Everything You Think You Know About Culture & Employee Performance Is (Apparently) Wrong

By David Mizne

Back in the day, culture was something you became exposed to when you traveled to a foreign country. And employee performance was as easy to manage as uttering the words, “work harder or you’re fired!”

But modern employees and workplaces are far more complex. Counterintuitive management theories now tell us that annual reviews do more harm than good, and people must make space during the day for naps and meditation to enhance productivity. Below are five recent articles that offer seemingly strange advice, backed up by research and facts, that explain how you’re doing it wrong:

1. Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens Only Worked Four Hours a Day—and You Should Too

By: Carey Dunne

Overwork is a serious problem, causing stress, physical ailments and eventual burnout. The counterintuitive solution touted by the anti-wokaholics is a 20 hour work week, but is that really the answer? Not everyone is Darwin or Dickens, after all.

Actually, yes! One study from Illinois Institute of Technology found that scientists who worked 25 hours per week were no more productive than those who worked 1/5 of that time. Full-time scientists were half as productive as those working 20 hours a week, while those who worked 60 hours per week were the least productive of all. Read to the end for the inspiring stories of “slackers” like Charles Dickens, mathematician G.H. Hardy, and Nobel Laureate, Thomas Mann.

2. Being Lazy Is the Key to Success, According to the Best-Selling Author of ‘Moneyball’

By: Minda Zetlin

We are taught that nothing great can be achieved without diligence and hard work, and even then there’s no guarantee. So why is Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of Moneyball and The Big Short, extolling the virtues of laziness?

It seems that our culture glorifies busy while leisure time is seen as a nice-to-have. But Lewis is comfortable with periods of inactivity if nothing worthwhile is capturing his attention. Staying busy can be a distraction, stealing our attention when a worthwhile endeavor or idea does come along. “My laziness serves as a filter,” Lewis said. “Something has to be really good before I’ll decide to work on it.”

3. Hey, Silicon Valley: Your Culture Sucks, So Quit Raving About It

By: Ariel Bogle

Bogle doesn’t pull any punches here, and basically calls out the folly of writing about your company culture when dark secrets lurk in the background. Most large tech companies have low numbers of women in leadership roles, and ethnic and racial diversity is abysmal. Add to the mix that many of these so-called cultures have negative reputations for being ruthless, overly-competitive, and guilty of gender-based harrassment.

“Culture” is an overused buzzword that is being wrongfully usurped because companies think it’s a topic they need to cover. (Take this post for example.) But businesses must earn the right to claim culture as an asset. According to HR consultant, Natasha Hawker:

People know at the moment they need to talk about culture — it’s a sexy word — but I don’t think people define culture the same way. A good workplace is one with strong communication — a diverse, flexible business where wins are celebrated.

4. The War for Talent is Over and Everyone Lost 

By: Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic & Adam Yearsley

I did not know this, but McKinsey coined the phrase, “war for talent” in 1998 and declared that success would depend on how well companies could attract, develop, and retain talented employees. The authors of this piece are calling the war a universal loss, because for every successful and satisfied employee, there are scores of folks who are underemployed or hate their jobs.

Maybe that’s why at least half of the modern workforce are passive jobseekers, and so many are willing to take pay-cuts and step into the unknown in exchange for the freedom and flexibility that comes with freelancing.

In this lose/lose job market, companies complain about talent shortages and employees complain about pointless jobs. The authors suggest that employers can improve how they measure performance and understand talent. They should shift the focus from leadership development to developing employees and teams, and up-leveling the entire organization.

5. The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time

By: Justin Talbot-Zorn & Leigh Marz

Even Harvard Business Review is taking some shots at traditional notions of hard work. In this case, the lesson is to turn off and tune out. Authors like Ta-Nehishi Coates and JK Rowling, and psychiatrist Carl Jung all have rituals for managing the constant flow of information and cultivating quiet time.

Research shows that these practices restore the nervous system and condition our minds to be more adaptive to complex workplace environments. This article is loaded with supporting research too, like how “Duke Medical School’s Imke Kirste recently found that silence is associated with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory”.

So that’s what the experts are saying. What do you think? Is your culture ready for drastic changes in the amount of hours employees are seated at their desks? Will you encourage punctuating periods of productivity with laziness and quiet time?

David is Content Guy at 15Five, a lightweight weekly check-in that delivers a full suite of integrated tools – including continuous employee feedback, OKRs, pulse surveys, and peer recognition. David’s articles on talent management have appeared in TNW, TalentCulture, and Startups.co. Follow him @davidmizne.

Image Credit: Josh Tremper


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  • jimjr11

    This would be a very funny article except for one issue, it’s pretty close to how people involved in culture and EE think. If these people didn’t make these crazy comments, no one would know they existed.

    How’s this for being way out there, EE sales pitch to CEO: In ten weeks we’ll reduce you SG&A by ten to fifteen percent, reduce capital spending and other non critical expense, reduce planned layoffs and all of this will be the results of employees answering a single question you ask then in a short video. All of the results will flow to a third party who, reporting two you will track down every single employee suggestion. Also, our fees will be based on the impact the employees have on the income statement. The minute an idea is vetted, the manager will execute it.
    That’s the standard proposal. Unlike the employee survey conducted under HR, this approach isn’t affected by politics, culture, and silos and the results are occurring daily so the velocity of employee input actually grows daily. Together with the financial results, a corporate bully or two may be sent home, many sacred cows will be killed, bad policies will be killed or altered, and for one client 1800 jobs were saved. All of this from a single question and removing the roadblocks that have prevented employee from speaking up. The critical thing here is that provider’s fees were at risk throughout the ten week initiative, HR had nothing to do with it and morale was “off the graph”. Contrast that to what companies get from books, speeches and surveys offering nothing in the way of a performance of increased EE. A one billion dollar industry promising to deliver absolutely nothing. But, hey it really sounds good and we can keep it down here where we can control it.

    • http://www.15five.com/ David Mizne

      Thanks for your comment. There’s a spectrum of ways to impact EE and Culture, ranging from ineffectually talking in circles as you describe, to HR surveys, to (I suppose) hiring a team of consultants to revamp a culture from the ground up.

      We have found that every manager asking the right qualitative and quantitative questions every week, providing immediate detailed feedback, and owning the relationship with their employees, increases engagement and improves the culture. If leadership has visibility and is focused on a positive growth experience of each employee, culture and engagement become non-issues.

      Every company is different, and will find different strategies and tactics that work best. I disagree with the cross-the-board dismissal of thought leadership/corporate coaching (if I understand you correctly). Are there snake-oil salesmen? Yep, same as any industry. But there are also people like us who believe that a business can be the place where people self-actualize. That’s why this blog exists; we offer original ideas as well as repackaging the concepts of other managers and HR leaders. Do people sign up for our product as a result? Sure. Meanwhile tens of thousands of people get free information that provides real value for their growing orgs.


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