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team dynamics

The Modern Workforce

This is the first time in history that five generations are working together.

As a result of healthier living and the financial hurdles to retirement, we find traditionalists and Baby Boomers still in the workforce. Generation X is well established, and in the coming years Millennials will be ready to move into leadership positions. The digital natives of Generation Z are just beginning to enter the fray.

Having five generations is like having five wildly different personalities on a team. There are going to be challenges and there are going to be benefits. To manage a workforce that spans five generations, you have to get at the root of human nature to bond the age gaps.

At the heart of it all, a sixty-five year old and a twenty-five year old want the same things. Their expectations, interests, styles, and values may vary, but ultimately they want the same thing.

What is that thing?

Engagement.

Engagement is an emotional commitment to an organization of people and its goals; because engagement is rooted in emotions, it is often elusive to define.

Though engagement can be difficult to quantify, the literature in organizational psychology shows that what we call “engagement” is a significant factor of employee wellbeing, productivity, and retention.

Engagement is Simple

Ultimately, engagement boils down to this simple truth:

We would rather be happy than sad.

We want to be engaged in our work. We want to like the people with whom we work. We want meaning in our work; we don’t want our jobs to be in opposition with who we are as human beings. We want to be led by someone we respect and admire.

It’s not rocket science, and yet many organizations lack a workplace culture that bolsters this simple truth, instead favoring self-serving leadership and status quo thinking.

Engagement is Universal

It doesn’t matter whether you were born in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s.

No one wants to dread going to work or to spend their entire day counting down the seconds until they can go home.

In the end, we all prefer meaningful work to mind-numbing work. We all have universal needs that we can’t turn off just because we punch a time clock, put on a suit, or sit in a corner office.

Employee engagement is:

Universal. Fundamental. Imperative.

Without it, people leave. Companies lose profit.

Equilibria’s organizational psychologists have distilled their knowledge of human behavior and leadership into actionable, proven steps that you can apply to your employee engagement strategy today!

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“Great job on that last project, you did great, we’re all happy with you, and we can’t wait to see what you do next!”

Most of us are just fine with positive feedback, although even praise can sometimes leave us feeling uneasy.

Closing the deal, earning the respect of someone you admire, or getting the perfect bit of coaching that kicks your skill level up a notch can be extremely gratifying.

We did it! They like us! I’m getting better!

Then there’s the other stuff …the feedback that leaves us confused or enraged, flustered or flattened. Whether it’s constructive criticism or a flat out insult, this kind of feedback triggers us: our heart pounds, our stomach clenches, our internal voice gets louder, our thoughts race and scatter.

Humans – on average – are not great at giving or receiving negative feedback, and for good reason: it typically makes people feel bad. Especially in the workplace.

Negative feedback can make someone feel like their job isn’t secure, their status as a professional has been threatened, or that they aren’t meeting expectations.

A few statistics to digest:

  • 63% of executives felt their biggest challenge to effective performance management is that their managers lack the courage and/or skills to have difficult feedback conversations.
  • 1/4 employees reported dreading their performance review more than anything else in their working lives.
  • Only 36% of managers complete appraisals thoroughly and on time.
  • And in a recent Gallup survey, 55% of employees reported that their most recent performance review was unfair or inaccurate.

Feedback sits between two important human needs: our desire – and necessity – to develop and grow on the one hand, and to be accepted as we are on the other.

So while negative feedback can hurt our feelings, we would also go crazy if we never learned from our mistakes or improved our skill and performance level over time.

If you’ve ever been stuck in a job where your boss was really friendly but never gave you direction or ideas for how to improve, you can understand how frustrating it is to feel like you’re stuck and not getting the resources you need to grow.

Most of us don’t want to stay at our current jobs forever, we want more challenges, greater responsibility, and increased earning potential; all of these things require getting feedback!

However, imagine if you got feedback about every single thing you did all day.

Your spouse tells you their coffee would be better with more cream, three people tell you that your shoes don’t match your belt on the way to work, and your boss emails you after every meeting with a bulleted list of pros and cons of your behavior.

Welcome to feedback fatigue:

Feedback fatigue occurs when someone gets mentally drained from receiving too much negative feedback.

As a manager, watch out for feedback fatigue when you need to develop an employee and there is a large gap between where they currently are and where they need to be.

Feedback typically requires change, and humans aren’t great with change. Even those who are open to feedback get worn down from an overabundance of constructive criticism. People need time to assimilate feedback into their behavior and self-concept.

Everyone’s Threshold for Negative Feedback is Different

When you are in a position that requires you to give performance feedback to people, it’s a good idea to know who you’re dealing with.

Does your employee crave challenges and bounce back quickly or do they have a hard time building back their confidence after getting negative or constructive feedback?

Researchers have found that infants who show more extreme reactions to stimuli like noises or images are more likely to have strong emotional reactions to negative feedback in adulthood.

Each of us has a “swing:”

Swing is how far from our baseline mood we usually travel in response to feedback.

Understanding the swing of the people you work with is important.

There are those who are very emotional and sensitive to any kind of feedback. They feel very happy in response to positive feedback and very sad in response to negative feedback.

Others might have a larger swing for positive feedback and get really excited, but negative feedback doesn’t really bother them.

While others are the opposite: positive feedback doesn’t make them feel very good but negative feedback causes them to feel very bad.

Each of us has a different threshold tolerance & ability to bounce back after receiving negative feedback. Feedback fatigue is thus going to kick in at different points, depending on the individual.

The most challenging types are the people who have short boost from positive feedback and long recovery from negative feedback, but anyone is susceptible to feedback fatigue if there’s too much feedback frequency.

Remember that we have the basic human need to be accepted as we are. Too much evaluation, positive or negative, can make anyone feel overwhelmed and judged.

Signs of Feedback Fatigue

You’re going to know it when you see it. And you’ll probably be anticipating it because you’ll feel fatigued from giving the same person so much negative feedback and evaluation.

The first sign of feedback fatigue is for the giver: do you feel like you are continually giving feedback?

If so, it’s a safe bet that the receiver is feeling it too. Even the most positive and self-assured individual can burn out if too much feedback comes at them.

  1. Paralysis. Someone experiencing feedback fatigue will feel paralyzed; they will second-guess everything they’re doing. They will start looking over their shoulder for their boss’ approval.
  2. Emotional depletion. A feeling of learned helplessness will settle in after a series of negative feedback sessions; the receiver will not have the required resilience to care enough to change. They will feel like nothing they do will be good enough.
  3. Immunity to positive feedback. Remember the 5-to-1 rule: we need five positive interactions to offset one negative interaction in an interpersonal relationship, so even a dose or two of positive feedback will be ineffectual at offsetting feedback fatigue and maintaining a positive, friendly dynamic.
  4. Disengagement. If we’re made to feel hopelessly incompetent, then the aforementioned feedback fatigue signs will be the final nails in the coffin. The receiver will either start to look elsewhere for employment or live in a bubble of apathy.

Reverse the course

Feedback fatigue is easily reversible but it does have to be acknowledged by both parties, the giver and the receiver.

Acknowledging the reality of the situation normalizes the condition for the receiver and halts the sense of isolation that might be creeping in.

The receiver needs to know they are not being oversensitive or have the inability to hear feedback. Let them know that too much feedback in too short a time was thrown at them.

Let them know that while the feedback might be valid, it doesn’t mean they are incompetent or incapable of getting to where they need to be.

As the manager who gave too much negative feedback, you must realize that your employee is going to be incredibly disengaged if they feel you consistently view them in a negative light. So it is vital that you acknowledge positive actions and successful work and appreciate the effort your employee is putting in.

Prioritize the feedback. Pinpoint the most important aspects the person needs to work on and have that be the focus for the foreseeable future.

Change is hard! Keep your expectations reasonable and give your employee the highest priority feedback first, and once those changes are made move onto less pressing changes and criticism.

Moving forward after feedback fatigue will look differently for everyone, but acknowledging the fatigue is the first step. Have an open discussion with the person to determine the next steps: how drastic – or not – those steps need to be, and how they might receive feedback going forward.

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Sometimes I like to go to the movies by myself because I only laugh if I truly find something funny and I might like a story that – were I with others – I might not otherwise like due to my subconscious perception of their reaction.

When we go to the movies with someone, we are swayed by their laughter or their mood, and that in turn colors our experience of what we are watching.

And isn’t that true for most of our group experiences in life?

Those around us often affect our moods, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. So it goes to reason that when we put ourselves into groups and teams in the workplace we will also be affected by the personalities that surround us.

Sometimes, teams gain their strength by being greater than the sum of their individual members. But group dynamics and social influence can cause far more problems than they solve.

Groups, whether they are an executive team or a religious cult, are susceptible to making decisions that none of the individuals involved would have chosen or condoned independently.

When it comes to why smart individuals make dumb group decisions there are four major factors.

1. Overconfidence

There comes a point when healthy confidence dips over the edge into overconfidence:

When we are excessively confident, to a fault, in our own abilities.

Overconfidence breeds arrogance, which can lead to faulty decision-making.

This is dangerous for anyone, but particularly for leaders. If we are so confident in ourselves that we disregard facts and/or insight that would benefit us, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path, and we are taking everyone down with us.

Interestingly, groups do not quell overconfidence; rather, individuals tend to grow more confident in groups.

One way this happens is through our cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias:

our propensity to seek out and weigh only the information that supports our beliefs or decisions.

In a group setting confirmation bias can play out in dangerous ways.

It’s much easier to share information with a group that supports the consensus or the new idea everyone likes. It’s much more difficult to be the “wet blanket” who has information or an opinion that goes against the group momentum.

On a larger scale, confirmation bias can begin with the formation of the group. For example, if I have an exciting but expensive idea for a new marketing campaign, I might not invite the budget-minded CFO for a discussion of my plan.

With a lack of dissenting voices and information, individuals in a group can grow more and more confident in the infallibility of their ideas and make poor decisions.

2. Common Knowledge

New ideas are hard to come by – and accept when brought to the table – but it’s even more difficult to take the risk and share a totally new idea with a group. This is why groups tend to rely on common knowledge when they get together to generate ideas.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Group members prefer to exchange information held in common because they receive more favorable reactions.

If you play it safe and stick to the status quo, you aren’t vulnerable, causing any anxiety, or potentially sounding like an idiot.

If, however, you are the sole member of a group with a new, innovative idea, the odds are against you.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable because they have to consider their biases and assumptions, critically think about the issue at hand, and have to decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

3. Groupthink

In the famous Asch conformity studies, participants are seated at a table with a few other people, whom they believe are fellow participants but are actually actors.

A researcher presents the group with cards like ones pictured below and asks the folks sitting at the table which line, A, B, or C, matches the height of the line on the left. The actors answer first, each going down the line and answering incorrectly, “A”. The participant then has to give his answer.

While the answer is obviously “C”, about 1/3 of people will conform to the actors’ incorrect answer.

Now, you might be thinking: “I would never conform and say the blatantly wrong answer!” However, what if instead of random actors answering the question before you, it was your boss and other members of the upper management at your company? Would you defiantly give your honest answer or would you conform to avoid rocking the boat?

We are social creatures, and our desire to maintain harmony, avoid conflict, and protect feelings can lead to extremely dysfunctional decision-making.

Irving Janis researched the phenomenon in 1972 and proposed that certain characteristics of groups tend to encourage groupthink:

  • Strong group cohesion
  • High levels of stress
  • Strong/directive group leader
  • Insulation from outside opinions
  • Isolations from other groups
  • Lack of norms for evaluating information

Groupthink undermines the long-term viability of the team as bad decisions pile up. The best, productive, and innovative teams will be ones where the members feel safe to speak their minds, throw out ideas, and negate or support one another without the fear of retribution, attack or dirty looks.

Teams should cultivate empathy, respect, and mutual support for all opinions so it is a safe place for risk-taking and expression.

People have different levels of comfort. Some naturally speak up, while others – who may have fantastic ideas – never do. Setting a rule in place to give every person time to talk in the group helps create the norm where everyone’s voice is heard.

It helps people practice who don’t normally speak up have their voice heard; it helps those who always speak up practice listening; and it creates a norm where everyone’s voice is important.

Counteracting the Traps

  1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.
  2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.
  3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.
  4. Provide the Right Training – Teamwork training is essential and often overlooked. Team members need to understand how their role fits into the larger group identity and feel comfortable with their position.
  5. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem.
  6. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group list all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.
  7. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.
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