Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unexpected Rewards

A couple of years ago, Dr. Wolfram Schultz, Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University conducted a study of reward behaviors in monkeys. The reward process consisted of two events. A light was flashed and then the monkeys got some fruit juice.
Dr. Schultz monitored their response by tracking the dopamine production in their brains.
(Oh by the way, the monkey brain functions much like the human brain when it comes to dopamine and the response to rewards or other pleasurable experiences.)
Initially, the monkeys got happy when they got the juice. Then they got happy when the light was flashed because they knew the juice was coming. (Back in 1927, Pavlov observed similar behavior in dogs as measured by their salivating in response to the dinner bell.)

But, monkeys are not dogs. Monkeys are more like us. They get bored. After many days of light flashes and juice, their “happy response” began to moderate. The researchers went to plan B. They stopped providing the juice after the light flash.
As you might expect, the monkeys were not happy about that at all. In fact they blew right through boredom with the light flash to down right indifference. So the researchers decided to occasionally provide some juice after the light flash. Sometimes the light flash was followed by juice and sometimes it was not. The monkeys started getting happy again about the flash of light, even when there was no juice. And when they did actually get the juice, they got really happy.

The researchers, feeling somewhat god-like at this point, decided to throw in one more twist. They started giving the monkeys juice without warning, no flash of light. This totally unexpected reward triggered the most powerful response. The monkeys really enjoyed the juice surprise. (The researchers did not report it this way, but my guess is that the monkeys were also suspicious the first time the juice showed up without a flash of light. I know I would be.)

This overall reward-response pattern plays a key role in human behavior, both positive and negative. And the unexpected reward aspect is extremely powerful and can be addictive (i.e. gambling). Headhunters live in a world of unexpected rewards (and disappointments). I must say that the placement you thought was never going to happen is always sweeter than the sure thing. And then there’s golf. An unexpected great shot (which are few in my world) is much more satisfying than tapping in a short putt (even if it’s for a birdie which are also few in my world). Why do we like upsets in sport and root for the underdog? What’s so great about an unexpected raise or promotion?

It is said that it is better to give than to receive. Assuming that is true, how should we be using the power of unexpected rewards in our professional and personal lives? Tune in next week for Part II.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Double Dip?

Back in May I blogged about my tendency toward pessimism and that even though the economy seemed to be in full recovery, I wasn’t falling for it. I said it was temporary and “things would go wrong and all will suffer”. We are not there yet and I don’t think it will get that bad, but the outlook is not great. Even a pessimist like me was feeling pretty good about things back in May. Not so today.

Headhunters have the opportunity to speak with a broad cross-section of industry professionals. Our firm specializes in transportation, logistics and supply chain management professionals. Those are the people we talk to. While we can’t predict GDP for the next quarter or the next year, we can tell you what’s going on today. We take the economy’s pulse everyday.

Based on feedback from various sectors and regions, here’s my take on the economy. Freight volumes have softened considerably this summer, but the economy is doing better than the headlines would lead one to believe. There is a shortage of qualified people. That’s not for all positions in all parts of the country. But, a significant number of our clients are having trouble filling positions. Obviously, we are getting biased information in that we will tend to have more communication with companies who need our services.
But compared to 2008 and 2009, it’s tougher to find qualified people. Capacity will be an issue when the economy does improve. It would not take much of a bump for us have real problems moving freight.

The political climate has everyone frustrated. Uncertainty about taxes and getting government spending under control are doing more to inhibit economic growth than anything else. Throw in health care, immigration and environmental issues and it’s easy to see why businesses are holding back on new investment and expansion. Pre-recession hyper-consumerism is gone and not coming back for a while. Less is more and it’s cool to be thrifty.

I don’t see anything that will drive a robust economic recovery. We are facing long-term issues that will negatively impact disposable incomes. However we get there, we must deal with federal, state and local budget deficits. We must upgrade our infrastructure. The status quo is not an option. The types and use of energy must change. The status quo is not an option there either. It’s time to pay up. But it was fun while it lasted wasn’t it?

Double dip? Probably not. A chicken in every pot? Likely. A McMansion in your future? Dream on.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Going Slater

Unless you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Steven Slater. He’s the Jet Blue flight attendant who upon landing announced his resignation to the passengers with a big FU, deployed the emergency exit chute, grabbed a couple of beers on his way out and slid down to his 15 minutes of fame. Obviously, Steven was having a bad day. No need to go into the details of the story. If you’re interested, just google Steven Slater.

What I find interesting is the reaction people have had to his behavior. I admit that I had a good laugh about it. It became less funny when I realized the danger he posed to the ground crew by deploying the emergency exit chute. But, I guess it’s still newsworthy. (It’s as least as good as the one about the dog eating the rotting toe off of his drunken diabetic owner’s foot.) The interesting part about Steven Slater is that he has become a folk hero to millions of disgruntled workers.

It’s as if there are millions of Howard Beales out there just waiting to say “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”. I’m old enough to clearly remember that movie, Network, which came out in 1976. I also remember “Take This Job and Shove It”, the Johnny Paycheck song (1977). The anger is out there. Dozens of movies, TV shows, books and songs tell stories of worker unhappiness, bitterness, resentment, rage and retaliation.

So what does this mean? In my opinion, it means that history keeps repeating itself but maybe now at a faster pace. The serf toiling for his landlord 800 years ago probably wasn’t too thrilled with his lot in life either, but did not have many options or outlets for expression. Millions who have come to the United States, including my European ancestors, were essentially fed up with their old lives and decided to change it. There are those brought here against their will who have fought back and struggled and changed it. The Labor Movement of the early 20th century was motivated by unhappiness, bitterness, resentment and rage. Today, developing nations such as China are starting to feel pressure from their work force.

It's the cycle of life. It’s human nature. You’ve heard the old saw about “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a life time.” My corollary is this: The man will eventually grow tired of fish and want a good steak, a nice bottle of wine, a beautiful woman and a big flat screen television…and air conditioning.

So when I see someone “Going Slater”, I wonder if it’s about the job or if they are just tired of eating fish.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Fourth Agreement

#1- Speak with integrity
#2- Don’t take anything personally
#3- Don’t make assumptions ….

….and now….

Agreement 4
“Always do your best - Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”- Don Miguel Ruiz

I think Agreement 4 is the toughest one to live out consistently. We will all slip and stumble with the other three agreements, but with a reasonable level of commitment we can honor those agreements 80-90% of the time. I’m not so sure I can say that about Agreement 4. Most of us don’t do our best very often, let alone most of the time. We live in a world where “doing” enough to get by or “doing” enough to keep up or stay one step ahead of the competition is good enough. But I don’t encounter many people doing their best and I must confess that I do NOT always do my best. It seems to me that “Best” is the exception.

Why don’t we always do our best? I think there are two main reasons:
I’ve already alluded to the first reason. Sometimes less than our best is good enough.
It’s just a fact of life. You don’t always need your “A” game in order to win. Often your “best” is not expected or appreciated. How many of us accept and have even come to expect lousy service from “low cost” providers? You get what you pay for, right? And we tend to feel the same way when dealing with others. Do unto others as they are likely to do unto you.

The second reason why we don’t always do our best is that sometimes even our best is not good enough. Agreement 4 says that by giving your best “you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.” Maybe so, maybe not. How many of us have given our best and had it shoved up our ass? Everyone put your hands down. We’ve all been there. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is no reason not to give your best. If you think about it, losing or failing or getting it shoved up your keester is no fun under any circumstances. But when it happens and you’ve not given it your best effort, you will always feel worse. Doing your best does not guarantee success. But doing less than your best always increases the odds of failure.

So how does this relate to your career? I’ll put it into perspective this way. When we talk to candidate references, we always ask “comparison” questions that focus on performance. The BEST candidates always do more. They exceed expectations, they give 100% (in this context, there’s no such thing as 110%) and they stand out in the eyes of their boss, their peers and their customers. It is competitive out there. The world is keeping score. YOUR BEST may not always be required or expected. YOUR BEST may not always win the race. But YOUR BEST will always beat less than your best which, in the end, is THE BEST you can expect.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Third Agreement

Agreement 3:
Don’t make assumptions - Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

This is the third of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements. The first one is “Be impeccable with you word, speak with integrity”. Number two is “Don’t take anything personally”.
And now we have number three: “Don’t make assumptions”.

What is making an assumption? According to the dictionary the act of assuming means “to take as granted or true”. So let’s not assume that Ruiz’s third agreement is applicable in all cases. I think there are three kinds of assumptions: good, bad and uncertain. Good assumptions are based on what is true or at least very likely to be true. It’s ok to make good assumptions. Good assumptions keep life moving along. I assume that flying from Dallas to Los Angeles is faster than walking. I don’t need to ask a lot of questions or test that theory. I take it as granted or true. Flying from Dallas to Houston is also faster than walking. I take it as granted or true. On the other hand, flying from Dallas to Houston may NOT be faster than driving from Dallas to Houston. That assumption would be uncertain. Assuming that I could personally fly a plane anywhere would be a bad assumption.

Headhunters must always be wary of making assumptions. That’s why the best headhunters ask a lot of questions. Some of the worst assumptions a headhunter can make with a candidate include:
· Assuming that the candidate’s resume is totally accurate (we talked about that with Agreement 1).
· Assuming that when the candidate says they would never accept a counter offer they really mean it.
· Assuming that when a candidate says they are wide open on relocation that means they would really move anywhere.
· Assuming that a candidate’s compensation requirements are set in stone.
· Assuming that the candidate is telling the truth.

And headhunters need to be equally careful with assumptions about clients (employers).
· Assume that employers will ONLY consider candidates who meet the job requirements.
· Assume that employers will EVEN consider candidates who meet the job requirements.
· Assume that employers will actually pay your fee. (Get it in writing).
· Assume that the compensation for the position is set in stone.
· Assume that the client is telling the truth.

So we ask questions, a lot of questions. And we observe behavior. And we learn from past experiences. You should do likewise. DO NOT:
· Assume that headhunters find jobs for people. (We do not, we find people to fill jobs for our clients).
· Assume that if you respond to enough job board postings you will find a job. (The vast majority of professional positions are filled via networking and personal referrals.)
· Assume that your headhunter knows what you want. (We are not mind readers. If we fail to ask the questions, you should not fail to give us the answers.)
· Assume that headhunters will keep working with uncooperative clients or candidates just on the off chance they might make a placement someday. (Time is money and headhunters will invest their time working with people who value the service and respond accordingly.)

Assuming that you are still reading this, I assume that you will be back next week for the Fourth Agreement. (Probably an uncertain assumption at best).