35 ways to turn reluctant workers into cognitive athletes
A quick test
Which of the following best describes the mental state of your people:
- “Every morning when I go in, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth for ever landing a job here.”
- “I don’t really enjoy my job, but I need the money.”
- “The culture here is toxic. I want to cry.”
If it is anything other than the first quote (attributed to a Facebook data scientist), your organisation is in trouble. Some of you will be aware of my anthropological perspectives on business in the digital age. These perspectives are based on studying and engaging with the most renowned brands across the world.
‘Organisations that treat their people well are most likely to thrive in the digital age’ is the hypothesis I will address in this post. In doing so, I will introduce several concepts, including:
- The cognitive athlete.
- Cognitive leakage.
- Marginal gains.
I am going to draw on a number of high profile organisations including Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Yahoo.
In my most recent post, I highlighted that your clients will be better served if you focus less on them and more on your people. Thus, talent management is the leadership priority. As robots and algorithms permeate the workplace, humans need to move beyond process work in order to remain economically relevant.
Creativity, weak signal detection and emotional intelligence are some of the areas where we currently have an edge over technology.
Enter the cognitive athlete
But if we are to stay ahead of the technology bulldozer, we need to arrive at work primed to perform at the top of our game. Thus, I believe, the workforce is morphing from a reluctant supply of ‘manpower’, employed only because the technology has not yet evolved to do everything in the ‘factory’, to an army of cognitive athletes. The workplace is becoming a place where great people do great work with other great people. As one Facebook employee puts it:
“There are phenomenally smart people to work with, which raises your own bar every day, and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction whenever you do something impactful at work.”
I would define a cognitive athlete as an individual who is nurtured to maximise their cognitive capacity in pursuit of creating value. That value, of course, must be recognised by the market. According to former Netflix Chief Talent Officer, Patty McCord,
“One outstanding employee gets more done and costs less than two adequate employees.”
A Bain & Co study found that companies including Apple, Netflix, and Google are 40 percent more productive than the average company.
A year ago, I wrote a book on this subject entitled, Attention Dynamics. In it, I proposed that we all possess similar levels of cognitive capacity, but through circumstances (internal and environmental) the availability of that capacity in respect of doing creative work varies from individual to individual. Cognitive athletes, through personal disciplines and a conducive environment, maximise the availability of their cognitive capacity for doing great work.
Developing the cognitive athlete
In respect of internal factors, I believe we will see increased use of health monitors integrated with enterprise talent management systems. Wellness is a big thing in Silicon Valley, with Apple opening an independent medical practice for its employees. Microsoft offers acupuncture, physical therapy and diet counselling amongst other wellness perks.
Facebook will freeze your eggs, so that you can be a parent on your terms.
In respect of external factors, I believe that if we create environments that meet our anthropological needs, we will perform to our fullest capacity. As mentioned in the earlier link, such drivers include our desire to be mobile, social and creative. Google creates campuses that encourage mobility. Fireman poles and slides make mobility fun. Overdone it on the mobility front? Then take a nap in a dedicated sleep pod. According to McCord, Netflix prefers to nurture and encourage, rather than blame.
Meeting our anthropological needs takes us from oppressed automatons to highly actualised humans. We can thus harness the full potential of our brains, which by the way have been optimised through millions of years of ‘organic’ programming. Thus, creating workplace environments that enable us to reach a state of cognitive flow must be the goal of digital age organisations.
Is your company cognitively porous?
Sounds good, but there is an issue. Most organisations are
cognitively porous. They leak cognitive capacity by forcing the workers to expend their brain power in unconstructive ways. Examples include:
- Navigating and operating in poorly designed workspaces.
- Dealing with unnecessary rules.
- Having a poor boss.
- Being forced to use IT systems that thwart rather than promote productivity.
- Working for a company that has a questionable purpose and / or no sense of corporate social responsibility.
Marissa Meyer, former CEO of Yahoo! famously banned working from home because she believed that everyone would be more effective by being in the same building. It is not obvious what cognitive benefits could be obtained by forcing people to endure rush hour traffic twice a day.
In any case, Yahoo! is no more.
If talent management is the digital age leader’s priority, then plugging the cognitive leaks is the first action. Failure to do this will eventually cause your organisation to leak its best talent and make talent attraction a costly yet ineffective challenge. I’ll make some recommendations on this shortly.
So, imagine that you have now plugged the cognitive leaks. And so have all your competitors. You are now in the business of pursuing marginal gains. This concept was introduced by British cycling coach Dave Brailsford. By making small gains (just one percent) across every area that impacts performance, one can cultivate remarkable improvement.
In many respects Google and co are in the marginal gains end of building their army of cognitive athletes.
But amongst these top-flight players, we have Amazon. If we were to believe the press, it would appear that Amazon’s success is built on a pool of employee tears. Isn’t Amazon the place where you not only co-work with robots, but get treated like one? Well here are the current Glassdoor scores and Price / Earnings ratios (at the time of writing) for the players mentioned:
Not too shabby Amazon! And well-done Facebook, Glassdoor’s top performer 2018!
I include the P/E ratio as it is indicative of company health and perceived future potential. If you were to look at the 5-year share price movements of these companies, they are all showing strong linear growth, with the exception of Amazon, which is showing exponential growth.
It would appear both the market and the employees like Amazon.
Amazon is worth highlighting because it appears to be the most aggressive in respect of introducing robots into the workplace. Such success is likely to make hybrid robot-human resourcing more common. Again, this is a clarion call for workers to become cognitive athletes.
So, let’s look at what the generals of these cognitive armies do differently. Each of them embraces some or all of these.
- Pay well.
- Cultivate a fun atmosphere.
- Promote Innovation.
- Encourage experimentation.
- Explore new areas.
- Focus on results.
- Provide free healthy food.
- Offer access to fitness facilities.
- Provide generous paid and unlimited parental leave.
- Provide on-site childcare.
- Encourage the pursuit of passion.
- Develop the teaching skills of their people.
- Offer meaningful work.
- Provide conditions for better work-life integration.
- Offer stress reduction services.
- Cultivate a laid-back environment.
- Set ambitious goals.
- Create a trustful and transparent environment.
- Value their staff.
- Focus on resolution, not blame.
- Promote people that exhibit their values.
- Hire outstanding people.
- Hire creative people.
- Create a respectful environment.
- Embrace diversity.
- Focus on creating an esprit de corps rather than wasting resources enforcing HR policy.
- Provide autonomy.
- Forget titles. Focus on quality of work.
- Create a compelling mission.
- Expect people to arrive pumped up for their A game.
- Create opportunities for growth.
- Make it easy to get to work.
- Provide laundry, medical and dental services.
- Freeze their employees’ eggs (though only when asked).
- Surround their people with other intelligent people.
Rather than ruminating on what your next step should be, do anything that improves the cognitive condition of your people. But be aware that you cannot simply shift from an environment where there is a lack of trust and a culture of learned helplessness to one tuned for high performance cognitive athletes. In fact, if your organisation is veering towards the toxic culturally-speaking then you might consider isolating it and building something more wholesome in parallel to your ‘plan A’ model.
Beyond lip service
Many organisations pay lip service in respect of talent management. But, as you have read, that is not the case with these future-proofed organisations. According to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO,
“The most important thing is the people who work at Facebook.”
In summary, I believe high performing workplaces are ‘table stakes’ for success in the digital age.
Talent is moving from factory cog to cognitive athlete.
This lies at the core of my speaking and advisory work. If you are interested in exploring this further, I have developed an anthro-economic blueprint for the digital age organisations.