Author Archives: courtney mcguigan

Good Ideas Come From Nothing

The blogs posted on the New York Times site The Opinionator always present an interesting view on the balance between work and life, The Stone series in particular. These discuss the impact of work-life busyness from philosophical, individual-psychological and also business perspectives. Many of the outcomes of busyness we focus on as Organisational Psychologists tend to be around the psychological aspects of lack of work-life balance (burnout, employee satisfaction, group conflict and mental well-being) but this constant busyness in employees work lives can also have a real impact on the innovation and market presence of an organisation.

Think about this; when was the last time you had a chance to ‘do nothing’ at work? And by do nothing I don’t just mean check your personal emails or tweet, but reflect on a piece of work, a project, or idea you have had and improve it? Many blogs in The Opinionator suggest that people, and the organisations they work for, tend to cram their days full of delivery, attending meetings and meeting deadlines. As a result, employees do not take the opportunity for reflection or creativity. In knowledge organisations that require the new ideas of their workers to remain competitive, this constant ‘treadmill’ approach may stifle these new ideas (as well as contribute to all the nasty psychological effects of lack of work-life balance).

The most well-known attempt to counteract this in a knowledge organisation is Google’s concept of ‘20% time’. This initiative allows those in creative/design roles to spend one day a week on projects that aren’t necessarily in their job descriptions. They can use the time as they wish, to develop something new or to improve something that is broken. Employees at Google blog about the direct impacts this time has on their products/services/tools and how this has improved our daily lives (and probably Google’s bottom-line!). There are technology-based organisations in New Zealand who also provide a similar concept for their employees and have successfully marketed new products as a result.

However, this is obviously a costly exercise, one that is likely to deter many organisations. While many organisations may balk at the thought of 20% of their wages budget not directly impacting the business, employees may actually spend this amount of time developing work-arounds for systems and processes that aren’t fixed because there is ‘no time’.  They may also be too ‘pushed for time’ that they do not take action on their passing ‘strokes of genius’ that may be great revenue earners for the business. The challenge will be for organisations to turn the ideas developed during this time of reflection into practical action, the other side of innovation. Organisations may also need to accept that many of these ideas may not translate into direct benefits for the organisation, but may indirectly improve business performance through professional development and employee engagement.

 Managing time for reflection, balance and innovation can have positive impacts for organisations and their members but it is a complex initiative to implement.

What are your thoughts on the concept of ‘free time’ in organisations? 

 Are there parameters that can be put around this concept to help turn great ideas into reality?


Career and Family: A Difficult Balance

A former colleague of mine recently shared a link to a very interesting article in The Atlantic, titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, and as a young professional women it caught my eye. This article, written by Anne-Marie Slaughter a State Department Director in the US, states that it is exceptionally hard to be a full-time employee at an executive level, and a parent. It suggests that women are often blamed for lack of professional success, when traditional work and career models make it difficult to achieve at an executive level.

In order to open up opportunities in the employment market, committing to tertiary education is a requirement for many occupations. Professional women tend to start off on their career paths quite favourably; in fact, participation rates at New Zealand universities suggest women may be more committed to higher education than men (13.4% and 10.7% respectively1).  However, following completion of university study women have lower employment rates than men and hold only 6.5% of Directorships in New Zealand (Najib & Roya 2008). Rather than looking to career structures, Slaughter believes that women are often blamed for “selling-out” and committing to their family rather than their career. New Zealand research suggests a similar perception is present here, with many Directors believing women don’t reach executive levels for reasons such as; family commitments, lack of aspiration for power, career choices, risk adversity and women’s unsuitability for director roles (Najib & Roya 2008).

Women that do hold professional positions are often encouraged to balance work and home life, and many people attest that younger professional women don’t need to choose between having a family and a career, they can have it all. However, Slaughter cites examples of such a “balance”:

 “Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, has a similar story. When she had two young children and a part-time law practice, she struggled to find enough time to write the papers and articles that would help get her an academic position. In her words:  “I needed a plan. I figured out that writing time was when my child was asleep. So the minute I put him down for a nap or he fell asleep in the baby swing, I went to my desk and started working on something—footnotes, reading, outlining, writing … I learned to do everything else with a baby on my hip”.

Slaughter herself also commuted to Washington to work for the whole week, “balancing” this with spending Saturday and Sunday doing chores and spending time with her two sons. Is this really considered work-life balance?

Many young professional women (and men) are disengaged by this concept of balancing work and home in such a way, often without fully reaching their career goals. Given global career shortages and lack of women in leadership, organisations need to find ways to keep talented young professionals in the workforce. Rather than blaming women for lack of career achievement Slaughter suggests a number of simple changes to job design that can help women (in fact anyone) achieve success and balance at work and home:

Change the culture of quantity vs. quality:

Many professional workplaces operate with a “fast-paced” culture of work more, travel more, stay late, work weekends. This is not conducive to working mothers, or in fact anyone who has out of work commitments that are not career-related! Rather than considering number of hours sitting in the office, organisations should view work quality as more important for professionals. Many professional roles don’t require someone to sit in one particular office from 8-6 every day of the week. Allowing parents the flexibility to work around childcare commitments (because for some reason school schedules don’t align with typical work hours!), while still ensuring they get their work done is key to engaging women professionals.

Reduce job related travel:

Given current technology capability (and the fact many professionals don’t enjoy work travel!) why are many jobs structured with travel as a key requirement? Many professional roles could be structured without work travel, or with limited work travel which is likely to appeal to anyone with ongoing commitments, especially those with children. Even considering school and public holiday clashes when scheduling work travel could make a role much more appealing for some parents.

Bring family values into the workplace:

To have a successful career, Slaughter believes many women have had to purposefully block their personal life from their professional life. Organisations need to change perceptions of family time within organisations, viewing family as important and beneficial rather than hindrances to a parents’s performance. Many studies have found that family friendly policies can improve not only perceived organisational performance but also share price. Other research has concluded that good family policies attract better talent, which in turn raises productivity.

While I wrote this blog to highlight ways for young professional women to achieve career and personal success these initiatives can benefit all employees. In fact they should; developing policies that only apply to one group of employees can backfire, particularly if an organisation does not change it’s underlying culture to become more considerate of employees personal lives. By changing the way organisations structure work, rather than blaming employees for lack of career success organisations can hold onto valuable professional female employees.

What does your organisation do to create flexibility for working parents?

What initiatives have worked and what haven’t?

Najib and Roya (2008): http://

1 statistics from

Keeping the Cup Full: Buffering against Stress and Burnout

“Is the cup half empty or half full”? People often ask this to determine whether someone has a positive or negative outlook on life, and often in response to a stressful situation.  Many theories related to employee well-being, stress and burnout look at an individual’s appraisal of the situation (i.e. their perception of whether the cup is half full or half empty) as the main influence in stress. Often, employees methods of coping may be considered maladaptive and in need of fixing, following the disease model of psychology.  However, Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources Model suggests that these individual factors do not operate in isolation; an individual’s environment and resources can greatly contribute to their levels of well-being (i.e. to what degree is the cup actually full).

To help protect the things they value, individuals build up a set of resources from their environment that help buffer against stress. While many core values are consistent among individuals (e.g. health, well-being, peace, family/whanau, self-preservation and a positive sense of self) they may also differ depending on personal beliefs, so the resources required to maintain well-being can differ among individuals.  Resources that people typically utilise in their work environment include:

  • Physical resources (e.g., computers, tools, car, mobile phone)
  • Condition resources (e.g., supportive work relationships, seniority at work)
  • Personal resources (e.g., key skills and personal traits, including self-efficacy and self-esteem)
  • Energy resources (e.g., knowledge, credit, drive and ambition).

Organisations are the provider of many of these resources and Hobfoll suggests that organisations should provide as many of these as possible; as individuals strive to protect the things they value at all costs, it is in an organisations best interests to operate in coordination with these values, or risk long-term effects such as burnout, breakdown, turnover and counterproductive work behaviour.

Hobfoll’s model is both a stress and motivational theory, it identifies how people might be impacted by stress, but also how individuals and organisations can respond to stress and protect individual resources. Studies have shown that losing resources is a key source of stress that can trigger further resource loss and stress, resulting in burnout and disengagement.  If an employee is starting to see their cup as “half-empty” they may have lost many of their coping mechanisms and be at risk of losing more. 

Limiting resource loss, building resources, and “keeping our cup full” is key for stress prevention. At an individual level, employees can “full their cup” by acknowledging and building their skills, confidence and knowledge. Organisations can also have a huge impact on the coping resources available to their teams and employees; they can provide supportive team environments, suitable leadership, comfortable working environments and adequate resources to complete a job without stress. In summary, both organizations and individuals have a part to play in improving employee well-being. The ideas discussed above are very general suggestions for helping employee “keep their cups full”.

What specific resources do you provide your employees to help buffer against stressful situations?

What do you encourage them to do to manager stressful situations?

Hobfoll, S. E., (2011). Conservation of resource caravans and engaged settings. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology,84, 116–122.

Westman, M., Hobfoll, S. E., Shoshi, C., Davidson, O. B., Laski, S., (2005). Organizational stress through the lens of Conservation of Resources (COR) theory. In: Exploring interpersonal dynamics. Perrewé, P. L. ,  Ganster, D.C. (Ed.); pp. 167-220., US: Elsevier Science/JAI Press.

Accentuate the Positive Part 2: Organisations

As a facilitator of organisational change have you ever been leading a workshop where participants get fixated on discussing what’s wrong with their organisation, rather than developing ideas to solve these problems? When presented with data about the organisation do your senior leaders immediately identify all the negative aspects of the organisation, but none of the positive? As emphasised in Paul Wood’s latest blog Accentuate the Positive, it is common for individuals to focus on the negative aspects of themselves, and their organisations. Regardless of the organisation in question, problems will always emerge if you look for them. Just as no individual is completely perfect, naturally no organisation is either. But on the flip side if you look for positives and possibilities within an organisation you will find them too. This then poses the question, is focusing on the negative or the positive going to be a more effective approach to Organisational Development (OD)?

 If building on individual strengths has a greater impact on performance than focusing on deficiencies (see Accentuate the Positive), it follows that focusing on an organisation’s strengths should have a greater impact on organisational performance. Change, based on the power of a positive focus, has been very successfully undertaken in many fields and in the field of OD through an approach called Appreciative Inquiry.  

 Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the key values of “openness” and “change through participation”. That is, through openly accepting every employee’s perception of the organisation and giving everyone the option to speak freely, then an organisation’s strengths and future potential can be revealed. It also suggests that the complexity of an organisation cannot be captured by just one employee’s perception, one survey’s results, or the state of the organisation at one point in time. Encouraging the ongoing participation of the entire organisation will allow each perception to be integrated in a deeper, multi-dimensional understanding of the organisation.

 Appreciative Inquiry takes a positive focus to organisational growth through the 4 D’s model:

 Define: Appreciative Inquiry starts by using targeted, carefully developed questions to explore the “positive core” or strengths of an organisation. This is facilitated through discussion, interviews and focus groups that are centred on learning, rather than on identifying problem issues.

 Discovery/Dream: Upon learning and appreciating the strengths of the organisation Appreciative Inquiry then focuses on exploring the possibilities these strengths can bring. This stage explores where an organisation can grow, and what it could look like in the future, regardless of the current organisational state.

 Design: Once the ideal future state is defined, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on designing initiatives that enable the organisation to get to their future state, leveraging of their strengths to increase success.

 Deliver: Put simply, Appreciative Inquiry believes success is about doing more of the good stuff, and targeting these strengths to achieve goals. 

 Appreciative Inquiry is a strengths-based approach for an organisation. It focuses on the possibilities and solutions, not on the problems or current situation. It encourages organisations to be future thinking, rather than defined by their current reality.

 After recently attending a workshop on Appreciative Inquiry I can see its benefits for culture change initiatives and even team and individual development. While there may currently be limited empirical research on its effectiveness (but numerous case studies, academic and practitioner advocates) I believe Appreciative Inquiry can be a very effective part of a multi-faceted approach to OD. Utilising Appreciative Inquiry to facilitate workshops, strategy discussions and communication of results could add a deeper level of understanding to traditional, more empirical, sources of data collection. If accompanied with trust and openness from management it could also ensure change processes start off on a positive foot. It may also encourage employees to focus on exploring possibilities, taking accountability and generating ideas for the future, rather than getting bogged down in how their immediate environment should be better.

 While there is often a tendency to focus on the negatives within an organisation, Appreciative Inquiry suggests that purposefully shifting this focus can create a deeper understanding of where an organisation can grow, and how it can use its existing resources, its strengths, to realise this change.

 Do you think Appreciative Inquiry has a part to play in OD strategies?

How will you encourage your organisation to realise its strengths and possibilities?

Leadership: Introverted does not mean ineffective

People often say that employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. While there could be some truth in this, is this phrase more reflective of the difficulty in finding the right “fit” between a leader and their team? What are the qualities of a good manager? How do these differ depending on the team? One of the Big Five personality factors that HR and I/O  practitioners often look to for answers on leadership “fit” is Introversion-Extroversion.  For those of us who are less familiar with these terms, introverts and extroverts draw their energy from different sources, either internally from reflection, or externally from other people (respectively). People from all walks of life can be either introverts or extroverts, and both styles have an equal proportion of strengths, and development areas.  Historically, Western society tends to favour extroversion, with a US study finding that 65% of Senior Corporate Executives perceive introversion to be a barrier to effective leadership (Grant, Gino and Hoffman 2010). Furthermore, there appears to be more individuals describing themselves as highly extroverted in executive level roles (60%), than in supervisory level roles (30%) (Ones and Dilchert 2009). Regardless of this social bias, every working style has strengths it can bring to leadership, as well as potential barriers to performance. There are situations where introverted leaders can make good bosses and can be more effective than their extroverted peers. 

Grant and colleagues (2010) suggest that while extroverts may be good at leading conversations, they may also strive to be the centre of attention and may dominate a discussion with their ideas. On the other hand, introverted leaders tend to be more skilled at managing the engagement of proactive or vocal teams as they tend to display more active listening skills and are more receptive to suggestions (Grant et al. 2010). Recent research by these authors assessed the impact leadership style (introversion/extroversion) and employee working style had on profits across a franchised organisation. They found that when employees weren’t proactive, extroverted leadership was associated with 16% higher profits compared to the franchise average. However, when employees are autonomous, or provide their own ideas, introverted leadership is associated with 14% higher profits than the franchise average.

These findings suggest that introverted leadership can directly influence bottom line outcomes, which contradicts the notion that only extroverts can be good leaders. It may indicate that introverted leadership is actually more of a competitive advantage than extroverted leadership in organisations relying on creative, proactive, and driven employees.   An introverted leadership style may encourage employees to provide their opinions and ideas for innovation. With a greater preference for listening and reflecting, introverted leaders may also make good coaches and may develop greater connections with employees by listening to their concerns, hopes and dreams. Their more reserved style may also suit more independent employees who like the autonomy to make their own decisions. While an extroverted leadership style has its benefits, developing innovation, assertiveness and accountability may be best facilitated by a more introverted style.  Introverts can rejoice (quietly of course!), that their introspective nature can be a competitive advantage!

What strengths do you think introverted leaders bring to the table? Given the choice, what leadership style would you prefer?


Grant, A. M., Gino, F., and Hofmann, D. A., (2010). The hidden advantages of a quiet boss. Harvard Business Review, Dec 2010.

Onez, D., Dilchert, S., (2009). How special are Executives? Industrial Organisational Psychology, 2009.

Take-home Technology: Is it the Scapegoat for Reduced Work-Life Balance?

It may be obvious for those reading this blog from a laptop/Blackberry in front of the TV or in the airport departure lounge, but using work technology out of office hours (take-home technology) can impact work-life balance.  A recent study by Park, Fritz and Jex (2011) suggests that using take-home technology impacts an individual’s ability to detach from work and consequently their wellbeing. Countless studies and anecdotal evidence also indicate a relationship between low work-life balance and fatigue, less positive work experiences, and lower overall life satisfaction. Does this mean we should be banning take-home technology to improve our work-life balance?

Not just yet say Park et al. (2011). Take-home technology appears to be just one contributor to the increasing lack of work-life balance. Other contributing factors like work-home segmentation preference and workplace segmentation culture may actually have a bigger impact on work-life balance.  Work-home segmentation is the degree to which people prefer their work and home lives to operate separately. Some people have a strong need/motivation for this, while others may be comfortable blurring the boundaries between work and home life. Workplace segmentation culture is the expectation (implicit or explicit) set in place by the organisation around acceptable work-life balance. These norms convey how expected or appropriate it is to work from home, attend evening functions or to call colleagues at home or work weekends.

Park et al. (2011) expected take-home technology to be a major factor in lack of work-life balance. However, work-home segmentation and workplace segmentation culture had the greatest impact on detachment from work, with take-home technology just exacerbating this relationship. For those who prefer to separate work and home life and/or those who feel they are expected to work from home, technology may make their existing feelings of low work detachment appear more prominent.

So, if banning technology isn’t the answer to work-life balance, what is? Park et al. (2011) suggest that identifying and addressing an individual’s work preferences may be part of the puzzle. Identifying those who prefer to keep work and home separate and helping them to physically and mentally detach from work may be valuable. This could include making changes to role design and workload. Addressing an individual’s ability to deal with ruminating thoughts, develop end of the day rituals, establish boundaries and take an action-focused approach to problems may also help.

Exploring the culture operating within a workplace may help gauge how appropriate it is for employees to detach from work. By understanding the organisation’s philosophy around take-home technology and asking the following questions, the value of a segmentation culture can be ascertained.

1)      Is this expectation of work-life balance required of everyone?

2)      What message is this level of work-life balance sending?  To current employees? To future employees?

3)      Is it contributing to business effectiveness (remembering that lack of work-life balance can impact on engagement and satisfaction as well as hard costs like turnover and absenteeism)

4)      Can we strike a balance between effectiveness and wellbeing for those who need to use take-home technology?

Improving work-life balance isn’t as simple as putting take-home technology on a “black list”. It involves exploring each individual’s workplace needs, understanding organisational culture and developing targeted solutions to enable people to “switch off” from work. However, “switching off” from technology from time to time may not be a bad thing either!

Leadership Development: Have We Cut Off Our Nose To Spite Our Face?

With an interest in NZ’s upcoming leadership week I read an interesting article suggesting that some organisations have inadvertently reduced their future leadership pool over recent years. In response to a changing economic environment, a need to reduce costs, and the tendency to follow stringent leadership models, organisations may have reduced their ‘leadership pipeline’ by:

  • Downsizing and removing potential leaders from the organisation
  • Allowing potential leaders to become de-motivated by lack of investment or recognition of their skills
  • Promoting people into leadership based on narrow criteria, or no criteria at all.

While times may have been tough for many organisations, the “war for talent” is gathering momentum and presenting organisations with challenges around securing key talent and leadership. So, how can organisations recognise and rebuild future leadership? What makes a great future leader?

The article suggested that organisations need to strategically focus on identifying leaders.  Research cited from the recent CE/Hewlett leadership study indicated that 91% of Top 20 companies for leadership have clear processes for identifying future leaders. Such programmes enable people with potential to be developed and nurtured. It also sends a clear message to potential employees that talent is recognised and rewarded within the company. The article also suggested taking a much broader focus when identifying future leaders, particularly finding employees who have ‘LIVED’.  The ‘LIVED’ Leadership acronym outlined in the article identifies a broader criteria for leadership potential:

L – Learning:  the ability to adapt and develop based on experiences

I – Intellect: the ability to reason at strategic level and have commercial and common sense

V – Values: having values and motivation that align with the organisation

E – Emotion: showing high levels of emotional intelligence and ability to understand people

D – Drive: the ability to engage and motivate others into action, including passion and tenacity.

Are there employees in your organisation who are flexible and adaptive? Do you know employees who drive their colleagues to ‘walk the talk’? Are they able to engage and motivate others? You may have potential leaders who have LIVED!

To read this article please go to: