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Business Articles

Timely and relevant business advice and news curated by the Chamber. Offering essential information, we will help you succeed and stay current.

February 18, 2019

Article of the Week

How To Stop Overthinking Your Decisions

FastCompany.com

What’s the one thing on your plate that you’ve been putting off making a decision on? Whether it’s a simple decision such as choosing which duct-cleaning company to hire or a more complex one such as whether to accept a new job offer, sitting on a decision can make you feel like you’re paralyzed. You tell yourself, “that’s enough, just pick one and move on.” But the second you make a choice, thoughts of “am I doing the right thing?” start to flood in.

Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do, says overthinking a decision is not only unproductive and hinders you from making any progress, it can also cause some serious health consequences, including increased anxiety and depression, poor quality of sleep, and unhealthy coping skills such as binge eating.

Morin dedicates an entire chapter of her book to the problem of overthinking, and although she says women tend to overthink decisions more than men do, ruminating on a decision has the same negative impacts on both genders.

Try these strategies to avoid the negative consequences of overthinking:

PUT A DEADLINE ON YOUR THOUGHTS

To avoid over-ruminating about a decision, give yourself a time frame to think about it. By telling yourself, “I’m going to make this decision by 2 p.m. today and whatever I decide is going to be fine” means you are giving yourself permission to think about it, but not allowing it to take over other parts of your day.

Morin suggests asking yourself what a reasonable amount of time is to be thinking about this issue. If it’s a small issue such as what paint color to paint your office, perhaps a deadline of 10 minutes is sufficient; whereas a larger decision such as whether to accept a new job offer in another city may warrant a couple of days of thought.

SCHEDULE YOUR THINKING TIME

One of the problems overthinkers often face is thinking about their problems all day long, or at inopportune times, such as during an important meeting. To avoid this, Morin suggests scheduling a specific time where you give yourself the freedom to think about the issue you need to make a decision about. If thoughts about the issue creep into your brain before your scheduled thinking time, telling yourself “No, I’m going to think about that after dinner, not during this meeting” can help you to push those thoughts away, knowing you’ll come back to it later.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROBLEM SOLVING AND WORRYING

While for most of us, overthinking stems from a fear of the consequences of taking action A or B, Morin says those who are chronic overthinkers often believe that they can solve a problem by continuing to pound away, thinking about it. But worrying, Morin says, is not the same as actively solving a problem. While dwelling on a problem, thinking “this is horrible, I can’t handle this” or rehashing things that happened in the past are an unproductive use of your time, thinking about what steps you can take to improve the situation or actively thinking of a solution to the problem are helpful toward moving forward. Becoming aware of when your thinking is unhelpful and when it’s actively problem solving can help you to ensure your time spent thinking isn’t just adding to your stress.

TAKE A BREAK

You know the expression “sleeping on a problem,” well, that’s because sometimes we’re better at solving a problem when we’re not thinking about it. “Sometimes we make better decisions when we let those ideas percolate in our brain,” says Morin. Letting the inactive parts of your brain work through the problem can let the answer come to you when you’re not expecting it.

When you find yourself overthinking about a problem, try to change the channel in your brain by moving on to another subject or changing your physical space by going for a walk, or moving your laptop to a conference room to work on something else.


February 11, 2019

Article of the Week

7 Steps to Running Better Meetings

SHRM.org

We love to hate meetings. We groan about how annoying they are. We crack jokes about how much time gets wasted, about bureaucracy run amok. But it’s not really a laughing matter. 

Poorly run meetings can sap the lifeblood out of an organization. Not only are they mentally draining, but they can leave staff disengaged and demoralized, experts say.

On average, office workers spend 21 percent of their time in meetings and feel 25 percent of it is wasted, according to the results of a recent survey of 1,000 employees by Accountemps. One of the top complaints was that meetings are called to relay information that could have been communicated via e-mail.

Managers are also dissatisfied. In a Harvard Business School study last year, researchers found that 71 percent of the 182 senior managers interviewed said meetings were unproductive and inefficient, and 65 percent said meetings kept them from completing their work.

Fortunately, leaders can help improve how meetings are run. Indeed, their behavior is critical to achieving better results and a more positive outlook and engagement from employees, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. In an earlier University of North Carolina study, researchers found a link between how workers feel about the effectiveness of meetings and their job satisfaction.

Other studies have found that dysfunctional communication in team meetings can have a negative impact on team productivity and the organization’s success.

What happens in these gatherings is a reflection of the workplace culture, experts say.

“It gets down to identity and performance,” says J. Elise Keith, co-founder of Lucid Meetings in Portland, Ore., and author of Where the Action Is (Second Rise, 2018). “The way in which an organization runs its meetings determines how it views itself.”

“Bad meetings are almost always a symptom of deeper issues,” Keith notes in her book.

Unfortunately, many business leaders don’t receive adequate training on how to manage or facilitate meetings, she says. “I believe that a lot of leaders have bought into the idea that poor meetings are inevitable.” 

Here are 7 steps to making the time employees spend together more meaningful:

1. Prepare. Are you clear on the meeting’s purpose? What is your desired outcome? How will you achieve that?

More prep time is typically devoted to senior-level meetings compared to those held for individuals in lower-level positions, says Paul Axtell, a corporate trainer and author of Meetings Matter (Jackson Creek, 2015). He says that executive get-togethers are more effective “because people take them seriously.”

2. Limit the number of participants. The most productive meetings have fewer than eight participants, Axtell says. A larger group will leave some disengaged or resentful that their time is being wasted. 

3. Send an agenda and background material in advance. If you want a thoughtful discussion, give your team members time to think about the problem or proposal that the meeting will focus on, he says.

4. Start and end on time. Don’t punish people for being punctual by waiting on late stragglers to get started. At the same time, it’s best not to jump right to the heart of the discussion in the first few minutes, Keith says. Provide a soft transition that will help those coming from other meetings to refocus. 

5. Make sure all attendees can participate. One common complaint about meetings is that a few people tend to dominate the conversation. Call on other individuals to share what they think, Axtell says. Who is most likely to hold a different view? Who will be most affected by the outcome? Who has institutional knowledge that might be useful? Think about who to draw out on specific topics as you prepare. You’ll collect more ideas and leave participants with a more positive experience.

To feel good about work, people need to feel included and valued. “That means you have a voice and are allowed to express your opinions,” Axtell says. 

Because you’re a leader, your views already hold more weight. If you share them too early, you may discourage others from presenting alternate perspectives. Focus on listening, and stay out of the discussion as long as you can, he says. You might learn something.

Avoid PowerPoint slides or other technology if it’s not required for an agenda item. They tend to shut down dialogue, Axtell says. 

A surefire way for leaders to alienate participants is to use up most of the meeting time presenting a proposal and leave only a few minutes for questions and comments, Keith says. When people do speak up, thank them for their contributions. And use their ideas, she says. 

6. Keep a written record. Posting the meeting agenda and taking notes that everyone can access will help keep participants on track. Unfortunately, many organizations fail to do so, Keith says. The written record ensures that faulty memories or differing interpretations don’t lead people down the wrong path. Are the notes detailed enough to allow you to tackle the action items days later? Are the deadlines reasonable? Be realistic. It doesn’t help the team to accept a giant list of action items that it likely can’t complete, she says.

7. Follow up. What percentage of the action items get completed by the deadlines? If you don’t achieve 85 percent, participants’ sense of effectiveness breaks down and they may disengage, Axtell says. Most groups complete just 50 percent to 60 percent. 

“Whether you pay attention to them or not, meetings are in fact where your teams and your people are learning how they should behave and what they should be doing,” Keith says. “So identify the specific types of meetings your organization needs to run. Find great examples of how to run those meetings. You shouldn’t have to invent it. And set up a system that people can use successfully to become the organization that you want to become.”


February 4, 2019

Article of the Week

How to Maximize Revenue Outside of Sales Seasons

Inc.com

In the U.S., the sale of the year happens during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping period. For consumers, it's a chance to purchase products at competitive discounts. For retailers, it's an opportunity to generate an outsize amount of revenue to offset the sales slump from slower months. Outside of these popular sales events though, many brands struggle to maintain a consistent inflow of customers.

At my company Amerisleep, we've learned how to season-proof our business, allowing us to maximize revenue throughout the year rather than relying on sales weekends to keep our finances healthy.

To minimize our reliance on shopping periods, we invest in brand and direct response marketing. This increases consumers' familiarity with our products and their willingness to buy now instead of waiting for a bigger promotion later.

Below are just a few ways in which you can increase customer orders during non-sales seasons.

1. Improve organic SEO for generic and trademarked terms.

Data from a 2014 survey by Moz shows that the top result for a Google search receives over 30 percent of all clicks. The same study also reveals that more than 71 percent of searchers won't even bother to advancing to the second page before making their decision.

To capture more market share, you'll want to prioritize your organic SEO strategy. Include trademarked terms to engage audiences who are already familiar with your brand and target generic search terms to attract customers who haven't yet heard about you.

All throughout the year, consumers are eager to learn more about your products and industry. Create content that addresses their questions and ranks well in the search results to consistently secure new sales.

2. Audit your conversion funnel and update bottlenecks.

In today's digital-dominated world, the assumption is most e-commerce brands already offer an optimized website experience. And yet, we all still come across pages and stores that seem to place more obstacles than opportunities for us to complete a purchase.

Casual consumers who aren't incentivized by a deep discount won't tolerate bottlenecks that overcomplicate the checkout process. People are perfectly comfortable waiting several days to receive their product, but not several minutes to place an order.

To overcome this, you should analyze every step of the online shopping experience to ensure all pages, images, modules, and lines of code work cohesively to facilitate higher conversions. Each element of the marketing journey, product discovery, and product education process must be logical, fast, and relevant. As customers move to complete their purchase, your website should guide them through to minimize cart abandonment and add value to every stage of the funnel.

3. Strategically bundle products together.

Product bundling is an effective way for e-commerce companies to increase their average order value and offer strategic discounts to customers during non-sales periods. When shoppers buy a product bundle, they can take advantage of on ongoing deal and feel less compelled to wait for larger discounts later.

Of course, another way in which consumers win with product bundling is when your package deal includes items that complement each other. For instance, our Amerisleep Adjustable Bed Package provides shoppers with their mattress of choice and an adjustable base so they can experience a more technologically-advanced and comprehensive sleeping experience.

4. Implement a cohesive retargeting strategy.

In order to consistently attract customers outside of the traditional sales seasons, you have to invest in developing brand awareness and nurturing new leads. Since doing so can be costly, you'll want to make sure every dollar you put into your marketing spend can convert back into positive and tangible ROI long-term.

Research from a 2014 report by Episerver suggests, "92 percent of first-time visitors to a website do not intend to make a purchase." So, if you aren't prepared to engage them after they leave then you automatically discard 92 percent of your marketing investment.

To maximize the value of your marketing budget and generate more revenue throughout the year, deploy retargeting ads to re-engage shoppers who've heard about you in the past and need additional information before they're ready to place an order.


January 28, 2019

Article of the Week

Why It's Good For You To Be Wrong 

FastCompany.com

Few people like being wrong. It can feel humbling, uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing. But what if we’re wrong about being wrong? Being wrong can be one of the best things you can be, says Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and author of the new book Questions are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life.

“We’re deeply connected to answers being more important than questions,” he says. “We get advanced and promoted by having the right answers. Schools are especially exceptional at shutting down questions, telling kids and young adults that the way to get ahead here is by rapidly spitting back the right answers.”

As a result, many of us don’t feel comfortable talking about problems, challenges, struggles, and things we don’t know. If you’re a manager, it can be even harder. Leaders are supposed to have all of the answers, keeping their weaknesses to themselves. They’re supposed to know with conviction the right direction for the company.

“Going about your day being more answer-centered and right-focused is like living in an isolation chamber,” says Gregersen. “You stay in a space with people who reinforce what you already know. Acknowledging where your thinking is wrong, however, is how you stay in question mode. The longer we stay in wrongness, the more likely we are to stumble over catalytic questions that others have not yet thought to ask.”

Questions don’t simply arise when we’re wrong, says Gregersen; they come when we think we’re wrong. “Instead of waking up trying to confirm what you already believe, adopt a growth mindset,” he says. “Go into your day saying, ‘I know there’s some corner of my mental model that’s off. How and when am I going to surface that. What can I do today to reframe something I see in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise?'”

STRONG LEADERS AREN’T AFRAID OF BEING WRONG

A good example of someone who embraces being wrong is Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer. He regularly challenges his mental models in two ways. The first is by creating “crucible” experiences. When he faces moments of adversity, he uses them to spark deep levels of self-reflection. The second is by deliberately raising questions that challenge his mental models.

In Gregersen’s book, Wilke says: “If you never ask questions and you never experience anything new and you never enter any crucibles, your model becomes stale. You don’t really build any new awareness of the world. But if you seek out things that you don’t know, and you have the courage to be wrong, to be ignorant–to have to ask more questions and maybe be embarrassed socially–then you build a more complete model, which serves you better in the course of your life.”

Several successful leaders welcome being wrong, says Gregersen. “Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP, wakes up every day wondering what he’s dead wrong about,” he says. “Spanx CEO Sara Blakely grew up with her father asking her, ‘What did you fail at this week?’ If by the end of the week she hadn’t failed, she wasn’t trying hard enough. She said she learned that being wrong leads you to the next best thing. Without being willing to be wrong, she wouldn’t be where she is today.”

PRACTICE BEING WRONG

The way to embrace being wrong is to do it more often, says Gregersen. Learn a new skill, such as a craft or a new language. Confront ideas or perspectives that you don’t agree with or understand. Or visit a foreign country. By going into a new situation, you quickly learn what it’s like to not have any answers.

You can also put yourself into places where you can bump into passive data. For example, instead of sitting in a corner office, GM CEO Mary Barra visits plants, looking for something new.

“On one visit Mary noticed someone on the assembly line who had built a tool uniquely fitted for them,” says Gregersen. “She took 20 minutes out of the tour to go over to the person and ask questions. ‘What’s going on here? What’s the point? Why do you need it?’ She was trying to figure out some crucial edges of system.”

Or surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you you’re wrong. At Pixar, for example, story ideas are pitched and explored with positive and constructive negative feedback. “It’s exhaustive but intense crucial data,” says Gregersen. “The feedback is not about person; it’s the movie they’re building and developing. You have to have created safe spaces for toughest questions to be asked and answered to build something better.”

Being wrong is the key to success in a world that’s operating on the edge of uncertainty, says Gregersen. “It’s unnerving and fearful for so many people,” he says. “But that’s the way to get to an answer no one thought about. It’s counterintuitive. We want to race to solve something when confronted with challenge. Instead, step back and create conditions that make you wrong. The questions will surface and unlock the window of an answer that otherwise would not have come.”


January 21, 2019

Article of the Week

Why Open Secrets Exist in Organizations

HarvardBusinessReview.com

In 2017, the New York Times broke the now widely-known scandal of media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s apparent decades-long pattern of sexual abuse and harassment. The story came as a shock to the public. However, as details emerged it became clear that Weinstein’s transgressions were not unknown to Hollywood insiders. They were, in fact, an “open secret.”

This raises the question: Why do issues remain open secrets in organizations where multiple employees know about a problem or a concern, but no one publicly brings it up? We explore this in a set of studies recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.

We found that as issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of the top-management decreased. Instead of speaking up, what we observed among our participants was something like the bystander effect, psychological phenomena describing how people stay on the sidelines as passive bystanders, waiting for others to act rather than do something themselves.

The bystander effect can be understood with an example: Imagine Jane, a member of an engineering team at a company. The top management of the company is eager to release a product to the market before competitors mimic it. However, a bug in the product has been uncovered, and someone needs to bring up the issue. When Jane is the only member of the team who is aware of the issue, she would feel a personal responsibility to alert her managers of the problem. But, when her team members—John, Jack, and Julia—also know about the bug, Jane might feel that approaching leadership isn’t solely her responsibility. She becomes less likely to speak up, and for the very same reason, John, Jack, and Julia are also less likely to do so.

Indeed, our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up. They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it convenient to psychologically pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.

Considered from this perspective, it starts to make more sense why problems—such as harassment and abusive supervision—can remain unaddressed for so long without anyone taking action. Voicing such issues is, after all, risky, as individuals can often be punished or put down for speaking up. Thus, when Jane, John, Jack and Julia all know about the same concern, each tends to wait for one of the others to take on the risks of speaking up and feels less personally guilt or duty-bound to bring up the issue him or herself. The bystander effect kicks in, and diffusion of responsibility prevents issues from percolating up to managers.

Our research

We found these results consistently across three studies. Our first study was in the India branch of a Fortune 500 electronics company in which we surveyed 132 employees (from 25 teams) and their managers, about their work and how often they spoke up in the team. We carefully mapped out the workflow in each team. This allowed us track the extent to which each employee in the sample had opportunities to observe the same work-related problems as their peers. We also asked the managers to report on the extent to which their employees raised ideas or concerns with them.

We found that the more employees observed problems that they thought were also observed by their peers, the less willing they were to speak up to their managers about those problems. In other words, when multiple employees knew about an issue, each one became less willing to speak up about it.

In the second study, we conducted a behavioral experiment with 163 undergraduate students at an Eastern U.S. university. Students read about an issue concerning the lack of shuttle buses between distant campus buildings. Students then had the option to raise this issue to the University Senate, which would involve writing to the Senate and potentially meeting with a director at the Senate to discuss the issue. We then randomly assigned students to either a condition in which they learned that their peers were aware of the issue or a condition in which they learned that they were the only one aware of the issue.

As we expected, students who believed their peers were also aware of the issue reported a greater sense of diffusion of responsibility to speak up relative to those who believed they were the only ones aware of the issue. In fact, those who believed they were the only ones aware of the issue were 2.5 times more likely to volunteer to personally raise the issue with the Senate.

In a third study, we conducted another behavioral experiment with 440 working adults, who read a realistic scenario about a problem with a product they were creating in their unit. We again found that participants were less likely to report being willing to speak up about the problem to company management when their peers also knew about the problem, because they felt psychologically less responsible for raising the concern.

In all three studies, our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference. For instance, even when employees reported feeling confident about their ability to speak up, they did not bring up issues when they knew that their peers were equally aware of them.

What managers should take away

Our research suggests that the bystander effect can be real and strong in organizations, especially when problems linger out in the open to everyone’s knowledge. So if you’re wondering why that particular boss seems to get away with bad behavior, or why no one has spoken up about an obvious glitch in the company product, consider whether everyone—including yourself—might be waiting for someone else to take action.

So, what can managers do to avoid the bystander effect so that problems don’t go unresolved? A few key recommendations:

To begin with, managers should tell employees that their voices are not redundant and that they need to share their opinions even if others have the same information. Put simply, managers might adjust the now-familiar injunction as follows: “If you see something, say something (even if others see the same thing).”

Importantly, the bystander effect occurs because the work culture of many organizations encourages passing the buck and blending into the crowd rather than individual responsibility. Employees are afraid of standing up and speaking truth to power. Managers who explicitly reward rather than punish acts of individual courage can get their employees off the sidelines to act as engaged citizens at the workplace.

Steps such as these can help organizations avoid the burgeoning of “open secrets” and of unresolved yet commonly known problems that no one seems to do anything about.

Sue Lambert Senior Manager at UHY LLP, Certified Public Accountants Sue Lambert has been promoted to Senior Manager in UHY LLP’s tax department. Sue brings over 25 years of experience with a specialization in closely held businesses and professional service industries.  She is a Certified Public Accountant admitted in New York. Her experience…
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