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Archives: January 2016

Are We Still ‘Mad Men’ at Work? Skill, Stress & The Modern Office

“Mad Men” came to a close last May but we still find ourselves referencing the series whenever we think about business life in the days of yore. The show had a revolving door of characters that seemed to require a lung or liver transplant as much as new business accounts. But when it comes to its portrayal of the business world, and specifically, the business worker, we ask ourselves: How much has really changed over the past few decades?

We decided to pose this question to Dr. Stephen Byrum, Ph.D., CEO of The Byrum Consulting Group and foremost expert on the Hartman Value Profile. Dr. Byrum has been using the Hartman Value Profile since the 1960s, happened to study under its creator Dr. Hartman and consults for educational institutions, corporations and startups. But before we delve into the details of our conversation, it’s important to mention the basic tenets of the tool. (If you are new to the Hartman Value Profile, you may want to check out an earlier post about the assessment, how it works and why we keep introducing it to clients.) 

In simplest terms, the Hartman Value Profile measures a person’s value judgment on three different dimensions: (1) Systemic or “big picture” judgment; (2) Intrinsic or people judgment; and, (3) Extrinsic or task-based judgment. It analyzes the inextricable correlation between a person’s innate personal attributes and their ability to apply those characteristics to the workplace.

Dr. Byrum helped provide clarity on the moving dynamics of worker culture over the past few decades from thousands of Hartman Value Profile test results fielded in nearly every major industry:

 

  • “Mad Men” era favored leaders with excellent people skills. Decades ago companies put a premium on leaders that had high Intrinsic scores (good judgment when it comes to people). Just think of how much time Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell spent schmoozing clients. “If you went into the agency in Mad Men”, Dr. Byrum explained, “Everything was so very dependent on people being able to be socially acute and establish really good social relationships.” But this social IQ doesn’t necessarily lead to the next big invention. “That emphasis on social skills made people individually successful”, Dr. Byrum cautions, “But was not something that contributed to a person’s ability to predict what the next horizon was going to be.”

 

  • The best leaders connect the dots. What Dr. Byrum knows from administering the Hartman Value Profile is that great leaders actually have consistently high Systemic scores. Meaning, they can scope out a situation and forecast the bigger implication. Strong leaders often have an uncanny ability to piece together seemingly unrelated items to achieve an overall goal. Some of the best leaders we know take time to investigate a challenge and predict implications of their decisions on the whole of the company, not just themselves or their direct reports. They work for the betterment of the brand and the business, and consider consumer engagement an absolute necessity, not just a catchphrase.

 

  • Companies wanted rank-and-file workers with high task management skills; today they expect it from everyone. Companies often sought out employees that had the grit and dedication to complete a specified set of tasks. “In the late 1960s through the 1980s,” Dr. Byrum recalled, “Powerful Extrinsic abilities would carry you through the day if you were in an area that involved a lot of process and tact”. This same trend applies today and is arguably a bigger requirement of everyone in business. It makes sense when we consider that there are fewer people expected to accomplish more work in less time. One of the problems is that being a strong producer of work can cost us in other areas, “Oftentimes is at the expense of social skills and Intrinsic abilities”. Our brains have trouble contemplating implications, seeing big picture dynamics and coming up with creative solutions when we are so overloaded with to-do lists. We look for ways to be better producers but we’re not skilling ourselves for leadership roles and other innovative tracks.

 

  • Between the 1960s and 2015, stress has increased precipitously in every industry and at every level. In the closing scene of “Mad Men”, the fictional McCann Erickson agency created the groundbreaking Coca-Cola “Hilltop” advertisement following a serene shot of Don Draper meditating. The focus on the search for deeper meaning and balance is perhaps one of necessity today. The Hartman Value Profile looks both at an individual’s work-side and self-side judgments, as well as the balance between the two. Dr. Byrum has analyzed thousands of results and witnessed a notable dip in people’s self-side scores across the board. In short, we have become more off-balance and more stressed in our personal lives. About 80% of people have lower self-side scores than work-side scores today, compared to about 60% with the same lack of balance in the 1970s. Dr. Byrum suggests that if we dropped Don Draper in 2015, his life and transgressions would not be that much of a shocker today because our lives are so out of balance: “I think if you went back to that period, most people’s lives were not like that. But if you come forward to present-day, you have large numbers of people whose personal lives have gotten as troublesome to the point where I don’t think Don Draper’s character would be much of an aberration in my neighborhood today.”

 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to keep your personal life from spilling over into your work life. The fact that our personal lives have become more stressed means that our work performance has been impacted as well. Consider the Harvard Business Review’s recent take on the impact of long work hours: chronic overwork diminishes productivity in the long term. The fact that the article mentions an 80-hour workweek is very telling of the dramatic shift towards work-side dominance.

Team SBR periodically takes the Hartman Value Profile to identify movement between the three dimensions of judgment. We love when the results show greater equilibrium amongst the three dimensions (System / Extrinsic / Intrinsic). It is usually a welcome sign that getting a good night’s sleep, taking an extra Yoga class and respecting our own personal time actually makes us better stewards of success for ourselves and our clients.

To learn more about Dr. Byrum, visit Judgment Index and the Robert S. Hartman Institute

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Anomalisa Paints a Sad Portrait of the Customer Service Industry

A movie that probes the human condition using the customer service industry as a loose backdrop? Why not! This week, Team SBR went to see Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Anomalisa is about Michael Stone, a middle-aged customer service guru who travels to Cincinnati to give the keynote at a regional conference. To be sure, this isn’t a movie about customer service. But it made us wonder why Kaufman would use it as the context to push the events forward? It turns out that he spent some time in his early career working in customer service, so he probably knew just enough to get himself into trouble.

In the movie, Stone is set to speak about his book, whose title (How May I Help You Help Them?) is as nonspecific as his techniques (“Look for what is special about each individual” / “The customer is an individual just like you” / “Smile…it doesn’t cost anything”). People gush about how Stone’s book helped them increase productivity by 90%, so he has an audience.

When you consider what this film is really about – the banality of existence and references to a delusion in which all people are thought to be the exact same person – then customer service might be the perfect choice. Customer service is an ordinary, all-purpose trade that everyone engages on a daily basis. In some way, we are all supplying service or receiving it, whether from the grocer, call center agent or barista.

In Anomalisa those in customer service roles are shown performing routine characterizations of what it means to be on the help line, from the front desk clerk’s fixed expression to the bellhop’s incessant speak about the weather. After all, they are puppets. It takes a lot of work to produce a single frame in stop-motion animation, so we know that there was a deliberate decision to create each movement and expression.

When you are in the business of creating a reliable degree of service, you want consistency, but not at the expense of humanity. While it surely was not Kaufman’s ambition to do so, Anomalisa gently reminds us to break from the norm and bring a dose of personality back into the business of caring for the consumer. This also means, as we recently reported, slaying generic openings like, “How are you today?” If you are a Kaufman fan or just like when films scratch your cranium, Anomalisa is really worth a watch.

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What Tetris Teaches About Breaking Through Procrastination

There are a number of creations from the 1980s that we would prefer to keep locked in the antiquity closet (shoulder pads and side ponytails come to mind). But our heart still sings for a simple video game brought to the U.S. in 1984: Tetris. Something about stacking those mini-blocks into cubed corners keeps us hypnotized for hours.

The simplicity of Tetris is actually based on a more complex phenomenon from human psychology. Scientists have found that the game can help in numerous ways, everything from keeping you on a diet to helping with cognitive capacity (which in turn impacts learning and development). But we were curious about Tetris’ scientific suggestions when it comes to breaking through procrastination plateaus.

The answer lies in something called the Zeigarnik Effect. In the 1930s, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed that waiters remembered customers’ orders until the moment they delivered their food and drinks. Conversely, they forgot the orders once delivery was complete. This observation and the studies that followed concluded that humans have an unconscious need to finish what we start. Our brain basically hangs onto the information until it’s completed.

Tetris plays off the Zeigarnik Effect by creating an inherently unending pursuit. Its addictive nature has to do with the simple fact that there is a constant delivery of new blocks, increasing in speed, feeding our unresolved need to stack them. Whether or not we are aware of it, the re-feeding of blocks keeps us attuned and engaged, what one psychologist called, a “World of perpetual uncompleted tasks”. In the most simple terms, tasks stay in our minds until complete.

From a productivity standpoint, this is great news. We are much more likely to move towards work resolution just by getting started rather than contemplating when and how we will begin. This shows that getting started is not just half the battle, it is the battle. Our mental demand for conclusion will do the work to move us towards resolution.

Consider for a moment walking into your office on a Monday morning and opening up your to-do list for the day. You read through your list, feeling a little less confident than when you walked in a few minutes before. So much to do! Where to begin?

Instead of becoming stalled in a formidable list of tasks, taking on just one at a time will more likely help you complete your tasks. What’s more, just getting started with one small task (e.g. respond to an email, return a call to a colleague, etc.) can help you work through the broader list as a whole.

If you are stuck in procrastination hell and feel like you cannot get out, open Tetris to retrain your neurons towards enhanced performance. Just watch the clock so you don’t squander the entire day trying to beat your highest score.

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