Learning Communities, Peer Coaching and What Used to be Friends

You could vent to them. You could ask for help. You could get a reality check if others think you have gone too far in your opinions or behavior. This was the essence of the learning community. If you go back far enough, it was a group of Ancient Greeks sitting around and discussing important issues of the day. Then came backgammon and coffee houses and it changed. Seriously, it changed only because it emerged as a single gender process.

The fastest growing application of coaching in today’s organizations is peer coaching. That is a group of often 5-12 people of similar status or rank in an organization, or friends from different careers, who meet on a regular basis to discuss life and work. Paying for a professional coach is not feasible for many of the people in organizations. So people have turned back to talking to each other.

In the 60’s and 70’s, these groups were called T groups (sensitivity training), then in the 80’s it was called quality circles, then employee participation groups in the 80’s and self-managing work teams in the 90’s. Now we have study teams, learning groups, book clubs, and all sorts of different excuses people use to get together and help each other. In helping each other, people learn. They learn about different ways to looking at the world, different emotional reactions to the same events or people. In some cases, the purpose of the group is learning. Anyone who has completed a graduate degree program knows the importance of forming a study group. In executive MBA programs, they are the vehicle through which most of the learning occurs. Because of this emphasis on study teams in EMBA programs, their graduates often feel comfortable and see the benefit of working in teams. Many graduates of MBA programs grow to hate (maybe dislike is a better term, but which ever they avoid them) working in teams. This disposition occurs even when research shows that the MBAs (like the EMBAs) have learned to work in teams better than when they entered their program.

Peer coaching groups should be organic. That is, they cannot be artificially created or formed. Organizations with success in using them start small. Begin encouraging people to form such groups. Give them an extra hour at lunch time to meet with their group once a week. Possibly give them a few hours of group or team work training to manage their own process. Ask them to acknowledge reflection and encourage experiments in how they act and work on problems. Praise novelty in their efforts. When others see some of the groups working, members enjoying it and benefiting from participation, more peer coaching groups will form. Most of the time, the participation in the peer coaching groups will spread and become a part of the culture. At that point, you have achieved creating a learning community!

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Retaining your Key Talent

The financial cost of turnover was placed at 2-3 times the person’s annual salary, benefits and bonus. But of the person is an innovator or a leader, the costs are 10 to 100 times more than that. The simplistic answer is pay them more. But that does not really help. Well, it might in Greece if they have had multiple pay cuts in the recession and debt crisis. Getting people back to where they were before it all began is a start. The reason is that fair pay, or equity, is experienced as a fairness and justice issue – not merely market rates.

The real answer is to make it exciting to work with you. Most people want development and novelty in their work. They want their work to be meaningful and have a purpose greater than selling shoes (or whatever it is your organization sells). This is often referred to as the crisis of engagement which I addressed in the last column.

One technique is understanding the personal vision or dream of each person reporting to you. Yes, their dreams, not goals. Our fMRI studies have shown that 30 minutes of talking about a person’s dreams 10-15 years in the future, keeps them in an open state of mind (also called growth mindset these days) for weeks. Whenever they see the person with whom they have had that conversation, their brain activates a neural network (i.e., DMN in the last column) that enables them to be open to new ideas and people. When you compare this to a 30 minute conversation about how they are doing at work and whether they are getting things done or not, you see the dramatic difference. The latter activates a defensive posture, often arousing the body’s stress response and closing the person to new ideas, and causing various levels of cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment. Who wants to come to work every day and use their discretionary time (when in the shower or driving/commuting to work) to think about new products and services?

Keeping people, or retention is one step. The next step is keeping them engaged and excited about their work. Without the latter, retention is a hollow victory. For Millennials and those who want to spend time with their families, creating a series of longevity perquisites would also be a good idea. This might be in the form of sabbaticals (several months paid leave for each five to seven years of full time work), paid time off each month to work in a non-profit or community organization for each year of full time work, credits for going to courses (i.e., escalating credits after ten years of full time work), and so forth.

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Shifting from Performance Management to Engagement

People want what they do to be meaningful and toward some purpose, albeit a noble purpose. We seek development, growth and novelty. Focusing our effort merely to achieve some goal set by management is, at best, coping. Then, in frustration leaders and managers who are somewhat out of touch decide to impose more goals, enhance the dashboard, and use this to “motivate” people. It backfires. Except for sales people who often are motivated by Need for Achievement in David McClelland’s terms, enjoy pursuing and striving toward specific goals. The down side here is that they love the game and do not typically really care what it is for, like clients. And we wonder why engagement scores for people with full time jobs in Europe in 2016 were reported as 83% were NOT engaged in their work!

Not too long ago, a survey of 1.800 European MBAs with jobs 18 months after graduating showed that salary and bonuses were the seventh reason they took the job and stayed in it. The first six reasons had to do with development, opportunities for new and innovative activities, novelty and so forth.

In a recently published study of engineers at a major international manufacturing company, we found that the perception that their peers in the project team had a shared vision (i.e., sense of purpose) accounted for 27% of the variations in the engineer’s engagement in their work. That is HUGE! Most scholars drool over a 3-5% unique variance. We know that Millennials in many countries including throughout Europe believe that it is essential that they are working toward a purpose and mostly a noble purpose.

The difficulty is that when executives emphasize numeric targets and financials, they create the impression that making money is the purpose of the organization. Everyone knows that is ridiculous. The purpose is to serve customers, innovate and contribute. Making money is the measure of how well you are doing—not the purpose. Our brains have two major neural networks, the Task Positive Network (TPN) and the Default Mode Network (DMN). The TPN enables us to solve problems, make decisions, do analysis and focus our attention. The DMN enables us to be open to a new idea, be open to other people and engage in moral concerns (i.e., is it fair and just). The dilemma is that these two networks are both necessary for management but suppress each other. So when you over emphasize financials and specific measures, you suppress people’s ability to be open to new ideas, adapt, learn and innovate as well as being open to others. The appeal here is to do BOTH. The research suggests cycling back and forth in thousandths of a second is the most effective process. But when the leadership in an organization only talks about numbers, it is difficult to change focus. Focus on the customers and their needs and you will activate the DMN!

We need to pay attention to performance management AND engagement. They need different brain networks. So we need to manage them differently. We need to have performance to coordinated targets. But we also want the whole person to show up at work, not just their unengaged body!

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Finding Time for Learning

I used to open the MBA program at Case Western Reserve University by pointing out that all of the full time MBAs present were about to spend 22 months in the program. If they slept 7 hours a night (which is unlikely), they would have about 10,000 waking hours during the program. If they took all of the courses we required and did all of the reading asked by the faculty (which is unlikely) and assignments, they would spend about 2,000 hours. I asked them, “What are you learning in the other 8,000 or more hours you are awake?”.

Learning is not about courses and classrooms, training and workshops. It is about something you want to understand or be able to do better. We know from research in the science of learning that people are most efficient at retaining new material and truly “learning” something when they do it in 15-20 minute bursts. We can further conjecture that if these bursts are interspersed with 5-10 minute breaks that stimulate their Parasympathetic Nervous System (the renewal process), people will remember much more of what they thought they had learned.

To make it easier to engage in learning, talk with others about it. Have these conversations at work. Have them over lunch or on coffee breaks. Form a book club or study group of friends that can discuss various topics and help each other learn. Use your commuting time to read or study something you want to learn. If reading is difficult on your commute, use podcasts, books on audio, or MOOC videos. The last resort is to play the audio with speakers under your pillow at night and learn while you sleep. It may cut down on your sex life but you will be learning!

Learning Amid the Bombardment of Information: Learning Tapas

The key is dosage and convenience. Traditional learning activities and even corporate training is often organized round “Just In Case” learning – you will cover topics in your training or education in case you need it at some point in the future. The problem is that the cerebral cortex dump rate is HUGE! One study showed that the half-life of knowledge from a required accounting course in a top 20 ranked MBA program in the US was 6 ½ weeks!

The pharmaceutical industry spends billions in research to determine the best way to make a particular drug available to our body when and where it is needed. This suggests that “Just in Time” learning is more appropriate than “Just In Case” learning. It also suggests that we should pay attention to the duration or length of the learning activity.

A single Mother and hospital administrator enrolled in my Inspiring Leadership MOOC emailed me. She said she loves her job and her two children. But at the end of the work day, she prepares dinner, makes sure her children have completed their homework, chats with them and then prepares them for bed. By the time that is all over, she has between 11:00 PM and 11:30 PM to learn something before she needs to sleep and start the cycle again tomorrow. The 11 minute video in each module of the MOOC, with an exercise for reflection, discussion questions and possibly a practical reading of relevance, is perfect for her. She thanked us profusely for helping her to feel like she is moving ahead in learning while doing her job and being a good Mother!

Convenience means that she can access the video, reading, exercise and discussion questions with only her computer or tablet at home, with her wifi connection. She can fit it into her busy day. She does not have to add to her stress by driving to a location or getting day care for her children. She does not have to take time off from work!

Of course, all this is dependent on her wanting to learn something specifically. Intentionality and purpose is essential to shift through the noise around us. But finding learning opportunities suited to your dosage and convenience may take some research. For providers, consider breaking set and packaging the learning in smaller bites – learning tapas!

Motivating and keeping your Top performers

This is a HUGE mistake. If you examine the competency research samples of which I have been a part since 1970 (hundreds with me directly involved, thousands with colleagues, students or subordinates doing them), the managers or professionals who deliver the vast majority of the contribution (i.e. performance) of you company, organization or unit are likely about 5% of all of your staff. Often, there are about 50% who are adding no value. Another 20-30% of the staff are adding a little value. Another 15% are adding some value and being good citizens. But it is that top group who are the outstanding performers and delivering their goods, services, innovation and profits.

Being human, we worry about people in trouble. This may be because we feel bad for them, a form of sympathy. Or it could be because we are perplexed by them, or merely annoyed. HR policies and practices do not allow us to simply fire them or make them disappear. We multiply the mistake and divert valuable resources when we create and implement HR practices and policies to try to remove them or avoid hiring them or managing them. We condemn everyone else to suffer with more rules and procedures because of a few individuals.

If the vast majority of your results (could be 80% or more) come from a select few people, which is likely the top 5%, simple mathematics would suggest you should spend most of your time and attention on them or more accurately with them. They are the ones that would cost you dearly if you lost them, or if they felt under-appreciated. The CEO of a high tech firm near Seattle, decided that fair pay meant everyone makes the same. He changed the salary scheme so that within a few broad categories of work, everyone was paid the same. He thought it would be fair and provide better distribution of wealth while diminishing the famous pay gap or even the gender gap in pay. His experiment lasted a few months and then he had to cancel it and return to their prior system. It turned out that his best performers felt like they were bearing the burden of others who performed less well, and even those who cared less and did not even try to do their jobs well. But the most serious issue, they felt undervalued for their performance and results. So they left and took jobs in other companies.

This happens in many firms, not in terms of money, but in terms of recognition and non-monetary rewards. In our effort to be fair, we reduce many things to the least common denominator. We become overly concerned with how everyone feels. This serves a spiritual purpose and may even feel more noble. But in the meantime, your top performers are the most marketable and the most likely to leave. In professional services, these people ARE your brand and source of market distinctiveness.

So back to the main message, think more about your top performers. Even if you cannot pay them more, there are many types of rewards and recognition. You can spend more time with them. Ask their opinion about strategy, decisions, and other issues facing the company. Most of all, when you want to find out how to motivate them, ASK THEM!

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When people think of teamwork, they often think of sports teams. But we are also a part of management teams, task forces, project teams, families, and on and on. Actually, almost all work is done in teams. Even people who are thought to work alone, like research scientists, engineers, or professors, cannot do their work without others. An engineer cannot develop a new product without someone in marketing suggesting a need for the product. He/she will have to sell the idea to others to obtain funding and support to develop the idea and prototype. Once it is developed, the engineer has to get others excited about the new product, and then help them understand its features and benefits. All of this requires working with others. Even engineers work within a network of people with whom they are dependent to get their work done. In many cases, engineers are assigned to formal project teams to develop new products or test existing ones.

In a recently published study a group of us did on engineers in a large, multinational manufacturing firm, with half of the data coming from the German division and half from the US based division, we found that an engineer’s effectiveness was predicted by the emotional and social intelligence competencies (i.e., behavior) as observed by members of their project teams (not self-assessed). In a statistical, multivariate analysis (a method of determine the unique, independent variance caused by each variable in the study), the engineer’s cognitive intelligence did not predict their effectiveness, nor did their personality. Moreover, the amount of their effectiveness predicted by the EI and SI behavior was 31%! This is huge in research studies where typically scholars get excited by a finding of 3-5%. The results clearly said that being an engineer in an R&D division was a team sport.

If teams and teamwork is present everywhere, how do we become better team members? The key is learning to build and maintain better relationships. It means being able to talk to others and work on the same projects. It means being seen by others as cooperative and useful to the teams. But it also means something as basically human as being nice to each other.

Emerging research has been showing, for the last 5 years, that people who have relationships in which they perceive to have a shared vision with others (long term and sense of purpose, not merely goals), care for each other, including a sense of trust, and similar energy, are more effective, produce better financial performance at the organization level, produce more innovations, feel more engaged and show more organizational citizenship (i.e., doing more than is expected in your job description).

In the same engineering research study, the engineers who felt the most engaged in their work (i.e., motivated) felt a sense of shared vision in their project teams. Again, the unique impact was dramatic — shared vision accounted for 27% of the variance in their feelings of being engaged. That is not only better teamwork but a highly motivated workforce!

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CSR is more than Recycling | Part 2

We can assume that every organization tries to address economic and legal CSR to financially survive and provide return to stakeholders. But there may be differences in the degree to which owners and managers feel an obligation to abide by laws and ethical practices. Stress and threats to a person causes them to narrow their views and field of vision. They act with more and more self-interest when under stress. They might even ignore actions they know would be good for the community under the guise of survival. A lack of feeling an obligation to the government or “state” breeds this type of contingent morality and lack of CSR.

Professor Thornton, in his earlier research also reported that small business owners often want to do the right thing for their employees, customers, and society at large. “In particular, many organizations want to make a difference or create an impact on society. In dealing with employees and customers, these companies are practicing ethical CSR, trying to be fair and just in their dealings. In trying to make an impact on society, they are dealing with philanthropic/discretionary CSR.” (Thornton, 2015).

In another study, he found that “fostering self-efficacy and conscientiousness along with creating higher quality relationships in terms of shared vision, compassion and positive mood within organizations as opposed to a broad appeal to social conscience. The findings indicated significant positive direct relationships of efficacy and conscientiousness with economic, legal, ethical, and discretionary CSR. But they were mediated by the quality of relationships, in particular perceived shared vision and shared compassion.” That is, the quality of the relationships within the company mattered a great deal is whether or not the value of CSR becomes a common practice.

We can further conjecture that emotional contagion helps people in a company consider CSR in their personal behavior when they are talking to and watching others involved in CSR. They see it, consider it, and try it. But what starts the new behavior and attitudes of all four types of CSR?

Thinking big helps. Thinking about the larger purpose and ways in which an organization participates in a community. Considering the degrees of waste of goods, time and energy along the entire supply chain. Companies like McDonalds and Walmart saved hundreds of millions of dollars by making changes in their packing. One cannot walk along a European city street and not see many forms of recycling bins for citizens to use.

But consider how a company can help promote education by encouraging staff to continually seek more skills and development. The average age of the students on formal degree courses at my University is 44. They all come from a wide variety of cities and countries to study. We have classes once every 6-12 weeks and the rest of the interaction and work in on-line. They often tell me that if they have children at home, the children whether 6 years old or 18 witness their parents doing homework, taking classes and trying to improve themselves. Their own school experiences take on a greater and different meaning to them. The emotional contagion of learning and role modeling helps promote learning – one of many forms of CSR.

The HR professionals and department in an organization, whether company or government or non-profit, can take the lead to develop ideas for more CSR. You can hold challenge lunches for groups of 8-10 and pose the challenge to them to create more possible CSR activities. You can benchmark by talking to colleagues, studying the award winners in these categories at the annual BOUSSIAS HR Awards. We in HR can be the social conscious of our organizations and help promote better CSR practices, more financially profitable practices, and greater brand recognition.

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CSR is more than recycling

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is generally taken to mean the things that are done by people in organizations, their norms and values relevant to, and values they promote that help contribute to society, the community, its people and the environment. It is the organizational level of organizational citizenship, a key concept in the management literature these days that examines what people do above and beyond their job descriptions and expectations of others to help the organization and its stakeholders.

Professor Archie Carroll (now Emeritus, University of Georgia) provided an insightful typology of corporate social responsibility in a landmark 1991 article. He said that CSR can be viewed as economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic. He claimed these are operationalized as discretionary acts and values that represent an organization’s “obligations to society.” He defined economic CSR as: “the responsibility of the firm to make a profit and to produce goods or services that society wants.” He defined legal CSR as “the obligation that every company has to meet the requirements of laws enacted by federal, state, and local government.” He further defined ethical CSR as “the norms and values of fairness, right, and justice that society expects.” Lastly, Carroll defined philanthropic/discretionary CSR as “actions taken to help people and communities thrive and improve.”

At the simplest level, does an organization practice reducing waste to save money (economic CSR), to comply with city laws on reducing collectable trash (legal CSR), to consider the environment and reduce pollution (ethical CSR), or to promote themselves as being concerned about the natural environment (philanthropic/discretionary CSR). Or does an organization promote practices and explicitly promote shared values and norms for all four reasons to reduce waste.

The same variety of reasons within types of CSR could be applied to reducing contamination and pollution of water, air and noise. Or the practice of planting trees for every ton of waste, or using reusable sources of energy instead of burning fossil fuels. The same typology could be used to explain why some companies are actively involved in providing better education for children, housing for the homeless, and promoting world peace.

The common response to CSR is for executive to contend that they are businesses and not social service agencies. They can explain how they pay taxes so the government does these things and they do not. This rationale emerges from putting self-interest and expediency above seeing one’s place in society and the bigger picture of your purpose as an organization.

The Carroll typology helps us understand that CSR is more than recycling and reducing waste. It is a larger and more comprehensive mindset. It asks for a holistic interpretation of the purpose of a firm within its community and all of its stakeholders. It places CSR as more than programs to reduce trash waste—it includes programs, activities, norms and values of the culture on an organization.

CSR has been shown to result in greater profitability and social capital. For example, Professor Joseph Thornton (Assistant Professor, Bellarmine University) reviewed a number of studies. “Thornton and Byrd (2013) found that owners and managers of small and medium enterprises used social and personal values as well as past experience in making decisions about CSR. They found that empathy, compassion, conscientiousness and corporate vision played a major role in conditions that favored ethical and discretionary CSR. The study also found that owners and managers who were aware that their employees and local communities were key stakeholders enacted more ethical and discretionary CSR, while individuals who are confident in their decision making ability were more engaged on economic and legal CSR.” (Thornton, 2015).

In part 2 of this column addressing the topic of CSR will be further examination of the causes and consequences of engaging in more CSR, including exploring how to motivate others to consider more CSR.

Citations if you wish to read more: Carroll, A. (1991). The pyramid of corporate social responsibility: toward the moral management of organizational stakeholders. Business Horizons, 34(4): 39-48; Thorton, J.C. (2015). Shared vision: Mediating CSR in US food and beverage SMEs. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:1335. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01335.

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Reversing the Greek Brain Drain

To assure our readers, there are plenty of talented Greeks still here, but what of these outbound flows of people? HR executives have asked me how they might reverse this trend or fight against it and get people to stay or return. Enticing people to stay is the topic of other columns, but for this one, let me explore inviting people to return or how to reverse the brain drain.

To reverse it, one must understand it. Yes, the cuts in salaries and opportunities for exciting and interesting jobs (and promotional possibilities) has resulted in many professionals and others considering immigration. Attending Universities in other countries has been a popular way to explore the world for many decades. Once they graduate, how do you entice more to return?

People also leave for adventure. They might choose to stay after graduating from University because they want to explore what it is like living and working in another country. Sometimes, specific other countries offer more opportunities for advancement. They are seeking adventure of a different culture. You cannot lure them back until they have had a chance to have their adventure, enjoy the creature comforts and better pay of the new country. Many companies make impressive efforts to recruit “young people” back to Greece. I think they are targeting the wrong demographic group for this to work.

I believe the best time to bring someone back is at a mid-life crisis. It is precisely when they are wondering what’s next. They are asking themselves, “Is this all there is?” or they are feeling bored or restless. A mid-life crisis (or when emotionally more moderate, a mid-life transition) is a period of 2-5 years in which a person seeks novelty and growth. This could be the best timing for an effective recruitment message.

Of course, this means they are older. I would recommend targeting people who are 38-42, 48-52, and 58-62 to bring back. You get commitment and eagerness to come home, not a sense of having lost an opportunity. You might also get a spouse or partner who is not Greek, but they might be ready for a foreign adventure in Greece. Plus, it is better to reach people when they have a sound financial base in their life- which means later.

The Ντολμάδες and Παπουτσάκια Approach
Specifics of how to do this would be to unleash Greek Mothers. Get them round trip plane tickets to Boston, London, Melbourne, or Paris. Ask them to prepare and package their best Ντολμάδες and Παπουτσάκια. Don’t use guilt, remind the ex-pats what they are missing. Work on the deeper emotional ties to one’s home and homeland, and all of the cultural aspects. It would be difficult for many Greek Mothers not to use some form of guilt, but their cooking might do what complicated, psychological attempts at brain washing cannot. The strongest emotions and oldest ones in the human brain come from the olefactory lobe. That means smelling the cooking is a powerful drug!

Other techniques involve variations on this same theme: isn’t it time to come home? I have witnesses other countries use this quite effectively and proactively in getting their ex-pats home.

I am sure many of you have spent far more time on this than I have. So we are interested in what you think. What techniques do you think might work? Should we work on this at all or is it like global climate change—it will happen whether we want it to or not? We would be eager to publish the variety of ideas and your reactions to them in a future column.
Please send your reactions to [email protected] or Antonia Katsoulieri ([email protected]).