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People Pointers: 

People Pointers are short tidbits of information about various topics of interest to managers and supervisors.  They were originally developed as newsletter comments.  They cover the following topics: 

          Human Resources Cost Accounting 
          Job Satisfaction and Attendance 
          Lake Wobegon Effect 
          Reducing Stress (parts 1, 2, and 3) 
          Fundamental Attribution Error 
          Organizational Commitment 
          Perception of Mistreatment 
          Organizational Stress


 Burnout is a problem for many organizations.  Its symptoms include physical fatigue, emotional flatness, a lack of caring for the job, and a desire to quit.  Burnout is not really connected to work overload (car mechanics have a heavy workload but rarely experience burnout).  Burnout occurs when people take responsibility for outcomes outside their control (such as nurses taking the death of patients personally).  To prevent burnout, people need to take responsibility for that over which they have control.  Car mechanics can take responsibility for the outcome of their work -- if they do their job properly, the car functions correctly.  But many professions are not directly accountable for results.  For these people, responsibility needs to be for that over which they have direct control -- the manner in which they do their job.  Companies can help their employees keep the focus on the job rather than outcomes by rewarding workers whose work habits are exemplary rather than rewarding results which occur only indirectly from exemplary work.  For sales people, for instance, rewarding employees who make lots of cold calls may be more beneficial than rewarding those who score a big sale. 


Cost accounting the human capital investments is less common in business than cost accounting for the non-human capital investments.  Most companies lose more money from human capital mismanagement than from non-human capital mismanagement.  Few companies have a bottom line of cost per employee.  This is particularly true if these employees are at the bottom layer of the wage scale.  The cost of the turnover-hiring-training cycle is rarely calculated.  These costs include lost productivity during the waning days of the exiting employee's tenure, lost productivity during the interim time, cost of advertising the position, cost of screening applicants, cost of adding and subtracting names from payroll (which includes preparing and sending large numbers of government forms), lost productivity during the entry phase, lost productivity of those who provide on-the-job training to the new employee, as well as the cost of processing benefits.  Keeping track of the actual cost of employees can actually save companies money in the long run by pointing out where problems may exist that need to be remedied. 


The assumption is that "happy workers are productive workers".  While there is a modest relationship between job satisfaction and productivity, the real relationship is "happy workers come to work".  In most companies, it is important that employees attend every day.  When an employee calls off work, the entire workplace productivity is reduced, since other employees have to cover for the missing employee, thus getting less of their work done.  This means that keeping workers "happy" ensures that the standard work flow will continue.  The usual ways of handling absenteeism (warnings) tend to reduce employees' satisfaction with their job, leading to increased absenteeism.  Rewarding people who have perfect attendance (by paying a 10-cent an hour bonus or giving these people choice parking spaces) can help increase attendance in a positive fashion.  Helping employees who are habitually absent learn how to handle the normal crises of daily living can also help increase attendance and at the same time increase their job satisfaction.  Everybody wins! 


People value that which they do well and tend not to notice that which they do poorly.  This explains the "Lake Wobegon" effect:  most workers think of themselves as above average.  A problem often occurs when managers try to get employees to do their full job, which includes things that the employee does less well.  A way to address this concern is to use the employee's strengths to solve the problem of that which is a weakness.  Acknowledge that the employee is above average in strengths and ask his/her input in a problem-solving mode to help devise strategies to ensure that the job aspects currently getting low priority get a higher priority.  This reduces defensiveness on the part of the employee and helps her/him realize the value of a task which tends to be done poorly.  It also increases the likelihood that the solution developed will be practiced.  As people practice skills, they get better at them, taking pride in doing the whole job well. 


 Too much stress is the primary complaint of most Americans.  There are several tactics that help people cope with all the pressures of modern-day life.  Two powerful tactics are: 
           1. Snags are expected, not surprises
           2. Snags are challenges, not threats

 Snags happen all the time: there is snow in the winter, there is road construction the rest of the year, computers crash, machines break down, tires go flat, people get sick.  When any of these things happen, it is not a surprise – we knew it would happen from time to time.  Treating these snags like surprises doesn’t get us anywhere except angry.  Instead, when they happen, we need to remind ourselves that snags occur periodically.  While it isn’t helpful for us to be constantly on the lookout for problems, it is helpful to recognize that we expect them and not waste our time being surprised. 

 Snags are not threats, they are challenges.  When we treat snags as threats, we get angry and defensive and we waste our time venting our rage.  If we treat snags like challenges, we are focused on solving a problem, not letting it destroy us.  Snags become a type of game, a puzzle, an adventure.  When we figure out how to undo the damage done by the snag, or to determine a way around the problem, then we are proud of our accomplishment. 

 These two tactics take practice.  But after intentionally thinking this way every time something goes wrong, we eventually begin to think this way out of habit.  Once that happens, our stress level goes way down and we discover we are enjoying life a lot more.  Try it – you’ll like it! 


Stress is a normal part of life.  But it makes life difficult for us when we experience too much stress.   When we are faced with difficult situations, we engage in a two-part process in which we appraise the situation and our ability to respond. 

 The first thing we unconsciously do when faced with a difficult situation is to decide whether the situation is personally threatening to us (primary appraisal).  If we decide it is personally threatening, then we have to move into secondary appraisal, where we determine what coping resources we can use to handle the threat. 

 The problem for most Americans is that we immediately assume most situations are personally threatening, which then means we have to figure out how to cope.  We all have an adequate supply of coping resources.  However, we use up too many of our coping resources handling situations that are not really personally threatening.  Then, when we have something really difficult to handle, we are out of coping resources.  And at that point, we tend to get stress-related illnesses. 

 So a trick to handle stress is to not get stressed in the first place. 
 When faced with a possibly difficult situation, we need to consciously ask ourselves whether it is personally threatening to us.  In other words, take the primary appraisal out of our unconscious and make it conscious.  With each situation we experience, we need to intentionally ask ourselves, “Is this really personally threatening?” 

 Usually the answer is no.  For instance, our family’s problems are not personally threatening to us, only to those we care about.  We are less able to help them cope with their problems if we are trying to cope with our own stress about their problems.  So a good response to someone else’s problem is to acknowledge that it is not my problem.  Then we can be supportive and helpful because we aren’t stressed ourselves. 

 Another example: things at work get really hectic.  That is often not a personally threatening situation.  If we can remind ourselves that the situation is not really personally threatening, we can stop the stress process before it starts.
 iIn Part 3, we’ll look at coping tactics (secondary appraisal) for those few situation that are personally threatening.  In the meantime, practice saying “that is not a personally threatening situation” whenever you start to feel stressed. 


In part two of Reucing Stress (above), the two-part parocess that we use when faced with a potentially threatening situation was described.  Our first reaction, called primary appraisal, raises the question of whether the situation is actually personally threatening.  As discussed in part two, a good way to reduce stress is to answer "no, the situation is not personally threatening."  If we an realize that the situation is not personally threatening, then we don't even start the stress process. 

But sometimes the situation is personally threatening.  We had to answer "yes" to primary appraisal.  When we answer "yes", we then move to secondary appraisal, which is "what coping resources do I use to address this situation?" 

Many of us only have one coping resource, so we overuse it, and use it in inappropriate situatins.  In addition to leaning to say "no" to primary appraisal, we may need to expand our repertoire of coping resources so that we have more options from which to choose. 

There are three basic types of coping resources:  thought-focused, problem-focused, and emotional focused. 

Thought-focused tactics involve changing the way we look at the situation.  Many times a situation is personally threatening, but it is not catastrophic in consequences.  If we can recognize that the worst that can happen in not earth-shaing, we are often more able to cope.  Another though-focused tactic concerns looking at the situation from a different angle.  A third tactic involves seeing thesituation as a learning opportunity, a chance to grow and develop.  As an example, when faced with a lay-off which is going to reduce the family income for a while, a thought-focused tactic would see this as a chance to spend time doing some major chores around the house that have been put off, or a chance to spend time on leisure pelasures that often get put aside during the hectic pace of ordinary work weeks.  Another thought focus-ed tacitc is to remind oneself that the layoff is temporary and won't result inlosing the house or car, just giving up some movies and restaurant meals. 

Problem-focused tactics address the situation head-on and find ways of changing it.  To use problem-focused tactics, one has to first describe the problem accurately.  For instance, in a lay-off situation, the problem is not having lost one's job with no money available, the problem is having to make-do for a short period of time on a reduced income.  Once the problem is accurately defined, the next step is to create as many fanciful solutions as possible.  Too often, we shut down the solution process because we say "that is ridiculous" or "that is impossible".  Instead, we need to think of as many silly solutions as possible.  At some point, a new, but reasaonable, solution will come to mind, one which would not have occurred without the faniciful thinking first.  Once a solution has surfaced, the person is not longer stressed because he/she is working on making the solution happen. 

Emotion-focused tactics are useful when no amount of rethining can change the stressful situation's impact and the problem cannot be solved.  Then emotion-focused tactics help us cope with the inevitable.  These tactics include crying and physically punching something like a pillow (not a person).  Another emotion-focused tactic is physical excercise, which helps reduce the strain of stress.  Often, telling someone else who listens and accepts the frustrations makes the situation bearable.  Many times, just being held or touched by a caring friend or loved one makes it easier to handle a situation.  Another really helpful emotion-focused tactic is to find something funny in the situation and laugh.  When we can laugh at something which is awful, it feels less awful. 

If you find yourself feeling stressed a lot, and your really do having something to be stressed about, pick a couple of different tactics than the ones you have been using.  Working at learning to use another tactic in and of itself will reduce the stress because your mind will be on the learning instead of the problem. 


When we observe the behavior of other people, we attempt to make sense of it 
by explaining it to ourselves -- this is called the attribution process. But 
most of us make the Fundamental Attribution Error by assuming that the person is the reason for the behavior, rather than also considering the possibility that 
it was something in the situation that caused or contributed to the behavior. 

When we think that someone is lazy, for example, we need to ask ourselves what other possible reasons might create that behavior that we interpreted as lazy. Much employee-boss tension could be reduced if bosses checked out other possibilities for poor work behavior besides the assumption that the employee lacks some characteristic of value. 

Many times, the reason for the apparent poor work behavior is machine- or 
organization-related. Managers who think of other possible explanations can then check out these possibilities with the mis-performing employee, thereby preventing conflict and proactively addressing a problem. 


Committed employees tend to stay with a company, thus reducing the cost of turnover.  There are two types of commitment:  Continuance and Affective.  Continuance Commitment is created when people are so heavily invested financially in staying with the company that it would be a financial hardship for them to quit.  Affective Commitment is occurs when employees value the company and want to be part of it.  Both types of commitment reduce turnover.  But Affective Commitment is also positively related to productivity/performance and the willingness to do extra-work behavior to help the company and co-workers.  Affective Commitment is developed when companies help employees see their valued part in the total mission of the company. 


People tend to quit their jobs because of the treatment they receive at work, not to get a better paying job.  Most people make lateral job moves.  People routinely complain about their work.  But when these complaints reach a particular point, people tend to exit their jobs.  If exit interviews are done, management is usually amazed to hear complaints because bosses perceive themselves as going out of their way to be fair to employees.  A way to reduce the perception of ill-treatment is to explain management decisions to employees, describing how all possible options were considered.  Another way to reduce the perception of ill-treatment is for bosses to remember the employee is probably a person who takes pride in doing a job well; when there are problems, the employee is probably as disturbed by poor performance as is the boss.  Money is less of a motivator than is recognition.  In the hectic workday, bosses may forget to recognize a job well done, which employees tend to interpret as the boss taking good performance for granted.  Effective managers/supervisors mention specific things the employees do well on a frequent basis. 


Stress-related illnesses costs business billions in lost productivity.  There are three types of stress:  individual, individual-job misfit, and organizational.  Many companies offer individuals stress-management helps, such as learning to think in less stressful ways or developing meditation habits.  Sometimes companies will notice that the person is in the wrong job and move that person to a less stressful job.  But many companies forget to look at the possibilities of organizational stress.  If a large number of people in a particular job category suffer from stress, it may be helpful to assess the organizational stressors.  Organizational stressors could be in the layout of the office or factory; they could be the noise or lighting levels; they could be supervisory tactics; they could be communication patterns.  Helping individuals cope with stress won't really help if the stress is organizational in nature.  Addressing the organizational stress can often cost less than providing individual stress-management programs and may reduce the overall stress-level in the workplace 

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