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Consider the Meander: How Attention to Timing Can Enhance Employee Engagement

John Boudreau

Professor, USC Marshall School of Business

Patterns in nature are remarkable, from the smallest to the largest scale: The symmetrical pointed star shows up in starfish and segments of fruit. The same fractal patterns are seen in leaf veins, wood grains and branches of trees. Fibonacci spirals are present in the nautilus shell, cabbage tissues and in the way droplets of water fly off a wet spinning ball. Another common pattern in nature is called a "meander." It's the pattern of up and down bends in a crawling snake, the folks of a coral plant and the path of a river.

All of these patterns are visible in the world around us, but what if they also existed in the invisible? Can, for instance, the meander pattern explain things we can't see with the naked eye? Could a meander be present in human emotions and energy, and, as such, in work attitudes and productivity?

Behavioral science expert Dan Pink's new book, "When," describes the compelling evidence that this wave-like meander pattern is a consistent description of individual work performance, energy and mood across the hours of a day. Still, most organizations ignore—or even contradict—these patterns with dire consequences for worker well-being and productivity. HR leaders can help organizations do better by incorporating and considering these important patterns in their analytics and employment practices.

"When" You Work Through the Day

Is there a consistent "meandering wave" pattern that humans experience throughout the day? What if someone asked you to describe your mood every hour between 5am and 11pm? Might it look something like this graph?

This is the mood pattern revealed in a study published in  by Scott Golder and Michael Macey. The duo used text analysis to look at the emotional content of the words in over 500 million tweets from 2.4 million users over two years. In his book, Pink found that the same pattern occured when scientists looked at reported happiness, warmth toward others, enjoyment and frustration—an early spike, a big drop, and a subsequent recovery.

These diurnal rhythms are so powerful that they show up even when stakes are high—and among well-prepared professionals. When CEOs and investment analysts conduct public investor conference calls, researchers Jing Chen, Elizabeth Demers and Baruch Lev, in a study in , found that "the tone of conference call discussions deteriorates markedly over the course of the trading day, ... [and] the time-of-day-induced negative tone leads to temporary stock mispricings." Just like the wave pattern that shows up in snakes, sand dunes and riverbeds, the diurnal rhythm affects virtually everyone at work.

Pink notes that the early spike is the best time to do analytical tasks that require sharpness, vigilance and focus. The later recovery is best for insight work that requires loosening inhibitions and rigidity. HR systems can nudge leaders and employees to understand these rhythms, and allow them to adjust their work accordingly: allowing them to avoid scheduling important work during the trough, or scheduling analytic work for the early spike and creative work for the later recovery.

"When" You Join and Leave

Dan Pink's book focuses on daily rhythms, but if people are like nature then might we see this "meandering wave" pattern show up in longer timeframes too, just as similar wave patterns shows up in the folds of a coral plant and the bends of rivers? In a study published by the , Wendy Boswell, Jan Tichy and I tracked the job satisfaction of over 500 managers over three years. We found that in the year after they changed jobs their job satisfaction spiked, but then it fell significantly in the second year they were in the job, and then recovered to a moderate level with subsequent years at the job. We even found that managers who changed jobs two years in a row got a satisfaction increase for both moves, but then also experienced a trough after that.

It can be tempting to interpret high work attitudes among new hires as effective selection and engagement, but that may reflect a predictable "honeymoon effect," that will soon wear off. Leaders can anticipate this by finding new and exciting challenges to re-engage new employees, before they leave in pursuit of a new "honeymoon" somewhere else.

Our work lives are affected by the same natural rhythms and patterns that affect plants, rivers, tides and winds. These patterns can enhance or decrease well-being and productivity. HR leaders can help their organizations by integrating the rhythms into their analytics, and designing HR programs that works with the patterns—not against them.

Photo: Creative Commons

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