There was a major twist ending and a major snafu at the very end of the 2017 Academy Awards for the category of Best Picture. The wrong winner was declared. If you look back on the footage and analyze it, you could read on Warren Beatty’s face that something was not right just before the Best Picture winner was announced.
I would imagine there are multiple redundancies so that something like this does not happen — especially at the Oscars! But there’s one thing the Academy possibly didn’t consider, or forgot, for this year’s winner cards: typography.
The card needed to be written and designed in a way that makes it clear to the reader only the essential information.
Creating a positive work environment sounds like a noble aspiration for both businesses and the people who work for them. No one ever says that they want to work in a negative environment, after all, or even in a blasé one. And yet, in late April, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling against T-Mobile for that very aspiration: the telecommunications company had run afoul of the law by including a provision in its employee handbook requiring workers “to maintain a positive work environment in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships.”
There was, of course, a perfectly sound legal reason for this seemingly odd decision. The ruling was the culmination of a series of charges that had been brought against the company in the course of several years, during which the N.L.R.B. struck down multiple T-Mobile policies that appeared to hamper union organization and other, more benign efforts to discuss employment practices. The wording in the employee manual regarding the “positive work environment,” the board held, was “ambiguous and vague” enough to have a chilling effect on the right of employees to speak freely and to organize, rights guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act. Because the “positive work environment” was never explicitly described, workers would have to err on the side of over-sensitivity—steering clear of “potentially controversial but protected communication in the workplace,” as the ruling put it—lest they be punished.
The law has its own imperatives, but if you took the same work-environment mandate and put it through a different intellectual grinder—in this case, social science—would you come up with a different result? If we agree that a positive environment is a worthy goal, we still have to agree on how, exactly, to foster such an environment. Research certainly suggests that people thrive in positive and supportive spaces: they are happy and satisfied; they aremotivated and optimistic, setting higher goals and working harder and longer; they are creative; they are less likely to burn out and more likely to stick with a company or project. But can you actually create positivity by mandating it?
“It sounds really nice. It sounds like they’re creating a civil workplace,” Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State who studies emotional labor, told me when I asked her about positive-environment provisions such as T-Mobile’s. But Grandey cautions that it is incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect. “When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self,” she said. “The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can’t do it. Once it’s required, it’s fake and forced.” What you create instead is a negative backlash. “It feels like Big Brother.”
Worrying about whether or not you’re in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking—memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business.
Such behavior-limiting regulations may inhibit thinking and sap initiative and drive. In 2004, the psychologists Myeong-Gu Seo, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Jean Bartunek posited a connection between employees’ emotional experience in the workplace and their resulting levels of motivation. According to their model, our feelings affect behavior along a continuum between, on one end, something they term “generativeness” (that is, how likely you are to explore something that may end up having a good result, if doing so involves risk) and, on the other, “defensiveness” (when you are focussed on avoiding negative outcomes, forgoing opportunities in the process). It’s a concept akin to what the Columbia University psychologist Tory Higgins calls promotion and prevention—that is, the decision to work toward something or to direct your energy toward avoiding something else. When we are constantly monitoring our behavior, we tend to be on guard and act defensively. We tend to prevent rather than to promote.
Even more salient, Grandey argues, is the feeling of inauthenticity that enforced emotional displays create. In her research, she has found that putting on an emotional mask at work—conforming to a certain image that doesn’t necessarily correspond to how you feel or who you are—drains you of energy that can only be replenished if you then have an opportunity to be yourself. “You have to be able to be real,” she told me. “If we’re expecting people to be super happy and positive to people you’re expected to be positive with as part of your job”—to smile and act upbeat with clients and customers—“if you can’t turn around and be real with co-workers, you are amplifying emotional labor. And you have a real problem on your hands.”
Everyone wants a civil workplace, but demanding that your workers be positive may be an uncivil thing to do. It may be especially so when it comes to broad and sweeping pronouncements, as in T-Mobile’s case. Last year, a group of researchers decided to explore whether there were any policies aimed at emotional management in a workplace that would actually succeed. To answer that question, they had three hundred and eighty-two employees, from a number of retail stores, rate the degree of explicitness of the rules governing their emotional behavior at work: on the one end are vague, ambiguous admonitions such as “be positive,” without any guidelines; on the other end are explicit rules that govern when you should smile, what you should say, and the like. The researchers then observed how motivated the employees were and how customers responded to them.
What they found was an inverted-U relationship between rule explicitness and effectiveness: if rules were overly vague or overly prescriptive, they had a demotivating effect. (Customers, too, were disappointed, giving both employees and their shopping experiences lower ratings.) Where the rules generally had their intended effect was in the moderate range: when there were some explicit guidelines, but flexibility in how they were to be implemented. A second study, of a hundred and seventy-five salespeople, found the relationship to hold for sales numbers as well: sales were higher in environments with moderate rules, while environments with too few or too many rules suffered. The highest performers of all were those in a moderately regulated environment who also felt a high degree of autonomy, as determined by their responses to a single statement: “My job permits me to decide on my own how to go about doing the work.” In other words, people want to feel in control. They want to be afforded respect and to determine on their own how to act; it is this autonomy that helps foster emotional positivity. Grandey suggests we are all still a bit like our two-year-old selves: tell a toddler exactly what to do and what not to do, and she balks. Let her figure it out within a certain framework, and she is happy.
So it turns out that enforcing a generalized positivity can create problems in the realm of psychological motivation as well as in the legal realm. The issue of how to encourage workplace positivity raises another problem, which is the possibility of suppressing freedom of expression. In asking for a “positive” environment, you can promote your own agenda and reprimand anyone who doesn’t fit with your concept of positivity at that particular moment. In T-Mobile’s case, enforcing a positive environment might have been a way of preventing a very specific type of speech and action, namely anything that was critical of the employer or trying to promote employee rights. Similar dynamics have arisen in non-corporate settings. In recent years, we’ve seen a trend toward prescribing what someone can or can’t say in order to protect a subjective notion of how it makes someone else feel. This is most obviously happening on college campuses, in the guise of microaggressions, triggers, and their ilk; in some cases, the effects of checking one’s speech can be to reasonably protect members of the community, but in others the fear of offense can create anxiety and can even become a kind of censorship. T-Mobile’s positive-environment clause is, essentially, a grownup version of the “safe space” that is only safe for the people who’ve created it, not for those with contrary opinions.
And yet the ruling itself gives us cause to be truly positive: after all, the N.L.R.B. decided against T-Mobile. One can only hope—positively, optimistically hope—that the decision presages a broader understanding of a deeper truth: we all deserve a positive environment, but that very positivity is at risk when we try to force it rather than fostering it by example.
We know that customer engagement matters. Yet much of our thinking about engagement remains simplistic. Most current definitions of engagement are bimodal – someone is either engaged or they’re not. But this is a limited view that hampers our ability to manage engagement in meaningful ways.
A more sophisticated understanding of engagement allows community managers to effectively influence and change it, and even to calculate an ROI for engagement.
Community management is the discipline of building technical and social environments in such a way that individuals can easily organize and collaborate to achieve an objective. And what good community managers have learned is that, first and foremost, all engagement is not the same. There are a number of behaviors within the broader umbrella of engagement that need to be understood and measured in order to impact them. Engagement is a set of behaviors, not a switch. It needs to be calibrated to business goals to be effective. Second, engagement behaviors are progressive. As individuals get more comfortable and connected to the social environment in which they are engaging, they will exhibit more complex engagement behaviors.
At The Community Roundtable, we’ve worked to define these engagement behaviors in enough detail so they can be measured and addressed through community management. We call this TheCR’s Work Out Loud framework and it includes the following behaviors:
Validate Out Loud includes liking, sharing others’ posts, commenting, bookmarking or responding to posts. This is often the first visible behavior beyond consuming that people exhibit and is the equivalent of dipping their toes in the water to feel how warm it is in order to assess whether the social environment is comfortable.
Share Out Loud includes sharing documents, graphics, updates and ideas. People tend to start with sharing content that has been written by someone else or approved and as they feel validated and connected, will start to share their own observations and ideas.
Ask and Answer Out Loud includes asking and answering questions. Individuals tend to start with logistical questions (“where can I find x?”) and if they find the culture to be validating, supportive and trustworthy they will evolve to asking deeper questions that expose a gap in their knowledge or confidence (“what is the best way to manage a customer situation?”).
Explore Out Loud includes open-ended questions or questions about ambiguous topics where there is no right or known answer. This requires individuals to feel like the community culture is both supportive and challenging, making it a safe space to explore, admit vulnerability and share half-baked ideas. This stage is where rich collaboration and innovation lies.
This model helps community managers measure the culture in their community or network and then apply management techniques that prompt and move each segment of their community to adopt more complex engagement behaviors. For example, a customer support community may be getting a lot of views and likes, but very few questions or answers. To address this, the community manager may redesign the home page to highlight a question box and also design a weekly newsletter that highlights unanswered questions. This focus on asking and answering questions will trigger community members to exhibit more of that behavior.
By understanding what kind of engagement is in play, community managers can significantly impact both how much the community engages and how much value is generated. In 2006, Nielsen published the still oft-cited 90-9-1 rule of engagement, that says you can expect a community or network to have 90% of its members lurking/reading, 9% contributing and 1% creating. What we’ve found in our research is that while that rule can still be applied to large social networks, it is outdated for well-managed communities. In 2016, the average community is achieving estimated engagement rates of 50% lurkers, 23% contributors, and 27% creators, according to our 2016 State of Community Management research.
While all of this is helpful, it still doesn’t define engagement in terms of a quantifiable financial value. To do that, we focus on the engagement behavior that generates the most value – answering questions. While communities are applied to many different, complex use cases, at their core they are about enabling people to connect with a network of peers to get information directly from each other, instead of going through a formal structure. That information sharing is prompted by a question-and-answer dynamic in every community – no matter its use case. This is where we start to formulate a ROI for engagement.
When we think about the value of answers there are two categories:
Value of the Answers: There is immediate, incremental cost savings of not having to manage and route the question to the appropriate person and assign them to the task of answering (i.e. overhead cost savings) as well as the value of capturing answers that never would have been asked in more formal channels.
Networked Value of the Answers: The geometric value of making an answer available to the entire community forever (i.e. cost avoidance, productivity and opportunity identification)
To calculate the ROI of engagement, you include the cost of generating that engagement – all of the program expenses (like software, content/programming and staff) related to community management or culture change:
One challenge in looking at the ROI of engagement over time is that in new communities and networks, asking and answering does not happen right away. Most individuals need to feel comfortable and connected before they are willing to ask a question that might make them feel vulnerable. This means there is a lot of work for community managers to do to prime the culture of the community so that people do feel comfortable and connected. For this reason, the ROI of engagement is typically negative until the culture supports and rewards regular asking and answering.
Once the culture supports asking and answering, the floodgates of value open up and typically the value curve becomes geometric as both more people answer and more people come to the community looking for answers.
We’ve seen this firsthand in our work with the H&R Block community.
Started as a community of practice — a community focused on sharing expertise and learning — the H&R Block community evolved to a highly effective and widely utilized client self-service resource, where we could calculate in financial terms the geometric growth in value that communities theoretically generate, but is seldom reported.
In its first year, the community did not pay for itself yet because membership and activity was just beginning, but the number of members and quantity of accumulated knowledge was growing rapidly. As membership grew and we worked to make the community more supportive and constructive, more people began asking questions — and getting good answers. As more of those discussions and content elements were captured, more and more people were able to find answers by searching rather than asking directly — creating a positive feedback loop of value.
Four years in, the community is producing amazing results and has become the go-to resource for people looking for tax support. That helps H&R Block extend its brand presence by offering trusted support and access in a way they never could before.
Looking at engagement through its most valuable behavior — asking and answering — can help make cultural maturity more visible. If the culture of your employee community or customer community is not encouraging and rewarding this behavior, you could benefit from a more structured approach to community management.
In the military, a poorly formatted email may be the difference between mission accomplished and mission failure. During my active duty service, I learned how to structure emails to maximize a mission’s chances for success. Since returning from duty, I have applied these lessons to emails that I write for my corporate job, and my missives have consequently become crisper and cleaner, eliciting quicker and higher-quality responses from colleagues and clients. Here are three of the main tips I learned on how to format your emails with military precision:
1. Subjects with keywords. The first thing that your email recipient sees is your name and subject line, so it’s critical that the subject clearly states the purpose of the email, and specifically, what you want them to do with your note. Military personnel use keywords that characterize the nature of the email in the subject. Some of these keywords include:
ACTION – Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
SIGN – Requires the signature of the recipient
INFO – For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
DECISION – Requires a decision by the recipient
REQUEST – Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
COORD – Coordination by or with the recipient is needed
The next time you email your direct reports a status update, try using the subject line: INFO – Status Update. And if you need your manager to approve your vacation request, you could write REQUEST – Vacation. If you’re a project manager who requires responses to your weekly implementation report from several people, type ACTION – Weekly Implementation Report. These demarcations might seem obvious or needlessly exclamatory because they are capitalized. But your emails will undoubtedly stand out in your recipient’s inbox, and they won’t have to work out the purpose of your emails. (It also forces you to think about what you really want from someone before you contribute to their inbox clutter.)
2. Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF). Military professionals lead their emails with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF. (Yes, being the military, there is an acronym for everything.) It declares the purpose of the email and action required. The BLUF should quickly answer the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader. Here’s an example BLUF from the Air Force Handbook:
BLUF: Effective 29 Oct 13, all Air Force Doctrine Documents (AFDDs) have been rescinded and replaced by core doctrine volumes and doctrine annexes.
The BLUF helps readers quickly digest the announcement, decision, and when the new procedures go into effect. The reader doesn’t necessarily want to know all the background information that led to the decision. He or she likely wants to know “how does this email affect me?” and the BLUF should answer this question every time.
For my corporate job, I don’t use the acronym “BLUF” because it would be unclear to recipients, but I have started leading with “Bottom Line” in bold at the start of my notes. Sometimes, I even highlight the bottom line in yellow so that my point is abundantly clear. Here is an example of a BLUF adapted for corporate use:
Subject: INFO – Working from home
Bottom Line: We will reduce the number of days that employees can work from home from three to one day per week effective December 1st.
This is an effort to encourage team morale and foster team collaboration
All members of the management committee supported this decision
Shannon knows that no response is required because it was marked INFO. She also quickly grasps the information in the email because of the Bottom Line. Because this is a big change in corporate policy, background details are provided to show that the decision is final, supported by management, and intended to result in positive effects for the company.
3. Be economical. Military personnel know that short emails are more effective than long ones, so they try to fit all content in one pane, so the recipient doesn’t have to scroll. They also eschew the passive voice because it tends to make sentences longer, or as the Air Force manual puts it, “Besides lengthening and twisting sentences, passive verbs often muddy them.” Instead, use active voice, which puts nouns ahead of verbs, so it’s clear who is doing the action. By using active voice, you are making the “verbs do the work for you.” Instead of, “The factory was bombed by an F18,” military professionals would say, “An F18 bombed the factory.”
Even though short emails are usually more effective, long emails abound, even in the military. If an email requires more explanation, you should list background information after the BLUF as bullet points so that recipients can quickly grasp your message, like in the above example.
Lastly, to prevent clogging inboxes, military professionals link to attachments rather than attaching files. This will force the recipient to check the website that has the attachment, which will likely provide the most recent version of a file. Also, the site will verify that the recipient has the right security credentials to see the file, and you don’t inadvertently send a file to someone who isn’t permitted to view it.
Here is an email example for corporate use that uses keywords in the subject, bottom line, background bullets, and active voice:
Subject: INFO – Meeting Change
Bottom Line: We scheduled the weekly update meeting for Thursday at 2 PM CST to accommodate the CFO’s schedule.
We searched for other available times, but this is the only time that works, and it’s important that you are on the call, so that you can address your P&L.
CFO will be in Boston on Thursday meeting at an offsite with the management committee.
He wants to review the financial report that can be found here (insert link) before the call.
By adopting military email etiquette, you will introduce a kernel of clarity to your correspondence and that of your colleagues and clients.
Kabir Sehgal is the author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is a US Navy veteran, Lieutenant in the US Navy Reserve, and a recipient of the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. He was a vice president at J.P. Morgan as well as Grammy and Latin Grammy award winning producer. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
If you were to sum up attendees’ attitudes toward many trade show booths in a song title, it would probably be “Walk on By.” In fact, according to Nancy Drapeau, director of research at the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, nearly 55 percent of attendees like to walk through the show floor and observe without speaking to the staffers representing exhibiting companies. But the importance of making a conversational connection with visitors – who might otherwise zip past your booth – can’t be overstated. Without that connection interrupting their show-floor sprint, many attendees might not ever stop in your exhibit. Consequently, you have little chance of qualifying them as leads or courting them to become customers.Part of the solution, according to Dr. Gary Lewandowski, may lie in the lingua franca of singles bars and Tinder: pickup lines. Lewandowski, who has studied pickup lines for their effectiveness in opening a rapport between people, says exhibitors should use lines that are open-ended questions and relevant to the products or services being displayed.
Han Leenhouts, author of “Peppertalk 2.0,” a collection of questions to initiate conversations with attendees, agrees. But he believes staffers’ opening lines should be tailored to unique situations. So with the help of Leenhouts and a roster of staff training experts, including Susan Brauer of Minneapolis-based Brauer Consulting Group, Barry Siskind of International Training and Management Co., and Anne Trompeter of Live Marketing Inc., here are potential pickup lines perfectly suited to engagements with attendees walking past your booth, watching a presentation, and handling your products.
1. Engaging attendees walking by the booth The most difficult attendees to corral are the ones zipping past your booth. Inundated by sound, color, and the motion of dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands, of other attendees, they are likely on a mission – even if they have no definitive destination. “This can be tricky because you don’t know anything about these attendees yet,” Leenhouts says. “I suggest staffers start with open-ended questions, such as ‘What’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen at the show?’ so attendees have to give answers that are more elaborate than a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ thus starting a dialogue.”
2. Engaging attendees watching a live presentation, demo, or informational video about your company’s offerings Once attendees are inside the booth, viewing a presentation or demo, exhibitors’ objectives should shift from attracting them with attention-getting verbal lures to ones stimulating guests into conversations about the exhibit’s content. Siskind proposes staffers look for visitors who express interest or encouraging body language (e.g., nodding their head, leaning in, smiling) during presentations and ask those guests open-ended questions about the product being presented, such as, “What part of the demonstration was most applicable to your needs?” Alternatively, Brauer prefers a closed question along the lines of: “Have you ever used our product or service?” According to her, either answer establishes a baseline that allows the conversation to move forward. “If yes, the staffer can ask them how they use the product or know about it, and then start asking more questions about their company and what they do,” Brauer says. “If no, don’t launch into a sales pitch. Give a brief overview of your company, and then ask one or two qualifying questions to mold your response to their needs.”
3. Engaging attendees handling your product While attendees handling your physical product may seem identical to those viewing a presentation, this scenario is slightly different: Inspecting your product is a positive action on their part that signals to staffers they’re open to a substantive conversation. Somewhat similar to Brauer’s approach to attendees who are viewing presentations, Trompeter advocates closed-question openers that supply information, such as “Did you know that this is the only eco-friendly widget on the market?” “The answer should lead to some discussion around what you do,” Trompeter says, “and it might even help you qualify the person in some way.”