Let them shine

  • Business
  • Saturday, 02 Apr 2011

Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People Author: Edward M. Hallowell M.D. (ISBN 978-1591399230) Publisher: Harvard Business Press

“Greg, an ambitious, talented man in his mid-thirties, knew something was seriously wrong. He was not working anywhere near his best, and despite his efforts to stay positive, he was feeling more and more cynical about his job. Greg was disengaged and underperforming. While his performance interviews were passable (completing tasks reasonably well and on time), he knew he could do far better, as did his superiors. He felt a mounting pressure, sensing that he could not keep underachieving like this much longer and still have a job.”

“Julie was an executive in a large corporation. She was climbing the ladder, impressing her superiors. She was also making friends, even as she leapfrogged over others. She had the great gift of being able to excel without inducing envy. She was also married and the mother of two children under the age of ten. Many of her peers did not know how she did it. Increasingly, Julie did not know how she did it, either. She felt as if she might collapse under the burden someday soon.”

Does this sound like you or someone you know at work?

As Edward M. Hallowell M.D. points out in his book Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, thousands of workers today can identify with the situation of Greg and Julie they are in a kind of career coma. Like Greg, “many underperform and do not feel positively connected with their workplace”; or like Julie, “they feel overwhelmed, teetering on the brink of a meltdown.” These people are not problematic employees in that they have no disciplinary issues nor are they untalented. Many underperforming employees incorrectly conclude that they must be in the wrong job or unidentified problems that are holding them back. Then, there are overloaded employees who are in dire need of some “labour-saving tricks or novel strategies” that will enable them to complete all their tasks in the limited time allotted.

Meanwhile, their bosses (who may themselves be overwhelmed) cannot be bothered with the intricacies of these problems. The bosses usually believe that since people are paid to perform, underperforming and overwhelmed employees should get over it and figure out a way to do more with less.

Some bosses try to “empower” employees or reward them financially. Others show these employees the door and replace them with more “talented” or “motivated” employees; forgetting about the huge expense that comes with replacing an employee or that new hires soon come to resemble the people they replaced.

Corporate communications always cite the old clich of how “people are our greatest assets.” We are often told that we are each a “beautiful and unique snowflake” but the truth is, corporations treat their employees more like conveyor belt produced vanilla cupcakes, forced to fit into a standard mould. Hallowell points out, “today's workplace is a pressure cooker even the most talented people struggle to sort through an influx of information, relentless demands, and unprecedented stress.”

So, a manager's job becomes even harder. How, in a world of intensifying competition and economic stress, can you help people shine their brightest and perform at their best, day in and day out? How can you keep your star players inspired?

In Shine, psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School instructor, and director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, Edward Hallowell combines brain science with performance research to serve up a proven process for managers to apply. Hallowell, who was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for 20 years, draws from his work experience with helping people overcome their productivity problems, to come up with a playbook based on the latest neuroscience. The five key steps he calls “The Cycle of Excellence” that managers can take are:

Select by putting the right people in the right jobs, and giving them relevant responsibilities that “light up” their brains.

Connect by strengthening interpersonal bonds among team members; addressing the modern paradox that “while we have grown electronically super connected, we have simultaneously grown emotionally disconnected from each other.”

Play by helping people unleash their imaginations at work.

Grapple and Grow by enabling employees to overcome pressure to achieve mastery of their work.

Shine by using the right rewards to stimulate loyalty and people's desire to excel.

Each step is viewed as being critical in its own right and builds upon the other. The most common mistake managers make amidst our growing culture of “instant gratification” is to jump in at step 4 and ask people to work harder, without first having created the conditions that will lead workers to want to work harder. Hallowell emphasises that “put simply, the best managers bring out the best from their people.

This is true for football coaches, orchestra conductors, big company executives and small business owners. They are like alchemists who turn lead into gold. Put more accurately, they find and mine the gold that resides within everyone.”

Hallowell introduces some concepts relatively new to management science that resonated with this reviewer. Hallowell notes that “people's best efforts often fail not because they are not working hard enough, but because they are working too hard. The tsunami of data comprising modern life can easily flood the brain and rot it. Working hard now becomes like bailing out a sinking boat (or brain) with a can instead of plugging a leak.

Many people try to keep up by frantically processing more and more data, bailing faster and faster even as data pours in, instead of erecting boundaries to prevent the data from gaining entrance without permission.”

Hallowell provides useful tools that managers can use to profile their direct reports such as “The Hallowell Self-Report Job-Fit Scale”; so they can best use the skills and attitudes people bring to the work table. He shares with us another framework to match a person and a task in order to promote flow a person most often enters flow when he or she engages in a task that is both challenging and within his skills set.

He also introduces us to a fascinating third framework called conation, the brainchild of Kathy Kolbe (see www.kolbe.com but be forewarned that the test results are not free). Conation, derived from the Latin conari (to try), refers to a person's natural, inborn style of solving a problem, i.e. “how you try”.

Your conative style reflects your characteristic way of addressing any new task. Managers who are conscious of their employee's conative strengths will “work with those strengths and not require them to solve problems against the grain of their natural proclivities.”

When any one person is given a pile of junk, certain persons will ask endless questions before looking at the pile and will get angry if their questions are not answered. Others will dive right in, putting things together before the instructions are complete; asking this person to wait will mean he or she will just tune you out. Another person will listen to the instructions, then carefully sort out the pile, separating the junk into categories.

While some of the content is neither new nor radical, the above-mentioned concepts and frameworks make Shine a worthwhile buy and read for managers or leaders eager to discover how to build a team and keep people happy, productive and committed.

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