold’ emails flood our inbox. We waste valuable time filtering through them, archiving and deleting as we go. My main frustration is the lack of effort that people make with their messages. There is little inclination to write emails that seem even vaguely personal – hundreds of other people are deleting the same email!

flood of emails 520x345 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

3 – Every email requires an instant decision

The constant decision making that trawling through email takes a toll on the brain. Continually shifting our concentration forces the brain to rapidly burn through fuel leaving us exhausted and disorientated.

Even popular inbox management apps like Mailbox, (designed to stop email wasting your time), want you to make a choice – is this email a ‘must respond’ or can you defer it until tomorrow.

How do you become more productive and stop wasting time?

If you’re looking for a golden solution that’s going to help you get back on top of things then you’re going to be disappointed. There isn’t a perfect fix, but there are tactics that you can use to stop multitasking as much and become more productive:

1 – Evening planning

This one isn’t rocket science but it really works. Spending just 10 minutes every evening jotting down the main things you want to achieve the next day allows you to be much more focused at work.

These are the tasks you need to build your day around – make sure you get them done before you start responding to messages and scouring Twitter for interesting tweets.

2 – Pomodoro technique

I’m trying this out at the moment and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a time management technique devised by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980′s.

You split your workday into 25 minute periods of intense, focused work, that are followed by 5 minute breaks. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.

I use the 25 minute stretches of focus to tackle my major tasks for the day, (usually the ones I have planned the evening before), and the 5 minute breaks to ‘switch off’ and respond to emails and tweets.

I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. You can even buy your very own tomato shaped timer to keep track of your work schedule if you fancy! (Below)

pomodoro technique 520x260 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

3 – Schedule ‘email’ into your day

I haven’t tried this myself but some productivity experts recommend scheduling a time every day where you deal with your emails and other correspondence.

Try putting a slot into your calendar every day that you devote to reading and replying to tweets, messages and emails – this is the only time that you should have your Gmail or Outlook open.

You may even want to experiment with turning notifications on your phone and browser off to make sure you stick to this – although that could mean you miss the occasional ‘urgent’ message.

Final word

We’re not really to blame for multitasking. It’s hard to force ourselves to ignore incoming messages that we feel like we have to answer and stop ourselves flitting between different tasks when we’re so busy.

Each email we send gives us a sense of accomplishment (and a large spoonful of reward hormones) – it feels like we’re getting on top of our work, becoming more organised.

The truth may be the opposite. We’re distracting ourselves from the things we really need to get done.

It’s pretty hard to stop multitasking, but I’ve enjoyed becoming more focused with my day. I’d really recommend trying some of the methods I mentioned above and seeing if it makes a difference to your productivity.

Final fact – music isn’t multitasking

Don’t worry, you don’t have to shut iTunes down! Listening to music occupies a separate part of the brain that doesn’t interfere with your work – it doesn’t interfere with your productivity.

Make Your Career a Success by Your Own Measure – by Monique Valcour

As a manager, how can you cultivate a sense of career growth and development for your people, even when possibilities for promotion are limited or nonexistent? I posed this question to my human resource management students recently. (The context was that we’d just been considering some evidence that “Gen Y” employees are likely to head for the doors if they don’t see short-term prospects for career advancement.) While my students generated several promising ideas, some advocated an approach that dismayed me: Companies should increase the layers of management, they argued, to provide for more frequent promotions.

Of course I understood why they might think so, but this was a “be careful what you wish for” moment. Anyone old enough to have worked in the many-layered organizational structure of the past knows its shortcomings.

But what bothered me most about their idea was the reminder of how many of us feel lost without external signposts to mark our success.  Particularly for young people, it is a tough transition to leave the familiar and clear markers of school success behind and learn to thrive on the more ambiguous ones that mark a lifetime of employment.  Crafting a truly successful career demands a high level of self-awareness and ability to self-direct, capacities that schools and universities don’t always do a great job of developing.

As an example, let me introduce you to Sam.  Sam grew up in a close-knit family in a US community with excellent schools.  His father is a sales manager, his mother a pediatrician. Always a top student, Sam did well as an accounting major in the honors program of his state’s excellent flagship public university, graduated and took a job with a financial services firm. That is where his story took a more somber turn.  He struggled with the work and found the corporate culture alienating. Used to outperforming his peers, Sam was shocked at his first performance review when his boss informed him that his performance ratings were unacceptably low. He had six months to improve.

Having always understood the rules and done well playing by them, Sam felt adrift for the first time in his life. Rather than wait for the ax to fall in a job that made him increasingly miserable, he quit after four months with no idea what to do next and moved back home. Although only marginally interested in a legal career, he submitted law-school applications in order to quell his parents’ anxious daily questioning about his career direction as well as the invasive thought that he was a fraud and a loser. At least, he told himself, I know how to be a good student.

Employees of any age can suffer from a similarly constrained career perspective. I recently coached Thomas, an employee in his late thirties, who was thrown into crisis when he discovered that his new boss hadn’t nominated him for the company’s high-potential program. He found it difficult to focus on anything else. A broader view of career success would be helpful to Thomas, as it would be to Sam and to the students in my classroom discussion. It would enable them to tap into a wider repertoire of responses and gain more learning and insight from their experiences.

People do not advance in the broader arenas of career and life by taking linear steps and acing assignments that are carefully constructed to allow them to prove mastery. They do it by navigating the unpredictable events and conditions that both work and non-work life throw at them — and responding and adapting in the ways that make sense for them. If you’re dependent on external markers to judge whether your career is successful, you will find them, but only in some realms and on certain dimensions of achievement. If you only pay attention to only this limited set of success indicators, you are less likely to experience your career as successful. Imagine going to a sumptuous buffet dinner, but only tasting the salad. It won’t be satisfying.

Visible, objectively measurable achievements such as sales results, salary, bonuses, and promotions are forms of career success that we tend to fixate on—sometimes to the point that we overlook other aspects that are just as valuable to us. It’s important to consider both objective and subjective markers of success. The perceptions and feelings we have about our work experiences and what we achieve affect us as much as the extrinsic rewards do. Consider the fact that there are plenty of people who look successful, who hold high-level positions and earn impressive salaries, yet who feel unfulfilled in their careers.

Be mindful, too, that a piece of work can prove “successful” through individual experience and through interaction with other people. You can feel success when you accomplish your own goals as an individual, when you develop greater understanding of a problem and perceive a solution, or when you express your identity or your values through your work. You can taste success in interpersonal settings, when for example you develop an excellent mutual understanding and rapport with a supervisor or mentor, or help other people to grow, or have a positive impact through your work on the organization or its external customers. Research shows that such subjective and relational experiences contribute enormously to assessments of career success.

Finally, if the promotions and raises a boss can dole out are the only forms of career success you recognize, then at times when there are no higher-level openings to move into, or when budget cuts prevent salary freezes, you have set yourself up to become demoralized. Being able to think broadly about career success and to identify your successes for yourself is essential to resilience.

With this in mind, I encourage you to take a few minutes now to reexamine your own work experiences, and identify successes you might have overlooked. Not earning as much as you’d like? Perhaps you’ve gained creativity by working with highly talented colleagues. Concerned that it’s been several years since your last promotion? Don’t negate the value of your having grown into a recognized subject-matter expert in a strategically valuable area for your firm.

To stimulate your thinking, here are some additional indicators that may help you recognize your own career success more fully, or help you identify pathways toward greater success:

  • Performing work that you find interesting and fascinating
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Having autonomy in how you perform your work
  • Developing new skills and deepening existing ones
  • Having work and personal life complement and enrich each other
  • Doing work that gives you new insights into yourself, your organization or your industry
  • Being recognized as an expert
  • Having the trust of your colleagues and superiors
  • Building valuable relationships inside and outside of your organization
  • Contributing to shared knowledge in your organization by training others
  • Enjoying career stability and employment security
  • Collaborating effectively with a team of talented colleagues
  • Receiving recognition for your achievements and contributions
  • Seeing the positive impact of your work on end users or on society
  • Leaving a legacy that you’re proud of

Now consider: as nice as external markers and affirmations are to get, would you really rather have them than any of the above? Yes, you deserve both. But keep in mind that careers are long, and that it’s rare to experience all forms of career success simultaneously.

You need to develop the awareness and adaptability to notice, appreciate, and exploit opportunities to enjoy career success in all its different forms, even if the most explicit, generic forms of recognition aren’t currently available. With practice and attention, you can reap your own harvest from a wide variety of work experiences, and as a result, enjoy a richer and more satisfying career.

80-monique-valcour

Monique Valcour is a professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France. Her research, teaching, and consulting focuses on helping companies and individuals craft high-performance, meaningful jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.

Duke University Study Shows Why People Prefer Dead End Jobs – by Alexandra Levit

When I was a child growing up in Maryland, we visited relatives in New York and Philadelphia often.  Back in the eighties, the toll booth operator job on the New Jersey turnpike was the national symbol of boredom. I remember sitting at the booth longer than we had to just so that the poor operator could have some human conversation.

Albert Camus might have been thinking of the toll booth operator when he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus. The famous essay refers to the ancient Greek story about a man who’s condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, watch it roll down, and then repeat the cycle for all eternity. In Camus’ view, the more modern worker is much like Sisyphus, working every day of his life at the exact same tasks.

In the enlightened twenty-first century, we often talk about work being meaningful, and about engaging in careers about which we feel passionate. But it turns out that at the end of the day, most people will still pick a Sisyphus-like job over an engaging one if they aren’t getting paid for the extra effort required by the latter. And in a recovering economy where salaries still have not come up to post-recession levels, this means that millions of disillusioned job seekers are selecting dead end jobs.

Duke University Fuqua School of Business marketing professor Peter Ubel and David Comerford, an assistant professor at Stirling University, explored the idea of “effort aversion,” or why people choose to put forth less effort even if it means less personal satisfaction. The results of their studies, “Effort Aversion: Job Choice and Compensation Decisions Overweigh Effort,” were recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

The researchers found that even when an effort-filled job would be more interesting and enjoyable than a boring one, people tend to price themselves out of the job market because they feel their efforts need to be rewarded.

Three Studies on Effort Aversion

The researchers conducted several studies that showed how pay impacts a job seeker’s willingness to take on more challenges. In the first experiment, 144 people answered a questionnaire offering the choice of two short-term jobs at a cultural festival. Participants could either choose to be an usher (which would require publicizing the event, cleaning up after and escorting performers) or a monitor (which would only require alerting a security guard if needed.) Results showed that while most people (82 percent) preferred the job of usher, 36 percent would only take the job if it paid more than the monitor.

Commented Comerford:  “Ask someone which of two jobs they like better, and they will often pick the more interesting job, even if it requires more mental or physical effort. But ask them how much the two jobs should pay, and now that their mind is focused on wages, they often conclude that all that extra effort ought to be rewarded. Otherwise, they will take the boring job.”

In the second study, 74 graduate students agreed to take part in a short film. They could choose the role of worker (which would require doing a word puzzle for almost five minutes) or on-looker (sit and watch others.) Again, results showed that most people found the role of worker more enjoyable (66 percent), but of that group, only 18 percent agreed to solve the word puzzles without regard to whether they would receive more money than the onlookers.

In a third study, the researchers explored whether effort aversion could be overcome. Eighty people surveyed at airports were asked about the roles in a hypothetical film similar to the one above. Some were asked to rate the roles of workers versus onlookers based on enjoyment before considering wages. A second group was asked to set wages for the jobs before thinking about the enjoyment.

The people who considered enjoyment first were more likely to pick the job they said they would enjoy most. However, the results were not statistically significant enough to conclude that effort aversion could be overcome by simply thinking about enjoyment before wages.

What Have We Learned?

When I was writing the book How’d You Score That Gig? about dream careers, I realized that there’s actually an inverse relationship between pay and level of interest. That is, the more intriguing a job is considered to be, the less you are often paid at the entry level.

Camus would say that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the job. You have the consider the big picture, and if the money is enough to live on, isn’t it worth it to love what you do?  Financial compensation isn’t everything – just ask investment bankers who work 80 hours a week and have no time to spend their money.

Finally, because effort aversion is an unconscious process, you have to be especially careful that you aren’t falling prey without recognizing it. Be deliberate and thoughtful about any job offers you receive, weighing the pros and cons and envisioning your daily routine in each position. Every time you think about the plight of Sisyphus, you’ll be glad you did.

Alexandra Levit’s goal is to help people find meaningful jobs – quickly and simply – and to succeed beyond measure once they get there. Follow her @alevit.

How To Use the “Pygmalion” Effect – by Annie Murphy Paul

In the story told by the Roman poet Ovid, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has created. George Bernard Shaw borrowed the theme for his play Pygmalion — later turned into the musical My Fair Lady — in which Professor Henry Higgins makes over the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, becoming besotted with her even as he teaches her how to speak proper English (“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain… “).

Psychologists, too, have picked up the motif, researching what they call the “Pygmalion effect”. The finding, as social psychologist Robert Rosenthal puts it, is “that what one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Rosenthal and his coauthor Lenore Jacobson coined the term to describe the striking results of an experiment they carried out in a California school in 1965. Students took a test that was said to be able to identify “growth spurters,” or those who were poised to make strides academically. Teachers were given the names of pupils who were about to bloom intellectually — and sure enough, these students showed a significantly greater gain in performance over their classmates when tested again at the end of the year.

But here’s the thing: the “spurters” were actually chosen at random. The only difference between them and their peers, Rosenthal writes, “was in the mind of the teacher.” And yet the expectations held in the mind of the teacher — or the parent, or the manager, or the coach — can make an enormous difference. Research conducted since Rosenthal and Jacobson’s original study has determined that the Pygmalion effect applies to all kinds of settings, from sports teams to the military to the corporate workplace.

Just how do elevated expectations promote greater achievement? It’s not some magical act of inspiration. Rather, Rosenthal and others have found that higher expectations lead teachers (or other authority figures) to act differently in regard to the learner, in four very specific ways:

1. They create a warmer “socioemotional climate” for the learners they regard as high-potential, often conveying this warmth through non-verbal signals: a nod, an encouraging smile, a touch on the shoulder.

2. They teach more material, and more difficult material, to learners they see as especially promising.

3. They give up-and-coming learners more opportunities to contribute, including additional time to respond to questions.

4. They offer their “special” learners feedback on performance that is more detailed and more personalized — not just a generic “Good job.”

It can be difficult to deliberately change our expectations of others. But we can consciously change our behavior. By adopting the set of behaviors above, we’ll be acting like our kids, our students or our employees have great potential — potential that they’ll more than likely live up to.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.