A Six Million Dollar Employee

What would you do if you lost both your legs?

Bounce Back

When teenage rock climbing phenom Hug Herr lost his legs in 1982, he used the “tragedy” as a springboard into an exceptional life.

In 1982 Herr was an average student and world-class rock climber. That was before he got caught in a blizzard that took one friend’s life and the lower part of his two legs.  A few months later, he was ascending the rock face with his homemade prosthetic legs.  Soon, he was modifying his prosthetics to do things human legs couldn’t. He made those early devices of wood using the rudimentary skills he learned in shop class. Now, Professor Herr leads the Biometrics Research group at the MIT Media Lab where they design Star War’s style prosthetics. These new, sleek robotics are made of alloys, powered by batteries and biodynamics, and are guided by sophisticated software. Herr now says he feels bad for people who have to make do with their human legs.

Put on a New Pair of Glasses

Everyone gets their share of lemons in life – some get a boatload, and some get a just a bushel. But, as Mr. Herr’s story illustrates, it’s not how many lemons you get – it’s how you use them that counts. What happens in our lives often matters less than how we interpret our experiences.  Experiences in themselves are not always inherently positive or negative. Researcher Barbara Frederickson found that people with a 3/1 ratio of positive to negative experiences a day feel a sense of well-being. On average, Americans’ positivity ratio is somewhere around 2/1, which may account for the level of discontent in American organizations. Like many researchers before her, Frederickson emphasizes that whether a person experiences a ratio of 2/1 or 5/1 actually depends on what they notice and how they interpret it.

Debbie Versus Harry

Various streams of research suggest that discontent has as much to do with personality and personal expectations as it does with reality.  Some personalities believe that “bad” things are just bound to happen to them, and despite how hard they try, they can’t affect their outcomes. People like this learn less, overcome fewer challenges, and are in poorer health than their more optimistic peers. Besides that, these Debbie Downers are just hard to be around. In contrast, Happy Harries see failures as learning opportunities – as obstacles to overcome. To these folks, problems are temporary, situational, and solvable. That’s how they explain things to themselves. Consequently, they learn more, overcome greater challenges, and get things done. People enjoy being around them too.  So one big reason why some people “fail” and flounder interminably is their explanatory style – they see themselves either as strong protagonists in their world or as backstage hands.

Be Realistic

Negative emotions can also be rooted in unrealistic expectations. When life events match our expectations, we tend to feel satisfied.  When our life goals are met, we tend to feel positive about ourselves. But when life doesn’t match up, look out!

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues linked Americans’ “happiness” to three things:

  • A positive life evaluation, which is largely based on whether a person has met his long-term goals,
  • A sense of emotional well-being, which comes primarily from strong relationships, and
  • A $60,000 salary, regardless of the local cost of living.

Organizational leaders need to be concerned with positivity and “happiness” because it affects team productivity and ultimate success. Attitudes, both positive and negative, are quite literally contagious.  Happy Harries are more resilient and accomplish more and continually improve.  As they succeed, so does the organization.

So, what can managers do to drive their teams’ positivity ratio closer to 6/1 where high-performing teams hang-out?  One solution is to hire teams full of people like Hugh Herr – smart, positive, resilient problem solvers who work hard.  He is a Six Million Dollar Man!  Given a huge budget, an exceptional recruiting program, and a strong personnel assessment process, you just might find another “six million dollar man.” Realistically though, there are few people exactly like Hugh Herr out there to found. But there are million-dollar people to be found, and here is what you can do to find and keep them.

  • Invest wisely in your candidate assessment and selection process. Psychologists have refined tools for determining the fit between a person and the workplace. Personality assessments cut through the masks people wear to distinguish the real Happy Harries from the pretenders.
  • Build relationships with your team members, and encourage them to build relationships in the workplace.
  • Frame situations for employees to help them see opportunities and the big picture.  Of course, this will require you to develop a positive perspective yourself as well.
  • Set challenging, realistic goals with people based on their talents and the situation.
  • Ensure that people have positive experiences at work, especially success in completing their work duties.
  •  Communicate clearly what people can and should expect in and from their workplace.
  •  Learn to genuinely appreciate people, and be generous in how you show your appreciation.

Managers who make a habit of doing these things find their team members acting a lot more like Hugh Herr than a huge mistake.

Easier said than done though, isn’t it? Most managers are everyday folks who struggle to get through the challenges of the day – putting out fires and responding to whatever is thrown at them. Leadership is very demanding; don’t toil away all by yourself!  If you’re striving to do more with your leadership or your team, reach out to your fellow leaders and to Credo Consulting for some support. Wise managers know that leadership is not a solo sport: it’s a team sport.

Research References

Diener, E., Kahneman, D., Tov, W., & Arora, R. (2009). Income’s Differential Influence on Judgments of Life Versus Affective Wellbeing. Assessing Wellbeing. Oxford, UK: Springer

Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Losada, Marcial F. American Psychologist, Vol 60(7), Oct 2005, 678-686. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678