Self-care won’t cure burnout at work (review of The Burnout Epidemic by Jennifer Moss)

Your team’s exhausted and burning out.

Because you’re a leader who cares, you’re ready to pick up the tab for lunch hour yoga classes, a mindfulness and resilience workshop and a meditation app. You’re also planning to invite everyone to skip work next Friday and spend the day at your place for a catered barbecue, pool party and an epic game of ultimate frisbee.

Hold that thought, and not just because forced fun is a slow death for introverts and co-workers should never see each other in swimwear.

Your self-care intentions are good but it won’t fix what ails your team.

“Burnout can’t be stretched out of people in yoga classes or sweated out of them at the gym,” says Jennifer Moss, journalist and author of The Burnout Epidemic.

“Burnout doesn’t care if they breathe better or deeper. And it most certainly isn’t prevented by suggesting that maybe if they just listened to the sound of rainfall for 30 seconds instead of 15. This is the psychology of leaders in denial.”

Burnout is a sign that something’s seriously wrong with your organization’s culture. Look for one or more of these six roots causes of burnout: imposed or self-inflicted chronic overwork, micromanaging with little to no autonomy, no meaningful rewards or recognition for a job well done, strained relationships with coworkers and supervisors, a real or perceived lack of fairness and a values mismatch between employees and employer.

“Burnout is a complex constellation of poor workplace practices and policies, antiquated institutional legacies, roles and personalities at higher risk, and systemic, societal issues that have been left unchanged, plaguing us for far too long,” says Moss. A focus on self-care solutions makes burnout a “me” rather than “we” problem and absolves leaders from taking responsibility to clean up poor organizational hygiene.

The real cure for burnout comes from tackling those six root causes. And how do you figure out which of these problems haunt your team? Ask them. Let them answer anonymously. Act on what you’re told  and then report back on what you’re doing to clean up your organizational hygiene.  

“Yes, we need to help our people develop the skills that support their mental health and happiness,” says Moss. “But, to battle burnout, we’re talking a different game. Though employees are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, it is our responsibility to provide the conditions that support, and not detract, from their happiness. Burnout occurs when those conditions fail.”

Pay particular attention to younger employees who are at the highest risk of burnout, says Moss. They tend to have less autonomy at work, lower seniority, greater financial pressures and deeper feelings of loneliness.

Address the root causes of burnout and you’ll earn your team’s trust and respect. They’ll know that you genuinely care. Your concern for their well-being won’t come across as lip service or a public relations exercise meant to impress the outside world and score best places to work awards and accolades.

And once you’ve cleaned up your organizational hygiene, that’s when you can revisit your well-intentioned self-care classes, workshops and apps.  Just continue holding off on that stress-inducing backyard pool party.  A Randstad USA survey found that 90 per cent of workers would rather get a bonus or extra vacation day than attend a company holiday party. A party where everyone’s wearing beachwear likely gets you to 100 per cent.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and calls Hamilton home.

How to save your reputation from the digital mob (review of Molly McPherson’s Indestructible)

You said or did something stupid.

And now you’re being called out on social media by the digital mob. Reporters, your employees and customers are watching from the sidelines.

What you do next will seal your fate. Do it wrong and you’ll get yourself cancelled. You may very well lose your job, your business and your reputation.

Now is not the time to throw yourself a pity party, run and hide or hope the mob gets bored and moves on to its next target.

“The online shunning is not random nor is it unfair,” says Molly McPherson, author of Indestructible and an expert in public relations and crisis response in the digital age.

“The people who are targeted for cancellation or the brands that find themselves in the public’s crosshairs are in that position for a reason.

“The outrage is typically not from the questionable act that took the notice of the public, but from an inadequate response to the questionable act. The blowback is caused by a collective repudiation of the response itself or the hubris behind it.”

Brace yourself for extinction-level blowback if you’re defiant, snarky, tone deaf or slow off the mark.

McPherson has a far better three-step response that can save your reputation.

Own it. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for what you’ve said or done. Be sincere, humble and show genuine remorse. “An apology is critical to rebuilding a reputation and shows respect to people impacted or victimized by an incident. Accepting responsibility may seem risky, but it’s far riskier from a reputational point of view to try and avoid it.”

Clarify it. Give background that puts what you said or did in context. Explain, but don’t try to excuse, yourself. Use your weekend words when explaining yourself. “Speak to your stakeholders in a language they understand. Speak clearly and as jargon-free as possible.”

Promise it. Put yourself on the path to redemption. Announce your plans, priorities and the changes to come. Take real steps to make amends. “It goes without saying that this is not the time for token efforts – you’ll need to show how serious you are about mending the situation if you expect your reputation to emerge intact without being cancelled.”

And if you do these three steps, you have a shot at winning it and not getting yourself cancelled.

McPherson sees the same mistake being repeated by leaders facing a digital revolt. “The most dangerous thing a leader can do the moment they hear of pushback from the public is dismissal. They dismiss the complaint. They dismiss the complainer. They dismiss the power of social media. I have never, ever worked on or have been aware of a situation in which such dismissal hasn’t hurt a business in the short or long term.”

So why are leaders so quick to dismiss and make things worse for themselves? The number one reason is fear, says McPherson. “Fear of consumers rising up against their leadership. Fear of social media. Fear of information taken out of context.”

There are also leaders who still believe everything is private unless and until they chose to release it. The game has changed, says McPherson. Not only do we want information, we expect it on demand. “Being told ‘no’ is an invitation to ask again and to ask even harder because the reluctance to share arouses suspicion.”

In a world where everything you say and do can and likely will be used against you on social media, McPherson says leaders now more than ever need to practice honesty, humility, genuineness, transparency, responsiveness, relevance and accountability “Leading with these core values will help you navigate the environment and digital landscape in ways that older, outdated paradigms will not.”

So if you find yourself being called out online, silence, denial, defiance and non-apologies are not winning strategies. McPherson will show you a far better way to avoid getting cancelled and come out of a crisis with your reputation intact.

This review ran in the July 17th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Dear leader: now’s a good time to dial down rather than ratchet up the anxiety levels at work (review of Anxiety at Work)

I worked for a leader who kept count of all the people he’d fired over the years.

It was a big number. And he’d say it out loud in front of employees.

Why he said it was a mystery. Were we supposed to be impressed? Intimidated? Grateful to still have a job? It left me feeling anxious. My anxiety ratcheted up with every email announcing the sudden departure of yet another co-worker.

And then it happened to a friend. We’d worked together for more than a decade. She’d been doing the work of three people and aced her last performance review. She’d provided outstanding support to a succession of senior executives and was proud and loyal to the organization. People in the office were stunned, sad or mad. I was all three.

No meeting was held the next morning to talk about what had happened. There was no acknowledgement that we were reeling. No reassurances were offered that our jobs were safe. When I saw the leader walk through the office with a big grin and some extra pep in his step, I knew it was time to move on. I wrote the email announcing my pursuit of other opportunities.

“While some leaders believe economic, job and competitive uncertainty and resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that’s simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce,” write Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of Anxiety at Work.

“With so many employees experiencing heightened degrees of anxiety at work, leaders simply can’t afford to aggravate things further or leave team members on their own to either buck up, opt out or calm down.”

Anxiety can lead to apathy, burnout, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, workplace anger and a pile-up of sick days. We mentally and then physically check out. “Worry, stress and resulting anxiety at work can cause employees to lose focus and withdraw, working at reduced capacity and rebuffing attempts by fellow team members or managers to help.”

So what’s a leader to do? You don’t need to become a therapist, say the authors. Just convey that you genuinely care about the people you have the privilege to lead. Encourage your team to be open about their struggles, lend an ear and take small steps that will add up to less anxiety.

“Within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days,” say Gostick and Elton. “Having a healthy workplace is a goal we can all feel good about.”

To achieve that goal, help your team do better at dealing with uncertainty. Practice constant communication transparency so anxiety doesn’t fill your silence. Be direct. Communicate frequently and one-on-one. Make it okay not to have all the answers, loosen your grip, ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, keep people focused on what’s within their control, have a bias for action and offer constructive feedback.

Gostick and Elton also have strategies to help teams tackle work overload, avoid the anxiety-inducing trap of perfectionism, engage in healthy debate rather than conflict avoidance and build social bonds and a sense of camaraderie.

Leaders also have a key role to play as allies who help marginalized and anxious team members feel valued and accepted. “When managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.”

I’m fortunate to now work for a leader who’s never publicly or privately boasted about how many people she’s fired. What I hear instead is constant and genuine gratitude that matches to the magnitude of the job well done by her team. And I keep running into people she’s mentored over the years. It’s an equally big, and far more impressive, number.

This review first ran in the May 8th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Getting out from under the social media influence (review of Gabrielle Bluestone’s Hype)

Who needs a business plan when easy money can be made with a little social media savvy and a whole lot of chutzpah.

In our post-truth and lonely world, there’s no shortage of easy marks online for scammers, grifters and fraud artists to overpromise and then shamelessly underdeliver or deliver nothing at all.

Nothing is what thousands of partygoers got when they flew to the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival back in 2017. There was no Instagram-gold weekend with supermodels and celebrities on a private island. Instead, they wound up stranded in a gravel pit with nowhere to sleep, no shelter from the sun and nothing to eat but cheese slice sandwiches. Meanwhile, Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland was just offshore on a borrowed yacht living his best life thanks to other people’s money.

“Like most people, my first glimpse of the Fyre Festival was on Instagram,” says journalist Gabrielle Bluestone, who broke the story about the festival’s implosion in real time while working at VICE. “The slick commercial venture exploded onto America’s social media feeds in December of 2016, as hundreds of verified influencers – blue-check Instagram celebrities with tens of millions of combined followers – started posting the same ambiguous burnt sienna square, suggesting their fans #joinme by purchasing tickets to the mysterious event.

“The festival organizers who had hired the internet stars to promote the event were promising ticket buyers ‘two transformative weekends’ of fabulous luxury on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar, where they’d be flown in on private jets, pampered by a dedicated wellness team and nourished with meals designed by celebrity chef Stephen Starr.”

Along with scamming thousands of ticket buyers, McFarland defrauded investors of $27.4 million. He’d eventually be charged with wire fraud and sentenced to six years in federal prison.

In her book Hype, Bluestone also takes a critical look at Insta-famous influencers like Danielle Bernstein and Caroline Calloway who fuel the hype machine.

Bernstein is a 20-something fashion influencer and founder of WeWoreWhat, an Instagram page with more than 2.5 million followers. She gets $15,000 per post to flog brands on her site.

“In a sense, she’s the version of me that I (and many other millennial women) could be if I weren’t too lazy to work out regularly, if I had an unlimited clothing budget, fashion sense and a general lack of shame around dancing in public,” says Bluestone.

“Calloway was someone who was clearly determined to become famous, but her goals didn’t appear to extend all that far beyond her follower count.” She pitched a mini-version of the Fyre Festival, inviting her 800,000-plus followers to sign up for cross-country $165 writing workshops, with the added bonus of handwritten notes in personalized journals, home-cooked salads and wildflower gardens to take home, which Bluestone says is “Influencer-speak for a bouquet of flowers in a mason jar.”

The pandemic may be making us more immune to hype and helping us remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Attention-seeking celebrities and affirmation-needy influencers who lounged in their McMansions or jetted off to parties and island vacations while telling us that we’re #inthistogether have come under increasing fire for being tone-deaf and self-absorbed. Once-faithful fans and followers who’ve been laid off, let go and holed up in studio apartments are pushing back, prompting tearful sorry / not sorry apologies from misunderstood influencers who seem too sad to even get out of bed.

“If any good can even be said to come of something like this pandemic, I think it was that it stripped away a lot of our everyday artifices,” says Bluestone. “And it turned a lot of cynical forgone conclusions into open-ended questions. What do we really need to survive in this world? To thrive? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? What truly matters when every day is an emergency? Unfortunately, the celebrities did not get the memo.”

This review first ran in the April 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

4 ways to send & receive far fewer emails (review of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email)

A world without email seems like an impossible, beautiful dream.

But a world with far fewer emails?

That’s doable and Cal Newport knows the way. The Georgetown University computer science professor has spent five years studying how email affects us at work.

To no one’s surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. Research shows email makes us less productive and more miserable. On average, we’re checking our inboxes every six minutes. It’s tough to get important work done when we’re constantly distracted and interrupted. Email is not a job but sending and receiving messages are eating up whatever time we have left between Zoom meetings.  

“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email. “At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”

Here are four ways to tame our inboxes and free up time to actually do our jobs.

Limit emails to five sentences or less. Stick to short questions, answers and updates. If you want a conversation, pick up the phone, go on Zoom or walk down the hall. “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule but the effect can be profound,” says Newport. “Once you no longer think of email as a general purpose tool for talking about anything at any time its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.”

Create shared email accounts for departments and projects rather than individual accounts for people. “By eliminating this connection between email and people, you will, with one grand gesture, destabilize everyone’s expectations about how communication should unfold, making it much easier for you to rebuild these expectations from scratch with a protocol that makes more sense.”

To eliminate all those “just checking in to see where we’re at” emails, hold 15-minute scrums with your team. Meet daily or every other day and have everyone answer three questions. What did I get done since our last meeting? Have I run into any obstacles? What will I do before our next scrum?

“These short meetings can significantly reduce ad hoc email or instant message interaction throughout the day, as everyone synchronizes during the regular gathering,” says Newport. “It is surprising how much overwhelming, attention-fracturing back-and-forth interaction can be compressed into a frequent schedule of very short check-ins.”

And finally, borrow from emergency rooms and introduce a tracking board. Put the board up on a wall or get an online version. Write tasks on cards, including who’s responsible for getting the job done. Then stack the cards under three columns: to do, doing and done. Hold regular meetings to review and update your tracking board. Digital task boards will let you store messages directly on the cards, eliminating the need for email.

“If you’re one of the many millions exhausted by your inbox, hopeful that there must be a better way to do good work in a culture currently obsessed by constant connectivity, then it’s time to open your eyes.” Newport shows us a world where we can curb constant digital distractions and regain the cognitive bandwidth to do important work by putting some thought into how we communicate with each other. “I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for the coming revolution.”

Sign me up.

This review first ran in the April 10 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Serve up community in your post-pandemic lunch room (review of The Lonely Century)

Putting communal tables in your lunchroom may be your best post-pandemic recruitment and retention strategy.

To fill those tables, encourage everyone to break for lunch. Discourage us introverts from always eating “al desko.”  Introduce dig-in potlucks and occasionally splurge on ordering in a meal. Keep smartphones out of the lunchroom so we look up, look around and strike up conversations with our coworkers. And make cleaning the lunchroom a shared responsibility. If you’re the leader, volunteer for the first week of cleaning duty. 

“Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit in the workplace,” says Noreena Hertz, academic, thought leader and author of The Lonely Century. “So as companies seek to rebuild a sense of community and help their staff to reconnect after months of forced distancing, reinstituting a formal lunch break – ideally at a set time – and encouraging workers to eat together should form part of their strategy.”

This is especially important if you’re looking to hire and hold on to 20-somethings. Hertz says this demographic, despite all their friends and followers on social media, is among the loneliest in society and the group most craving connection and community. More than half of Gen Zs in the workforce report feeling emotionally distant from their colleagues.

The rest of us aren’t faring much better. Forty per cent of office workers worldwide say they feel lonely. In the US, nearly one in five people don’t have a single friend at work,

According to Hertz, there was a loneliness epidemic long before the pandemic hit. And there’s a good chance our social recession will continue when the pandemic’s behind us thanks to advances in technology.

Hertz isn’t optimistic the booming loneliness economy will save us. That economy includes everything from RentAFriend and increasingly lifelike social robots to mukbang – the practice of watching someone eat on-screen while you eat alone at home.

We’re also commercializing community, even though it’s something you make rather than buy or have done for you. Yet community’s increasingly packaged and sold like a product. “If you can’t pay enough, you are not invited in. There is a real danger that community becomes something increasingly accessible only to the privileged. That loneliness becomes a disease that only the wealthy have a chance to cure.”

Hertz recommends we reinvest in public spaces that bring everyone together while also rolling back taxes and offering incentives to pro-community enterprises, like neighbourhood bookstores and cafes that are getting pummeled by online retailers

We also need to reconnect capitalism with care and compassion, says Hertz. A self-obsessed and self-seeking form of hustle harder bootstrap capitalism has “normalized indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has, at best, marginalized values such as solidarity, community, togetherness and kindness.”

So now’s a good time to add kindness to your organization’s list of core values. And during your communal lunches, take a few minutes to recognize and reward colleagues for their small, but hugely important, acts of community-building and loneliness-busting kindness.

In a post-pandemic world with rampant loneliness and isolation, it’ll be the friendly, kind and caring organizations that have a definite competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining good people.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to avoid a climate disaster (review)

My mom put gas in her car for the first time since November and she doesn’t drive a hybrid.

The pandemic’s parked cars and planes the world over. Many of us have spent the past year working from home and we’ve gone nowhere beyond the grocery store. Yet it’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions have only dropped by around five per cent during our global lockdown.

Here’s our collective problem. To save our kids and grandkids from a climate catastrophe, experts say we need a permanent 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And we need to get to zero while keeping the economy firing on all cylinders and pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. 

“What’s remarkable to me is not how much emissions went down because of the pandemic but how little,” writes Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates in his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. “This small decline in emissions is proof that we cannot get to zero emissions simply or even mostly by flying and driving less.

“Just as we needed new tests, treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus, we need new tools for fighting climate change: zero-carbon ways to produce electricity, make things, grow food, keep our buildings cool and warm and move people and goods around the world.”

We’re currently pumping around 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Nearly a third of those emissions come from making things like steel, concrete and plastic. Generating electricity accounts for 27 per cent. Growing crops and raising livestock represent 19 per cent. Getting around by planes, trucks, ships and cars add 16 per cent. And the remaining 7 per cent comes from heating and cooling homes and buildings.

“If a genie offered me one wish, a simple breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity,” says Gates. In the absence of a genie, we’ll need a combination of affordable, zero-carbon renewable energy sources to replace the coal, oil and natural gas that currently generates most of our electricity.

Finding alternatives to the 15 billion litres of gas we consume each and every day and eliminating 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be wickedly hard to pull off.

“We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar,” says Gates. “To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like – in other words, to change completely and also stay the same.”

Yet Gates remains optimistic that we’ll find our way to zero. He says we can avoid disaster by fully deploying the technologies we already have and creating breakthrough innovations that’ll take us the rest of the way. He’s confident enough citizens, scientists, engineers, business leaders and politicians will rise to the challenge and put up a sustained full-court press.

Gates acknowledges that “the world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do or who think technology can fix any problem”.  Yet Gates has put forward a practical and accessible plan that he’s personally backing with a sizeable chunck of his $130 billion net worth.    

“We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050. It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 then spending the next 10 years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Stop sharing and cut to the chase (review of Joel Schwartzberg’s Get to the Point!)

Sharing is caring unless you’re sharing a few thoughts.

And then it’s exhausting for us and a wasted opportunity for you.

Buried in your thoughts may well be an idea that’ll make our world a better place.  But we’re not waiting around to hear about your big idea if you can’t cut to the chase.

“Effective communication hinges on one job and one job only: moving your point from your head to your audiences,” says Joel Schwartzberg, author of Get to the Point: Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter.

“That’s the ball game. If you deliver your point, you succeed. If you don’t deliver your point, you fail – even if you’re otherwise hilarious, friendly, attractive, relatable, admirable, knowledgeable and likable.”

If you struggle to get your ideas into other people’s heads, you likely suffer from a fatal yet fixable flaw. “It’s a flaw that contributes directly to nervousness, rambling and, ultimately, epic failure, and most speakers have no idea that this flaw is ruining their presentations,” says Schwartzberg.  “They don’t have a point. They have what they think is a point, but it’s actually something much less. Without a point, everything you say is pointless.”

Schwartzberg says we lose audiences when we confuse a point with a theme, topic, title, catchphrase or half-baked idea. “None of these are actual points. A point is a contention you can propose, argue, defend, illustrate and prove. A point makes clear its value and its purpose. And to maximize its impact, a point should be sold, not just shared or described.”

To help find your point and sharpen your message, Schwartzberg has a three-step test.

Start by tacking “I believe that” to the front end of your point. Do you have a complete sentence that makes sense?

The “so what” test saves you from peddling weak and self-evident truisms that’ll bore your audience. “You can tell if your point is too shallow or a truism by asking two questions,” says Schwartzberg. “Is there a reasonable counterpoint? Can I spend more than a minute defending this point?”

And the “why” test purges your point of meaningless and lazy words, or what Schwartzberg calls badjectives. “These are generic adjectives that only add dead weight to your point. When we say something is ‘great’ or ‘very good’, there’s little indication of scale, reason or specific meaning. Yet speeches and written reports – and more than a few tweets – are often loaded with badjectives.”  So instead of saying something’s important, tell us why it matters and why we should care.

Now more than ever, we need to be kind to our colleagues by cutting to the chase in our presentations, conversations, meetings, emails and voicemails. All of us are running on fumes 11 months into the pandemic. And none of us have the patience or mental bandwidth to hop on a slow train taking the scenic route to nowhere. So if you truly care, please don’t share. Just get to the point and stick the landing.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. This review first ran in the Feb. 13 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

What’s luck got to do with it? Pretty much everything (review of Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit)

Three things have yet to happen as I hit the 28-year mark in my career.

I’ve never been laid off, fired or had a daily commute beyond 20 minutes.

What’s been the secret to my success?

Dumb luck and good fortune.

I’ve been blessed with patient bosses who’ve believed in second and third chances. I’ve worked with kind colleagues who’ve had my back and shown me the ropes. And when it’s been time to move on, a local employer always posted a job that somehow matched my skills and experience.

Around the same time I started on this 28-year run of good luck, Michael Sandel noticed a trend among the students he taught at Harvard.

“Beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present, more and more of my students seem drawn to the conviction that their success is their own doing, a product of their effort, something they have earned,” says Sandel, author of The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. “Among the students I teach, this meritocratic faith has intensified.”

That faith is a problem because it leads to both hubris and humiliation.  The winners in a meritocracy fool themselves into believing they deserve the good life. They’ve earned their pay, perks, performance bonuses, golden handshakes and the right to fly off and lay on a beach during a pandemic.

“Meritocratic hubris reflects the tendency of winners to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way,” says Sandel. “It is the smug conviction of those who land on top that they deserve their fate and that those on the bottom deserve theirs, too.”

So we don’t lose sleep over growing income inequality and widening gaps between winners and losers. We’re not outraged when we hear that Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs made 202 times what the average worker earned in 2019. If anything, we’re a little envious and hopeful that, with the same drive and determination, we too will get a fair shot at grabbing the brass ring.

“The notion that your fate is in your hands, that ‘you can make it if you try,’ is a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way but invidious in another. It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes. For those who can’t find work or make ends meet, it is hard to escape the demoralizing thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed.”

The end result is an abandonment of the common good. The smug winners in a meritocracy are indifferent to those who are struggling. The demoralized losers are grow resentful of elites and throw their support behind populist leaders.

So what’s our solution? Sandel says we need to start appreciating the dignity of essential frontline workers in places like hospitals, long-term care homes and grocery stores. If these workers left their posts to join senior executives on the beach, we’d all be in serious trouble. Yet in a meritocracy, there’s rampant credentialism. We’re told that the only way to realize our full and true potential is by earning a degree or diploma. This diminishes both the value of work that doesn’t require a credential and worth of the people doing these jobs.

We also need to rediscover a much-needed sense of humility. It’s time we remember how to count our blessings.

“A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility. Such humility is the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond a tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.  

“Why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due,” says Sandel.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Ditch the presentation & have a conversation (review of Eric Bergman’s One Bucket at a Time)

There’s only one good reason to bring us together for a meeting on Zoom or in a room.

Walking us through PowerPoint decks isn’t it.

“The only reason for bringing people together, whether in person or remotely, is to listen to someone share something of value,” says Eric Bergman, presentation skills coach and author of One Bucket at a Time.

“The secret to success is simple,” says Bergman. “Bring meaningful content. Deliver that content in a memorable way. If you do, you significantly increase your chances of informing, educating, influencing or persuading anyone.”

PowerPoint makes it hard to share something of value in a memorable way for two reasons.

We can’t listen to you and read your slides at the same time. Ask us to both and we’ll do neither.  During virtual meetings, we’ll mute our mics, turn off our cameras, minimize our Zoom screens and beg off because of conveniently unstable internet connections. When we finally return to meeting rooms, we’ll revert to our pre-pandemic habit of staring at our phones or off into space.

PowerPoint also makes it easy to bury audiences in ideas and information. But we can’t absorb more than one idea at a time. Run us through 60 bullet-ridden and chart-stuffed slides in 45 minutes and you’ll overload our short-term working memory. Nothing will transfer over and stick in our long-term memory. You’ll tell us everything but we’ll remember nothing.

So if you have something worth sharing, try saying it without PowerPoint. It’ll be a leap of faith but trust that we’ll love you for it, remember what you say and act on what you tell us.

“Without slides, there can be a presentation,” says Bergman. “Without a presenter, there is no presentation. Successful presenters understand this. They know that capitalizing on how people listen is the key to their success – to having their ideas understood, absorbed, remembered and acted upon.”

Successful companies also get it.  At LinkedIn, a document formatted in PowerPoint’s landscape mode goes out at least 24 hours before a meeting. There’s no discussion until everyone’s read the document. “Slides are never presented to the group. Instead the focus in on discussion, a process that distinctly separates the written word from the spoken.”

Amazon’s eliminated slideware presentations altogether.  Meetings start with everyone reading a six-page memos written with complete sentences and paragraphs rather than bullet points. “The six-page memo provides a deep context of what’s going to be discussed. When everyone is ready, discussion begins. Questions are asked and answered. A decision is made.” Ditching PowerPoint doesn’t seem to be holding Amazon back.

Converting presentations into structured conversations requires you to welcome questions from start to finish. Never force audiences to sit in silence until you’ve finished talking.

“The simplest way to breathe life into modern presentations is to create an equal, engaging partnership with the audience by encouraging and answering their questions,” says Bergman. “Give them a chance to probe your ideas. The simple exercise of them asking questions helps cement those ideas into part of who they are. When that happens, they’ll be applying those ideas long after you and they have left the room.”

Answering questions clearly and concisely is a skill that can be learned. “Whenever an answer extends for more than 10 words, you’re making assumptions about what’s important to whoever asked the question. If all answers extend beyond 20 seconds, don’t be surprised if they simply quit asking.”

Many of us are closing in on our first anniversary of working from home. One way to combat Zoom fatigue is to have a little less information and a little more conversation in 2021. Bergman can help make that happen.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.