After 20+ years in tech, the last ten laying front-end process and back-end infrastructure enabling a data-driven culture at MSFT, I had a few observations that made me question the work I was doing. The more available and accurate the data became, the more dependent on data people became. The result? leaders made decisions that doubled down on investing in known quantities like Office and Windows, missing opportunities to dominate and lead in several growing areas of technology. That’s not just my opinion. Those are facts.
There was little awareness, attention or focus paid to subjective skills like having good judgment, sound evaluation skills, or what psychology refers to as “other ways of knowing.” At that time, qualitative data was never as highly regarded as qualitative data.
Cultures that claim to be data driven often let other skills go under-utilized. They become preoccupied with the lure of predictability—the holy grail of business management. They seek data for the smallest of decisions. A study from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory claims to have identified the elusive group dynamics that characterize high-performing teams. Looking at two separate call centers, researchers found that patterns of communication explained why performance varied so widely among seemingly identical teams in that bank’s call center. The best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Drawing on that insight, they advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Leaders are starting to rely on spreadsheets and gadgets to give them a ‘God’s-eye view of human behavior.’
Did we really need to invest in expensive, predictive analytics to tell us that those blessed with the energy, creativity, and shared commitment far surpass other teams? Not only was this dynamic uninspiring to me, I felt we were moving in the wrong direction. That began my journey away from what felt like technology for technology’s sake, and toward questions of self-awareness, critical thinking, and ethical responsibility.
Initially, this led me to study applied behavioral science, sustainability, and leadership, and psychology at the graduate level. A common thread through all the literature, for me, was: values. Our lived values are the foundation of our decision making and ultimately dictate the kind of lives we lead, how happy we allow ourselves to be and become, and achieve.
My research taught me:
Values, whether we are aware of them or not, guide our decisions.Our lives are punctuated by experiences, decisions, or influences. How we respond to those events directs the course of our lives, and in particular, when we find ourselves at a significant choice point, our upbringing can have an enduring influence on the work we choose and our larger career decisions. What we subconsciously learn from our parents plays an important role in how we think about and manage those career decisions.
We are on a path toward the fullest expression of ourselves, whether we know it or not. If we are not aware, honest, or clear about our values (i.e., how we got them and what they are), it is reflected in all of our decisions–and subsequently, our work. Rather than thinking aspirationally of our values, our decisions under pressure are the most honest reflection of our values and ourselves. We are deeply shaped by values and how well we live them.
Both people and organizations lose their way by losing touch with their core values. As individuals, we experience dead ends. Sometimes this is in the form of unfinished projects. More extreme versions of this state result in some form of midlife crisis. I prefer to call this a midlife crossroad because not all “crises” are negative–some can be incredibly fulfilling. However, the path toward closing the gap of who you thought you were and the beliefs you relied on, and who you are now and the beliefs you hold now, can be both painful and incredibly enlightening.
Self-awareness, deliberate practice, and experimentation are the path forward. Practicing your values in a consistent way brings meaning to your work and life and enables you to be congruent. Lived andpracticed, our values guide the expression of our work.
Most people (~70%) are unengaged by their work, yet they are seeking more skills. Two-fifths say their senior leaders prioritize employee engagement, and just 28% said their managers are highly skilled at fostering engaged individuals and teams.
Engagement and ability to fail are linked. Failure and the concept of failing fast have become chic to talk about again. Yet, too often, we ask people to sign up to fail at something they don’t care about. If you agree to fail at something, and I do believe an agreement is required to avoid dysfunction and abuse, you must care about something enough and know why you care about it.
And last, that learning is truly ongoing. We learn a lot, especially when we are interested in the subject. But to retain and integrate requires ongoing practice. An example of my (almost) daily practice re-explores #NotesFromMyYogaJournal.
When I left my job in 2014 to complete my doctorate in Industrial Psychology, people thought I was crazy. I was leaving a stable job and steady paycheck, for what?
Work I care about. Work I experiment with and fail in order to learn. Work where I can take responsibility for my own learning, development, and advancement.
Today, I am working harder now than I ever have in my life–and I’ve worked hard my whole career. I’m learning in a way I was never able to do in my former career, and that is not because I left the corporation. It is because I learned how to create my own safety and take responsibility for my own learning with hyperfocus–two skills we are not taught in schools and do not learn in workplace training. Making these skills available to people has become the focus of my current work.
To both earn and manage the kind of responsibility technology like artificial intelligence will put upon us, we need to start training our minds to reduce the inner chatter. We need to find our Craft, manage feelings v why we continue to develop a feel for our work and engage in the kinds of bold experiments that will solve the problems of tomorrow. We need to learn to contemplate, comprehend, and respond more and react less. We need to not only solve problems, but we also need to find them.
The future of work depends on the state of the human mind, specifically our awareness, ability to reason and contend with values, ethics, and great paradoxes.
Christine Haskell, PhD is a writer and consultant helping leaders increase their attachment to their work to lead with greater effectiveness.
UPDATE: this post has been updated to reflect the latest engagement trends, which still hold at 70% un-engaged.