S 4 E10

April 7th, 2021

EPISODE 10: The Surprising Power of Autonomy for Improving Organizational Performance

In this episode of Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock welcomes Kristina Morton; Vice President Human Resources, Supply Chain, at General Mills. At General Mills, their mission is to feed the world. Hard enough on a good day, but how about during a global pandemic? Their challenges were multifaceted and complex, but throughout, factory workers went above and beyond to meet the goals of the organization. Rewards were obviously in order. So leaders at General Mills experimented with autonomy and rewards to say thanks. Here’s their story (and the science behind it).

Episode Transcript


[00:00:06] GB: Choice matters, we all know that and this may not surprise you, but our brains like choice. It feels good to have a choice. It feels good to make one. Research has shown that we’re more committed to outcomes when we’ve been given a choice. That’s what this episode is about. It’s a story about how one company help their people get through a pandemic that robbed them of their power to choose. It’s also about saying thanks to a group of employees who braved the pandemic day in and day out so the world could eat. It happened to General Mills, so we invited a special guest to come chat with us. 


I’m Gabriel Berezin and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s CEO and co-founder, Dr. David Rock and Kristina Morton, Vice President of Human Resources and Supply Chain at General Mills. Enjoy!




[00:01:23] DR: Kristina, so great to be here with you. I really appreciated the collaboration and conversations we’ve had over quite a few years now. I remember we met in Switzerland at one point when you were heading up Europe and I was over there, and we’ve met number of times and working with General Mills. I have to say first of all before I say anything about NLI, I have to say, big thank you for helping pretty much the entire planet, get back to baking and for keeping those factories open on a very difficult conditions, because you guys make so many important ingredients for literally cookies, and bread, and cakes and all that amazing baking that happened around the world would have kind of gone to a halt if you guys didn’t keep the factories open. Thanks for everything that you did over that time, it must be quite intense.


[00:01:50] KM: Absolutely! 


[00:01:53] DR: For those of you new to NLI, I’m not going to say much, but we’re actually quite old as a company now, 23 years officially we’ve been doing this work, advising over 50 of the Fortune 100, very much global, and we partner with a number of firms like General Mills in every corner of the world and it’s something that we really specialize in. The core of our work is research, and one of the things I say to organizations that work with us in any way is, always start with the science, begin with the science. In the last few years, I started saying, “Look, follow the science, and then experiment and then follow the data.” It became a bit of a mantra in fact. I think we’re printing T-shirts with this at the moment. Follow the science, experiment, follow the data. 


Kristina of General Mills is one of the organizations that took that very much to hear, and actually on learning about the SCARF model in particular, and threat and reward and the different social domains that are made up in SCARF. Actually, she’s done a lot of work to not just educate the organization, but apply this into organizational systems. We talk a lot about priorities, habits in systems. General Mills has done some really interesting work to bring some of our research into systems. We met a few months ago and I heard about literary the experiment that they’ve done and all these data. I said, “Oh my gosh! Lots of people would love to hear about this.” It’s really interesting data. Thanks very much, Kristina for making the time and being willing to share with us the outcome of the study.


Describe it in a minute just for context. We wrote a paper way back in 2016, five years ago called The Neuroscience of Total Rewards. In this, we dug into how to think about total rewards beyond just financial rewards from a brain perspective. There are number of things that really stood out, as we researched kind of the concept of designing reward systems. Notice the word systems, right? Rewards systems. Number of things stood out. One of them is that, rewards are not rewarding unless the brain kind of says, “This is rewarding.” You can give someone a big bonus, and it can be rewarding or it can be upsetting actually. It depends on a number of factors. We came to see that the SCARF framework of things like fairness, and status, and did I get the fair amount, did I get more than people, that I produce more than, all this stuff really, really played in.


The other thing that we saw was the enormous impact of autonomy in actually making a reward process powerful, and not just because people actually get to choose the reward that they want, although that’s really important. We realized that there was actually three points at which the reward was activated in the brain, like treating someone as an adult and giving them a choice first of all was very formal, talking about that. When they actually make the choice, it’s rewarding. But then also, when they participate in the choice, it feels closer to them as a construal issue, and it activates reward networks even more. Plus, they’re more likely to choose something that is actually intrinsically rewarding, so their whole personality profile.


There are all these reasons why giving people a lot more choice than we ever have around what is really powerful. Even though we’re going to talk about rewards, I think this is hugely relevant to much more than just rewards. This is an example of one system where you can apply autonomy. I thought I wanted to dive deeper into the study, and then we can kind of pull out and think about implications throughout the systems and all of this.


Kristina, over to you. You want to tell us the story of how it came about and what’s going on. Tell us about the project.


[00:05:21] KM: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, David. Like many of the things we’ve been talking about lately, a year ago when the pandemic started, already it was the purpose at General Mills to make food the world loves. But with the pandemic, we actually started adding this “and needs” to the bottom of our purposes. So making food the world loves and needs. To your point about making sure that we have enough food being produced for people to be able to eat. 


In our manufacturing organization, we quickly realized we needed to keep people safe because we need people to show up to make the food. Our office workers could certainly work from home, but in our manufacturing facilities, you still have to show up to make the food. So we need to make sure people were safe, while also, by the way, making every case we could. Because we knew that probably we’re going to sell very case we could make for the foreseeable future. The team did some phenomenal work in getting some new safety protocol in place. I know all the food manufacturers were working on this and sharing best practices. We were learning new things almost every day. We were changing protocols, bringing new ones in almost every day. The team just did a terrific job of working through that while keeping the cases coming out the door, and getting those cases out into the grocery stores and on shelves for consumers.


It was really at point at time at six months in when we were able to participate in a benchmarking survey, and we were still realizing probably 400 absences per day, but our industry benchmarking showed us that our absence rate was half that or our industry average. When we also benchmarked the close contact tracing per confirmed COVID case, we were averaging 0.5, and the industry average was 4. Some really incredible work we realized that we were doing things really well, and we needed to stay on track with that, and keep going, and keep improving to make sure that we had those safety protocol in place. In the beginning of the pandemic, there was an outpouring of support and appreciation for our frontline, our workers and folks that were showing up at the plant every day. The businesses were, “We want to send t-shirts. We want to make bonuses” and we did, right? We did send t-shirts, and we did meals, and food trucks, and General Mills product of course, and branded masks, and grocery vouchers. We had to kind of pace it out a bit because we could see we were going to be in this for a while.


But that really was the time when we came into that second wave of that October, November timing, that we were sensing and seeing that people were tired. They were working schedules like they hadn’t before under conditions with all these safety protocols like never before. We started to see this in our engagement data, and we knew we were adding run days into our schedule everywhere we could through holidays, et cetera. We started to worry about the resilience of our teams. The HR team did some amazing work setting out to conduct fatigue assessments with every single one of our sites here in North America. We used qualitative and quantitative data, and we identified some of our higher risk plants, and action plans to help close those gaps. Where we needed more staffing or resources, et cetera. But we also noticed that some sites were doing just fine, actually and thriving even in the pandemic.


We dove in a little bit deeper to see what we could learn from those sites as well, as we look at building the action plans for others. We were in this kind of height of the pandemic, and seeing higher absenteeism, starting to see some staffing shortages, supplementing with other parts of that organization to get through. We sat down with leadership to say, “Hey! Here’s the themes that we’re seeing from this fatigue assessment. We need to talk about what we’re going to do, and I just have to say, we have some phenomenal leaders at General Mills. I mean, really, really makes it a pleasure to work in human resources. The leaders of the company truly care about our people. They understand the importance of leadership, and culture on performance and success, so it wasn’t a hard sell to say when you talk about this. They were quick to engage, but the ideas were, “Okay. Well, let’s just do another bonus. Let’s do some more recognition. Let’s give everybody a day off. Let’s just take all the plants down for a weekend. Can we just take a weekend and pick a weekend and take all the plants down? And really, how can we show them how much we care about their wellbeing, that we hear them and that we appreciate them?”


[00:09:52] DR: The leaders generated this ideas? The leaders were coming up with this.


[00:09:55] KM: Yep.


[00:09:56] DR: It’s fantastic. Can I just make a quick comment? What I’m thinking about is when you’re talking about this is the three stages of the pandemic that we started talking about way back in March, which was shock, pain and rehabilitation. The shock was like three to six months maybe of just running on adrenalin, and then at some point, the pain kicked in. That’s been going on all this time. We’re still kind of in that. We’re just moving into the rehabilitation phase, like the beginning of the beginning of the third phase, of rehabilitation. Similar to like when you break a leg, long period of pain, and then eventually, rehabilitation that we’re starting to get. You’re trying to help people through that long, dark tea time of the soul of pain, in that way. It’s really interesting to hear the leaders actually generate all of these ideas.


[00:10:38] KM: Absolutely. We’re really engaged, and we thought, “Well, that would be bold to take all of our plants down for a weekend, a long weekend and give people some time off. But then also, that would mean we wouldn’t make those cases and we’d never be able to make that up, you miss the opportunity and we were already not meeting our customers expectation in terms of customer service and delivery. Then we also thought about, fortunately, our manufacturing leaders and our HR team that leads this group, we’ve all worked in our manufacturing facilities. There’s also that perspective of that person in your ear that’s like, “I don’t want the weekend off. I don’t want the company to choose when I have a weekend off. I don’t even have my kids this weekend, or I just want to make money. This is a great opportunity for me, and I want to work there extra hours, and be able to maximize my wealth through this period of time. This is the most overtime I’ve ever been to take advantage of.”


We often have the saying, I’m sure everybody who’s working with employees, everybody in HR probably says this. But this common experience of, “No good deed goes unpunished.” When you try to do something, you have food intent, inevitably, there’s someone who points out the air and you’re thinking it in your ways, and didn’t work for them. Why did this keep happening to us? We wanted to avoid that as well. David, this is kind of where you and you team enter into the conversation, because you had just spoken in November at our Top 100 Leadership Conference with our CEO and our top 100 leaders. You focused on resilience and SCARF. In SCARF, you really focused on unexpected autonomy. We really reflected on like, “What’s going on for our folks, if we think about it from that SCARF standpoint, and their status is falling as we go through this difficult period.


We’ve transitioned from a crisis management to a company running during a crisis and operating during a crisis. When that certainty question, which was still hunting all of us of how long is this going to last. Autonomy for sure where we did see an increase in what we call forced overtime, the way the overtime rotates. Usually we get more volunteers, but if no one volunteers, then some people get stuck with it if you will and forced overtime. The relatedness was impacted through the safety protocols, so you can’t have lunch with your friends, or be on break, or chat with your buddies at work. It’s so much more difficult with masks, and six feet of distancing, and everything else that we had in place to keep people safe and going. 


Then in fairness as well, there was a sense that in our manufacturing plants, we added run days in over the 4th of July. We added run days in over Labor Day. We added run days in over Thanksgiving, and then we were adding run days in between Christmas, holiday and the New Year’s holiday. Meaning that more people were having to work those holidays. Then the office workers who are working from home didn’t have to do that stuff.


[00:13:47] DR: I’m asking a lot of people. There’s some unfairness because, also, the people in the factories are taking greater risks before they even get to the factory, just by being in public, or public transport or driving. There’s a real gap between the people who have to be in public, and we were talking about that a lot for the last year. You really got the jackpot of kind of negative SCARF on all five domains of being attacked through the pandemic for a lot of people, particularly those in factories. Interesting, yeah.


[00:14:13] KM: The team had an amazing idea. They thought about that, and I have to tell you, it wasn’t easy to implement, but I was so proud. Our internal COEs, everybody who had to pull together to make it happen, they just jumped right in. They didn’t question. They were like, “Yes! This is what we need to do.” So being able to just make that possible, because there was that kind of shared empathy and enthusiasm for our frontline workers at General Mills to try to make life a little bit better for them or a lot bit bitter if we could, but better in any way that we could. Really, there was the opportunity to give the gift of choice as what we call it, then giving folks the opportunity to choose between bonus, some time off, a day off or to make a donation to a charity of their choice. I’ll tell you; it was very clear we were going to do either day or dollars, and it was really a leader on my team, Renée who was like, “We need three things. We need three things, Kristina.” I’m like, “Okay. What’s kind of the third thing for you?”


One of our strategies at General Mills is to be a force for good, and so we’ve got a great culture of both contributions, and volunteering in the community, in addition to the work that the company does lead. But to add that element of donation, to be able to acknowledge that even if our frontline folks are working their tails off, they do have families, friends and neighbors who are struggling, and we know that the number of people that are suffering from food scarcity in this country is much more significant than we like it to be. The option to add the donation was probably the trickiest one for us to figure out how to make that work, but I think it was really worth it t have three things for folks to choose from.


We had some hypothesis going into this. As you mentioned, David, it was a bit of an experiment for us, and we had a hypothesis. I was personally in the 70% to 75%, I thought would a day off. Given what we’ve seen on the fatigue assessments, and the very beginning of the calendar years, so that’s where we could add that day into their vacation bank and make that available, and give people a little breathing room on their time off. I thought it be more like 70%, 75% with the price that it came in at 59%, who chose the day off, 39% with the bonus and then 2%. Over 150, almost 200 people chose to donate their bonus to charity, which was really cool.


I also thought, I had an hypothesis. I thought more women would choose to take the day off than men, just given some of the things that we know about women, being primary caregivers, and families, et cetera. I was wrong. More men chose the day off slightly. It was almost exactly the same. I also thought, I had a hypothesis that more employees who had less than five years would take the day off over the bonus or the donation, and I was wrong on that as well. More people who had more than five years, they chose time off than the less than five years. But the nuance of that is, I also guessed that more employees at our union sites would choose the time off because here, we have more seniority roles in place and things versus rotating work schedules, and time off and overtime. In that case, we did see the more junior people taking more time off. As well as in our union plants, we saw more people choosing to take the time off. Those are some of my hypotheses, and I didn’t get very many of them right, which just goes to show you. We got to let the people make their own choices, the employees to make their own choice about what’s valuable to them. 


[00:17:56] DR: I’m just thinking about, if you’d gone with 75%, and given 75% of people the day off, you would have missed about 1,500 people, right? You would have given them the wrong thing. 


[00:18:06] KM: Right. Yeah.


[00:18:06] DR: Interesting. It’s really hard to guess, whereas giving them the choice. Amazing. Someone was asking about like how do people receive the video? What was their feelings? You’ve got the data here, those high engagements. 85% of employees took the survey to make the choice.


[00:18:20] KM: Right. Which was huge for us. We had an element in there if you didn’t make a choice, then you got the bonus. But 85% took the survey, we had previously experienced more than 35% participation in surveys, et cetera that we’ve done via email. For 85% engaged, that was huge, and we made it a light touch with a video, and an email from the plant manager, and that was posted a couple of places around the plant. Really, word of mouth really got going on that for folks, so there’s a lot of buzz. I’ll show you some quotes actually.


[00:18:54] DR: Yeah, that’s good. I’m excited. I think the quotes are great and then we can talk a little bit about the science.


[00:18:58] KM: It was really positive. It was palpable, like people were debating which you’re going to choose and why, and having those discussions. Then it was great to just have people debate, and discuss something that wasn’t maybe so contentious, like what’s going on in the rest of our world in that same timeframe. So having this as kind of fun, distraction, energy giving discussion about what option they’ll take. Also, how important it was for folks to have that choice of the day off. We’ve not done anything like that before. We know to just randomly give folks an extra day off. We had to go through our unions in our union sites to see if it was okay to folks that choice, because the union is who gets to decide on behalf of the employees. All of our unions signed up to say, “Yes, this is really cool. We see the value in it easily and we want to have the workforce here participate in that.” 


I love this last quote, which I think people were a little bit in shock that it was that wonderful surprise and the appreciation was really strong. It was overall a couple of weeks while people were making their choices, it was kind of the talk of the town. 




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[00:20:42] DR: I want to address that final point, like I’m still in shock. It’s like quite a big statement. I think that I really appreciate an applaud you guys following the science of this, because we’ve always said with rewards and threats, right? Everything is a threat and reward. But the really strong ones are unexpected. The pandemic was very unexpected. We are all overwhelmed for many, many, many weeks and months. If we have another one, it’s going to be much less overwhelming, because it’s going to be much more expected. We know what to expect, right? It would be a whole different experience having another one of this in five years or ten years, those who’ve lived through this one. 


The same thing with rewards. When you’re expecting something to happen like, “Well, I’m getting this bonus.” It’s not particularly rewarding. But when an unexpected reward happens, it really gets your attention, and it’s there’s been a lot a lot of research around rewards, and they find it like a bonus for example is not actually intrinsically rewarding. Unless it’s actually more than you expected or more than other people, like literally you’re comparing yourself to other people. Or the other thing is deeply feel like writing a wrong in some way. These are one of those three things. A bonus doesn’t tend to have much intrinsic reward value in terms of activation of the reward areas of the brain. Where something unexpected has a really big, big hit, and you can see that in people’s quotes.


But let’s bring alive what I said before about the three point of reward. The first thing is, when people are being told that they’ve actually got this 3D choice. Firstly, at that moment, they would have been like, “Wow! That’s really brilliant. I feel really respected, appreciated, treated like an adult, given choice.” We’ve been given choice that we didn’t think we have. It’s very intrinsically rewarding in any domain. At that point, and you heard that from some people. The second point is, when they actually take the rewards, when they receive the money or they take the day off, like at that point, it would be very rewarding, because they’ve chosen it. 


There’s research on this, that when you choose something, you actually value it much higher than when you’re just kind of given it. If you’ve gut two tubs of ice cream, you choose one. You actually enjoy it more because you’ve chosen it. It activates reward response in the brain through the active choosing. Then you’ve got the fact that the reward is actually the thing that you love the most. You’ve chosen the money because you actually want the money or you’ve chosen the day off because you really want the day off, so you’re enjoying it. Then even reflecting back, it’s really four points. Reflecting back on the whole experience is more reward.


The difference between just giving everyone a day off, which would have annoyed a bunch of people, but giving everyone money, which also would have annoyed a bunch of people is that, now you’ve actually got reward for a considerable amount of time and for a large amount. There’s a lot of research behind this, but I wanted to go through a few questions, and Kristina, I think you can see the questions as well, and we can start to dig in to some of those. Any questions coming up that you want to address.


[00:23:42] KM: I think one comment that $250 isn’t super generous. I agree. We had given much more generous bonuses previously in the pandemic, and we were getting into a point where because all of the additional capacity we’re bringing on, and every case was getting more expensive, we did not have as big of a budget to go after this. The choice really was the part that I think people were shock about, not the amount of the award at all that wasn’t anything that shock folks. 


[00:24:13] DR: That’s an interesting point actually, is that you actually need less actual reward to get a bigger tonnage. This is what we wrote about in The Neuroscience of Total Rewards, is that you actually can really maximize the value you have. The number when you add it up is still in the millions, so it actually adds up. Then when you add up the time off as well, that actually adds up tremendously in all sorts of way. That adds up to probably much bigger than the millions of cash. But you’re getting a huge return for that money as well, which I think is really interesting. But I think it’s the act of giving people the choice, was innately, intrinsically rewarding in many, many ways.


[00:24:49] KM: Yep. We did want some element of surprise. I mean, honestly, if I could like curate and pull together all of the appreciation notes, and we were sending weekly notes out to the plants with PowerPoint slides, and thank yous from all sorts of leaders, from the consumers, quotes from them. We are sending out tons of communications. All of our plant managers made a TikTok video, kind pf passing the product around. I mean, the team thought about every which way that they could say thank you, and we wanted to find another unique way to say thank you, and that’s where the choice came in. 


[00:25:29] DR: Someone was asking, is this similar to why forcing people into say a diversity program does intend to work? In fact, it’s exactly the issue. We wrote a big piece in strategy in business called, is your diversity program making your company more biased? It turns out, when you take away the autonomy and say you have to do this training program, people actually dig their heels in. It’s not that they don’t just appreciate it, they actually fight now. Actually, it may become more bias. There are some pretty good researches that mandatory DEI programs can actually do some harm. Whereas, giving people the choice is really, really different and we’ve done quite a bit of research in that.


Something else here I think it’s important is, was it difficult, Kristina to get the leaders on board with this, or were they driving it, you guys were kind of steering it, or what was the experience with kind of getting this executed? I know you did it really quickly too. How was that for you? 


[00:26:22] KM: Yeah. We did go quickly. The leaders I’d say of the company overall, and for sure, our manufacturing leaders were eager to do something. I think it’s easy for all of us to fall into a bit of paternalistic, like we know what’s best. People are saying they’re tired, let’s give them time off. But thankfully, we also have really thoughtful leaders who are willing to discuss and debate what some different options, and opportunities can be for us. That was your inspiration and talk was excellent timing for us to tee up this kind of an option in terms of unexpected autonomy. They got to hear that directly from you, and then we can bring that back up in discussion without having to describe what that was, “This guy named, Dr. Rock said, blah, blah.”


[00:27:06] DR: We’ve got some amends on there. Someone was asking about the number of choices, and three is actually a helpful number to think of. The reason it’s helpful is, two is not really a choice, it’s like A or B, it doesn’t feel like a choice. Whereas three, you can hold three variables in mind, unless they’re really complicated each. You actually can hold three variables in mind reasonably well, and compare and contrast them in a working memory. When you try to hold four things in mind, and compare and contrast, it actually starts to fall off the cliffs of literally the resources we have for our working memory. It’s hard to actually compare and contrast them. Once you get to five, it’s like almost impossible.


You can imagine three different scenarios and pick between them. It actually feels like you’ve been given a choice. Too many and it actually is overwhelming, and there’s quite a lot of research on that. Sheena Iyengar wrote a book on that, the Power of Choice. We had her in one of our summits some years back. But three is a good rule of thumb, just from working memory capacity. Do you want to go, Kristina to some of the data, some of the lessons learned?


[00:28:07] KM: Yeah, certainly, and we’ve talked about some of it for sure, and that it really was the choice that was seen as a reward in itself and having that option. That was definitely really exciting to see, knowing that one solution doesn’t fit for everybody. You can’t know everybody’s personal situation to know what’s going to fuel their own individual wellbeing, or goals or whatever. Especially as you’re talking about money, or time or motivation. So definitely having that and thinking about it from that standpoint, that proved up to be true. I mentioned that our unions embraced it as well. I mean, very easily and quickly, and it really stood out. There were lots of companies who were and people who we compete for, compete for talent with in the different markets that were doing bonuses. We were doing bonuses. This is definitely was not the first one we did. 


The option here of the choice was again, just the part that was a bit a shock, and the difference, and the opportunity in what we saw. Also, some new news. We just finished up an engagement survey. I mentioned to you that our engagement results back in September, we’d seen some dips and some of the fatigue showing up there. We just finished an engagement survey last Friday, I just got some of the raw data here this morning. Versus last year, we’re seeing statistically significant increases in our engagement among this population, and some of the important questions about how work for General Mills, and a great place to work, and feeling valued as an employee, plus 4% and plus 5%.


On some of the ones from that pulse survey we did back in September about communicating authentically and openly, and the company caring about my wellbeing, we saw plus 8% and plus 9% for this population. We’re really encouraged you, and this was not the only thing we did. We had those petty assessments. We launched Ninth Sprint, plus this. We were doing a lot of work on communication. Our total rewards team completely revamped our well-being resources for January, as many companies have been doing, and as many great options have come available. There’ve been a lot. We’ve posted vaccine events at almost all our sites in North America or will in the US, or will by end of this month.


We’ve got a lot of other things going on as well related to wellbeing. But nonetheless, that was the message we are trying to get through here is, choose something that’s good for you, and choose something that’s good for your wellbeing. We’re really encouraged with how we’re seeing to show up in our engagements results as well.


[00:30:56] DR: That’s great. How did employees’ families respond, the community, was this a topic? Was it talked about? 


[00:31:02] KM: I don’t have any intel on that, so I would guess. I mean, I would guess pretty positively, and that there was some buzz that folks were able to take home and to talk about with their friends and with their families. We haven’t checked their Facebook or anything for —


[00:31:17] DR: Yeah. There’s an AI to do that, but it’s a little bit of your time. Can you say more about the fatigue survey? Some people are asking about what you can share more about that, the pre and post, and how you did that. What’s some of the questions were?


[00:31:30] KM: We were able to take a look at a few things, and so that the team have pulled together some of the aspects that we knew were important, so we had that recent engagement pulse survey, so taking a look at that. But we are also able to take a look at some of the practices, staffing practice in any given site, especially around you where we were seeing more forced overtime for example, overtime hours. For us, we have to take a look at it on a year-over-year basis, because we do have a good amount of seasonality in our business. Taking a look year-over-year, are we seeing higher levels of overtime work or overtime is getting to the point of being forced, et cetera. Same with staffing, percent open jobs for example. Then also looking at the business aspects of it, so added run days, some changes.


You might imagine some of our businesses had an increase in production, some of our business actually had a decrease in production in our food service business or Nature Valley snack bars for example, where people weren’t on the go as much. We actually pulled some of that production in from external manufacturing, but that meant more changeovers, and more changeover can lead to more fatigue types of things. That was some of the things we’re looking for and trying to identify of what were those stress factors that could be coming in and with those teams.


[00:32:49] DR: Of the different things of the charity issue, like where people told which charity to give to, are they given choices? How many choices were they given in the charity? Like was it preselected or how did you do the charity choice?


[00:33:01] KM: As a company, we already offer a match for an employee than any given year up to a certain amount that they would donate to charity, and we’ve got a site that we use, where people can designate and make those donations. As long as it’s a 501(c)(3) I think is the designation, we would make that donation on their behalf.


[00:33:20] DR: Great. Yeah. can you speak a little bit to how this kind of approach, giving choice can be really impactful for a blue collar or factory workers. How is it more even relevant to them? Can you speak more to that? I know you addressed it a little bit, but can you say a little bit more about it?


[00:33:34] KM: Yeah. For our folks, they didn’t really have a choice, whether to show up to work or not. Already, the level of flexibility. Throughout the entire pandemic, we’ve had three teams that we’ve been focused on, from HR, from employee support standpoint. Care, flexibility and prioritization of work. If we keep working on those three things; care, making sure people are taking care of, flexibility in whatever way we can give and prioritization of work, making sure the most important things are clear and can get done. The flexibility piece is much more difficult for folks, where we need to cover every shift, we need a certain number of people to cover every shift. Some of our plants have been able to do a terrific job of really umping up where we allow shift swaps, where we allow people doing trading and reorganizing work for their schedules. Because these folks who are showing up at the plant every day, they also have kids that were not in school. They also have family members who they might need to take care of. They didn’t have that same flexibility as a lot of our folks who could work from home, and so those would be some of the restrictions in terms of where they have less autonomy overall, especially on their own time, their own schedule.


If you’re the most junior person and no one else wants to work on Saturday, you might have to be the one who shows up on Saturday. It only takes one person to now show up for us to not to be able to run production.


[00:35:03] DR: We mentioned this before. I think as they compare themselves to folks in the office who don’t have to leave their home at all, and can maybe go and live with their parents, and can go and live in a ski field for a month, or do whatever, like it can really start to look unfair. This was specifically for the factory workers, and I think it’s a powerful thing. Let’s broaden it a little bit. First of all, what are you thinking of next in terms of applying these principles? The principle is giving people unexpected choice versus kind of defining what they’re getting. Not just for rewards, like across the whole spectrum of talent resources. What are you thinking about doing next in terms of some of the systems that you have there?


[00:35:41] KM: We’ve got a couple areas where we’re looking to do some focus improvement if you will or we know we have an opportunity to be stronger, and to be better. I’m interested to know if others have used autonomy or choice in these spaces. One of them is recognition, and especially peer recognition and creating that culture of recognition. So not just your manager recognizing you, but recognizing each other. The second is retention, so I’m sure I’m not alone in struggling with retention. For us, we struggle the most with our 0 to 12-month hires in our production teams. This is a space where we’re also thinking about maybe relatedness as an opportunity to build more of a cohort status and relationship with each other and with the rest of the organization. But trying to figure out, both I’d say recognition and retention. Are there opportunities for us to leverage autonomy, unexpected autonomy or other aspects of SCARF for us to improve?


[00:36:41] DR: Right. Recognition is kind of an obvious one, isn’t it? Giving people more choice of the rewards. I wrote about that a little bit in that paper, that you can also tweak your rewards based on people SCARF profile. If you knew that someone had relatedness as a really big profile, you’re much less likely to just give him a cash bonus and more likely to do something that has them connect with other people. You would serve up different kinds of rewards based on people’s SCARF profiles. You still give them choice, so you give them the autonomy, but you might give them a different three to choose from if you knew someone had relatedness versus someone had autonomy itself. So that’s an area.


One thing that we saw is, obviously, with the pandemic, people were given more choice over where they work to some degree. They couldn’t work at the office, so it meant they had some choice of where they were, that are really big variable and I think we talked about this last week. Is giving people more choice of when they work as well. Any way you can give them even a tiny bit of unexpected reward of a when they work, even if it was only 10% of their hours, it can make a huge difference. This is harder with factory workers obviously, but there’s still an element of it. But try to give unexpected rewards of when people work and give them a little bit more control, that’s a very powerful one.


Yeah, it interesting. Even the most positive change tends to get about 20% to 25% of people actively fighting it. This is the no-good deed goes unpunished principle. It’s really hard to fight against being given a choice of different things, three good things. You probably will get some people who are annoyed, but I guess that’s a question for you, Kristina. Was anyone annoyed by this? Did you get punished for doing this by anyone that you heard of?


[00:38:23] KM: I’m sure there was a person or two. It didn’t make it to my inbox if it was, but I have to imagine. There’s somebody who could be disappointed or frustrated about something.


[00:38:38] DR: For sure. I think you can really take this apart. Let’s think about performance management for example, like the goal cycle. Should everyone be on the same goal cycle? Should some people be on a goal cycle that’s a month, or three months, or six months. Should there be some flexibility in the goal cycle that you want? Should there be some flexibility of how you debrief? You always have to debrief with your manager or should be able to invite other people to debrief, to broaden, and provide more input and reduce biases in there as well. If you kind of think about all the different points, say on a performance cycle, from setting goals, to during check-ins to even end of year, there’s actually some unexpected autonomy could be woven in there, which could be very, very powerful. 


When you think about learning and development, there are some improvements in the broad space around that for sure you, but with more kind of half ways and self-driven work. But I think it’s also overwhelmed, so there’s also like a thousand courses you can do versus, “Look, here are three pathways and let’s help up choose on.” I think we’ve gone overboard with the autonomy in the online learning space a little bit, thrown out certainty gone too far. Whereas giving people some clear pathways and kind of choose a learning pathway and maybe choose three would be fantastic.


It is possible to give people too many choices, and some people if they have certainty as a high function are going to want a lot of certainty, they don’t want as much autonomy. Other people genuinely more senior tend to like a lot more autonomy. Generally, and it’s not a fixed thing, but generally, the higher you go in your organization, the more people want autonomy. If you’re talking about functional leaders, or regional leaders, or country managers, this kind of thing, you got to want to weave autonomy in this as much as possible. Because it will actually be one of their strong SCARF drivers.


Kristina, anything that you want to share in terms of the sort of big lessons learned from your perspective? You follow the science, you experimented, you followed the data. What’s the biggest insight if you added the whole process?


[00:40:33] KM: I think there’s a piece of the power of choice. I really like what I learned today from you about three as a choice. That is really powerful. I got to remember that. Credit to Renee and my team for seeing that opportunity as well. I think the other piece is, one of the things that we’re constantly thinking about is, how do we accelerate possibilities. I think a year ago, two years ago, we just said, “Oh! We just can’t do that. It’s too hard, too complicated, too something.” I think the idea, in fact, we did — we were scrapy, in term to how we did the survey, and how we pulled things together. But just about anything is possible, and if you can follow the science, you have more confidence that your experiment is going to have elements of success, and elements of learning that you can build upon. I think for us, being able to accelerate possibilities is another piece that we’re proud of and we’re glad that we pushed on.


[00:41:34] DR: The big insight for me is that choice is intrinsically or unexpected choice is intrinsically and powerfully rewarding as long as it is the right amount of choice, not an overwhelming amount. The right amount of unexpected choice is intrinsically and unexpectedly rewarding and powerful. I know you really helped 10,000 people, and no doubt, their families and other. In a small but actually meaningful way, in ways that showed up in your engagement figures. Hats off to you. I look forward to watching the next experiment that you do. I’m sure we’ll have some conversations about some fun experiments. Maybe it will be learning, maybe it will be performance, it could be anywhere.


Kristina, just a huge thank you for the collaboration, the partnership and being willing to jump into this and share the data and share the story. I know you’ve inspired a ton of people here. There’ll be many, many thousands listening to the podcast later I’m sure who would be inspired as well.




[00:42:25] GB: Your Brain at Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Cliff David, Matt Holodak, and Danielle Kirshenblat. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. We’ll see you next time.



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