“Nice people finish last,” conventional wisdom tells us. But Tim Sanders proves that, on this point, conventional wisdom is wide off the mark. Sanders, the leadership coach at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! Inc., affirms that personal likeability (or the L-factor, as he calls it) is the high road to meaningful relationships, greater resilience, a more fulfilling career and much more. It’s a motif that runs through his book, The Likeability Factor, a New York Times best seller. But does the L-factor also operate at a corporate level? In what ways does “company culture” influence employee behaviour? What are some corporate barriers to happiness, health and harmony that employees— particularly IT employees — face today? Sanders discusses all this and more in an exclusive interview with ITWorldCanada.com editor Joaquim P. Menezes.
Do you believe corporate structures can help or hinder the cultivation of likeability?
Absolutely. Every company, knowingly or unknowingly, creates its own culture, usually starting at the top with senior management. Some corporate cultures are based on nurturing a positive emotional state among employees. SAS Institute at Cary, N.C., is a great example. They have a 35-hour work week…no exceptions. “You’ve got to go home,” they say. “We want you to be rested.” That itself can lead to more likeable behaviour, as people who feel good are usually more pleasant. At SAS, they also bring in thousands of fresh flowers every Wednesday. They have onsite day care and health care. They’ve built a library for the employees’ kids. You can bring your child to work. There’s no such thing as a sick day at the company. If you’re sick, you don’t come in. If you can’t do your job, you’ll have to quit. As a result, employees are highly innovative. People tend to give a lot more than the company expects.
Tell me more about “biz love,” the new management model you propose.
It’s the idea that you promote other people’s growth by giving of your intangibles…your knowledge, networking, compassion. By creating personal growth in other people, you create a great company. That’s the paradigm. You witness [biz love] in action with a manager who has a likeability factor of 8 or 9. Typically he or she is described by others as lucky: “Can’t believe she always gets those promotions; can’t believe she always gets that budget; can’t believe all those people work so hard for her. They don’t work hard for me.” [Such managers are] very pleasant to be with but at the same time, they are tough-minded and highly relevant. They get the job done, but are very down-to-earth and genuine. They don’t always get to say yes, but are always friendly even when they say no.
You’ve coined the term NEDS. What is NEDS?
NEDS is short for New Economy Depression Syndrome. It’s self-reinforcing depression brought on by a couple of stressors and the lack of a shock absorber. The first [stressor] is the glut of information. We are asked to absorb too much in [too little] time….We feel guilty about what we can’t get to but are really looking ahead. The second stressor is constant interruption. Psychotherapists call it decision shift. For instance, you’re working on a spreadsheet for a report; the e-mail [alert] goes off so you check your inbox, and it’s a spam; then you get an instant message from a friend; soon after there’s another e-mail with a Word document you need to open and read today; and then your ‘Crapberry’ buzzes because it’s picking up corporate e-mail…and that is a stressor on steroids. This breaks us down, creates a lot of pressure. We can live through all of it, but we need regular shock absorption. Meaningful contact with other people can provide this. Lack of — or declining — contact is the third factor that causes people to be depressed.
Technology seems to have aggravated the problem. How then may people continue to use technology and yet maintain sanity and serenity?
I’ve got to find technology-free zones in my life. For instance, I don’t carry my cell phone and Blackberry with me over the weekend. If I’m not launching a book, I don’t even go online on the weekend. We also need to create boundaries for the information we send and receive. Today, there isn’t enough etiquette in the world about information. In the area of e-mail, for instance, I propagate and practice the CLEAR system I learned from Bill Jensen, author of the book Simplicity. He says, “Please ask yourself five questions before you send me an e-mail”:
C — Is this connected to my job? (That gets rid of a lot of useless stuff);
L — Where is the list of things you want me to do about this information?
E — What do you expect from me?
A — What are my avenues to delegate?
R — What’s the ROI, either for the company or me to pay attention to this?
Are folks in the IT industry more susceptible to NEDS?
A lot of us in IT tend to replace face-to-face with e-mail and we have a culture that says don’t phone me, e-mail me. We get into the habit of asynchronous conversation. In an e-mail culture you can always pause and think…and that’s less frightening than engaging with people (in) real time. But it can eventually lead to social isolation.
When I mentioned this at a conference, it struck a chord with one manager who for years had only communicated with his staff through instant messenger and e-mail. It was also a long time since he told his employees he appreciated them. So he decided to go up to each of them and tell them a personal and a professional thing he liked about them.
The manager contacted me a few days ago with this story: Two days after he put his plan into action, one of his software engineers presented him with an X-box gaming console. The manager was surprised and asked the engineer how he could afford such an expensive gift. The [latter] replied that he sold his chrome-plated 9mm pistol. He said when he moved to that city a year ago he didn’t know anybody and got very depressed. He went online to find friends and found suicide chat rooms instead.
Eventually, he ended up spending $1,000 on a gleaming chrome-plated 9mm. He said he was so close to the end…when two days ago his manager freaked him out by coming to his cubicle, putting his arm around him and telling him how he admired the fact that he turned in every project early, and also appreciated how funny he could be over e-mail. “You came into my life and everything felt different,” the engineer said. “That night when I got the gun out and the light reflected off it, the hair stood up on the back of my neck…and I said to myself for the first time: I don’t want to die.” So the engineer sold the gun, and bought the console as a present for his boss.
Does the job insecurity many IT professionals experience today contribute to this sense of isolation?
It does. And, when you combine that with the loneliness that comes from rarely interacting with people face to face, you have a crisis of depression.
I was in Toronto some time ago addressing the HR Professional Association of Ontario. I talked about the “meet expectation” culture. In 1997 to 1999, when people were making a lot of money in IT, everyone got an annual review that said, “You’re excellent, you’re outstanding.” It was just a go-go time. When the economy locked up in 2001, companies by the thousands started to get [a new] message out — from legal, through HR to managers. It said: We’re going to put you on a curve now. If you have 50 people, only two can be outstanding. Forty-eight have to be [given a] ‘meet expectations’ rating. Why? Well, the stated reason is they are raising the bar. The real motive is fear. There could be another layoff, another downsizing, another business unit closure. If we tell people they are excellent…they will sue us in court and win. Every time I talk about this to HR people, everybody nods. [In Toronto] 800 HR people listened to me and said, “This is true. We hand out ‘you’re mediocre’ as an annual grade right now, because we’re scared…and the economy is bad.” This means we’ve got a generation of technology workers who still have to be told they are good.
What impact can such a lack of positive reinforcement have on a company’s performance?
A [negative] one, because we are emotionally-driven creatures. Underneath great IT is great people. Today the typical CIO spends 92 per cent of his or her budget on technology: software, hardware and services. Studies show this 92 per cent creates 25 per cent of the success. On the other hand, a two-per-cent investment in getting the right people to work for you, and keeping them, gives you 20 per cent of the success. This means the right people, the right culture, the right direction, the right buy-in are way more important than budgets. We leverage 10 per cent of our brain on an average. A mere three per cent in an unlikeable environment…and much more than 10 per cent when we’re feeling liked or are in the shower.
There are more than a few senior IT executives who aren’t exactly seen as likeable, but it seems as if other qualities — toughness, foresight, drive, even ruthlessness — are getting them ahead.
These people can become likeable if they retain enough realness and get rid of the unfriendliness. We like some people’s direct nature because it gets results pretty fast, and we know there’s no BS about them….They tell it as it is.
But show me a manager who is unfriendly and insensitive to others, and I’ll show you someone who is really vulnerable. Such people stick around purely because of their talent and entitlement and they usually go down. And by God…when they have a problem, everyone goes after them. There will be executives who are ruthless and respected and admired…and like Hitler they will kill themselves in a bunker at the end of this movie…I guarantee you.
Also, all of the psychological profiles of such persons indicate that they have a terrible personal life and worse health. They look successful because they sit on the top of their work chart and have power over us. But if they lack friendliness and empathy, it’s the middle of the movie. I say…wait until the end.