Are Bosses Necessary? – The Atlantic

A radical experiment at Zappos may herald the emergence of a new, more democratic kind of organization

Deeply strange reports have been emerging from the Las Vegas headquarters of Zappos, until recently the world’s happiest shoe store. This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution that spells out a radical new system of self-governance. Holacracy, it’s called, and it makes all previous moves toward “employee empowerment” look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch. Freed from direct supervision, employees are expected to join various impermanent democratic assemblies called “circles” (headed, but notrun, by a “lead link”), in which they will essentially propose their own job descriptions, ratify the “roles” of others, and decide what projects the group should undertake.

The constitution was written by Brian Robertson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur unaffiliated with Zappos who’d grown disaffected with standard management practices. Hsieh had heard him speak about holacracy at a 2012 conference, and was captivated. “We adopted it wholesale with zero changes,” says John Bunch, who used to be a technical adviser at Zappos but is now title-less. (He is, nevertheless, heading the implementation of holacracy.)

The media has so far reacted with a mix of understandable skepticism and outright derision. “Mr. Hsieh’s hot hand appears to be at risk of going cold,” The New York Times reported in July. Employees at Zappos, the paper said, have met the development “with everything from cautious embrace to outright revulsion.” The tech site Pando was less measured: “Holacracy of Dunces,” a headline snorted that same month.

Holacracy’s implementation at Zappos, still in process, has undoubtedly caused problems (more on those later). But such reports risk missing the larger picture. However fraught it may be, Zappos’s experiment with holacracy is just the latest sign that information technology is allowing the emergence of a new form of organization.

For years, pockets of the U.S. military have been slowly taking decisions out of the hands of high-ranking commanders and entrusting them to teams of soldiers, who (armed with the concept of “commander’s intent”) are told what problems to solve—but not how to solve them. “The organization as a rigidly reductionist mechanical beast is an endangered species,” General Stanley McChrystal writes in his new book, Team of Teams. “The traditional heroic leader may not be far behind.” At the video-game maker Valve, new employees are told not to expect instructions, because even the managing director “isn’t your manager,” says the employee handbook. “You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.” And so they do

What’s enabling this shift, argues Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is simple: falling information costs. In his 2004 book,The Future of Work, Malone broke the history of organizations into three stages. In stage one, information is expensive to convey, so most decisions are made face-to-face in necessarily small firms. As communication costs begin to fall, Malone explained to me, we reach stage two, in which “it becomes economically feasible to send information to a single, central place for decisions to be made.” That is, the large, centralized hierarchy becomes possible. Then comes stage three: “As communication costs continue to fall, there comes a time when it’s economically feasible to bring information to all points, so in some sense, everyone can know everything.” In this third stage, the benefits of bigness can persist, but its traditional handmaiden, hierarchy, doesn’t have to. (Indeed, when the volume of information grows large enough, trying to direct its flow upward for evaluation can slow everything down.)

Malone points to the history of government. We lived most of our existence in small, fairly egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, until the advent of written language, which arose in tandem with record-keeping, taxation, and the founding of the first kingdoms, around 3000 B.C. Large-scale democracy did not appear until an equally momentous information technology, the printing press, enabled the “reading revolution” of the 18th century.

In business, the transition from bands to kingdoms came courtesy of the telegraph in the mid-19th century. And what it begat—the large, managerial hierarchy; the salaried manager; the modern definition of a job—has endured, with occasional pushes to prune and flatten management, until now, a good two decades after the Internet radically altered the volume, velocity, and direction of information flows. (Doubters, check your inbox.)

Why the lag? A look back at the mid-19th-century transition suggests an answer. After a new information technology appears, the organizational innovation that it allows doesn’t knock at the front door and present itself. People have to invent it. The ones who did last time around aren’t as celebrated as Morse, or before him Gutenberg. But what they arrived at looks obvious only in retrospect.

In 1854 the Board of the New York and Erie Railroad promoted Daniel McCallum, a Scottish-born bridge builder, to general superintendent, hoping he could address the railroad’s mysterious ills. As the railroad grew larger, it was growing not more efficient per mile, as Adam Smith would have predicted, but less so. Had the company hit some sort of natural size limit? No, McCallum concluded. What was breaking down was its stage-one organizational system.

At a small railroad—and all railroads up to then had been small—the superintendent could give every aspect of its business his personal attention, McCallum wrote. “Each employee is familiarly known to him, and all questions in relation to its business are at once presented and acted upon.” But as The Atlantic marveled in an 1858 article featuring McCallum’s ideas, the New York and Erie had to coordinate the movements of some 200 locomotives, 3,000 cars, and 4,700 employees dispersed over hundreds of miles. What was needed, McCallum wrote, was “a system perfect in its details, properly adapted and vigilantly enforced.”

The system he spelled out—in great detail—delineated who had the authority to decide what, and even what words to use in communicating that decision back to their superiors on the telegraph. (“All subordinates should be accountable to, and be directed by their immediate superiors only.”) In the elaborate diagram that McCallum created—widely considered the first modern organizational chart—17 spokes, each representing a different division, radiate from a central hub that is the office of McCallum himself. Thanks to a system of hourly reports, The Atlantic wrote,

“the General Superintendent at his office can at any moment tell within a mile where each car or engine is, what it is doing, the contents of the car, the consignor and consignee, the time at which it arrives and leaves each station, (the actual time, not the time when it should arrive,) and is thus able to correct all errors almost at the moment of commission … The great regulator … is the electric telegraph, which connects all parts of the road, and enables one person to keep, as it were, his eye on the whole road at once.”

The most striking aspect of McCallum’s system comes near the top of his report. For all the rigidities, he admitted, the system was an improvisation—one man’s attempt to bring his organization into better alignment with a rapidly changing environment. It would “require amendment,” he wrote, “and a reasonable time to prove its worth.”

Which sounds a lot like the commentary of Brian Robertson, the entrepreneur who created holacracy. Like McCallum’s, his decision to put pen to paper was not utopian but pragmatic. The idea was born out of his own frustrations as the CEO of Ternary Software, which he founded in 2001. “When I tried to design organizations purely from my own intellect,” Robertson says, “I always got it wrong. I’d design solutions for problems that didn’t exist. Other parts were overdesigned. We’d end up solving problems that would never come up in practice, and then you’d miss the ones you actually needed to solve. You can’t know enough.”

He didn’t start with any radical notions of overturning hierarchy. He just wanted his company to function better. After exhausting the most-obvious solutions—hiring better managers, attempting to nail the perfect org chart—he finally concluded that the problem was the very concept of a rigid org chart. And so, as McCallum had a century and a half before, he wrote out a new set of rules delineating a new system.

Like McCallum’s, it is very, very complicated—too complex to describe fully here, and too complex for the liking of some at Zappos. (The constitution Robertson drafted runs more than twice the length of the Founding Fathers’.) But its basic principles go something like this: Instead of being assigned job descriptions from on high, employees take on mutable roles where they see a need. The hierarchical org chart is replaced by an ever-changing array of circles that can form, merge, or collapse in response to opportunities and threats in the marketplace. Reorganization, in effect, becomes a permanent way of life. The rigid forms invented in the steam age give way to something more organic—a jellyfish, perhaps.

It makes some sense on paper. But in practice? Holacracy’s first laboratory, Ternary, was a tiny company that didn’t survive the Great Recession. And at Zappos, given the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout this past spring, 210 employees, or 14 percent of the company’s workforce, chose the latter. John Bunch notes that holacracy has created a whole set of new problems that have to be addressed. How to evaluate people’s performance is one. (Zappos is working on a system called “badging,” whereby employees earn badges for acquiring new skills.) How to compensate someone who splits her time among three different roles (say, customer care, event planning, and brainstorming a new Zappos product line) is another. The list goes on. How do you stop people from trying to exercise power they no longer have? And how does a system conceived to reduce information overload (“the goal,” says Bunch, “is to find the optimal circle structure where the need for communication between the circles is the least”) not add to it instead, in the form of endless meetings?

But just because solutions don’t yet exist doesn’t mean they won’t be found, says Robertson, who likens holacracy to a computer’s operating system and the solutions to apps. Remember when the App Store first opened? It didn’t have a lot on offer. Bunch told me that it’s too soon for Zappos to begin making amendments to holacracy; the company needs to finish the difficult process of understanding it first. “If someone comes to me super-frustrated, borderline angry,” he says, “that’s actually a really good sign to me, because it means they’re at least trying to understand it.”

The important point is this: To pronounce holacracy unworkable now would be akin to pronouncing democracy unworkable in the midst of the French Revolution. And should holacracy at Zappos fail, which it well may, neither should its principles be pronounced dead. The New York and Erie Railroad was in receivership within a few years of McCallum’s report—but the system he pioneered there became utterly commonplace by century’s end.

With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which the only thing strange about what’s going on at Zappos is that it ever seemed strange at all.

3 Reasons Millennials Are Getting Fired – by J.T. O’Donnell

Recently, I wrote this article explaining why Millennials aren’t getting promoted. In response to Millennial readers’ requests for a deeper understanding of how being misperceived can negatively affect their careers, I’m taking it a step further and outlining exactly what’s getting them fired.

Employers are seriously fed up.

To get a sense of how heated this has become, read this article by one irate employerand his prediction of the backlash that will soon ensue from the Millennials’ attitudes toward work.

Additionally, this survey by SmartRecruiter of 28,000 bosses detailing where Millennials are falling short is just one example of the data to support the huge disconnect costing some Millennials their jobs. Here are the key takeaways Millennials need to know.

1. Employers don’t want to be parents.

Growing up, Millennials were coached their entire lives and they unknowingly assumeemployers will coach them too. However, the relationship isn’t the same. An employer pays us to do a job. We are service providers. Expecting extensive training and professional development to do the job doesn’t make financial sense. In many employers’ minds (especially, small to midsized businesses with limited budgets and resources), Millennials should foot the bill to develop themselves and make themselves worth more to the employer.

Tip: Millennials should do their best to proactively seek resources on their own to help them close gaps in skills and knowledge in the workplace. There are plenty ofonline tools and resources to help them put their best professional self forward. Additionally, they should seek out a mentor to privately ask questions and get guidance on how to make the right impression.

2. The anti-work attitude isn’t appreciated (or tolerated).

As explained here, Millennials tend to work only the minimum time expected–and will push for flexibility and a reduced work schedule to create more time for other pursuits. Being demanding about when and how they want to do their job can be viewed as disrespectful. A great way to look at how some employers feel is the way the dysfunctional phone/cable companies work. It’s annoying when they announce they can come out only on a certain day. They can’t tell you what time, and then they say they’ll call the day of and give you a four-hour window when they’ll arrive. While the phone/cable companies have us trapped, employers don’t feel the same about Millennials. They’ll fire the Millennial worker and find someone who can work when they need them to–and without the attitude.

Tip: In the early days and weeks of a new job, Millennials can make up for what they lack in skills by being consistently on time. When an employer sees their commitment to their work, they will earn her trust and respect, resulting in her being comfortable with their taking time off, and even providing them with a more flexible work schedule. When Millennials prove they can deliver on their company’s terms, their company will give them more of what they want.

3. Millennials’ happiness isn’t the employer’s responsibility.

Millennials are pretty vocal about wanting work to be a “fun” place to go. Besides career development, they also desire lots of cool perks and benefits to make their job feel more rewarding. Besides nice work spaces, amenities like gym memberships, healthy meals on-site, in-house parties, etc., are being used in an effort to attract and maintain Millennial workers. Unfortunately, this is backfiring on employers–and that makes them angry. In spite of all the perks to keep them happy, Millennials are getting to these jobs and quickly showing visible signs of disappointment and dissatisfaction within months of joining the company.

Why are Millennials so tough to keep happy?

Part of the problem is how much external motivators were used on Millennials growing up. In the book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn argues that Millennials have an addiction to praise, perks, and other incentives to learn–better known as bribes. Thus, when they get to the job and the newness wear off, they think it’s the company’s job to fix it with more incentives. But, this is where the cycle of bribing has to stop. A company can offer only so much in the form of compensation and benefits. The reality is that Millennials (like all workers) must learn to find intrinsic motivation (internal drive for work), so they can find real satisfaction and success in their careers. Since Millennials haven’t learned this yet, they’re experiencing sadness and confusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, their unhappiness is transparent to employers who have no desire to pay for what they perceive as a bad attitude at work.

Tip: Millennials who feel confused and unhappy in their job should not blame the employer (yet). First, they should seek some career coaching. Many Millennials just need help understanding some of the basic elements for finding an internal motivation for work. They need to know their professional strengths and workplace personas, and the defining skills they’d like to grow so they can build up their specialties and find direction and motivation at the job.

Millennials, don’t get mad, get ahead!

While the rest of their peers continue to be misunderstood, smart Millennials can make some simple changes and set the standard for what an outstanding young professional looks like to employers today. As this article points out, doing so could lead an employer to fast-track a career as an example to other workers. Why not benefit from the opportunity?

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.

7 Interview Questions That Determine Emotional Intelligence – by Carolyn Sun

Determining who you hire for a job plays a big part in forming your company’s culture and ensuring its future success. Selecting informative interview questions can be a key factor in finding the right employees — as well as weeding out the ones that won’t fit. A candidate’s answers can be telling.

While different companies embody various values and cultures, success in the workplace is strongly influenced by a person’s emotional intelligence, a quality that should be a non-negotiable when vetting job candidates, says Mariah DeLeon, vice-president of people at workplace ratings and review site Glassdoor.

Here are seven interview questions that can draw revealing answers from the job candidates you interview — and get you on your way to finding employees with stellar emotional intelligence.

Related: 8 Revealing Interview Questions to Hire Standout Staff

1. Who inspires you and why?

The job candidate’s answer often gives the interviewer a peek into who the interviewee models him or herself after. The response can also highlight the sorts of behavioral patterns the interviewee respects, saysCraig Cincotta, chief of staff and vice-president of communications at online home improvement marketplace Porch, where he’s heavily involved in team expansion and hiring.

2. If you were starting a company tomorrow, what would be its top three values?

Every good relationship starts with trust and aligned values. Insight into a person’s priorities — as well as honesty and integrity — can emerge in the candidate’s answer, explains Robert Alvarez, the CFO of ecommerce platform Bigcommerce.

3. If business priorities change, describe how you would help your team understand and carry out the shifted goals?

Shifting priorities happen in every company, and every job, so look for candidates who are flexible and possess the skills to help carry out change. Hire employees who are self-aware, motivated and display empathy advises DeLeon. “These skills will help employees better work in teams.”

Related: The 5 Must-Ask Interview Questions to Determine if Someone’s a Fit

4. Did you build lasting friendships while working at another job?  

It takes a while for people to build relationships — and being able to do so is a sign of solid emotional intelligence, Alvarez says. “[A lasting friendship] tells you that relationships and caring about people are important to the person.”

5. What skill or expertise do you feel like you’re still missing?

Curiosity and the desire to learn are vital signs that a prospective employee wants to get better at something. “People who struggle with this question are the people who think they already know it all,” warns Alvarez. “These are the people you want to steer away from.”

6. Can you teach me something, as if I’ve never heard of it before? (It can be anything: A skill, a lesson or a puzzle.)

A job candidate’s answer to this question can reveal several qualities:

  • Whether the person is willing to take the time to think before speaking.
  • If the candidate has the technical ability to explain something to a person who is less knowledgeable in the subject.
  • Whether the candidate asks empathetic questions to the person being taught, such as, “Is this making sense?”

7. What are the top three factors you would attribute to your success?

The answer to this question can determine whether a person is selfless or selfish, Alvarez says. “When people talk about their own success, listen to whether someone talks about ‘me-me-me’ or ‘I-I-I.’ Or whether they talk about ‘the team,’ ‘we’ or ‘us.’”

“Look for a team player who brings something positive to the company,” Cincotta shares. “Someone can be the smartest person in the room, but if they are not someone you enjoy working with — because they are more concerned with their own success over that of the company — they won’t be a fit.”

Carolyn Sun

Research Editor
Carolyn Sun is the research editor at Entrepreneur.com.

What To Expect During An HR Interview? Five Questions You’ll Be Asked During A Screening Interview – by Melissa Llarena

Screening interviews with human resources professionals are a crucial step to getting the job. A good or bad interview with HR will determine how far you go in the interviewing process, so it’s best to know what to expect and go in prepared.

As a career coach, I have worked with job candidates on how to answer the most common questions asked by HR. My mock interviews place clients in situations similar to ones they will actually face and prepare them to ace their interviews and land the job.

Let’s take a look at the five most common questions asked by HR during screening interviews and how you should approach them.

1. Why are you interested in this position?

HR professionals love this question so use it as your chance to reiterate your strengths and highlight your applicable skill set and passion for the company and the role. Speak to how your past experiences match the qualifications for the job using keywords from the job description to make the connection stronger. By clearly linking your skills to the position, you are helping the HR manager envision you in the role.

Sample Answer: Having worked within the financial services sector for five years, I have gained an appreciation for the power of client-facing roles in terms of my professional development and organizational impact. As a relationship manager in your firm, I envision bringing my ability to resourcefully optimize any given client’s portfolio as the best way I can help your company’s five-year strategic goal of retaining its client base at a 50% rate. I have done this in the past in X capacity while working for my previous employer and am confident that I can help you accelerate your current goals while growing my career.

2. Tell me about yourself.

As an age-old prompt that will likely never go away, it’s important to know how to provide a compelling answer for an HR manager. Instead of the typical chronological progression of your background, I recommend doing a SWOT analysis within the context of a professional interview. Analyze the sector, the company, and the job function using a SWOT and look for opportunities to market yourself. I go into this in more detail in my blog post on how to tell your professional story in a way that will entice an interviewer to hire you.

Sample Answer: I have been a sales manager for X years, with experiences that include being able to lead a sales force toward the accomplishment of aggressive goals. In light of your organization’s core strength in hiring the brightest salespeople, I would know exactly how to coach them to sell both new and legacy products in new markets quickly. While at Company X, I created the gold standard incentive program that resulted in helping us sell-in potential charge volume that exceeded our goals by 20% in both travel expenses and daily expenses. Prior to that, I worked at X where I completed X, etc. Side note: figure out the assets of the hiring firm or its needs and tailor your response accordingly.

3. Why are you leaving your current job?

HR managers ask this question to determine if there are any red flags related to your departure. Are you leaving on good terms or bad? Are you looking to escape from your current job or grow within a new one? These are a few of the questions running through the interviewer’s mind. Take this opportunity to speak positively of your current employer but communicate that you’re looking at this new position as the next step in your career. By framing your answer positively, you’re making the interviewer focus on your potential contributions rather than any red flags.

Sample Answer: My business unit started with 50 full-time employees and today it has 10. While this reduction in personnel enabled me to showcase my ability to produce results with limited resources in an organization where management has turned over, I am interested in transitioning to an organization like yours where there is growth potential. For example, in my current role I managed to acquire 100K clients with only one other sales manager and a dwindling budget. In your company, I would be managing a team of 20 sales managers, where I stand to make a significant impact not only for your firm but on the firm’s market share.

4. What do you know about the company?

This is a test and one you should be able to pass easily. Doing research on a company prior to an interview is a necessity. You need to know the history and makeup of the company, who the key players are, recent accomplishments and mentions in the press, and any other relevant information. Communicate the positive information you learned about the company, from awards to new product launches, to demonstrate your knowledge.

Sample Answer: Your firm competes with firm A, firm B, and firm C in the U.S. My understanding is that you are better positioned in this area vs. firms A, B, or C. Meanwhile, firms B and C bring these strengths to the table. Given my skill set, I know that I can help you optimize your strength in this and offset the strengths that firms B and C plan to invest more heavily in during 2014. *Side note: the point is to be specific in how you’d use this information to drive results.

5. What questions do you have for me?

ALWAYS have questions for the interviewer. The strongest candidates show their enthusiasm and position themselves as potentially valuable team members by asking smart, strategic questions that benefit both the interviewer and the interviewee. If you’re stumped, here are five questions to ask HR that will take you to the next phase of the interviewing process.

“To learn more about how to navigate job interviews or if you have an upcoming interview, set up a 15-minute consultation.  I have helped professionals go from second choice to first.”

Melissa Llarena is a firsthand career transition expert (having gone through 16 business unit changes in 10 years) and president of Career Outcomes Matter.  Sign up for her blog at www.careeroutcomesmatter.com.

How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures – by Erin Meyer

It was Willem’s turn, one of the Dutch participants, who recounted an uncomfortable snafu when working with Asian clients.  “How can I fix this relationship?” Willem asked his group of international peers.

Maarten, the other Dutch participant who knew Willem well, jumped in with his perspective. “You are inflexible and can be socially ill-at-ease. That makes it difficult for you to communicate with your team,” he asserted. As Willem listened, I could see his ears turning red (with embarrassment or anger? I wasn’t sure) but that didn’t seem to bother Maarten, who calmly continued to assess Willem’s weaknesses in front of the entire group. Meanwhile, the other participants — all Americans, British and Asians — awkwardly stared at their feet.

That evening, we had a group dinner at a cozy restaurant.  Entering a little after the others, I was startled to see Willem and Maarten sitting together, eating peanuts, drinking champagne, and laughing like old friends. They waved me over, and it seemed appropriate to comment, “I’m glad to see you together. I was afraid you might not be speaking to each other after the feedback session this afternoon.”

Willem, with a look of surprise, reflected, “Of course, I didn’t enjoy hearing those things about myself. It doesn’t feel good to hear what I have done poorly. But I so much appreciated that Maarten would be transparent enough to give me that feedback honestly. Feedback like that is a gift. Thanks for that, Maarten” he added with an appreciative smile.

I thought to myself, “This Dutch culture is . . . well . . . different from my own.”

Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

One way to begin gauging how a culture handles negative feedback is by listening to the types of words people use. More direct cultures tend to use what linguists callupgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This istotally unprofessional.”

By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British are masters at it.  The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”, which has been circulating in various versions on the Internet, illustrates the miscommunication that can result.

Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide Table

Germans are rather like the Dutch in respect of directness and interpret British understatement very similarly. Marcus Klopfer, a German client, described to me how a misunderstanding with his British boss almost cost him his job:

In Germany, we typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly. Of course, we assume others will do the same. My British boss during a one-on-one “suggested that I think about” doing something differently. So I took his suggestion: I thought about it, and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as “change your behavior right away or else.” And I can tell you I was pretty surprised when my boss called me into his office to chew me out for insubordination!

I learned to ignore all of the soft words surrounding the message when listening to my British teammates. Of course, the other lesson was to consider how my British staff might interpret my messages, which I had been delivering as “purely” as possible with no softeners whatsoever. I realize now that when I give feedback in my German way, I may actually use words that make the message sound as strong as possible without thinking much about it. I’ve been surrounded by this “pure” negative feedback since I was a child.

All this can be interesting, surprising, and sometimes downright painful, when you are leading a global team: as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words will be magnified or minimized significantly based on your listener’s cultural context   So you have to work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures.   As Klopfer reported:

Now that I better understand these cultural tendencies, I … soften the message when working with cultures less direct than my own.  I start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then I ease into the feedback with “a few small suggestions.” As I’m giving the feed- back, I add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Then I wrap up by stating that “This is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth,” and “You can take it or leave it.”  The elaborate dance is quite humorous from a German’s point of view … but it certainly gets [the] desired results!

What about you? Where do you think your own culture falls in this regard?   If I need to tell you your work is total crap, how would you like me to deliver the message?


Erin Meyer is a professor specializing in cross-cultural management at INSEAD, where she is the program director for two executive education programs: Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business.  She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, June 2014).  Follow her on Twitter: @ErinMeyerINSEAD

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.