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.

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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?

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.

Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work – by Lauren A. Rivera

 ACROSS cultures and industries, managers strongly prize “cultural fit” — the idea that the best employees are like-minded. One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.

When done carefully, selecting new workers this way can make organizations more productive and profitable. But cultural fit has morphed into a far more nebulous and potentially dangerous concept. It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with. In the process, fit has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.

The concept of fit first gained traction in the 1980s. The original idea was that if companies hired individuals whose personalities and values — and not just their skills — meshed with an organization’s strategy, workers would feel more attached to their jobs, work harder and stay longer. For Southwest Airlines, screening job candidates based on their willingness to provide a wacky experience for strangers contributed to the fun environment that enabled the company’s financial success. Likewise, for the investment firmBridgewater Associates, which seeks to distinguish itself through its pursuit of transparency and honesty, screening out potential hires who couldn’t handle criticism made good business sense.

But in many organizations, fit has gone rogue. I saw this firsthand while researching the hiring practices of the country’s top investment banks, management consultancies and law firms. I interviewed 120 decision makers and spent nine months observing the recruiting practices of one firm in particular. The professionals I spoke with, who were charged with reviewing applications and conducting interviews, consistently underscored the importance of cultural fit in hiring. While résumés (and connections) influenced which applicants made it into the interview room, interviewers’ perceptions of fit strongly shaped who walked out with job offers.

Crucially, though, for these gatekeepers, fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit. In these time- and team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients. Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun. Many, like one manager at a consulting firm, believed that “when it’s done right, work is play.”

To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. “The best way I could describe it,” one member of a law firm’s hiring committee told me, “is like if you were on a date. You kind of know when there’s a match.” Many used the “airport test.” As a managing director at an investment bank put it, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”

Selecting new employees based on personal similarities is by no means unique to banking, consulting or law; it has become a common feature of American corporate culture. Employers routinely ask job applicants about their hobbies and what they like to do for fun, while a complementary self-help industry informs white-collar job seekers that chemistry, not qualifications, will win them an offer.

Although diversity in many industries has increased in recent decades, progress in the corporate realm has been slower than expected. Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low. In the elite firms I studied, the types of shared experiences associated with fit typically required large investments of time and money.

Class-biased definitions of fit are one reason investment banks, management consulting firms and law firms are dominated by people from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds. Also, whether the industry is finance, high-tech or fashion, a good fit in most American corporations still tends to be stereotypically masculine. Consequently, fit can exclude high-performing candidates — female or male — who are more stereotypically feminine.

Some may wonder, “Don’t similar people work better together?” Yes and no. For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.

Perhaps most important, it is easy to mistake rapport for skill. Just as they erroneously believe that they can accurately tell when someone is lying, people tend to be overly confident in their ability to spot talent. Unstructured interviews, which are the most popular hiring tools for American managers and the primary way they judge fit, are notoriouslypoor predictors of job performance.

Fit can work, but personal similarity is not the key. Organizations that use cultural fit for competitive advantage tend to favor concrete tools like surveys and structured interviews that systematically test behaviors associated with increased performance and employee retention. For managers who want to use cultural fit in a more productive way, I have several suggestions.

First, communicate a clear and consistent idea of what the organization’s culture is (and is not) to potential employees. Second, make sure the definition of cultural fit is closely aligned with business goals. Ideally, fit should be based on data-driven analysis of what types of values, traits and behaviors actually predict on-the-job success. Third, create formal procedures like checklists for measuring fit, so that assessment is not left up to the eyes (and extracurriculars) of the beholder.

Finally, consider putting concrete limits on how much fit can sway hiring. Many organizations tell interviewers what to look for but provide little guidance about how to weigh these different qualities. Left to their own devices, interviewers often define merit in their own image.

Wanting to work with people like ourselves is not new. In the past, employers overtly restricted job opportunities based on sex, race and religion, which is now illegal. But cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination that keeps demographic and cultural diversity down, all in the name of employee enjoyment and fun.

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.

The Right Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” – by David Reese

Thomas Jefferson once said that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom”. Though truth-telling abounds in grade school platitudes, it seems scarcer the older we get. But this decline in honesty — let’s call it dishonesty — isn’t necessarily innate. Dishonesty can be taught. In my experience, I’ve noticed that, of all culprits, college career centers are exceptional traffickers of such miseducation. In the process, they’re hurting their brightest students’ chances of making it in the world of startups by convincing them to give dishonest answers to tough interview questions.

Full disclosure: I work at a startup, and it’s my job to quickly build a team of the right people. Throughout my earlier career in larger companies, honesty and being self-critical have always been obvious qualities to look for in candidates, but it wasn’t until I joined Medallia that I realized their special significance for startups. Brandon Ballinger’s now famous blog post about his experience with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham shows why. To cut a long story short, Graham told Ballinger (to his face) that his startup idea sucked — a tough-love approach Ballinger now extols. Why? Well, in a startup, it’s much more comfortable to be a “team player” than “the bad guy,” as Ballinger describes it. The real hard work in a startup, however, is being able to openly admit that the current strategy is just not working — no matter how uncomfortable it is, or how much has been invested in getting to that point.

In other words: one of the biggest dangers for a young company is that a roomful of smart people who aren’t being honest could easily be steering their rocket ship into the ground.

And yet college career centers continue to operate in a 20th century world in which top talent was funneled into careers in mature, staid organizations and industries. These are cultures where people are much more likely to divulge their net worth than a weakness. While a mature organization might have once been able to get by with a “don’t stick your neck out” culture, that attitude is simply lethal to startups.

Nonetheless, the importance of this simple truth seems to still be elusive for the Office of Career Services at many of the nation’s top colleges and universities. Besides guidance on basic items like resumes, cover letters, how to dress, and how to eat, many of these schools are providing either no advice or bad advice on how to adequately answer important questions. Take a very common question that I always like to ask, for example:

What is your greatest weakness?

Even if you’ve only had just one professional interview in your life, then you’ve probably still been asked some version of this question. Do you remember how you answered? Did you say that you work too hard? That you have perfectionist tendencies? Or that you’re too passionate? Be honest.

The truth of that matter is that a quick search of career center websites indicates that students are being encouraged to apply this type of spin to their answers. Even for those that advocating for honesty, there’s often still the contradiction that one’s answers must always be positive. The result of which? Answers that focus on lesser skills (but still skills) rather than actual problems or challenges. One school goes as far as to call it an “angelic weakness.” And if you’re pressed to give a real answer about a flaw, nearly every career center in the universe has apparently decided that “public speaking” is an appropriate response.

Others are more direct at giving the advice that everyone seems familiar with — to make weaknesses into strengths (and vice versa). Northwestern tells grad students, “Turn a negative into a positive.” Boston College advises students to “Turn your weakness into a positive (for example) ‘Because I tend to procrastinate, I have learned to work well under pressure in order to always get work done on time.’”

This is terrible advice. Responses like these tell me little about how a candidate faces challenges and immediately implies a lack of sincerity. It doesn’t demonstrate to me how they think — beyond their ability to creatively avoid being honest or self-critical. It indicates to me that they’re not willing to stand up and say what’s not working — the opposite of what a startup needs. That’s why my recent interviews with college graduates have all started to follow the same pattern. I start with two sentences: “Forget what your career center has taught you about interviews. I want to have a real conversation with real answers, and I promise to do the same.” The candidates take a minute to evaluate whether I’m somehow tricking them. If they lean into their discomfort and take me at my word, the level of conversation improves dramatically — we have a great time getting to know one another in an authentic way. I’m not really looking to find out whether their organizational skills could use improvement, or that they struggle with presenting to large groups or even leading large teams. I’m trying to find out whether they have self-awareness; whether they are able to be critical; and most importantly, whether they’re able to tell the truth — when it’s difficult.

For those candidates who don’t buy in, however, I spend the majority of the interview trying to pry off their layers of canned responses. I leave the interview wondering:Who are you? And what’s worse — I’ll never know. Because they’ll never get the job.


David Reese leads people and culture at Medallia. He came to Medallia from Caesars Entertainment, where he was Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Prior to that, he was a Senior Manager in HR at Macy’s, a board member of the nonprofit ITN, and an Adjunct Professor at Nevada State College.