April 14, 2018

Five Ways to Fix Our Broken Psychological Work Model

When I first saw this presentation, I realised it was the first time I’d seen the arguments for a better work culture delivered in such a succinct and humorous way.

This talk is now seven years old and the research, case studies and literature that support this argument have continued to grow; arguing that our psychological approach to work is fundamentally flawed and there is a better way.

Many of us have grown up with the belief that if we work hard (hit our targets, land the deal, finish the project and so on), that we’ll be happy once this is achieved. Instead, looking at the figures from Gallup, the opposite is true with this approach. Only 13% of the work force is engaged, the rest of us are disengaged to some degree, we’re unhappy and many of us are stressed far too often.

We know unequivocally that when the brain is in a positive state, it outperforms a negative or neutral brain. We’re more productive, more resilient, more creative, better at sales, we are more likely to be promoted and more. Therefore our model for work should be, focus on being positive, then do your work and you’re likely to enjoy greater success.

If this is true, then why is it that so many work environments are such negative places?

A  2000 Integra Survey reported that:

•65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused difficulties and more than 10 percent described these as having major effects
•10% said they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of job stress and in this group, 42% report that yelling and other verbal abuse is common
•29% had yelled at co-workers because of workplace stress, 14% said they work where machinery or equipment has been damaged because of workplace rage and 2% admitted that they had actually personally struck someone
•19% or almost one in five respondents had quit a previous position because of job stress and nearly one in four have been driven to tears because of workplace stress
•62% routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain, 44% reported stressed-out eyes, 38% complained of hurting hands and 34% reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out
•12% had called in sick because of job stress
•Over half said they often spend 12-hour days on work related duties and an equal number frequently skip lunch because of the stress of job demands

Here Are Some Recent Findings from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK

•There has been a 16% increase in work related stress since 2014/2015 and the World Health Organisation called workplace stress a ‘World Wide Epidemic’.

Why is it that so many companies that say ‘our people are our greatest asset’, then proceed to burn them hard and give them untenable workloads, especially when we know there is a link between high levels of stress and high levels of disengagement.

Whilst there are many companies doing extraordinary work, taking findings from a broad church of people science (positive psychology, behavioural psychology, neuroscience and so on) to improve their work models and cultures, the vast majority of organisations and the vast majority of senior leaders (looking at the stats), have not shifted their cultures at all.

So, in the spirit of providing solutions, not simply focussing on the problem…..

Here are Five Ways to Fix Our Broken Psychological Work Model

  1. Improve psychological safety
  2. Insist on regular breaks
  3. Encourage people to physically move
  4. Remove distraction and allow people to focus deeply
  5. Give people opportunities to ‘grow’ and improve

1. Improve psychological safety

It may not come as any surprise that when Google did research into what makes an effective team, that ‘psychological safety’ came out at number one. They define psychological safety as: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.” For most organisations, speaking up is not encouraged. Making mistakes is frowned upon and leaders do nothing to make their teams feel their roles are safe.

2. Insist on regular breaks

It is virtually impossible to have a ‘positive’ brain, if you’re exhausted. In their book ‘The Power of Full Engagement’, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz prove that systematic breaks (or as they call it ‘energy management’) is critical to high quality, daily productivity. In layman’s terms, you’d never do a 12hr gym work out, day-in-day out for years on end, yet that’s exactly what we do to our brains without breaks and then we wonder why we have problems. Our brains need rest and intermittent down time (every 90 to 200 mins at work), this helps us maintain a positive brain and a high degree of quality productivity throughout the day.

3. Encourage people to physically move

Why is this in the top five of how to create more positive brains in our people? Because if there is just ONE thing people could do to have a more positive brain, it would be to exercise, to move. In the last 15 years or so the evidence from neuroscience on the impact of exercise on the brain has been staggering. We are not talking about a ‘runners high’ either, we’re talking about the fact that chemicals are produced in the brain due to exercise that are critical in improving the physical structure of the brain and improving our mental/emotional wellbeing. The easiest read, and one of the best summaries on this topic is John Ratey’s book, Spark.

4. Remove distraction and allow people to focus deeply

One of the main causes of stress is the modern workplace is constant distraction mixed with multi-tasking. Multi-tasking it turns out is a myth, instead we task switch and when we do that, we sub-consciously speed up and that stresses our brain. In addition, on average it takes 23 mins and 15 seconds according to Gloria Mark (professor of Informatics), to get back to the task at hand, once we are distracted. The big message if we want a happier brain, is to switch off distracting technologies (e-mails, Slack, our phones etc) and instead have Deep Work (Cal Newport) periods set aside each day to get stuff done. We’ll be happier, our productivity will improve and the quality of what we produce will sky rocket.

5. Give people the opportunities to ‘grow’ and improve

Personal mastery is one of the cornerstones of psychological thriving, a sense that we are growing and developing in our lives both professionally and personally. In Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’,  he shows that there are three main drivers of intrinsic human motivation, one of which is Mastery, our desire to get better at something. So if we want positive brains in our organisations, give people the opportunity to strive, learn and grow because everyone wins.

And a BONUS No.6

If you really want people to be positive, give them an opportunity to elicit a sense of meaning in what they do. A clear WHY that resonates deeply with them. Dan Pink talks about the importance of purpose but so does Simon Sinek, Martin Seligman (the Father of Positive Psychology) and anyone in the military who has elicited remarkable performance from unremarkable groups of people.

This is not an exhaustive list at all. There are many other science-based strategies for improving collective and individual subjective wellbeing and positivity. However, these are my top five because they attack some of the most corrosive aspects of the modern workplace.

Every senior leader in every organisation should have a level of expertise in human flourishing, most do not. Until leaders in organisations understand personally and professionally that when you harness the positive potential of people ALL of the indicators of business health improve, we will continue to sponsor a broken model.

It is time we embraced change and the Agile Community have a remarkable opportunity to be a driving force in that positive change.

Author: Alan Furlong; Sherpa People Systems