Work Futures Daily | Safety and Meaning

| Google Team Success | Meaning at Work | 101 Ways Work Is Changing Today | Irvin D. Yalom | Sociopaths in The Boardroom |

source: Frantisek Duris

Beacon NY — 2019–07–30 | I confess I am amassing a few days of Work Futures Daily on Sunday afternoon so that I can avoid distractions this coming week. Staring a new project on August first, and I need to get into some deep work for a few days.

It wasn’t too hard to do, because I have found a lot of great research to absorb.


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The five keys to a successful Google team | Julia Rozovsky boils down the results of a two-year study at Google to determine ‘what makes a Google team effective’. The expectation was that they’d find some skills mix that effective teams shared. And?

We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. So much for that magical algorithm.

We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google:

1/ Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

2/ Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

3/ Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

4/ Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

5/ Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

So it is the social dimension — not the technical — that determines team effectiveness. Most importantly, psychological safety was the most important factor:

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found — it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

And, since it’s Google, they built a tool — gTeams exercise — to pulse check teams on the five factors.

But the big takeaway is that we are approaching team formation wrong, looking to fit skills together like a jigsaw puzzle, when the real issue is creating a safe context.


What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless | Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden researched the factors that make or break meaning at work. Most of their preconceptions were overturned:

We interviewed 135 people working in 10 very different occupations and asked them to tell us stories about incidents or times when they found their work to be meaningful and, conversely, times when they asked themselves, “What’s the point of doing this job?” We expected to find that meaningfulness would be similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, in that it would arise purely in response to situations within the work environment. However, we found that, unlike these other attitudes, meaningfulness tended to be intensely personal and individual; it was often revealed to employees as they reflected on their work and its wider contribution to society in ways that mattered to them as individuals. People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm. We also expected meaningfulness to be a relatively enduring state of mind experienced by individuals toward their work; instead, our interviewees talked of unplanned or unexpected moments during which they found their work deeply meaningful.

We were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers, such that, for example, transformational leaders would have followers who found their work meaningful, whereas transactional leaders would not. Instead, our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

We also expected to find a clear link between the factors that drove up levels of meaningfulness and those that eroded them. Instead, we found that meaningfulness appeared to be driven up and decreased by different factors. Whereas our interviewees tended to find meaningfulness for themselves rather than it being mandated by their managers, we discovered that if employers want to destroy that sense of meaningfulness, that was far more easily achieved. The feeling of “Why am I bothering to do this?” strikes people the instant a meaningless moment arises, and it strikes people hard. If meaningfulness is a delicate flower that requires careful nurturing, think of someone trampling over that flower in a pair of steel-toed boots. Avoiding the destruction of meaning while nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge.

Reading this I was reminded of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which I wrote about in What Drives Us?:

I found myself impressed by immensely practical insight of Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, which is based on the notion that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not two ends of one dimension, but actually two independent factors. Job satisfaction is a function of the work that someone does, and that has the capacity to fulfill needs, like achievement, competency, status, personal worth, and self-realization. Job dissatisfaction is linked to unfavorable perceptions of working conditions, relationships with others (especially supervisors), company policies, and salary. Herzberg’s breakthrough is that these two factors must be measured and managed independently, and in parallel.

Here the link between Herzberg’s job satisfaction and people’s perception of the meaningfulness of their work seems fairly direct: in both cases, it is a deeply personal feeling. However, job dissatisfaction is a shared condition caused by bad management, as is the sense of work being meaningless.

No surprise that later in their analysis, Bailey and Madden make the same connection with Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory:

In the 1960s, Frederick Herzberg showed that the factors that give rise to a sense of job satisfaction are not the same as those that lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. It seems that something similar is true for meaningfulness. Our research shows that meaningfulness is largely something that individuals find for themselves in their work, but meaninglessness is something that organizations and leaders can actively cause. Clearly, the first challenge to building a satisfied workforce is to avoid the seven deadly sins that drive up levels of meaninglessness.

The seven deadly sins:

  1. Disconnect people from their values.

  2. Take your employees for granted.

  3. Give people pointless work to do.

  4. Treat people unfairly.

  5. Override people’s better judgment.

  6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships.

  7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm.

The researchers provide a model for an ‘meaningfulness ecosystem’, which I don’t think is really an ecosystem but more like a model for thinking about avoiding meaninglessness work.

Go read the whole thing.


The 101 people, ideas and things changing how we work today | BBC Worklife collated a great list, including these, which are just the A’s:

Adaptability quotient In an ever-changing work environment, ‘AQ’, rather than IQ, might become an increasingly significant marker of success.

Algorithmic justice More machines than ever can recognise us, but they inadvertently discriminate on race, gender and more. People like Joy Buolamwini are trying to fix these built-in biases.

Anti-distraction apps For better or worse, the internet is an attention-sapping platform. Perhaps an app that blocks, well, almost everything can help you focus.

Autocomplete We’re starting to trust AI systems to write our emails for us. Is this time-saving tool changing how we communicate?

Automated hiring — and firing AI can screen your job application — the question is whether it should also be allowed to scan your social media, analyse your facial expressions and even fire you

Oh, and check out ‘globotics’ and ‘ghost work’. I am a big fan of ‘microbreaks’.

Quote of the Day

The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely.

Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy


Ex-Corporate Lawyer’s Idea: Rein In ‘Sociopaths’ in the Boardroom | Andrew Ross Serkin profiles Jamie Gamble, a retired corporate lawyer, who has come to realize that corporate executives are more-or-less required — by law — to act as sociopaths:

Mr. Gamble has had an epiphany since retiring nearly a decade ago that is so damning of his former life that it is likely to give his ex-partners a case of agita.

He has concluded that corporate executives — the people who hired him and that his firm sought to protect — “are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

He made that determination about five years ago when he started to work on a novel that recently inspired him to compose a provocative essay elucidating what he calls, based on his firsthand experience, a “complex network of horribles” in corporate America. He recently shared a draft with a small number of colleagues, seeking their comments.

“The corporate entity is obligated to care only about itself and to define what is good as what makes it more money,” he writes in the essay. “Pretty close to a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder. And corporate persons are the most powerful people in our world.”

Mr. Gamble’s change of heart will not exactly come as a revelation to the increasingly vocal group of investors, politicians and even chief executives who are pushing companies to be more responsible and to focus on metrics like environmental sustainability and corporate governance rather than on simply maximizing profits.

But in the world of corporate lawyers — and the board governance experts among whom it is quietly getting attention — Mr. Gamble’s essay may be a watershed.

He doesn’t blame his former clients, exactly. He blames the law.

His solution? Every company should

adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life

which would bind the executives to meeting those rules. He doesn’t offer some sterling example of such rules, note.

Serkin points out that this is not unlike the aims of Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a federal charter for corporations [see Failed Expectations], but Gamble’s plan keeps this ethics exercise in private hands. I’m with Warren on this one.