Faces of HR

Keeping Positivity Alive in Challenging Times

With so many organizations falling between closing down and downsizing, and reports of massive casualties from the coronavirus, it can be very hard to stay positive. Yet, remaining positive during this time is critical for employers, employees, our families, and our leaders to get through this poised to recover. I recently spoke with a seriously positive individual who has a plan.

Meet Courtney Bigony, the Director of People Science at 15Five. She says her primary job is to help align the company’s technology with the latest science in thriving coming from positive psychology.

Sometimes when people hear the word positivity, they tend to divorce it from scientific approaches. That’s not the case with you guys. Right? Because you’re talking about psychology. Can you just define the terms you’re working with here?

So, we’re looking at positive psychology, which is the scientific study of strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. It’s the science of thriving. We’re looking at the science of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back after adversity, and how it can lead to post-traumatic growth. We’re looking at things like how we can increase positivity through gratitude or mindful appreciation or meditation. There are lots of cultural practices to increase positivity at work.

How about we start with what you guys are finding about getting people to stop focusing on the negativity and starting to find a way to handle their stress and anxiety?

First, a little bit of background info on myself. I studied positive psychology and I help diffuse that research into our remote company culture practices and our technology. I studied directly with Martin Seligman, who’s the father of positive psychology at Penn. And again, positive psychology is a science of thriving.

We also leverage the latest positive organizational scholarship, which is the science of thriving workplaces. Both are very, very critical right now. What’s interesting is at 15Five, we’re primarily a remote-first company. Of course, we made a larger transition with the coronavirus. But it was a fairly easy transition for us because we had so many amazing cultural practices already in place.

We have lots of Glassdoor “Best Places to Work” awards, many of which are from our remote cultural practices. Right now, people are in survival mode with COVID-19. It sounds like people are wanting to shift a little bit more toward the positive and look at our different cultural practices.

The research from positive psychology shows that the shift from surviving to thriving is through resilience. Resilience is this idea that we can navigate adversity and actually bounce back from it. It can lead to the idea of post-traumatic growth, which means actually coming back even stronger from adversity. I really believe that companies, although they’re struggling right now, can become more resilient with their practices and come back even stronger if they do so correctly.

One really amazing benefit of this whole shift to remote is autonomy. And we know from the science that autonomy is a really critical part of the Self-Determination Theory and intrinsic motivation. Remote work really satisfies this need for autonomy because people are working from home now. There’s this really interesting study by Nick Bloom that shows if you let call centers work from home, they’re 13% more productive. This remote work, because it increases autonomy, has a potential to really increase productivity in the workplace.

I’ve read lots of research on the value of remote work. Those reports, most of them, have been under the best of circumstances. It’s a little different now. Do you have any sense of whether those older, pre-coronavirus findings are still relevant in a world where people are worried they’re going to be laid off or worried about getting pay cuts or all these other concerns? And never mind getting sick and their family members getting sick and things like that.

Right. How does the science of autonomy transfer to this situation? The studies I just talked about, like you said, I think were just looking at remote work, not remote work required bya global pandemic. I think the autonomy as a core piece of intrinsic motivation, still stands. Whether they’re based on fear or thriving, people need autonomy and freedom no matter what.

I think the fear piece just adds a lot of pressure to this situation to ensure people don’t just double down on autonomy and intrinsic motivation but that they’re really focused on other skills, as well, to help them emotionally manage this crisis.

There’s a popular Harvard Business Review article about grief, and it’s about feeling identification and helping people manage emotions. They’re really important resilience skills that people need right now to be autonomous and deal with this new world of remote work.

I think it’s really important to make sure companies are still actively engaged in their company culture and helping develop it. One of the concerns I have is how quickly that takes a back seat. I mean, what priority should building a positive company culture be now? Because there are a lot of priorities. There’s the strategic priority of who we let go and who we keep on. How much do we pay them? How much do they work? Do they have the equipment they need? Are they safe? Are some of them essential? Can we even support this many people working from home? I mean, all of these strategic things are at the forefront of everybody’s mind. When companies are prioritizing now, I am afraid the company culture will naturally fall to the bottom of the list.

Right. I see it as like a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You have to get that financial foundation first; instead of making layoffs, maybe they can do mass company pay cuts. People and companies are going to have to become more financially stable first and then focus on creating cultural practices second. And what’s great is that these cultural practices and these remote ones that they’re going to have to create once they’ve created that financial foundation and have adjusted don’t take a lot of budget, which is really good.

So let’s say that companies are creating that financial foundation. They’re making cuts, hopefully in a humane way, or instead of doing layoffs, they’re doing company wide salary cuts. That’s just one example.

But once they’ve done that, they’re going to need to create this technology and tech foundation in order to support the new world of work. And I also see that as being like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; we need stable Wi-Fi at the bottom, like at the first rung, which everybody needs to add. And then the second one is things like Slack and Zoom. You need video to stay connected or Google Hangouts.

And then at the top of the pyramid, once you have those two things, you’re going to need larger people management platforms. But using Zoom and Slack to stay connected virtually doesn’t automatically mean strategic company alignment and meaningful communication that ensure people make progress on key initiatives and strengthen virtual relationships and key resilience and thriving skills. I really see this hierarchy of remote technology to support people through their resilience and thrive through this.

How fundamental is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in how you approach these things?

It’s really important. I mean, people are in survival and fear mode right now and uncertainty. Companies need to stabilize their people, their financial foundation, and their health and emotional resilience. That’s part of the foundation. And then, only once we’ve stabilized that can we move toward growth. And there are definitely key practices and cultural practices to promote practices to support, especially that middle rung, the health, physical resilience, and emotional resilience.

I’m going to use an example concept, which is from when a company downsizes and all the remaining colleagues have to increase the amount of work they do. It’s a particularly fraught time for leadership because the feedback they’re going to receive over the next couple of months is that everything’s working and that it’s fine. Now, what they aren’t seeing is that those people are getting pushed to their brink. And then after a certain period of time, they will start to break down. And that looks a lot of different ways on an individual level. But at an organizational level, you’re talking lost productivity and increased disciplinary issues because it takes months for people to get to that point; it can be very hard to connect the dots to those people who are overworked.

Now we’re talking about a similar situation with one company downsizing. So we’re talking about, in one case, the exact same situation. But we’re also talking about people not having a real human connection stuck at home—people with all kinds of fears and concerns and worries that are highly motivated now to keep their jobs but in what I truly believe to be an unsustainable way.

You’re going to see massive breakdowns coming in a couple of months. What would you suggest would be a way to help leaders understand, and HR professionals, that that’s going to happen and to get ready for it?

That’s a great question. I think the key here is gathering feedback early and often so we limit those breakdowns later on. People are generally measuring these things and gathering feedback through engagement surveys that occur once a year or maybe twice a year. But that is not enough.

We need to catch these things early. So we need to shift toward more continuous communication and feedback to really ensure that people are OK and making progress on meaningful work and that they’re removing roadblocks and practicing these key positivity skills.

There’s this really amazing book called Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron that talks about positive leaders. These are leaders with teams characterized by both high performance and engagement. So what you’re saying right now is, what if we have high performance? We have high performance right now, but eventually, engagement is going to dip because of burnout, which is going to impact performance.

Kim Cameron built up research by Wayne Boss from CU-Boulder. He shows that positive leaders do one thing better than the rest. In the literature, it’s called personal management interviews. These are regular check-ins with employees—recurring once a week or every 2 weeks or, at a minimum, once a month—to ensure frequent and regular communication.

The research shows that this specific practice improves objective factors like productivity and goal accomplishment, as well as subjective factors like morale, trust, and engagement. On top of that, there’s research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. I don’t know if you’ve read the book The Progress Principle, but they say the key to motivating high performance is to ensure people make progress on meaningful work.

So this regular check-in is, of course, something 15Five specializes in in terms of its technology, which is really critical to leverage in these remote times. On top of stable Wi-Fi and Slack and Zoom, it’s continuous emotional check-ins and work check-ins that are so critical to ensuring people are performing but not burning out.

All of us have had the opportunity to get fired or let go, but there was also always a baseline. That is, generally speaking, so long as you do your work and you do it well, you probably keep your job. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a framework that people can rely on. And that framework no longer exists because now, you could work really hard, do a great job, even accept a pay cut , and then boom. You’re still gone because at some point, they’ve got to cut the line somewhere. So that means the rules that normally work aren’t working anymore. How are you envisioning companies surviving this and working on a set of rules that are no longer really relevant?

The idea is that the new rules are being built right now, and they’re changing rapidly. I don’t think everyone’s aware of what they are. They were already pretty nebulous. But now, we’re talking about the fact that even the basic principles of work, like showing up to work, doing your work, and getting your money, are no longer really operating principles anymore.

And that’s going to play a big role in how companies retain quality employees and how employees deal with their stress; there are going to be new things, new factors, and new motivators that are going to be difficult to predict. I’m wondering if you have any sense of what these new guidelines or new rules are going to be or how employers can get ready for what’s going to happen.

Yes, employers are navigating this totally new circumstance and surviving the global pandemic. The economy is tanking, and they’re going to have to make some really important financial decisions. Hopefully, they can do so with integrity. It’s going to create a new kind of culture for employees. But ultimately, I think the goal for companies is to become financially stable first.

For the employees who are still there during this unstable time, the key to becoming financially stable is finding out; adjusting to; and adapting to the market, to needs of their business, and to the needs of the world right now. So I think employees need to stay positive and identify ways, when it comes to job security, to create value for the organization and increase that financial foundation.

If I were an employee, I would assume that the company, and all employees, is adapting as a whole to our new world. How do we become financially stable? Also, how do we bring value to people again through our offerings? So as an employee at a company right now, who’s doing that? We’re doing this ourselves. How do we adjust?

Luckily, we built technology that supports the remote workforce. We’re really doubling down on this to support the new world of work. But as an employee at any company, I would double down on my strengths, do a serious strengths assessment, take tests like VIA Character Strengths and Gallup’s StrengthFinder, and understand what is uniquely suited to who I am, as well as find ways to align that to the company mission to create new value for the world. That’s what I would be doing because companies are going to want to keep people who are adapting, innovating, and turning this into a positive and bringing value to people. And that’s going to help both the employee and the company when it comes to finances.

Part of the reason I asked the question is, from a perspective of doing weekly check-ins between supervisors and subordinates, I think that definitely worked when it was being done correctly for a long time because again, the understanding was that there is a foundation for that to work. And with the understanding that from employees’ perspectives, when they bring concerns to their supervisor, they will be addressed. Maybe they won’t get everything they asked for, but at least someone with alleged authority will have an understanding of the problem.

Now, because people and companies are going through such chaos, that authority may not exist anymore in some companies. It’s just such a crazy, uncertain time. Do you see these weekly check-ins, even though the rules have changed, being just as successful?

Yeah, I see them being more important than ever because no matter what, I know we’re in a circumstance that makes things more uncertain. But we never know what’s going to happen in general, even when things are a bit more stable. There’s always uncertainty, no matter what.

So, because we are in a place of instability, I think this communication is more important than ever because the ability for a company and an employee to succeed right now is the ability to adapt. That requires regular communication. It includes radical candor. I would say it requires these things more than ever because things are even more unstable, so it’s more important to double down on meaningful communication and relationships.

Can you just go over the radical candor part a little bit? I think that’s something employees and employers really struggle with.

Radical candor is this feedback formula created by Kim Scott for developing, or delivering, really hard feedback but with care. One example on how to do this with downsizing is deciding to do a mass company pay cut instead of layoffs. That’s making a really hard decision but doing so with the ultimate care. That’s one example. But employees, or employers, are going to have to provide really hard feedback to people. How can you do that with care and keep it really humane?

How organizations go about their downsizing, pay reductions, furloughs, and layoffs really matters. Right now, there is such a microscope focused on the behaviors and actions that are being taken by employers.

The research shows that people are willing to accept negative consequences when they perceive them as fair. So fairness is really key here. And another reason to implement a continuous performance management platform is to ensure that if people are laid off, it’s based on performance metrics and nothing else. It’s objective.

I know that companies are going to have to make really hard decisions, or they can do furloughs or pause an extended vacation or something right now. But in the end, when it comes to letting people go, it should be self-performance. And I recommend, whether companies are remote or not, creating a performance management system that tracks objective performance metrics.