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How To Foster More Workplace Positivity And Opportunity In 2021

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published on, under Jeff Miller’s Forbes Human Resources Council column.

Much of the time, 2020 has felt like a never-ending newsreel of hardships that made it easy to feel disillusioned with the world. Nearly seven in 10 U.S. workers have said that navigating this pandemic has been the most stressful time of their professional careers. Employees' productivity, motivation and engagement levels are down overall.

But the year is finally coming to a close — that fact alone is giving me hope. And with several promising vaccines and the U.S. presidential election behind us, there's finally a light at the end of the tunnel. As the new year approaches, I think we need to start shifting our mindset away from the negativity of the past nine months. In 2021, let's focus on positivity and opportunity.

Cue the eyeroll.

I get it. There are still a lot of reasons to feel cynical, and the entrance of a new year won't immediately solve everything. But I'm not advocating for the kind of positivity you might be imagining: an overly efficacious attitude or persistently cheery outlook. I'm talking about a more realistic type of positivity that's understanding of the human condition. It's about creating an environment that acknowledges both negative and positive emotions, and providing opportunities for employees to derive fulfillment from what they do.

Get Honest About Negative Emotions

Positivity does not imply the absence of negativity. This is a common misconception, and the opposite is actually more true. A healthy, positive mindset is only achieved when negative situations or feelings are expected and confronted. In order to develop a more positive outlook, negativity must first be acknowledged. Or, to put it another way: In order to develop a learning mindset, a defeatist one must first be overcome.

A positive workplace isn't one filled with misguided optimism or by a persistent "can-do" attitude. Too much of either not only is irritating but can also lead to a culture of toxic positivity that encourages employees to feign a good mood or "look on the bright side" instead of dealing with negative emotions. This can harm employees far more than it helps them: By constantly suppressing their true feelings, employees put their mental health at risk.

Instead, employers shouldn't define negative emotions as inherently bad, or positive ones as inherently good. Just look at both as natural, human emotions. By making this distinction, employees can feel more comfortable being honest with their manager or teams about negative emotions or personal struggles, especially when they start affecting their job performance.

To encourage this kind of honesty from employees, managers must lead by example. For instance, if an employee opens up to you about their struggle with depression or anxiety due to burnout, react with understanding rather than optimism. Focus on realistic solutions — for example, recommend that they take time off, adjust their workload or work with them to create a more manageable schedule. In their reaction, managers must also ensure that if an employee is dealing with negative emotions, they are taking steps to acknowledge them.

Give Employees More Autonomy Over Their Work

Another requirement for a positive work environment is making sure that employees feel positively about their jobs. This one may seem obvious, but it's not necessarily an easy thing to do. Employees only feel fulfilled at work when they derive a sense of personal satisfaction and achievement from it. The operative word here is personal — employees' accomplishments can only feel like their own when they have some control over them.

This is based on Martin Seligman's learned helplessness theory, the idea that an absence of control over the outcome of a situation can negatively affect a person's mental health and self-esteem. By giving employees more ownership of their goals and job tasks, they gain both confidence and control. They start to care more about their work and its quality because they see it as a reflection of themselves. Employees with more autonomy tend to perform at a higher level as a result, and derive more personal satisfaction from their achievements.

Giving employees complete autonomy over their goals and work isn't always feasible, and I am not speaking of abdication but delegation. But often, a sense of autonomy can come from simply mapping existing work to and goals to long-term growth. For example, when assigning an employee a new project, explain its value. Demonstrate why this new project and its respective goals are desirable in the first place, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the company and their personal progress. This helps them connect their intrinsic motivations to the project, making them more invested in its success. Or, give employees the autonomy to define their approach to a predetermined project. This provides a greater sense of control over the project and allows them to make their own goals for it.

Fostering Positivity Realistically

Employees don't have to maintain an upbeat attitude or have a smile constantly pasted across their face to be more positive. Personally, I'm skeptical of these behaviors, but more than that, they're ineffective at actually increasing workplace positivity. As we enter 2021, focus on systemic changes instead, like allowing employees to have more autonomy in their work or making sure they're dealing with negative emotions and personal struggles. These methods will produce positivity more reliably — and encourage it more naturally.

Want to learn more from Cornerstone CLO Jeff Miller? Read his thoughts on how companies can reshape their L&D programming for the year ahead here.

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A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

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A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

Organizations make significant investments in efforts to hire the right candidates – the people who have the right experience and cultural fit. By carefully managing the performance and potential of these people over time, the organization can grow its leadership pipeline, keep a steady inventory of needed skills and competencies and remain nimble in the face of change (which we have plenty of all around us these day) – all of which can have serious impact on the bottom line. However, much of this pie-in-the-sky stuff relies on being able to locate and cultivate high-potential and high-performing talent across the board. Without an integrated succession management solution, recognizing and developing talent can be an ever-elusive process. The questions we are seeing asked today include: does the traditional top-down approach to succession management still make enough of a difference? Does managing succession for a slim strata of senior executives take full advantage of the kinds of talent data we now have at our fingertips? It doesn’t have to be so. Succession management can be an interactive process between senior leadership, managers and employees at all levels of the organization. And, if we trust them, we can actually let employees become active participants in their own career development. (Shudder.) Career Management (Succession Planning Flipped Upside Down) This "bottom-up" approach is gaining momentum because who better to tell us about employee career path preferences than employees themselves. Organizations actually have talent management and other HR systems in place that allow for collecting and analyzing a whole slew of data around: Career history Career preferences Mobility preferences Professional and special skills Education achieved Competency ratings Performance scores Goal achievement Training and certifications Etc. In short, pretty much everything we’d want to know to make well-informed succession planning and talent pooling decisions. For some, the leap is simply putting some power into the employee’s hands. The talent management system of 2011 is capable of displaying a clear internal career path for employees and then, on the basis of all that data bulleted out above, showing a "Readiness Gap" – what do you need to do to make the step to the next level? And if your talent management environment comes armed with a real Learning Management System, you can take it to the next level with a dynamically generated development plan that gets the employee on the right path to actually closing those gaps. Faster development, faster mobility. Organizations that seriously favor internal mobility don’t just make employees stick on pre-defined career paths – they can search for ANY job in the company and check their Readiness levels. I might be in accounting today, but what I really want to do is move to marketing. Giving employees the chance to explore various career avenues within the organization helps assure that "water finds its level" – that is, that the right people with the right skills and the right levels of motivation and engagement find the right job roles internally. Employee participation is key, but make no mistake – managers play an important role in this interactive process. They must be prepared to provide career coaching, identify development opportunities and recommend employees for job openings. The candid discussions require that employees have open access to information so they can best understand the criteria necessary to move to the next level. A Two-Way Street Employee-driven career management is just one tool. The more traditional top-down approach to succession management remains indispensable. But organizations that value talent mobility and the ability to be able to shift and mobilize talent resources quickly will find that attention to career pathing can be vital. For employees, of course, the impacts are immediate and include boosted levels of engagement, higher retention, increased productivity and more.

The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

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The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

Building and maintaining a successful company hinges on having the right people to execute projects and drive results. People, we hear time and again, are your company's most valuable asset. But their success — and HR's ability to recruit, engage and retain them — depends on HR pros who are strategic decision-makers, armed with the proper tools to let them excel at their jobs. Modern HR professionals manage much more than payroll and benefits. But their technology tools, in many cases, haven't evolved past basic productivity software like email or Microsoft Word. HR simply can't be strategic with old-school tools that reduce people to statistics and give little insight into what the numbers mean. Emails and spreadsheets were not designed to deliver meaningful insights into people's performance, suggest when employees should be promoted or highlight skills gaps in a company. For that, HR needs a broader, more strategic set of talent management tools, which lets professionals manage every aspect of the workforce, from training and performance reviews to collaboration and succession planning. Yet, research shows that less than 25% of companies use a unified, holistic approach to their talent management. The Real Costs of "Doing Nothing" As a Talent Management Strategy The critical relationship between business strategy and HR strategy too often gets overlooked by senior leadership. While it may seem like the company is saving money by managing recruiting, training, performance and succession via manual and paper-based processes, in reality it’s costing your business more than you know. For example: Without a talent management strategy, a company with 2,000 employees is losing almost $2 million every year in preventable turnover alone. Businesses that don’t invest in learning suffer from decreased employee performance and engagement to such a degree that they can expect to realize less than half the median revenue per employee. That’s a direct impact on the business. In employee performance management, organizations without a focused strategy waste up to 34 days each year managing underperformers and realize lower net income. To learn more about the business impact of talent management and how to start building out your strategy, check out the eBook Why Your Nonexistent Talent Management Strategy is Costing You Money (And How to Fix It) and register for the March 19th webinar, Building the Business Case for Talent Management.

The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

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The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

With the economy now on steadier ground, most organizations have returned to administering a merit budget to the pre-recession levels of 3 to 3.5%. In the years immediately following the economic downturn, many merit budgets were eliminated entirely or were reduced significantly and reserved for a select segment of the employee population. Pay for performance has become a necessity for many organizations that are expected to accomplish more with fewer resources. I often get asked: "How can I truly award my top performers with such a limited budget? Should I do so at the expense of my ’Meets Expectations’ performers? What if I need to retain my ’Meets Expectations’ performers and giving them 0% to 2% increase puts me at great risk for turnover? But if I don’t recognize my top performers, don’t I risk losing them...?" These are difficult questions to answer, however you can determine the best solution for your organization by considering the following: Are your employees paid at market pay levels? Is your organization’s performance management process mature? Does your organization have other compensation programs in place to reward top performers (e.g. variable pay)? Market Pay If turnover is a concern, and your organization needs to maintain ’bench strength’ in order to achieve its strategic objectives, your biggest priority should be to ensure that you are paying your employees at market pay levels. Why? Historically, as the labor market strengthens, organizations become vulnerable in terms of losing people. Hiring and onboarding replacement talent is not only costly to the organization, but can also cause dissension among existing employees since new hires may be getting paid more. Be sure to stay abreast of market pay levels and trends, and use the merit budget to correct disparities. Performance Management Process Organizations vary significantly in terms of the maturity of their performance management process. Closely examine your organization’s process and look for ways to improve it. If there is a perception that one management team is an ’easier grader’ than the others, the process is inherently flawed and any pay for performance program will not be viewed as credible and fair by employees. A good place to start is to get a calibration process in place and communicate broad guidelines on expected distribution ratings. Variable Pay Programs Variable pay programs (e.g. bonuses) have become increasingly more popular across all industries and career levels. These programs provide the opportunity for employees to share in the organization’s success while not adding to fixed payroll costs. Some plans have an individual performance component which can be a very effective means to recognize top performers. However, in order for this type of program to be successful, individual goals and targets must be well documented and communicated. Again, this is largely based on the maturity of the organization’s performance management process which takes time to evolve. What are the best steps to avoid wreaking havoc on your pay for performance process? First ensure your pay levels are keeping pace with the market Continue to evolve your performance programs with calibration among managers and a rigorous goal setting process Promote variable pay plans to reward high performers without adding to fixed pay roll costs It’s not always an easy journey but, in the end, it’s best to use a measured approach that is based on business needs and a realistic assessment of your current programs and processes.

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