Not Everyone Wants to be a Leader

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. 

Too often in my executive coaching I run across a senior leader who will confess to me that they aren’t sure why they ever went into management. I’m always curious to ask what they would love to do instead and almost all of them share they would rather be “doing” than “leading” and a small minority tell me they just plain hate organizational politics and would rather work for themselves and start their own business.

Maybe not all of us “have the right stuff” to be leaders. It’s a lot more popular to subscribe to “leaders are made” versus “leaders are born” but perhaps research suggests that both positions are right.

For example, Avery and colleagues, based on twin studies, estimate that about 33% of the variance in holding leadership roles is due to genetic factors (Avery, R.D., Zhang, Z. Avolio, B. & Kreuger, R.F. (2007). Developmental and gentic determinants of leadership role occupancy among women. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 693-706). Findings from numerous studies of personality show that genetic effects account for approximately 50% of the variance in five factor domains (Bouchard, T.J. & Loehlin, J.C. (2001). Genes, evolution and personality. Behavior Genetics, 21, 243-273). Maybe we all have some “leadership set-points” that provide a ceiling or upper limit to our leadership capabilities.

If leaders truly understood the pre-wiring of the interests, values and motives of talent and tried to use this information to lead them more effectively they would be able to unlock some of the mystery surrounding effective leadership.

The four career path preferences summarized below are theory based and measured in one of our assessments called the Career Profile Inventory. Understanding the primary interests, values and motives underlying each can help all of us better understand what our “signature passions” might be. These “paths” also provide some insight about how best to reward and recognize talent to enhance engagement and retention.

The Four Career Path Preferences and Motives Underlying Them

LEADERSHIP — This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in continually moving vertically up the organizational ladder into traditional supervisory and managerial positions with increasing spans of control, responsibility, power, and authority.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include power, influence, leadership, control, task accomplishment, status, managerial competence, and directing others. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include: upward mobility, promotion, special perks, titles, and organizational symbols of success (e.g., profit sharing incentive plans, company car, stock options, financial planning, expense account, club memberships, etc.).

SPECIALIST/INDEPENDENT CONTRIBUTOR — This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in remaining in one career field or profession for much of their working life. Along the way, these specialists are able to highly refine their technical knowledge, skills and abilities. These individuals are less interested in moving up as they are in becoming the expert and having autonomy to do things their way.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include technical and functional competence, expertise, skill mastery, service to others, independence, affiliation and security. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include: job enrichment, continuing education, membership in professional associations, recognition, motivational programs, organizational benefits, sabbaticals, tenure and job security.

GENERALIST/PROJECT MANAGEMENT — This career path preference is best characterized by those who gradually change jobs and career over time but utilize the foundation of previously acquired skills, knowledge and abilities. These generalists generally move either laterally or upwards increasing their breadth of knowledge and experience along the way. Individuals who follow this career path tend to prefer new challenges and assignments that will enable them to grow and develop professionally. This career path preference is particularly well suited for project and program management assignments within organizations.

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include professional growth and personal development, learning, coaching, developing others, and innovation. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include cross training, job rotation, project management, tuition and educational reimbursement and coaching and mentorship assignments.

ENTREPRENEURIAL — This career path preference is best characterized by those interested in rapid job, career, and occupational changes over short periods of time. These individuals enjoy working on diverse projects, tasks, assignments, and business ventures with measurable and visible outcomes. They are most motivated by autonomy, risk taking, challenge, achievement and being their own boss. In a new study of 3,412 twins from the UK and 1,300 twins from the US, researchers examined whether genetic factors were associated with the “Big Five” personality characteristics) and the tendency to become an entrepreneur (defined as self-employed, starting a new business, being an owner, or engaging in a start-up process). The researchers found that common genes influenced the correlations between only two personality factors and the tendency to become an entrepreneur ((Shane, S. et al. (2010). Genetics, the Big Five and the tendency to be self-employed. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6, 1154-1162)). These included:

  • Openness to Experience
  • Extraversion

Typical career anchors and motives of these individuals include: entrepreneurship, achievement, autonomy, variety, risk, challenge, change, freedom from organizational constraints, flexibility, creativity and diversity. Appropriate organizational rewards for these individuals might include flexible schedules, short-term projects, independent contracts, consulting assignments, start-up operations, job sharing, and bonuses.

Of course we find combinations of these drivers. For example those of you high in both “specialist” and “entrepreneurial” anchors are likely to be attracted to external consulting. Others with a combination of “managerial” and “generalist” love “fix it” assignments and short term challenges before moving on to another leadership opportunity.

One important organizational lesson is to stop teasing that specialist/independent contributor about leadership roles–they really just want to practice their craft and be left alone. Oh, and stop trying to lead them too!

Interested in knowing your own career path preference? Just email me at and I will set you up for a free career assessment….Be well….


Quitting Sometimes Might be a Healthier Choice

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


In a series of studies by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, individuals demonstrating “grit” were more likely to be successful in both academic and job related measures of performance and success (Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, D., Kelly, D. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(6), 1087-1101). The researchers defined and measures “grit” as passion and perseverance for long-term goals, grit accounted for an average of 4% of the variance in success outcome measures (e.g., educational attainment among 2 samples of adults (N=1,545 and N=690), academic GPA among Ivy League undergraduates (N=138), retention in 2 classes of United States Military Academy, West Point, cadets).

Grit, as measured by the researchers, was not correlated with IQ but was highly correlated with the fiver factor personality construct of Conscientiousness. Grit demonstrated incremental predictive validity of success measures beyond IQ as well as conscientiousness. Many large-scale studies suggest that a mere 25% of difference between individuals and job performance and a third of the difference in school grades can be attributed to IQ. Personality factors, such as resilience, achievement striving, emotional stability and extroversion are said to contribute to the other 75%. It appears that grit and intelligence are completely independent traits. Both are associated with increasing the likelihood of success, but those with high intelligence are no more likely than those with low IQ to be gritty.


According to new research, quitting may be better for your health. Psychologist’s Gregory Miller and Carsten Wroshch have found that people who are able to throw feel comfortable quitting when faced with unattainable goals may have better mental and physical health than those who persevere and push themselves to succeed (Miller, G. & Wrosch, C. (2007). You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in Adolescence. Psychological Science, 18).

The findings build on their previous research, which found that those persistent individuals experienced higher levels of an inflammatory protein called C-reactive protein (an indicator of stress) as well as increased cortisol. They also reported lower psychological well being. On the surface, this might not seem like a big deal but inflammation appears to be an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and other stress related conditions (Wrosch, C., Miller, G. E., Scheier, M. F., & Brun de Pontet, S. (2007). Giving up on unattainable goals: Benefits for health? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 251-265). It appears that sticking with an unobtainable goal might actually be dangerous for your health.

Contrary to what we might have been taught, it appears that it might be in our best interests to “cut our losses” in the face of unattainable goals and life challenges and actually disengage from the goal to ensure optimum well-being and potentially long-term health. This appears to be true whether we are in unsatisfying long-term relationships, working for leaders who are toxic or targeting a goal that is beyond our skill and ability “set points.”

So, any good things those who persist? In other research Carsten and colleagues found that in the face of life challenge and disengaging from unattainable goals, those who redefined and set new goals were more likely to be able to buffer the negative emotions associated with failure. Maybe “rebound” relationships and new entrepreneurial goals might actually serve to help us find closure to the past and re-engage us for future journeys.

Research by Laura King and colleagues at the University of Missouri, Columbia has recently explored how we deal with lost opportunities and mistaken expectations play a role in health, happiness and personality development (Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, D., Kelly, D. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(6), 1087-1101). In their research, King found that to be truly happy individuals must “divest themselves of previously sought after goals” that are no longer achievable.

Their study suggests that the happiest individuals acknowledge loss, do not spend much time ruminating on the past and can more easily disengage from failure and “what might have been” in the past. Overall, they are more likely to be focused on and committed to current goals, passions and life activities.

If you are going to regret, it seems healthier to do it about things you have tried to do, rather than, the things we are too afraid to try……Be well….

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Work Hours, Vacations and Health

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Vacations and Health

How likely, on average, do you take the full vacation time allotted to you by your organization in a year?






If you answered never, seldom or sometimes you might want to reconsider. Researcher Karen Matthews from the University of Pittsburgh studied 12,338 men for nine years as part of a large coronary heart disease study called MRFIT (Gump, B. & Matthews, K. (2000). Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 608-612). She found that taking annual vacations by middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease was associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality and more specifically death due to heart disease. Her study provides some interesting research in support of the argument that vacations might actually be good for your health, particularly if you work long hours, have a heavy workload and tend to “burn the midnight oil.”

Work Hours and Health

How many hours, on average, a week to you work?

  1. Less than 7
  2. 7 to 8
  3. 9 to 11
  4. More than 11

If you regularly work very long hours, you may want to reconsider. A study by Mika Kiivimaki and colleagues at University College London suggests that people who put in 11 hours or more of work on a daily basis may increase their risk for coronary heart disease (Kivimaki, M. et al. (2011). Using Additional Information on Working Hours to Predict Coronary Heart Disease: A Cohort Study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 154, 457-463).

Traditional calculations of the likelihood of heart disease are based on genetic and lifestyle factors including age, sex, exercise, blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and smoking. However, factors like daily work hours are not usually considered.

University College London researchers assessed data on more than 7,000 civil service workers first studied in 1991-1992 (Whitehall II study) who showed no signs of any heart disease. The same group was studied every 5 years until 2004. Researchers found that adding information about work habits actually improved predictions of heart disease. Those who reported working 11 hours a day or more had a 1.67-fold increased risk compared to those who said they work only 7 or 8 hours per week.

Coffee/Tea Consumption and Health

If you are going to work long hours, then at least drink a lot of coffee and tea. Researchers found that moderate consumption of either drink can reduce your chance of death from a heart attack by at least a fifth (but not stroke or any other diseases) in a recent study of of 37,514 people followed for 13 years (Gans, J. et al. (2010). Tea and Coffee Consumption and Cardiovascular Morbidity and Mortality. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.109.201939).

They found that tea had the biggest impact on heart disease but that all but heavy consumption of coffee was also beneficial:

  • Those who drank between 3-6 cups of tea were 45 percent less likely to have CHD problems
  • Those had drank more than 6 cups had a 36 percent lower risk

Given that moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages (no more than 2 drinks daily for males and 1 drink a day for females) is also associated with cardiovascular protection there is no word on what happens long term if you work long hours, drink a lot of coffee and spike a few cups of it with your favorite distilled spirit…..Be well…


The Power of Gratitude

 Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

If you want to change the world, have a lasting impact on your community, create a meaningful and psychological healthy workplace, develop a safe community, loving family or meaningful partnership—it all starts with you.

Several recent research studies have focused on the power of gratitude giving as a necessary condition for developing self esteem, enhancing social ties, facilitating psychological health and physical well-being.

The Evidence for the Gratitude Affect

Psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues have focused on a variety of psychological interventions that increase individual happiness (Seligman, M., P, Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421). In a 6-group, random-assignment, placebo-controlled Internet study, he tested 5 happiness interventions and one control exercise. They found that 3 of the interventions significantly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms–for as long as 6 months.

Two of the exercises (using signature strengths in a new way and writing about three good things that went well each day) significantly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. Another exercise, the “gratitude visit” was associated with significant and positive mood changes for 30 days. The other tested exercises and the placebo control created positive but only transient effects on happiness and depressive symptoms.

Another psychologist, Robert Emmons and his colleagues have also extensively studied the impact of gratitude (Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-38). In one study adults with neuromuscular disorders were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. They were asked to focus on several things each day that they were thankful about and to write about what things in their life they saw as positive and meaningful.

Participants in the “gratitude condition” showed significantly more optimism and life satisfaction than a control group. Interestingly, the researchers reported that spouses of study participants (i.e., people in the gratitude condition) seemed significantly happier than those in the control group. Not only did focusing on gratitude change attitudes, it also apparently changed behavior of those in the study.

Gratitude Exercises

Giving gratitude is something we can develop and make an automatic part of our day. Here are several evidenced-based gratitude exercises that have been proven by Seligman, Emmons and other researchers to enhance psychological well-being, social ties and life satisfaction.

1. Gratitude Journal: For two weeks, write down each day several things you are truly grateful for and explain why in your own person journal.

2. Gratitude Gift: Identify someone in your life you truly value that has contributed to your life success in some way. This person can be a family member, friend, teacher, or another person who has touched you in a positive and signifcant way and whom you have not probably acknowledged in a heart felt manner. Write a letter to this person describing what they have done to influence your life and why–mail it or deliver it in person.

3. Gratitude Reflection: Each night, reflect on one thing that made your day special and then physically smile to elicit the physiology of relaxation (moods follow your body).

4. Gratitude Acknowledgement: Call or email someone you love, work with or know in the community and sincerely share a thank you with them about their behavior, service or recent work.

Perhaps we can all make a step towards making our lives and those around us a bit better by first giving gratitude for what we have….as Victor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves“…..Be well….


Does Leadership Training Make Good Cents?

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


Does Leadership Training Make Good Cents?

A fairly recent State of the Industry Report by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) estimates that companies in the US spent over $125 billion on employee learning and development in 2010. That figure includes direct costs such as salaries for learning professionals, administration, outsourcing activities and other non-salary delivery costs. The estimate is based on the average U.S. organization’s per-employee training expenditure of $1,083.00 multiplied by the number of full-time workers in the U.S., which ASTD puts at 119.7 million.

Marshall Goldsmith reviewed how well 86,000 leadership training participants actually learned from the workshop experience. He asked the leaders attending the training programs if they intended to go back to their jobs and apply what they had learned. Nearly 100 percent said yes but a year later when Marshall asked direct reports to confirm that these leaders had applied the lessons on the job, 70 percent reported that they had and 30 percent who said their bosses did absolutely nothing. When leaders did little or no follow-up with their direct reports (e.g., asking for additional feedback, sharing information about what skills they were trying to develop further) there was little or no perceived change in the leaders’ effectiveness. His results were consistent across all the companies he studied.

A recent illuminating study supporting the challenge of training transfer and ROI comes from by Paul Taylor and colleagues who conducted a meta-analysis of 107 studies on the effects of management training on training transfer based on ratings of leaders’ on-the-job performance and behavior viewed by their bosses, direct reports and colleagues (Taylor, P., Russ-Eft, D. & Taylor, H. (2009). Transfer of management training from alternative perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 104-121).

In all analyses they conducted, self-ratings were terribly inflated relative to others who provided ratings. When training was focused on improving general management skills, the effect size (Note: small effect size is about .2, moderate about .5 and large about .8 or higher) for each of the rater groups was Self (.72), Boss (.53), Peers (.33) and direct reports (.11). For training focused on just goal setting and performance appraisal skills the effect size was Self (1.55), Boss (no studies), Peers (no studies) and direct reports (.33).

In a special analysis of 14 studies that had ratings from the participant, his/her manager, direct reports and peers found the following effect sizes for training focusing on enhancing interpersonal skills:

  • Self Ratings .50
  • Boss Ratings .33
  • Peer Ratings .34
  • Direct Report Ratings .04

As the authors point out, “Our most surprising–and disconcerting– finding was the relatively small average effect sizes for the transfer of interpersonal skills training, the predominant management training topic, derived from subordinates’ ratings.”

They were being liberal to suggest that the effect size they found in direct reports (.04) could even be considered “relatively small.” What this finding really suggests is that direct reports really didn’t see any meaningful changes in interpersonally oriented leadership behavior in one of the most common reasons for providing leadership training. Direct reports seemed to observe some changes when the focus of training was based on goal setting and performance appraisal but hardly any when it was focused on “general management skills.”

Ok, at least we can say that the use of self-ratings in evaluation of leadership training transfer may be a bit self-inflated. If you want to argue that training is actually resulting in new behaviors back on the job you would have to really convince me that direct reports don’t really have a great perspective about leadership practices of their bosses. As they say, “people today don’t leave organizations they leave bad bosses.” Minimally, as Goldsmith points out, leaders who participate in training programs need to follow-up with their direct reports to help them understand what new behaviors they are trying to develop further and to seek ongoing feedback about their progress.

How Can You Increase the Potency of Leadership Training as an Intervention?

Practice Under Pressure Makes Perfect
Essentially, training is intended to help people develop new habits and enhance effectiveness in specific skills. In order to do so, repetition is important. Also, it is important to allow time to develop and integrate the new habit in one’s daily routine. A week long leadership program is unlikely to lead to the formation of new habits. Initiating behavior change is hard and sustaining it over time is even more challenging. Encourage leaders to practice new behaviors back on the job–under the pressure situations they face every day.

Consider Different Learning Styles
In my research I have seen hundreds of people read books and learn nothing. Not everyone learns the same way. Consider blended learning approaches to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity reflect, learn and apply information and skills.

Avoid Case Study Overload
Leadership development that is predominantly using a case study approach may stimulate problem solving and analysis but it certainly won’t teach leadership skills. Leadership development is about enhancing specific skills and behaviors—you can do case studies all day and not be more competent in what leaders actually are required to do all day.

Evaluate Your Training Program
It’s great that the leadership participants liked the facilitator and material. More important is whether anyone notices actual behavior change after the leader leaves the training. If you have to use “happy face” evaluations, at least use a “post-then” approach to enhance the validity of your subjective evaluations. Never heard of “post-then” evaluations? It’s a way to evaluate self-perceived changes in behavior controlling for the fact that we can’t accurately rate our knowledge and skills until after a training program is over (response shift bias).

Hold Managers Accountable to be a Coach
If the participant’s manager isn’t involved in the leadership initiative then you have a weak program. Managers of program participants minimally need to share the purpose and goals of the program, clarify expectations and hold the participant accountable to put to together a learning development plan to apply and practice one or more skills taught in the program. Ideally, teaching leaders to become better performance coaches will also facilitate the impact of both internal and external training programs as bosses can recognize and reinforce new behaviors being practiced back on the job when the program is over.

Seek Mentoring and Coaching for Program Participants
Peer coaching and/or mentoring can be incredibly valuable to amplify and accelerate learning from leadership development efforts. Assigning a peer coach from the program or organizational mentor for each participant can be useful to continue skill practice and discussion outside of the leadership program.

Provide Actual Organizational Problems as Projects
Experience is the best teacher. Provide actual organizational problems for leaders to solve in small or large groups as part of your leadership development effort. The transfer of learning is stronger than abstract concepts or case studies so commonly used in most leadership training programs.

Help Executives See Themselves Accurately
We have published research supporting the concept that most leaders have inflated views of their strengths (Nowack, K. (2010). Leveraging Multirater Feedback to Facilitate Successful Behavioral Change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 61, 280-297). Incorporate multi-rater or 360 degree feedback assessments in your leadership development efforts to help leaders compare self-perceptions to those of other key internal and external stakeholders. Emphasize the strengths of leaders and encourage behavioral action plans following feedback. Feedback as we have seen is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for behavior change. Hopefully, 360 feedback will at least lead to greater self-insight and awareness and when things go ideally we can expect commitment to deliberate practice resulting in increased effectiveness and performance. Evaluate the behavior that actually changes over time to ensure that insight gets translated into actual effectiveness.

Focus on Leader Behavior and Not Leadership Per Se
Daniel Goleman suggests that 50% to 70% of the culture of a team or organization is directly attributed to the leader’s behavior. Our own research suggests that leaders play the strongest role in creating a psychologically healthy climate (Nowack, K. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Leaders Make a Difference. HR Trends, 17, 40-42). Focus on behaviors that can be practiced deliberately to enhance effectiveness.

Keep the relative impact of this relatively weak force intervention of leadership training interventions in mind the next time vendors try to sell you solutions for the wrong problem or suggest they can convert competent jerks into lovable stars.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school“….Be well…


Want to Get Smarter? Exercise More

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Could those most fit also have the fittest brains?

Now armed with newer generation brain-scanning devices such as fMRI and more sophisticated biochemistry assays, researchers are building a case that exercise can make you smarter.

It seems that every time you work out, your muscles send out chemicals that cross the brain barrier to stimulate the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. It appears that BDNF is sort of “fertilizer” for neuroplasticity causing brain cells to branch out, join together and communicate with each other facilitating memory and cognitive processes.

Research by UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla suggests that rather than neurons in our brain dying off as we get older, people who exercised regularly for 3 months seemed to stimulate BDNF levels in the body causing the sprouting of new neurons. Further research seems to also support the idea that working out stimulates the growth of the frontal lobes of the brain often considered the “executive functioning areas” due to their role in decision-making, planning ahead and multi-tasking (Gomez Padiulla, F. (2007). The influences of diet and exercise on mental health through hormesis. Aging Research Reviews).

An analysis of 18 longitudinal fitness-training research studies reveal that cognitive functioning is significantly improved regardless of the type with cardiovascular workouts. The finding that exercise is a key for increasing BDNF levels in the hippocampus–an area vital for memory, problem solving and learning–has provided insight about the physiological mechanisms responsible for the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning.

In recent research by Gomez-Pinilla, blocking BDNF actions abolishes the ability of exercise to facilitate learning and memory as well as interfering with building synaptic connections. It would appear that exercise is vital for brain health and becoming smarter.

Exercise seems to have immediate, although transitory, effects. It appears you can learn 20% faster immediately after working out as opposed to sitting in a meeting. But like everything, you have to use it or lose it–one month of physical inactivity seems to actually cause shrinkage of neurons.

Not only might you actually be smarter if you exercise, there are a number of other desirable side-effects including:

  • Physically inactive employees have 45% greater chance of developing heart disease
  • Colon cancer is approximately 40% more likely to occur in those who are inactive
  • HDL cholesterol (involved in reducing cardiovascular disease) increased an average of 4.6% with exercise
  • Epidemiological research suggests that each of us can gain 2 hours of life expectancy for each hour of vigorous physical activity
  • Women being treated for breast cancer who practice moderate exercise have 50% less recurrence and death than those inactive
  • Depressed individuals who walk 180 minutes a week experience 30% more remissions than those who don’t work out
  • People who aren’t physically active have approximately 60% greater risk of developing osteoporosis

If the 68.7% of people age 18 and older in the US who don’t exercise would begin to start working out regularly, we might actually increase the collective intelligence of our country….Be well….


The Inverted U-Curve of Life

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Maybe to achieve happiness and success it’s desirable to cultivate skills and abilities that are somewhere between excesses and deficiencies.  Some new research actually exists to support this premise.

Achievement Striving and Job Performance

Compared to talent who are low in achievement striving (conscientiousness in the “Big Five”) high flyers tend to be more motivated to perform well on the job and more likely to achieve higher performance due to their goal setting, drive, careful planning and persistence to move through obstacles and challenges.  But, after a certain point, high achievers become pretty rigid, frozen to make decisions, inflexible, and almost compulsive perfectionists.  Too much achievement orientation might result in  paying too much attention to the small stuff, overlooking bigger goals and having rigidity might actually interfere with ongoing professional development.

It appears that there is indeed a threshold level of conscientiousness that once crossed, actually interferes with high performance (Le, H. et al., (2011).  Too much of a good thing: Curvilinear relationships between personality traits and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96-113-133).  In a new study exploring the association between achievement striving and performance it appears that for higher level complexity jobs (engineer, scientist) more is indeed better compared to low complexity jobs.  Indeed, a curvilinear relationship was found between conscientiousness and performance for low complexity jobs where deliberate, cautious, diligent and rigid attributes of high flyers leads to people to waste time influencing both speed and accuracy. 

These findings support a U-shaped relationship—high achievement will initially lead to better performance but the relationship will become weaker and then eventually disappear after it reaches a certain point and this relationship depends on just how complex the job is.  One implication of this finding is that for more routine roles where innovation and intellectual thinking isn’t critical it might be a mistake to hire those on “potential” and drive alone.  In fact, they might do fail in these roles but really shine in more complex positions.

Stress and Job Performance

On the surface, it would appear that the ability to manage emotions, remain calm under pressure and experience less negative states like anxiety would always be desirable.  Researchers have for a long time predicted an “inverted U-shape curve” between stress and performance (Yerkes-Dodson law) but perhaps this curvilinear relationship can explain the modest correlations seen between emotional stability and job performance in the literature.

As emotion (e.g., anxiety) rises, people tend to focus more and concentrate but at higher levels it may interfere with critical thinking, judgment and decision making.  Again, an optimal level of concentration is required to perform well but might be wasted and no longer be helpful.  In a study by Le et al., 2011, the researchers again found a curvilinear relationship between emotional stability, job performance and organizational citizenship behavior.  This research tends to support the notion that there is an optimal midrange level (threshold) of personality and job performance.

Optimism, Self-Efficacy/Self-Esteem

Believing that things will turn out positively and that one gets results based on effort and confidence sounds like it’s a formula for success and productivity. However, new research supports the idea that an “optimal level of optimism” is  desirable because at high levels it would appear that optimism encourages riskier behaviors and expectations that are difficult to meet (Grant, A. & Schwartz, B. (2011).  Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U.  Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 61-76).

According to research, sometimes quitting may actually be better for your health. Psychologist’s Gregory Miller and Carsten Wroshch have found that people who are able to feel comfortable quitting when faced with unattainable goals even when they were optimistic they could complete them may actually have better mental and physical health than those who persevere and push themselves to succeed (Miller, G. & Wrosch, C. (2007). You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in Adolescence. Psychological Science, 18, 773-777).

This study was based on their previous research which found that those persistent individuals in the face of uncontrollable goals actually experienced higher levels of an inflammatory protein called C-reactive protein (an indicator of stress) as well as increased cortisol. Contrary to what we might have been taught, it appears that it might be in our best interests to “cut our losses” in the face of unattainable goals and life challenges and actually disengage from the goal to ensure optimum well-being and potentially long-term health.

Happiness/Life Satisfaction

The happier one is in life the more successful they are right?  Not necessarily.  Longitudinal studies from UK, Germany and Australia suggest that life satisfaction actually has an inverted-U-shaped relationship with income 5 to 15 years later (Oishi, S., Diener, E. & Lucas (2007).  The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy?  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360). In fact, people with the highest levels of happiness achieved lower education and engaged in less political participation that those who were moderately satisfied in life.

Angus Deaton, an economist at the Center for Health and Well-being at Princeton Deaton and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on people’s day-to-day happiness and their overall life satisfaction.  Happiness got better as income rose but the effect leveled out at $75,000 but their overall life satisfaction continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point (Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. PNAS, 107, 16489-16493).

So, it appears that the “inverted-U-curve” is a pretty prevalent phenomenon in psychology and life and helps to answer just how much or too little is needed to be healthy, happy and successful in life.

 I’m sure like all Blogs, there is also an inverted-U-curve about length and attention so off to get my guide dog puppy Rocco out for a training walk…Be well….


The Importance of Psychological Detachment from Work and Vacations

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.


Did you ever take a vacation from work and think you needed a vacation?

Did you ever leave the office but never really leave the office?

Well, here are a few things we know about both taking vacations and getting away from work (emotionally, cognitively and physically) based on some recent research:


The famous Framingham Heart Study followed approximately 12,000 men ages 35 – 57 at risk of heart disease, for nine years. Researchers wanted to know if there were ways to improve the men’s longevity. The participants were asked about a number of lifestyle topics, including vacation. It was found that taking an annual vacation actually cuts the risk of a fatal heart attack for male employees by 32 percent (Brooks, G. & Matthews, K. (2000). Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience after the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 608-612). This held true even when controlling for variables like higher education and income (which are predictive of longer lifespan). It appears that the link between vacation and longevity is undeniable.


Mentally distracting oneself from work during non-work hours can help resource emotional, cognitive and spiritual resources lost because of long hours, work stress and demands (Fritz, C., Yankelevich, M., Zarubin, A. & Barger, P., (2010). Happy, healthy and productive: The role of detachment from work during nonwork time. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 977-983).

At its core, psychological detachment is often conceptualized as specific cognitive and affective states where there is an absence of work related thoughts and feelings. Detachment is different from disengagement as the former means activities, experiences, thoughts and feelings during non-work time and the latter refers to attitudes and behaviors connected with work. Earlier research (e.g., Sonnetag and Fritz, 2007) found significant associations between psychological detachment and well-being such as job burnout ( r = .-56) and life satisfaction (r = .37).

Although talent need to detach from work for well-being and performance, high levels of detachment might take longer to get back into a work mentality and mode which could actually interfere with work performance. Two new studies help to understand whether detachment is important and if so, how much actually is needed.

Sabine Sonnetag from the University of Konstanz and the University of Mainz conducted a 12-month longitudinal study with 309 human service employees to explore the role of psychological detachment when jobs are high in demands (e.g., heavy work load and low control). They found that psychological detachment at work during off–job time significantly predicted less emotional exhaustionand buffered the relationship between job demands, psychosomatic complaints and employee engagement (Sonnetag, S., Binnewies, C. & Mojza, E. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 965-976).

As with their earlier study, these findings again suggest that getting away from work (mentally, emotionally and behaviorally) is most important when we are stressed, have a high workload or overloaded. The lesson from their study is that when job demands are really high employees should use rituals such as winding down at the end of the working day and deliberately use commuting time and off-work time to disengage from job-related thoughts (e.g., avoiding the temptation to check emails or mentally prepare for a meeting or work related interaction scheduled the next day).

Charlotte Fritz and colleagues from Portland State University and Bowling Green University surveyed 172 working adults and measured detachment, emotional exhaustion, life satisfaction, task performance and proactive behavior (i.e., personal imitative) while controlling for negative affectivity, workload, autonomy and demographics. As in previous research, higher level of detachment was related to higher life satisfaction and significantly lower emotional exhaustion. Interestingly, they found a curvilinear association between psychological detachment and coworker reported job performance.

This study seems to suggest that although psychological detachment is indeed associated with enhanced psychological well-being, it appears that a moderate level of detachment is actually most beneficial for job performance.

Lack of detachment might not always be bad–positive work reflection during weekends and holidays increases well-being of employees when they return to work (Sonnetag, 2006) and social support from non-work sources appears to protect physical health and psychological well-being.

So, it appears that getting away from work is important (taking vacations) and mentally detaching generally is conducive for feeling less stress and burnout.

Maybe it’s time to stop reading this LifeHub blog and take a mental vacation!


What People Really Want from Bosses

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

Talent today are stressed, highly disengaged, ready to leave organizations when the economy improves and doing less work with more resources

For example, a late 2010 survey (2,700 employers and 4,800 workers) found:

  • Work/Life Balance and Stress–Just about one quarter (22.0%) reported being stretched and dissatisfied with the lack of work/life balance
  • Compensation–almost a third of all employees (32%) were frustrated with their pay/compensation
  • Career Progression/Advancement–More than a quarter (27%) were dissatisfied with opportunities for upward mobility compared to 24% last year

A survey by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), has confirmed what other surveys have found that that high-potential employees are increasingly disengaged and looking for new career opportunities. Their findings suggest that 25% or more plan to leave their current employers in the next year compared to only 10% in 2006.

More disturbing was that 21% identified themselves as “highly disengaged” which was 3 times more than what was reported in 2007.

Maybe there is a disconnect between what talent are looking for from their leaders and what bosses today think they are doing to keep high performing and high potential talent engaged.

We were interested in mining some data from our own management 360 assessment called Manager View 360 (MV360) and analyzed a random sample of leaders (over 2,500) from diverse industries to compare self-perceptions of strengths with those from direct reports of these leaders. Analysis of this data allows us to at least compare what managers think they are doing behaviorally compared to how their own bosses and direct reports are experiencing them. Any “gaps” might be interpreted as an indicator of what leaders may need to do more frequently or more effectively to meet the needs of those direct reports providing feedback.


We did a comparison of how leaders in managerial positions rated their own strengths and development areas and compared these to how their own bosses and direct reports experienced them. Some interesting conclusions we see.

1. Strengths: Managers seem to feel they create a climate where talent are informed, feel comfortable to share their feelings, develop their teams and are decisive. In general, their bosses agree.

Direct reports in our sample (8,000+) seem to experience leadership above them as pretty strong in various aspects of communication, making quick and firm decisions and effectively delegating.

2. Development Areas: The biggest self-reported are of development for leaders was performance management, holding talent accountable, following up on poor performance and making sure a clear “line of sight” existed between performance goals and evaluating progress. This task orientation was clear with only one interpersonal skills perceived to be lacking by managers–active listening.

Again, bosses of these leaders seemed to also see these same weaknesses–perhaps because they also have a strong task orientation that sets a tone for most managers to follow.

Most interestingly, direct reports seemed to want more participative leadership from their managers. They viewed managers as not demonstrating the “transformational leadership” to resolve interpersonal differences, build a strong team, recognize and reward the efforts of talent working so hard and most importantly–not feeling involved in planning, decision making and problem solving processes that positively contribute towards engagement.

To win the talent war today it appears that managers should sharpen their skills around building high performance teams and increasing the use of participative leadership approaches.

Our data suggests that managers are acting as if they are leading in “white water environments” where decisive, authoritative and transactional approaches to leadership is what is required to facilitate performance and commitment to the discretionary effort required today to survive. However, talent seem to be asking for more involvement in the things they have control over and given the time they are putting in at work, to work on teams they value, enjoy and respect based on how they evaluate the actual practices and behaviors of their leaders.

What do you think talent want from leaders today to remain productive and engaged?”….Be well…


The Heavy Cost of Obesity At Work

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

OK, in the interest of full disclosure I’ve had enough to eat since the beginning of the year to go into hibernation. So I’m entitled a bit to comment on the growing issue of the cost to organizations of leaders and employees who are overweight.

I also have to disclose that I’m married to a registered dietitian who tells me everyday that there are really are no bad foods–only poor diets. At least I still maintain my morning ritual of taking all my inflammatory protective vitamins with Yoohoo and heading out for my morning run at the beach. At long last it seems, CFOs are now my friend when I talk about the cost of poor health habits to the corporate financial waist line.

Here are some things we know about the cost of overweight leaders and talent on absenteeism, presenteeism (being at work but not really being there mentally or physically), disability claims, and health costs:

1. Approximately 44 million American adults (27.6% of men and 33.2% of women) were considered obese in 2005, defined as having a body-mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Baskin ML, Ard J, Franklin F, Allison DB.(2005). Prevalence of obesity in the United States. Obesity Rev. 2005 6, 5-7).

2. The average talent only stays at a job for about 4.5 years, and it actually takes quite a bit longer for health problems due to being overweight to really emerge.

3. Obesity costs U.S. companies more than $13 billion annually in health care costs and is associated with 39 million days lost due to absenteeism, according to the National Business Group on Health (National Business Group on Health

4. Obesity-related claims for short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) indicates a growing health cost to employers. For example, most of the STD and LTD claims submitted to insurance companies in 2005 were directly due to obesity (e.g., gastric bypass procedures) and they were more than double those submitted in 2003.

5. Individuals who are overweight and obese are at much higher risk of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Annual medical expenditures are $732 higher, on average for overweight adults than for those with average or below average BMI, according to a recent study published in Health Affairs.

6. Obesity is estimated to account for 43% of all health care spending by US businesses on employees with coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a range of other fat-related diseases, according to health coaching consultancy Leade Health Inc.

7. Obesity is a greater contributor to chronic health problems and medical spending (30% to 50% higher) compared to either smoking or drinking (Roland Sturm, UCLA/RAND Managed Care Center for Psychiatric Disorders, The Effects of Obesity, Smoking and Drinking on Medical Problems and Costs, Health Affairs, March/April 2002).

8. A recent Duke University study analyzing 11,728 employees over eight years found that overweight workers had 2 times the rate of workers’ compensation claims as their more fit co-workers. The most overweight workers had 13 times more sick days and work-related injuries (Østbye, T, Dement, J. & Krause, K. (2007). Obesity and Workers’ Compensation: Results From the Duke Health and Safety Surveillance System . Archives of Internal Medicine. 167, 766-773).

9. The U. S. 6th District Court determined recently that morbid obesity is generally not a disability for employees and can’t be used as a claim for “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disability act (ADA). This judgment came from a suit from 400-pound Stephen Grindle who claimed he was fired as a driver for Watkins Motor Lines because of his weight.

10. A recent meta-analysis by a group of researchers at John Hopkins University suggest that if the rate of obesity and overweight continues at the current pace, by 2015, 75 percent of adults and nearly 24 percent of U.S. children and adolescents will be overweight or obese.

At least in the retail industry, it seems “shrinkage” these days is on an increase….Be well….

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