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Why we “choke” under pressure and what to do about it

Posted July 24th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

We’ve all heard of or experienced ourselves the mental or physical brain freeze that’s often described as “choking” under pressure. Why did Michelle Kwan, favoured to win the gold in the 2002 Olympics, fall on a triple jump, leaving the gold to Sarah Hughes? Why did Greg Norman lose his lead and the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1996? While this is frequently described as a result of anxiety or nervousness, new research points to a type of “log-jam” in the brain.

University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock’s research on this issue, published in her new book,  “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,” describes how a star athlete can collapse in a competition or student fail a critical test, or a professional botch a presentation.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” argues Beilock.

By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best – and when we choke – Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” says Beilock.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing a competition or worrying about failing in general, can lead to over-analyzing the situation. This paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to guarantee success. However, this increased attempt at control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid or flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows.

The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways. Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities. Beilock  contends as a result of her research that working memory helps people perform at their best in physical, intellectual and applied situations including business. This working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex that serves as a limited temporary storage for information needed to complete immediate tasks. Very talented and able people have larger working memories, but this is where the problem arises. When anxiety or fear creeps in, the working memory becomes overtaxed, and you loose the brain power to succeed.

Choking can also result from what is termed “stereotype threat,” when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths. Examples are that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance. Another example is when a racial group or gender to which they belong is widely believed to be either inferior at tasks. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.

Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.

Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In these circumstances instance, meditation, which has been widely researched for its benefits, can help significantly.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.

Stress can lead to choking and undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

Paying too much attention to well-learned skill execution may be detrimental to performance. Understanding the cognitive mechanisms leading to poor performance under pressure, as shown in these experiments, can lead to prevention, says Beilock, in “real-world tasks in which serious consequences depend on good or poor performance in relatively public or consequential circumstances.” For example, many aspects of public speaking may ordinarily be automatic. However, lawyers giving a closing argument to a jury may feel pressure to perform, and as a result, think too much about what they are doing –and stutter or lose their train of thought. Training under conditions that have individuals attend to their performance, or, conversely, purposely taking one’s mind off well-learned skill performance under pressure. For example, repeating a key word, singing a song, seeing a favoriate image, recalling a pleasurable event, can help prevent choking.

We know from research on mastering skills or tasks, that practice, and a lot of it is necessary. But, practicing under stress – even a moderate amount – helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem familiar, and not so daunting. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.

“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”

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How to deal best with failure and stress

Posted July 23rd, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

People cope with failures and stress in life in a variety of ways ranging from distraction to getting social support. But what are the most effective strategies?

New research from the University of Kent has revealed that positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies for people dealing with failures.

In a paper published by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, Dr. Joachim Stoeber and Dr. Dirk Janssen from the University’s School of Psychology describe a diary study that found these three strategies to be most effective in dealing with small failures and setbacks, and helping people to keep up their spirits and feel satisfied at the end of the day.

For the study, a sample of 149 students completed daily diary reports for 3 — 14 days, reporting the most bothersome failure they experienced during the day, what strategies they used to cope with the failure, and how satisfied they felt at the end of the day. Their coping strategies included: using emotional or instrumental support; self-distraction; denial; religion; venting; substance use; self-blame; and behavioral disengagement.

Of these, using social support (both emotional and instrumental), denial, venting, behavioral disengagement, and self-blame coping had negative effects on satisfaction at the end of the day: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with the day’s most bothersome failure, the less satisfied they felt at the end of the day. What’s interesting to note is that social support by others was not an effective strategy.

In contrast, positive reframing (i.e. trying to see things in a more positive light, looking for something good in what happened), acceptance and humor coping had positive effects on satisfaction: the more students used these coping strategies in dealing with failures, the more satisfied they felt at the end of the day.

Dr. Stoeber, a leading authority on perfectionism, motivation and performance, believes that the findings of this study will be of significant interest to clinicians, counselors and anyone working on stress research. He said: ‘The finding that positive reframing was helpful for students high in perfectionistic concerns is particularly important because it suggests that even people high in perfectionistic concerns, who have a tendency to be dissatisfied no matter what they achieve, are able to experience high levels of satisfaction if they use positive reframing coping when dealing with perceived failures.’

He added that a helpful recommendation for anyone trying to cope would be to try to find positive aspects in the outcomes they regard as ‘failures’; and reframe these outcomes in a more positive way; for example, by focusing on what has been achieved, rather than on what has not been achieved. ‘It’s no use ruminating about small failures and setbacks and drag yourself further down,’ he said. ‘Instead it is more helpful to try to accept what happened, look for positive aspects and — if it is a small thing — have a laugh about it.’

While reframing and acceptance are widely used by practitioners in the helping professions, the study clearly identified humor and laughter as effective coping strategies.

For decades, researchers have explored how humor helps patients relieve stress and heal. Melissa B. Wanzer, EdD, professor of communication studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., has taken it one step further, with her research on how humor helps medical professionals cope with their difficult jobs. She also looked at how humor affects the elderly and how it can increase communication in the workplace and in the classroom.

She wondered, how do health care providers care for terminally ill people and manage to come back to work each day? So she asked them, in large-scale studies. Their answer? Humor. Wanzer has found humor to be beneficial in other areas as well.

“If employees view their managers as humor-oriented, they also view them as more effective,” notes Wanzer. “Employees also reported higher job satisfaction when they worked for someone who was more humor-oriented and used humor effectively and appropriately.” Wanzer and her colleagues found that humor is an effective way to cope with on-the-job stress – again, when used appropriately.

Wanzer also recently collaborated on research that found aging adults who used humor more frequently reported greater coping efficacy, which led to greater life satisfaction. This was the third study she conducted, with three different populations, where the conclusion was the same.

But what if you don’t consider yourself to be particularly funny? Wanzer says that while you can’t change your personality, you can find ways to integrate humor into your day-to-day life and change your communication patterns.

“Self-disparaging humor, making fun of oneself, is a very effective form of humor communication, as long as it is not done excessively,” says Wanzer, who adds that telling jokes is just a small portion of humor communication.

It is commonly believed that kidding around at work isn’t a good thing. Well, it is, says a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher, who has examined how workplace humor affects the working environment.

Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri,’s College of Business, said that humor – particularly joking around about things associated with the job – actually has a positive impact in the workplace. Occasional humor among colleagues, he said, enhances creativity, department cohesiveness and overall performance.

The conclusion was made by examining theories on humor and integrating literature from a wide variety of disciplines that touch on the subject. Several hundred sources were analyzed by Robert and collaborator Wan Yan, a business doctoral student, who have attempted to bring together literature from numerous disciplines to make the case that humor is serious business.

“Humor has a significant impact in organizations,” said Robert, “humor isn’t incompatible with goals of the workplace. It’s not incompatible with the organization’s desire to be competitive. In fact, we argue that humor is pretty important. It’s not just clowning around and having fun; it has meaningful impact on cohesiveness in the workplace and communication quality among workers. The ability to appreciate humor, the ability to laugh and make other people laugh actually has physiological effects on the body that cause people to become more bonded.”

“Humor is difficult in cross cultural situations,” he said. “It’s hard to know what’s going to be funny or when to use humor. Some people have suggested that you just avoid it all together; don’t be funny, don’t try to make jokes. We basically reject that and offer some ground rules for understanding when and what kind of humor might be appropriate.”

Laughter can play key roles in group communication and group dynamics — even when there’s nothing funny going on. That’s according to new research by Dr. Joann Keyton from North Carolina State University and Dr. Stephenson Beck of North Dakota State University, published in a special issue of Small Group Dynamics, which examined the role of laughter in jury deliberations during a capital murder case.

The researchers learned that laughter could be used as a tool, intentionally and strategically, to control communication and affect group dynamics. The researchers also found that “laughter matters, even when it is a serious group task,” Keyton says. “Laughter is natural, but we try to suppress it in formal settings. So, when it happens, it’s worth closer examination.”

“Laughter is one way of dealing with ambiguity and tension in situations where a group is attempting to make consequential decisions and informal power dynamics are in play,” Keyton says. “There are very few opportunities to see group decision making, with major consequences, in a public setting,” Keyton explains. “It is usually done in private, such as in corporate board meetings or judicial proceedings. But laughter is something that occurs frequently, and not only because something is funny. Nobody in the jury was laughing at jokes.”

Failure, serious work and stress is now commonplace in our society. It seems that having a sense of humor and laughter are critical strategies to help us get through, and remain positive and productive.

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Is the Internet making us dumb?

Posted July 19th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Has the Internet made us dumber and simply become an external storage device for our brains?

Larry Greenemeir, writing in a Scientific American article, speculates that “with Google, Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia at beck and call via smartphones, tablets and laptops, the once essential function of committing facts to memory has become little more than a flashback to flashcards.”

Columbia University psychology professor Betsy Sparrow and her team conducted a series of experiments aimed at addressing this question. They found that people go to the Internet to get answers to questions, are less likely to commit information to memory, compared to those that don’t. Sparrow concludes this means people are storing information outside their brains on the Internet. So what’s the danger in that? Sparrow doesn’t think there is any: “the part of the brain responsible for memorization [of such things as phone numbers] has not been atrophied.”

The Internet as a source of information however, can’t be relied upon for accuracy. John Suler, a psychology professor and author of the book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, says that people will “find a Web site that validates almost anything you might want to believe, whether it’s true or not.”

UCLA professor of psychiatry Gary Small conducted an experiment with three experienced  Web surfers and three novices to study their brain activity using an fMRI while they surfed the Internet. He reported that the 2 groups showed marked differences. The brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the novices, particularly in the areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decision-making. He repeated the experiment using only written text, and found no differences between the two groups in brain activity. Small concluded that the experienced Internet users had developed distinctive neural pathways because of the Internet. Small concluded “the current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”

But what kind of changes to the brain? Another study showed that Internet users surfing the web tended to surf aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information and that some could not remember what they had and had not read. A 2007 study of hypertext experiments concluded jumping between digital documents impedes understanding.  Some psychologists refer to this as overloading our “cognitive load,” meaning we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories or translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. And the ultimate price may be a deteriorating ability to concentrate or focus our attention.

So clearly, the nature of information on the Internet does not negate the need for critical thinking and due diligence.

Writer Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making us Stupid?”) and author of the book, The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains, argues that modern neuroscience, which has revealed the plasticity of the human brain, shows that our habitual practices can actually change our neuronal structures. The brains of illiterate people, for example, are structurally different from those people who can read. So if the technology of printing can shape human brains, then why can’t the Internet, and particularly the social media subset, do something similar?

Carr and others argue that we may be losing some of our capacity for contemplated concentration, perhaps as a result of too much information. Some university professors complain that students who are unable to find answers to questions via Google, are often stymied.

A study conducted by scholars at The University College, London, concludes that we may be in the midst of a change in the way we read and think. They concluded that the people in the study predominantly read via the Internet by “skimming” and not reading in depth, hopping from one site to another. The researchers coined the term “power browsers” and this activity is not reading in the traditional sense. This reflects other research. For example, experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. Carr sites another example from the past. When Friedrich Nietzsche’s eyesight was failing, he began using a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter, which enable him to type with his eyes closed. Nietzsche’s associates and friends noted that his writing style had changed to become more terse and compact, compared to when he wrote by hand.

Carr argues that even the media now is adapting to the Internet, so that news stories are getting shorter, with abstracts, headlines and easy to browse pages.

Thanks to the Internet, and smartphones and other devices, people are actually reading more today than they did in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Carr argues, but it is a different kind of reading, and behind it is a different kind of thinking. This view is reflected in the arguments of Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf argues that we are “how” we read, and that Internet reading focuses on efficiency, immediacy and speed, so we become “decoders of information.” This is a very different from traditional print reading which allows us to create complex mental connections. Wolf says that deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking, neither of which the Internet provides.

Susan Greenfield, writing in a Science article in 2009, reviewed over 40 studies on the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that our growing use of the Internet and other screen-based technologies has led to “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills,” but a weakening of our capacity for “deep processing,” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection.” In an address to the British House of Lords, Greenfield went even further: “As a a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

The critics of Google argue that, while the company promises to organize the world’s information for human benefit, in essence, information is a commodity,  a resource that can be mined and processed, it provides Google and other companies with opportunities to gain and collect information about us to feed us advertisements.

Harvard University’s Steven Pinker sees no dangers in the Internet to brain functioning. And when Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project asked a panel of 370 Internet experts for their opinion, over 80% believed “people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence.”

A research report in the U.K., The Impact of Digital Technologies on Human Well-Being, and research by the non-profit organization Nominet Trust, concluded that there is no neurological evidence that the Internet is more effective in rewiring our brains than other environmental influences.

So while there may be conflicting evidence and opinions on the impact of the Internet on our brains, it’s clear this will continue to be a controversial topic even while the world’s population increases its dependence and use of the Internet.

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The Silver Tsunami is here

Posted July 16th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

The recent recession has placed a myopic emphasis on the need to deal with the millions of baby boomers retiring or about to retire in the next few years. In fact, we will need those aging workers. And we need to revise our view of aging, which for the most part, is portrayed in a negative way.

The reality is, the world’s population is aging. In a study by the Urban Institute, The Aging Baby Boom: Implications for Employment and Training Programs, concludes that by 2050, the median age of population will be in the following countries: Japan-52, Italy-52, U.K.-43, Finland-46, the U.S. and Canada-42. In the European Union in the next 10 years, the number of workers 50-65 will increase 25% while the percent aged 20-30 will decrease by 20%. Over 1 million people ages 90 to 100 will be working in Japan by 2030.

Currently, about 28% of the U.S. population is 50 or older. Projections show that by 2025, that figure will increase to more than 35%. By 2010, the number of 35-44-year-olds who are normally expected to move into senior management ranks, will actually decline by 10%. Also by 2010, the number of U.S. workers between the ages of 45-54 will grow by 21%, while the number of 55-64-year-olds will expand by 52%.

There exists a “gray ceiling” image—characterized by burnout, obsolescence, and career plateauing—that keeps many aging workers from reaching their potential. In the workplace, there is an clear age bias where recruiters favor younger applicants. You have only 5 years when most people are free of age bias—35-40. Otherwise, often you are viewed as either too young or too old.

Myths about aging are perpetuated by our media. Do you remember the movie, Cocoon, a movie about old people, which starred Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy all over the age of 70 at the time? When the film’s director reviewed the film’s early takes, he decided something was wrong. His actors weren’t acting like old people—their posture was too straight, step to lively, and speech too clear. So the director hired acting instructors to teach them how to act like much older, less able people.

Aging is no longer viewed as a natural stage of life, but a horror and devastating progression. Why are we as a human race so set on reversing the inevitable? The war on aging is on, but has our America’s obsession gone too far? The statistics show that more and more women are getting facelifts, and they also show that women are becoming interested in the procedure at a younger age. Women are now getting facelifts even as young as in their thirties. According to a report by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, procedures such as plastic surgery, Botox and wrinkle fillers are up 99 percent since 2000.

Yet, and this is important, most of the studies of aging have focused on the 5% who are sick or diseased. Actually we have very few studies about physically and mentally HEALTHY aging adults. Biogerentology, the biology of aging, is a science that is only 40 years old. One of the problems of our view of aging is our medical model which focuses on sickness instead of health. In contrast, the new advances in mind-body connection and neuroscience research show great promise in helping people with aging and maintaining good health.

What is the upside to aging? What are some myths that seem to be perpetuated about aging:

  • Myth 1: A significant % of older people are either senile or suffer from dementia. Fact: Only 6-8% of people over the age of 65 have dementia;
  • Myth 2: Older people suffer from rigid thinking. Fact: 41% of people over 65 use the Internet. Brain science shows we can learn easily well into our 90’s.
  • Myth 3: Most older people have health problems. Facts: 75% of people aged 65-74 are in good health; over 60% age 75+ are in good health; 40% over age 80 are fully functional.
  • Myth 4: Sexual activity declines significantly with aging: Facts: A recent study showed that 93% of people are sexually active in their 50’s; 81% in their 60’s and 75% in their 70’s.
  • Myth 5: Older people exhibit significant cognitive decline. Fact: A recent study showed that in terms of verbal meaning, inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, numerical ability and word fluency the people studied 50-80 did not show any significant decline

Studies of older workers in the workplace have shown that older workers engage in less unethical and/or criminal activity; have higher levels of participation in politics and volunteerism; have fewer workplace accidents; have better visual acuity; have less conflict with co-workers; have fewer power struggles; are less ego driven; have less health costs than younger workers; have greater loyalty to the organization; have more positive attitudes than younger workers; are more resilient under stress; do better quality work; have less job turnover; are more trainable and have a less net cost compared to younger workers.

Some of the world’s great achievements were accomplished by older people, not the youngest geniuses: It was during their “sunset strolls,” that Michelangelo, at 88,was designing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica; Stradivarius, in his 90’s produced two of his most famous violins; Verdi, when 80, composed the opera “Falstaff;”  Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor at 87; Frank Lloyd Wright was 91 when he designed the Guggenheim Museum; Peter Drucker wrote, his famous book on management when he was 89; George Burns was still performing in his 90’s; Dr. Seuss was 82 when he wrote one of his last children’s books;Olive Riley, believed to be the world’s oldest blogger at 108, writes a blog every day;Arthur Winston, 100, worked for 72 years for the same company, Los Angles Metro; Jennifer Figge, 57 was the first woman to swim the Atlantic Ocean; John Whittemore, 104, continued to compete in Track and Field; and John Kelly was still competing in Marathon and Iron man competitions at 97.

We also commonly think of older people as being poor and penniless. But the current senior population possesses over $900 billion in spending money. Nearly a quarter of householders aged 65 to 69 have a net worth of $250,000 or more. Seniors spend more than $30 billion on travel each year. According to George Moschis of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies, “the 55-plus age group controls more than three-fourths of this country’s wealth and the 65-plus group has twice as much per capita income as the average baby boomer.”

Businesses do not consider aging people a viable demographic market, community organizations labeled them recipients rather than contributors, and when they were included in commercials, movies or news segments, they are portrayed as unhealthy, unproductive and uninvolved: a burden on the economy and the younger generations.

In “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife” ,Marc Freedman argues that we need a “new map of life” to deal with this powerful demographic change. Mr. Freedman is founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit research group focused on boomers. He points out that while medical science, improved nutrition and other advances have succeeded in extending our lives, our ability to redefine these longer lives has lagged woefully behind. Freedman wants to broaden the way that people think about this part of life, which he calls the “encore stage.” The encore stage is not about “clinging to our lost youth,” he says. Rather, it means using one’s evolving identity and experience in ways that are characterized by “purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations.”

If people live 85 years or longer, does it make sense to put so much pressure on people in their 20s and early 30s to complete their education, form a family, and start a career? A new view of age-related goals and activities may be more sensible.

Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder of the Families and Work Institute says that companies need to recreate work places that are multigenerational and that will require rethinking how work is organized, including more flexible work-life arrangements.

One of the critical issues we face in the potential loss of aging workers from the workplace to retirement is the loss of knowledge. A 2006 Ernst and Young study report that companies are more likely to be concerned about knowledge loss and transfer, but they are doing little about it.

A senior nuclear weapons designer retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory after 30 years, leaving no one in the Lab who knows the design of missiles built in the 1950’s and 60’s, which are still deployed in military bases worldwide. A chemist who invented a new polymer retires and soon afterward his company loses the ability to fix variations in quality manufacturing. A senior sales executive departs from their company with years of detailed relationships with decision-makers and client organizations, which is never recovered with the new sales executives, and business declines by 30%.When a petrochemical explosion occurred at a large plan on the Texas Gulf Coast, an investigation found that the engineers there at the time had all been on the job less than one year. After Boeing offered early retirement to 9,000 senior employees during a business turndown, a subsequent new rush of order for 737’s threw the assembly line into chaos with all the new employees they hired. They had to finally shut down the assembly line and lost $1.6 billion in lost orders from customers. More than $24 billion, with 400,00 working on it was invested by NASA over 10 years to make a moon landing.  So why haven’t we gone back to the moon? Budgetary constraints and a focus on the Space Station and Shuttles. It’s not that the new $50 billion plus price tag of returning the moon is a deterrent. It’s that NASA has lost the knowledge of how to do it. Most of the scientists who developed the technology have retired or are dead and were never replaced.

Often, mature workers are left on their own as they near the end of their careers. Most organizations have no career development or professional growth plans for mature workers. A Manpower survey found that just 28% of U.S. companies and 21% of companies worldwide have a strategy for retaining mature workers. A study by the Conference Board showed that 80% of HR executives surveyed were oblivious to the concerns of older workers. An international study by Manpower showed that just 18% of U.S. employers have a strategy to recruit mature employees; Canada 17%; whereas Hong Kong 25% and Singapore, 48%.

There are some organizations doing something about the issue. Companies in Finland, where aging workers is a more significant issue, are taking action. For example, the Abloy lock company, which operates in 40 countries, has 30% of its workers over the age of 55. They have created the designation of Agemaster for these employees, and they are entitled to an assortment of benefits—massages, free memberships in health clubs, free education, all funded by the company, free complete physical exams and fitness tests, and an annual 5 week vacation. And the creation of a mentoring program where all mature workers pass on their knowledge to younger workers before they leave. Finland, which already is facing an aging workforce, has initiated the National Program on Ageing Workers, a 4 year campaign to change public attitudes. The core of that program is the view that work should be adapted to the abilities of aging workers, rather than the other way around.

Westpac Banking Corporation of Australia and New Zealand, recognized for its commitment to corporate social responsibly made it commitment to attract mature workers. They have increased their average age of 45  of their workforce from 20% to 30% in just 5 years.  They have found that absenteeism for mature workers is actually lower than for younger employees. They have also found a larger percentage of mature employees were rated as outstanding or above average in their work compared to employees younger than 45.

At a BMW factory in Germany, management realized workers were getting older. They estimated their employees would soon average age 47. BMW did not want to either force workers out, and many wanted to continue to work. They asked workers how could they make things better for them.  Workers complained of sore feet from standing, so they made special shoes for them, and put in wooden floors instead of concrete, some got chairs, like a hairdresser. They adjusted work schedules to allow for stretching and relaxing; Tools and computer screens were changed to adapt to age. The entire project only cost BMW $50,000, and productivity and job satisfaction went up.

A study of top companies in Canada, as reported in the Globe and Mail, illustrated strategies they used to retain older employees, including: Additional vacation time up to 6 weeks; free training and tuition programs; phased in retirement; physical fitness and wellness centers on site; and academic scholarships for children and grandchildren.

Aging people who hold negative beliefs about aging—such as mental and physical health deteriorating significantly, –end up performing worse on short-term memory and others kinds of tests, than those who have more positive beliefs.

We need a new kind of clock: an Ulyssean model in which the later years are viewed as a time of wisdom, creativity, power and purpose. We need to make a distinction among  job, career and life calling. For people who are aging, calling is far more important.We need to be more concerned with wisdom, and less concerned with cognition. Look at the state of the world now, and what cognition has brought us without wisdom.Wisdom, a strength of aging people, encompasses discretion, maturity, keenness of intellect, broad experience, profound thought, compassion and understanding and implies a moral nature.  Wisdom is what and who you are, and not what you do.

It’s time that employers and executives woke up the fact that we will need aging workers to sustain the economy and the time is now.

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Sleep improves athletic performance

Posted July 5th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Research published in the journal Sleep suggests that sleeping longer can markedly improve physical performance.

When Stanford University’s male basketball team was asked to sleep for 10 hours a night for around six weeks, their shooting accuracy improved by 9%.The study at the U.S university found that getting enough sleep and rest was as important as training and diet for elite athletes.

Cheri Mah, researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, who worked with the basketball players, said that sleep was often overlooked. “Intuitively many players and coaches know that rest and sleep are important, but it is often the first to be sacrificed,” she said.

The researchers asked the players to maintain their normal night-time schedule (sleeping for six to nine hours) for two-to-four weeks and then aim to sleep 10 hours each night for the next five-to-seven weeks. Many athletes testified that a focus on sleep was beneficial to their training and performance.

During the study period, players stopped drinking coffee and alcohol. They were also asked to take daytime naps when travel prevented them from getting 10 hours of night-time sleep.

The study found that the players ran faster timed sprints (16.2 seconds at the start of the study compared with 15.5 seconds at the end), their shooting accuracy improved by 9% and their fatigue levels decreased. The athletes also reported improved performance during competitive basketball games.

The findings suggest that it is important for sleep to be prioritised over a long period of time, not just the night before match-day, Mah says. She called optimal sleep an “unrecognised, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance”. She said the findings may be applicable to recreational athletes as well as those performing at school or at a higher level.

Before the study began, Mah and colleagues also discovered that many of the athletes felt sleepy during the day.This indicated that they were carrying sleep debt accumulated from chronic sleep loss, she said.”The athletes were unaware that it could be negatively impacting their performance.”But as the season wore on and they reduced their sleep debt, many athletes testified that a focus on sleep was beneficial to their training and performance.”

Derk-Jan Dijk, professor of sleep and physiology at the University of Surrey, said we should look at sleep in the same way as exercise.”We should look at sleep as an active process. Getting enough sleep is a positive thing which will help you perform in all aspects of life.”It may be that extra sleep leads to more effective training routines and helps us learn patterns better. Practice makes perfect – and that happens more quickly if you get enough sleep.”

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Is employee loyalty dead?

Posted July 4th, 2011 in Articles, Blogs by admin

Organizations are at a crossroads in their challenge to develop committed workers, but not enough executives are taking notice. Or if they do, they may not be addressing the most serious root causes. And part of this problem is the concept of loyalty.

There was a day in the workplace when a person would get a job and stick with it throughout their professional lifetimes. The American Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010, that the average person born the latter years of the baby boom holds or will hold 11 jobs from ages 18-44. Today, people in their 20’s change jobs an average of every 2 years. Employers are frustrated with the lack of employee loyalty. At the same time, many employees are unhappy with their work because it contains no meaning for them. They ask, “What am I loyal to?”

According to the Center for Work-Life Policy, the proportion of employees professing loyalty to their employers slumped from 95% to 39% from June, 2007 to December 2008. The study also found that the number of employees trusting their employers fell from 79% to 22% over the same period. A survey by DDI, an American Consultancy, found that more than 50% of all employees were “stagnators”-employees with little interesting work to do and little hope for promotion-and half of these people planned to look for new work once the economy improves.

According to a Deloitte study, “Talent Edge 2020: building the Recovery Together-What Talent Expects and How Leaders Are Responding,” a stronger economy may actually be fueling a growing concern among employers about retaining top talent. With the economy improving, nearly 65% employees surveyed are actively testing the job marked. “We’re living in a world where each generation in the workforce has vastly different goals, expectations and desires,” said Jeff Schwartz, principal, Deloitte Consulting and U.S. Talent Services leader. “As employees eye the exit signs following a hard hitting recession, employers need to tailor and target their talent strategies to satisfy each employee group from baby boomers to millennials.”

Some other key findings of the report include:

  • Baby boomers, among all workforce generations surveyed, expressed the strongest discontent with their employers and the greatest frustration that their loyalty and hard work has been neither recognized nor rewarded. Almost 1/3 of baby boomers surveyed say a lack of trust in leadership is a top turnover trigger.
  • Generation X employees are clearly the group most likely to be looking at exit strategies from their current jobs, with only 28% expecting to stay with their current employers, citing lack of career progress.
  • Millennials exhibit a sharply different view of a strong corporate culture, providing their employers have a strong commitment to corporate responsibility/volunteerism, and seeing work as “fun.”

Lynda Gratton, a workplace expert proclaimed in an article in the Financial Times, that employee loyalty has been “killed off through shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers.” Gratton argues that “loyalty is about the future-trust is about the present.”

In the work world where employees were lifetime workers, and employers took care of them, that concept of loyalty made sense. However, today’s work world is vastly different: Lifetime employment doesn’t exist, and employers, including governments, have reneged on their promises. The traditional concept of loyalty implies allegiance to someone or something even if it contradicts self-interests. In the workplace setting, this concept has been viewed as an employer’s expectation that an employee would eventually be rewarded for this kind of allegiance.

In his notable book, A Brand Called You, management guru Tom Peters argues loyalty is not blind loyalty to the company. Rather, it’s loyalty to an employee’s colleagues, to the team, to the project and to themselves. Diane Arthur, author of The Employee Recruitment and Retention Handbook, says employers should worry more about giving loyalty than getting it. In an article in the Harvard Business Review’s Working Knowledge (September, 2005), Lauren Keller Johnson explains how the death of the lifetime employment contract has altered the concept of loyalty.

Tammy Erickson, a Harvard Business Review blogger, believes the old system of loyal service in exchange for security is dead:

“How can leaders recreate an atmosphere of trust in the organization? My superficial answer: Forget about it–or at least, forget about restoring trust as you understood it previously. Trust in corporations was traditionally constructed in this way: The individual was loyal. The institution protected and cared for the individual. Employees professed to have no priorities outside  their specific institution. And the corporation promised long-term opportunities and enhanced rewards for those who stayed. In truth, we have been chipping away at one side of this relationship for decades…It’s time to acknowledge that the old equation…is gone. It won’t come back. It can’t be restored, and frankly, that’s probably appropriate given the nature of work today. Here’s the equation I believe will form the basis of trust between corporations and workers for decades ahead: The organization will provide interesting and challenging work. The individual will invest discretionary effort in the task and produce relevant results. When one or both sides of this equation are no longer possible, the relationship will end.”

Loyalty has often been linked with job security, which is now much a thing of the past. Bill Taylor, cofounder of the business magazine, Fast Company, and coauthor of the book, “Mavericks at Work,” says, “organizations are not a source of security but they are a source of identify.” Loyalty he argues will be a result of a person identifying with the company’s values and practices.” The common thread of modern loyalty is to be loyal to something bigger than your. Taylor says, “People do their best work when they identify themselves as part of a team or a project.”

So what is the root cause? It starts with the executives themselves. Frederick Reichheld, author of Loyalty Rules! argues that loyalty is still the fuel that drives financial success-even, and perhaps especially, in today’s volatile, high-speed economy-but that most organizations are running on empty. Why? Because leaders too often confuse profits with purpose, taking the low road to short-term gains at the expense of employees, customers, and ultimately, investors. In a business environment that thrives on networks of mutually beneficial relationships, Reichheld says, it is the ability to build strong bonds of loyalty-not short-term profits-that has become the “acid test” of leadership.

The workplace has changed. The old social contract is a distant memory. Organizations must learn that their needs and the needs of their employees are interrelated. In our modern global economy, it is not capital assets that will determine the success of an organization, but rather the intensity of motivation of its employees to continually change and improve to meet or set the next standard. Employees who are emotionally involved with the organization are far more productive than those who are emotionally withdrawn.

Organizations must view employees as an asset rather than an expense. They must provide employees with an opportunity to grow in value to the organization, recognize the importance of the personal needs of employees, help them balance work and family and focus on satisfying the customer or client. In progressive organizations, a new kind of relationship, grounded in mutual trust and respect, is emerging. This new social contract is developed out of realistic expectations on both sides. Paternalism is changing to partnerships. Employees expect to be treated fairly, to delver professionally, and to have meaningful, challenging work. In return, employees owe the organizational their willingness to participate in business growth, ideal development, customer service and organizational transformation.