Churn n’ burn!

For years it seemed to be a catchcry exclusive to the old-school call centre. Turnover rates of well over 50 per cent each year were the norm (and, sadly, still are in too many cases). But then the game changed. Businesses likeZappos, the maverick online shoe company dared to believe that the culture in call centres could be shown a different way. Following the lead of these culture champions, a brave few have proved they can keep both their workforce happy and their turnover low. 

In the wake of a damning New York Times article on the ruthless culture of heightened expectations inside tech-giant Amazon*, a recent blog post from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moscovitz called for a change to the culture of the tech industry. So it begs the question: has the tech industry become today’s version of the 1990s call centre? Are they the new kings of churn ‘n burn? 

Moscovitz, who now heads up software firm Asana, has called for his beloved industry to stop and smell the roses (even though they may be pixelated ones). But how endemic is the burn-out-or-get-out mentality in the tech sector? And, more importantly, why are they putting up with it?

Why people are flogging themselves

Homo sapiens are largely a hedonistic species. We tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But why is it that we choose to embrace massive duress, sometimes to our detriment?

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why people might sacrifice wellbeing for work. 

  • The effort carries with it a deep sense of purpose.
  • The progress we make during the work becomes addictive. 

And there it is. 

When you view it through those lenses, it kinda makes sense why the tech industry is battling to balance wellbeing with work, doesn’t it? They believe their product will change the world (purpose), and because of the start-up nature of these enterprises, they feel like they’re making great strides every day (progress). It’s a heady mix.

Now let’s not burst bubbles for the tech-heads out there by getting into a conversation about the deep purpose of their work. It serves us no good to start an unwinnable argument that your latest app that accurately predicts the bowel movements of your cat will ‘put a dent in the universe’. Puh-leese. So instead, let’s just focus on the damaging addiction that can come from massive progress.

Why progress masks pain

Our biochemistry is our best friend and sometimes our worst enemy. The reason why good logic (in this case, a healthy balance between wellbeing and work) is often ignored is because of two powerful chemical messengers.

Dopamine is arguably the most addictive substance on the planet for humans. We love it. It makes us feel great and changes our behaviour massively as a result. And when does it turn up in our synapses in bucket loads? When we’re making progress. An evolutionary masterstroke; Mother Nature took a lazy hominid and supercharged us to be the masters of goal-orientation. If you take a step closer to your goal, you get a hit of dopamine. Take another step, you get another hit. The cycle repeats for phenomenal results and is awfully hard to stop when you’re high-as-a-kite-outta-your-head on dopamine.

Endorphins are dopamine’s partner in progress. Kinda like Batman and Robin without spandex tights and the weird paternal relationship. But we digress…

Endorphins have many roles, but one we’ve all experienced to a certain degree is the role endorphins in masking pain. Ever got the post-workout high after exercise? Of course you have. Y’see, endorphins were already in your system when you were exercising, keeping pain at bay. Then you stopped the exertion and subsequently felt great because of the leftover endorphin supply in your body.

These two chemicals sustain people through massive effort. They’re our progress chemicals. They are rewarding and pleasurable at the same time. But they live for the here and now. Ultimately they’re selfish chemicals, and one eye should always be kept on the important longer timeframes and less immediate life goals, like living longer and being happier.  

End progress slavery

There’s little doubt the tech industry is supercharged at the moment. High on dopamine and endorphins—with a bit of Red Bull and coffee thrown in—it’s a runaway train. Massive, unprecedented change bought about by the Internet has created a fledgling service industry like none previously seen. It’s intoxicating, fast paced and ground breaking. But it is being built on a tapestry of chemicals that know no future. It’s all reward today with little regard for five, 10 or 20 years’ time. 

Moscovitz has seen and experienced the powerful effects of progress intoxication, and he now, thankfully, champions a different way. His call to arms should be heeded along with lead innovators such as Australia’s own software developer Atlassian, which was just voted Australia’s best place to work (for the second year running). 

Thankfully there are some emerging heroes in the fight against progress slavery, and in time their cultures might be held in the same esteem as the likes of Zappos—trailblazers that become a guiding light for an industry in the dark when it comes to employee wellbeing.  

*interesting note: Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009 for a reported $850 million. But has it learned much from Zappos about culture?

Four Drivers of Dysfunction

Rightio then. Massive change has turned up to your doorstep at work, and isn’t leaving anytime soon. We get it. #changeisthenewblack 

The stress this change is bringing is likely to test our resolve and see if culturally we are functioning effectively, or if we are actually dysfunctional.

Dysfunction is rarely caused by a singular moment, but rather, a gradual accumulation of behaviours that leads to a breakdown in good function. Take for example, if you’ve ever pulled a hammy whilst exercising. Whilst you might think the reason for the pulled muscle was because of the extra effort put in at the actual time of strain, the deeper, more thorough diagnosis, is likely to show a muscular or skeletal imbalance that happened some time prior. Given a right/wrong circumstance, it was waiting to happen.

Cultures at work are the same. It’s rarely a sudden event or rapid change that causes a workplace culture to suddenly become dysfunctional, but rather a cumulative build up of poorly aligned behaviours, rituals and processes that leave us susceptible to breakdown when placed under duress. So what are some common imbalances that can leave your workplace culture susceptible to breakdown when placed under duress from change? Damn good question; so glad you asked. Here’s four big ones that tend to be accepted practice yet are clear contributors to longer-term dysfunction in your workplace culture.

Anonymous review processes.

Get rid of them. Please. They only serve two groups of people.

  1. Consultants who charge copious amounts of money to administer them.
  2. Executives who are at best out of touch with their workforce, and at worst box-tickers who have no real interest in driving cultural alignment.

We’ve been sold a lemon. Cut your losses and start the processes that involve us having open feedback discussions. Ramp up your feedback and drop the cloak of anonymity that drives real feedback underground and towards malicious intent. If you have managers who have staff that are petrified to give honest feedback, then here’s an idea. Instead of using an anonymous feedback process, to tell you what you probably already know, why don’t you put the right person in the managers role?  

100% check managers

The classic bottleneck. Organisations regularly bemoan staff not exhibiting ‘ownership’ or wanting to ‘empower’ them to make decisions for themselves, yet often the hierarchical structures in place at work send completely the opposite message. If you are a manager or leader and you require things to come to you for final approval, then culturally you are immediately suggesting your team can’t be trusted to deliver without you, aren’t you? 

If you want your employees to take real ownership in a project or work task, let them deliver the product. Instead of giving opinion or feedback at the 100% completion stage, rework it so the project gets presented to you at 70-80%. Here you can sprinkle your magic dust on it, give them well considered feedback and risk manage effectively; but crucially you leave them to complete task and feel a real sense of ownership rather than a faux version.

Pareto Problems

It’s a pretty widely accepted principle, the ole 80/20 stuff. Yet there’s some deep problems from a cultural perspective. Many manager’s believe that 80% of their best work comes from 20% of their key performers, and on pure outputs that could be seen as a truth. But how often have we seen a star performer (results-wise) been given carte blanche to do their own thing? Cultures are made of common sets of behaviours that adhere to a narrative that binds the group. If your star performer is outside those cultural norms, but you turn a blind eye because they get you results, then short term gain will invariably lead to long term pain and dysfunction.

Not firing anyone

We can’t save them all. It’s a well-meaning but misguided belief that we can align everyone to our ideals and culture. But the wrong people in your building are like a cancer that eats a culture away from the inside out.

The simple fact is not everyone if going to align to your culture, and it’s equally certain that as you require people to change they just won’t be able to make the transition. 

A clear an indicator for a dysfunctional culture is the number of people fired in the past 2 years. Obviously if there’s been a spate of mass sackings, then we’ve got a problem. That’s called acute dysfunction. But if there’s been no terminations (and I’m not talking voluntary redundancies either) in the past two years to speak of, then it’s likely you’ve got chronic dysfunction occurring; people simply aren’t making the courageous decisions to put culture in front of discomfort.

So they are just four (of many) areas of poor alignment that can have dramatic effect on cultures over the long term. How many do you see happening in your workplace? Let us know…

Have you got your grit together?

So it’s mid-year time. We’re cresting the hump. 

But how are you travelling? Are your ripping into the work ahead of you, or feel like you are going to limp to the line, tank almost spent already? 

Do you have the grit to see you through? 

In the past, grit was seen an indefinable quality. Some had it and some didn’t. We know now, that’s simply not true. Having grit can be worked upon like any skill. 

But rather than me tell you about it at a surface level, why not hear from one of the best in the world talk about it with some depth?

Our next Think Tank on the 10th of August at Bond University features Dr Adam Fraser talking about grit; what it is, how to get it, and how to keep it. Thanks to Bond Uni, it’s free to attend. How good is that?

So get in a car, jump on a plane…do what you need to do to get there...just make sure you get in fast as these tickets are going to go quick click here to register.

Maybe your first step in getting ‘gritty’ is just to make it happen, eh?

Mindset

Do you see a clear sky and wonder when the clouds will roll in?

Perhaps you’ve completed something grand, yet can only see the tiny flaws.

Maybe been given a compliment and wondered why you deserve it?

 

C’mon. Let’s get rid of the armour. It might be safe, but it’s hardly a life lived.

 

Life’s too bloody good to hope for less, denigrate ourselves or play small.

 

Instead, choose to finish your work week on a high.

 

Tell someone at work how important their efforts are.

Make a plan for Monday that is not just clever, but it’s epic.

Ring someone at home and tell them the best part of your day is yet to come; because you’re going to see them soon.

 

Now that sounds more like a life worth living.

Feedback Cultures

Let’s be really blunt. Inside your organisation, the approach to feedback sucks. Royally. How’s that for feedback?*

*Apologies to the outstanding few. No need to get offended that I’ve lumped you in with the norm. You’re gonna love where this article goes; read on.  

Generally, if we were to walk into most organisations and ask the entire workforce to rate how good feedback is, the numbers would be shockingly low. A plethora of engagement surveys in the past decade (or more precisely, lack-of-engagement studies) point to the current workplace needing to shift its workplace dynamics in a different direction than it’s currently tracking. And at the heart of any shift? Get your approach to feedback right. 

Often it looks like this: the HR/People and Culture department will develop and implement a suite of processes and policies to drive feedback, often in a top-down method. Typically this results in the organisation achieving transactional results—hardly inspiring—but rarely do we see results that are transformational through this well-worn approach.  

Where we’ve got it wrong 

Take a cursory look at most accepted leadership programs and you’ll see sections focussing on feedback. There’s no doubt it’s important. We know that when feedback works, results are easier to achieve and are often better too  But feedback isn’t a tool.  

Let me say that again for emphasis: feedback is NOT a tool. Actually, I’m going to immediately contradict myself. Feedback actually is a tool.  

For the average and underperforming, it is.  

Bolt it on. Put it in your toolkit. Whip it out when you need it. Use it when you have to.  Fill in the form and tick the boxes. 

Do you see the problem yet? Nope? Well let’s take the opportunity to breathe some rarefied air. Let’s look at the outliers. The ones who really ‘get’ this whole feedback thing. 

Where outstanding workplaces get it right 

It does exist. It’s not a mythical thing made of pixie dust and unicorn tears. There are actually organisations (and teams within organisations) that have cracking feedback happening. I mean, really impressive feedback conversations that drive their innovation, creativity and accountability. 

So, how do they do it? What is their super-duper, dang-fangled feedback process, you might be asking. Or perhaps an impatient few of you are banging your fist on the table…’dammit! Tell me their secret!’  

Well, lean in close…the secret to their outstanding feedback is this: 

Feedback is not a process, a tool or a policy. Feedback is actually a culture. 

Elite teams have an altogether different philosophy or world view of feedback that differs markedly to the approach that the middle players take.  

Feedback isn’t a thing we have to do; it’s a thing we want to do. 

Feedback isn’t a process we have to follow; it’s the thing that processes follow on from. 

Feedback isn’t a tool we use to evaluate results; it’s a culture we belong to that results then arise from. 

Building a feedback culture 

Culture. The most discussed, least understood topic on the planet. We could fill libraries with the study conducted on human culture. But strip it back and let’s get you started; give you something to work on today. Sound good? 

Okey doke. Pens at the ready! We’ve got three things to focus on. 

1. Attach yourself to an identity 

Culture can be a by-product or it can be an intention. Make no mistake—culture arrives whether you invited it or not. The big question is, do you like what shows up? 

The best cultures are intentional. And to live out your intentions, you must have a vision or direction of where you’re heading.  

Your feedback is no different. How do you want to be known for your feedback culture? How might people perceive you and talk about your team and organisation when it comes to feedback? 

2. Establish your non-negotiables 

One approach to culture is to identify the desirable behaviours we’d like to represent our culture. Then we constantly reinforce those behaviours when they show up to have them happen more regularly, eventually building good habits. 

But there’s a quicker way. Decide on the things that your culture won’t cop. It could be as simple as not turning up late for meetings or turning phones off in strategy sessions. Be brutally honest about them; be ruthlessly protective of them.  

Establishing non-negotiables within a feedback culture gives the parameters we can work within. They shouldn’t be restrictive; done well, they should be simultaneously liberating and comforting.    

3. Clarify language 

The vagaries of language are many, yet it’s still our dominant overt channel to communicate (non-verbal communication is a whole other beast). So it makes perfect sense for us to know when, where and how well we’re being understood. 

In a rather gross delineation, our language can be split into two key areas: a) traits and b) behaviours. 

Traits are the summary words and phrases that encapsulate a set of behaviours.  

Behaviours are observable actions—the things we see. For example being dedicated is a trait. It’s a summary of a whole set of behaviours. Possibly hundreds. 

Whereas staying back late on Wednesday for two hours, or turning up to your mid-year performance review with a detailed learning development plan for the second-half of the year are both behaviours that might sit within the trait of dedication. They’re much more specific and observable.  

Generally speaking, the less conflict and more trust we have, we can speak in terms of traits more freely. Conversely, if there’s less trust and more conflict, we should shift our language to being predominantly behaviour-based. It’s clearer, less ambiguous and gives people a chance to win. 

The sooner your team and organisation understand these critical language distinctions, the better they’ll communicate throughout the feedback process. 

So that’s the three foundational elements required to build a phenomenal feedback culture that can live and breathe. Focus on feedback—it’s more than a helpful tool for your team or organisation, it’s the heartbeat for its success.