386 Valerie Alexander: Profiting from Happiness
How happy is your workplace? Does your company inspire a happiness culture? Where team members feel fulfilled, motivated and aligned? Or is it like most offices … where uninspired management results in toxic gossip, absenteeism, and bullying. Workplace unhappiness costs U.S. businesses $550 million a year in lost productivity.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an inspiring entrepreneur who has made it her business to understand workplace happiness.
Valerie Alexander is a keynote speaker, tech CEO, bestselling author and Hollywood screenwriter who started her career as an IPO lawyer and investment banker in Silicon Valley.
A nationally recognized voice on Happiness as well as Unconscious Bias and the Advancement of Women, Valerie recently founded Goalkeeper, a tech company that makes it easier for you to make the people you love happy. She’s also the author of Happiness as a Second Language, and How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”).
Today on Wings we’re going to get the inside skinny on how to create a great (and happy) company culture, where your team members feel fulfilled, motivated, inspired – and why this is the secret to growing a successful scalable company.
And first, time is running out to join us at the transformational Wings Retreat and Business Mastermind for women entrepreneurs. We’re gathering in Scottsdale twice this fall for 4 days of actionable business aha’s and healing (and a whole year of masterminding) so you can manifest abundance in ALL areas of your life – wealth, health, happiness, love, influence, opportunity, support, impact, and time freedom. If this sounds good, apply now before spaces disappear. Wingsexperiences.com/apply
Now back to the inspiring Valerie Alexander.
Valerie started her career in Silicon Valley as a securities lawyer, an investment banker, a consultant to venture capital firms and an Internet executive before transitioning into the entertainment industry.
Along the way she learned a lot about the difference between men and women in the workplace, and why the way our brains evolved over millions of years … explains a lot. She shares today the details of that neuroscience research – and what women can do to thrive in cultures built by and for men. Where can we best leverage our natural talents for inclusiveness, empathy and relationship – and how can we change the culture game.
Valerie is a nationally recognized expert and keynote speaker on the advancement of women – as well as company culture. I’ve had the opportunity to share the stage with Valerie at a retreat called Relentless, and she wow’s the crowd with her insights. She wrote the bestseller Happiness as a Second Language, as well as the book How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having “Female Brains”). Her TED Talk, “How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias” has been seen and shared around the globe and she was honored to be invited to be the commencement speaker at her Alma Mater, Trinity University.
Valerie recently returned to her corporate roots as the founder and CEO of Goalkeeper, a tech startup that builds communication platforms that make it easier for you to make the people you love happy, starting with their first product, SuperHappyCouples.
Valerie also writes Christmas movies for the Hallmark Channel, which she knows you secretly love, even though you’ll only admit to watching them with your mom.
She’s worked with Joel Schumacher, Catherine Zeta Jones, Ice Cube and others. She has written, produced and directed more than 50 commercials, short films and public service announcements, including the award winning, “Ballpark Bullies,” and the groundbreaking commercial, “Say I Do,” in support of marriage equality.
Melinda Wittstock: Valerie, welcome to Wings.
Valerie Alexander: Thank you, Melinda. I am so happy to be here.
Melinda Wittstock: Well, I'm happy you're here to because of course we're going to talk about happiness. And you know, I'm struck by just these stats about companies in the United States losing hundreds of billions of dollars just by messing up culture. What is going wrong?
Valerie Alexander: It's interesting. I think people hear that number and think, “That has to an exaggeration,” and it's not. Gallup has been studying this for two decades now. The actual number they came up with in their latest State of the American Workforce is $550 billion is lost in productivity in America only every year because of unhappiness, isolating for all other factors. Unhappiness in the workplace costs $550 billion a year. And when you think about where those losses come from, look at any company, it's from turnover and absenteeism which are the two biggest labor costs we have. And then, add in there that unhappy people are the ones who steal. They're the ones who engage in workplace bullying. They're more likely to get you sued by another employee or a client. They're giving bad service. And the research goes even further than that. They're more likely to have an injury on the job. They're going to file a Workers Compensation claim. On average, their Workers Compensation claims cost you more. It is insane the snowball effect of unhappiness.
Valerie Alexander: And so, you asked what is going on?
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. What is happening and who … It makes so much sense. Who wants to work in an unhappy place? How can unhappy people be productive?
Valerie Alexander: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: It doesn't make any sense. So where are companies going wrong? Why are they fostering this unhappiness?
Valerie Alexander: After having done enormous amounts of research on this, getting a certification in the science of happiness from Berkeley, I have a theory that is proving right with every company I go into to speak to or to assess. And it all comes down to what I call accidental managers. We put people in charge of other people without even thinking if they have any managerial training at all. And that happens by virtue of title or seniority or education level or it happens in so many industries. Everybody right now is hearing this and thinking, “Oh yes. I remember when that happened.”
Melinda Wittstock: I guess it's the Peter Principle: You get promoted above your ability. But then people get promoted who are good at doing something. It's like this promotion but without any management training.
Valerie Alexander: None. And it's so funny, in tech, your best software developer suddenly becomes lead software developer. And now, they're over other people. Something they never wanted. They never wanted to do that. That's why they became a software developer. But also, we have no acknowledgment. I practiced law … and I went back and taught at Berkeley law … and I took an hour out of my syllabus to teach my students, “Here's how you speak to your assistant.” And some students thought that was a complete waste of time. And then, a year later or two years later, I started getting the emails. It's like, “Oh wow, I'm so glad I knew this.” Or, “I can't believe what some of my colleagues are doing.”
I will get booked by a law firm to do a happiness in the workplace talk for their staff. I always find that so fascinating. You know, if you did the happiness in the workplace talk for the attorneys, maybe you wouldn't need it for the staff. But all the time-
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Valerie Alexander: … I'll say, “How many managers do you have?” And in a large law firm, they'll say, “Probably about 12.” They're thinking their office managers, their benefit managers. And I always say, “Really? Because you have 600 attorneys. And every one of them has an assistant and everyone of them has a paralegal, and most of them have junior associates. And they've never been given a minute of training on how to inspire those people, how to encourage them, how to bring the best out of them.” I tell everybody, “If you are good at everything else in your job, but you are great at getting the best out of the people who answer to you, that skill will pay off exponentially and far reaching throughout your career.”
Melinda Wittstock: Well, this is absolutely true for entrepreneurs because nobody ever built a great company without inspiring a team and getting the best out of that team.
Valerie Alexander: I will share with you a story from a different part of my life. I was a screenwriter and a film director and the very first short film I ever made, we had an enormous crew. We had 26 speaking parts and a 37-person crew. That's unheard of for a short film, especially we were … my co-producer and I were first-time producers. I was a first time director. And we told everybody up front, the crew, we said, “We can't give you pay, but we can give you respect.”
Valerie Alexander: And we had a first AD, first assistant director, who … the first assistant director is kind of the field general on any film set. They are the ones that are making sure that everything moves on time. And we had a first assistant director who screamed at people. And she screamed through their walkies. This was somebody who was working without pay with a headset on getting screamed at. And by the end of the second day … of a four day shoot … my co-producer and I said, “We can't let this keep happening.” So we called her and said, “You're not coming back tomorrow.” And then, it occurred to me, I wanted to let everybody know just so that they weren't surprised.
Valerie Alexander: And so, I called every other member of the crew that night and I said, “I want to let you know we got rid of that person.” And we were able to replace that person by the next day. And I said, “We have a different person coming in who will not ever scream at you.” Half the people I called said, “Oh, I'm so glad you called. I wasn't going to show up tomorrow.”
Melinda Wittstock: Wow. Wow.
Valerie Alexander: Can you imagine what would have happened if half my crew didn't show up?
Melinda Wittstock: Right. I had a similar experience once in a company several companies ago. And I'd hired someone that I just had this niggle wasn't working out. He was in a management position. I agonized for weeks, perhaps even months, I don't know. It felt like weeks but I think it was months … about whether or not to fire him because he wasn't really bad. He hadn't done anything really wrong. He was a nice guy. He was just kind of meh, and meh wasn't good enough. And things just weren't happening properly and I thought, “How can I fire somebody for just kind of an also-ran, just being unrelentingly average. Right? What are the grounds for that? How do I do that? Finally, I did it. I just did it. It's like, “Look, it's not working out.” Every single person on the team came up to me in the next couple of days and thanked me. And I was so surprised because I had thought that they would be upset, and they were thrilled. And it was such an interesting lesson, really.
Valerie Alexander: In that situation, it was just somebody who was dragging the team down in a way that felt palpable to them.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. There was just no inspiration. There was nothing bad or wrong. No one was being bullied. Nothing dramatic was happening. It just wasn't good.
Valerie Alexander: But I will share with you, the other half of that that we absolutely have to talk about is when there is bad. When there's bullying, when there's a screamer, when there's a gossip, when there is a person who can … the all encompassing phrase for it is toxic.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes.
Valerie Alexander: If you have a toxic person in your workplace, get rid of them immediately. I can't … well, counsel them first. And I'm going to give everybody the best tip of all. When you have to counsel toxic, first off, do it behind a closed door. Ask that person to come into your office and close the door. If you don't have an office, go to a Starbucks or go to a supply closet, I don't care, but behind a closed door. And you sit down and you open with the phrase, “I'm wondering if you're aware.” You say, “I'm wondering if you're aware of how your behavior affects your coworkers. I'm wondering if you're aware what it does to this team when you come in here and complain about this job every day.”
And that starts a conversation. And that's important. Have that conversation and listen to what they're saying but I can't emphasize this enough, that is a conversation, it is not a negotiation because they're going to get defensive. They're going to blame other people. They're going to try to get you to back down from your belief. And at the end of that conversation, it has to be without question, carved in stone, “This behavior is going to change. And if this behavior doesn't change, you will go.”
And I do toxic companies all the time about happiness in the workplace or at conferences. And Melinda, you were in one where I asked in the room, “How many people have ever worked at a company where there was a toxic person and management knew it and didn't do anything about it?”
Melinda Wittstock: I think everybody.
Valerie Alexander: Every hand goes up. Every one. And yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: It reminded me of something a long time ago when I worked at the BBC. I finally understood Monty Python like really well. Monty Python was about the BBC. I loved the BBC. It was great working there. And this was the place where we joked that when we played musical chairs, they added one. Right? Or we joked about the program prevention unit. There was a team that was working really, really well together and the show was great. It was all doing really well. And then, they'd break up the team. And you'd be like why? It was awesome. It was working really well. What was that about?
Valerie Alexander: The interesting thing about that, I spoke at the Women's Rights National Historical Park and one of the women there said to me afterwards that in the National Park Service, they have a phrase they call disciplinary promotions.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Valerie Alexander: It's when someone … and usually a man … is particularly bad at his job or difficult, their way to get rid of him is to promote him to move him somewhere else.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, yeah. That happens a lot.
Valerie Alexander: And I also want to share that toxic and unhappiness are two things that if they were in your P&L statement, you would pay attention to them really quickly. I spoke at the legal department of a major retailer. I'm not going to mention who but every one of us has shopped there. And it's too long a story to go into but I figured out very quickly there was a toxic person in the room.
And afterwards, I talked to the general council and I said, “By the way, you have a toxic employee.” And he said, “Oh, I know I have a toxic employee.” And I said, “Then why is that person still here?” And he said, “I need her.” And I said, “All right then, I'm going to give you a little homework. I want you to make a list of everybody you've lost in the last two years. And then, draw a chart of concentric circles spreading out from her and plot each of them on it whether it's where they sat in their desk or how closely they had to work with her to get their job done.” And he called me two weeks later and said, “She's gone,” because he had never bothered to track who was losing.
And I say this a lot, “No one has ever told the truth in an exit interview.” People in an exit interview say, “Oh, I want to spend time with my family,” or, “I've decided to go somewhere where I might be able to advance more rapidly,” or blah, blah, blah. They're not saying, “Well, I can't stand another day of that nightmare human being you're forcing me into a relationship with.”
And so, as soon as you notice toxic, pay attention to what it's costing you. As soon as you notice unhappiness, pay attention to what it's costing you. And let's go into the more important parts here which is how to achieve happiness. Because a lot of people say, “That culture ship has sailed. There's no way we're changing the culture of our company.” Because changing culture is like turning an aircraft carrier. And I'm telling you, you can achieve more happiness at a better culture as if you're powering a little airboat Zodiac.
Melinda Wittstock: This is so true. Turning around something is really hard but as you're … say as an entrepreneur, you're building a culture so you have every reason to get it right from the outset. And what do you recommend founders do? Say for instance, they're starting out, they're in the solopreneur phase and now they have their first kind of vendors and EAs and VAs and that kind of thing. And now, they're hiring people. And that's the time to really get that right, but you have to be intentional about it. What do you recommend? What should they be doing and thinking?
Valerie Alexander: First off, make sure everybody who is in charge of other people is trained to be a manager. Don't have anybody accidentally get in charge of other people without giving them at least an hour of the basics. And here is a big basic, you admonish in private and you acknowledge in public. If you have to praise somebody, praise them loudly and in front of other people. If you have to correct somebody, you do it behind a closed door. That's a basic that a lot of people don't know instinctively. They never worked in a workplace where that happens and it's never been discussed.
But I want to talk about the much bigger happiness things that companies can do. And it doesn't matter if you're a startup or if you're a mid level manager at a multinational insurance company, this is the most important thing I can tell you as far as the people who work for you.
The number one factor in determining someone's happiness and engagement and satisfaction in their job is the sense of accomplishment they get out of doing it. And think about that for yourself. Of course, that's true for you so it's true for the people who answer to you as well. So find a way to give everybody a sense of accomplishment. Don't change the goal line on somebody. If you've given someone tasks to do, when they complete each task, acknowledge that the task was completed. Say, “That's great. Thank you.” And express confidence in people's work. “I knew I could count on you to handle that.” Or express the confidence when you're assigning the task. Say, “We really need someone on top of this and I know you can handle it so I'm trusting you with it.” Do everything in your power not to micromanage. People also get satisfaction in their jobs and get happiness from autonomy.
But everybody has to feel like they're doing something, that they're contributing to the outcome, that they're making progress on work that matters. That their role makes a difference in where the company goes, where the company gets to. And we have so many structures in place that rob people of that that teamwork is good. It's important. Reward teams for what the team does but make sure each person knows what their contribution in that team is.
I say if somebody is standing on a factory line turning a screw at one point in the production process, take that person and take them to the end … the far beginning of that assembly line … to where the raw materials show up and walk them down the assembly line and say, “These are where the raw materials show up. These people sort them into bins. These people load the machine that presses them into parts. These people assemble those parts. And then, it gets to you. And when it gets to you and you turn that screw, that honors all of their work but more importantly that is the next step before the next group of people buffs those parts and then the next group paints them. Then, the next group puts them in packaging. And then, here, look at these things coming off the assembly line. They're about to be shipped to our customers. And look, here's a couple letters we've gotten from customers about how much they love these products. You are part of that.”
Melinda Wittstock: So profound. I think the other way to look at it too is not just the money that's being lost by not doing these things that are so actually quite easy when you think about it.
Valerie Alexander: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: They're actually super, super easy. But on the other flip side of it, if you look at a company like Zappos which built its business on the basis of culture and customer service and sold to Amazon for a billion dollars. The reason Amazon bought it, it wasn't doing anything that Amazon couldn't do, but it did have something that Amazon didn't, which was this amazing culture, and this culture of happiness. And this culture of happiness extended out to the customer, so the customers felt happy so the customers were loyal. That was a billion dollar company. So you can create dramatic valuation growth by getting this right as well. It's just a no brainer.
Valerie Alexander: Also, I want to hop in. I toured Zappos. By the way, they have free tours. If you're ever in Vegas-
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, me too. Did you meet the llama?
Valerie Alexander: I don't remember the llama.
Melinda Wittstock: They had a llama. When I was there, they had a llama. So I hung out with the llama. It was hilarious.
Valerie Alexander: That's funny. For me, I was most fascinated with the customer service floor. For one thing, everybody in that company, every single person regardless of their job has to spend one hour … I don't know whether it's a month or a year. It might just be a year … on customer service phone calls. So everyone has to hear what the customer experience is. But what I thought was amazing is everyone in customer service was empowered to do whatever they felt necessary to keep the customer happy all the way to sending them a free pair of shoes. There are all kinds of incentive things that they'll drop in a box for someone from customer service. And that's, the people I spoke to who are in those roles, loved doing that.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. Do you think … just bringing it back to the unique abilities of women and some of our unique challenges too … on this culture piece and on the happiness, what are some things that perhaps women are uniquely empowered to do? When I think of our archetypal feminine qualities like intuition or empathy or relationship that you'd think that this would make us uniquely qualified as leaders and managers to do a better job. Where are we strong and where do we need a little bit of work as women?
Valerie Alexander: All of my work on the advancement of women in the workplace revolves around evolutionary biology and brain science, and particularly the evolution of the brain. And I will make this as quick as I can in terms of the description but our brains evolved differently, the male brain and the female brain, evolved with different sets of instincts. And this has now been proven through FMRI technology, functional MRIs. We can watch the male brain and the female brain function and we know they function differently.
One example is when a man is given a business problem, the synapses in his brain fire front to back which is how our brains respond when they're leaping into action. And when a woman is given the same business problem, the synapses in her brain fire side to side, which is how our brains react when we're analyzing something. So the natural female instinct is to analyze. The natural male instinct is to leap into action.
I'm going to go through a couple more. In our prefrontal cortex, which evolved itself into existence after we were already living in tribes and separating our tasks by gender, the male brain formed a instinct for hierarchy because their social interaction processing center in their prefrontal cortex was being developed through hunting and combat. The female brain was evolving with instinct for social interaction around a campfire doing everything collectively and collusively.
And so, what happens is in the corporate world, the corporate world was structured by men, so the social interaction within corporations is hierarchical-based. The social interaction among groups of women is much more consensus-based and consensus building.
And so, the reason we have leadership traits like quick decision making, putting out fires, taking risk is because those are the male instincts and the corporate world was built to reward male instincts. Nobody stopped and asked, “Wow, does this get us to the best outcomes?” And in the places that are run by women using the female instincts, which are for cooperation, inclusion, much lower focus on hierarchy, much bigger focus on getting all the facts before making a decision, mitigating risk, these are all really valuable traits, really valuable.
So I never tell women to behave like men in a corporation or in any structure in which they're trying to advance. You bring so much value as a woman, there's no reason to start behaving like men but look at what's getting rewarded and if that's going to be rewarded, if the only way you advance is to display certain traits like quick decision making, like taking a risk, then display the trait that will get you rewarded but don't abandon the instinct that you're bringing to the table already.
Valerie Alexander: One of the biggest ones for women is inclusion. Again, women made decisions … from seven million to two million years ago, women made decisions around a campfire and that's our prefrontal cortex evolved itself into existence. It started about two million years ago. It took about 1.2 million years to happen, where everybody's opinion is heard, everybody is included. That really does get to better outcomes. And it really makes employees feel more valued, especially if they feel heard. But when I describe a meeting where everybody gets to contribute, I see men roll their eyes. That feels like a root canal to them.
I had a man on LinkedIn. I posted something about how to get better outcomes for your company and one was have a meeting where you force the people who always input to just listen to the people who never input and this guy responded in the comment and it was like, “You're so effing stupid. Nobody wants another meeting. As soon as you suggest having more meetings, then I know you know nothing about how companies work.” It was crazy. The vitriol was stunning. But also, I'm sorry. The phrase, “Nobody wants another meeting,” that's not true. Women actually like having more meetings if it means they're getting closer to a better outcome.
But the other thing that women have to get really good at is making the decision. Make the decision and then move forward with it with confidence. And confidence is important. Confidence conveys competence. If you are showing that you are confident in your decision, even if you're not, you will get people on board. You will get followers.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah.
Valerie Alexander: And so, to just to sum it up, women are more likely to be inclusive. And being inclusive is how your employees are going to get their sense of accomplishment. And having a sense of accomplishment is what's going to make them happy, which is going to make them stick around.
Melinda Wittstock: So Valerie, all the insights that you're sharing here about the difference between our brains, men's and women's brains. The happiness culture, so many things, obviously gleaned over many years in many different roles. You've had such a diverse path across many industries and many different roles and whatnot. Just as a woman in business, what have been your biggest personal takeaways or perhaps personal challenges or the things that have propelled you to a lot of these insights?
Valerie Alexander: I've had the extreme privilege of being able to treat life like it's a party with a lot of hors d'oeuvres.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that.
Valerie Alexander: I love the bacon wrapped shrimp but I'm not going to just eat bacon wrapped shrimp. There is mini quiche somewhere else and those are delicious. But there's also spanakopita, so I'll try that too. And being able to go from one thing to the next and the next has been exciting and interesting and fun and sometimes they didn't work out. And so, one of the biggest things that I learned is that changing direction is not failure.
Melinda Wittstock: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Valerie Alexander: If you're doing something and you're not getting everything you can out of it, changing direction is not failure. The only failure is sticking with something that's not working because of pride or embarrassment or the convincing that I can make this work. So I've always had the opportunity to say, “I want to do something else,” and pursue that something else. So, that's been great.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah.
Valerie Alexander: The other thing I had to learn is to stop being afraid of marketing myself. One of the things that women do to ourselves is we say, “Nobody wants to hear that about me.” Or, “Oh how embarrassing to tell people that I'm good at something.” And I just want to share all the things I've learned. Much of it has been gleaned over experience in the corporate world, as an investment banker, as a corporate lawyer, or as a screenwriter, or as an author and a publisher, but also I'm fascinated by topics. I dove into brain science. When I heard that there was a difference between the male brain and the female brain, I dove into brain science. And then, I got to develop some theories of my own about it that the other research I read were proving to be true and accurate. And I just want to share that.
And so, I think it's really important to figure out what you're good at … figure out what you're bad at and walk away from that if you're doing it. Figure out what you're good at but I'm going to borrow from Mark Cuban. He has the best line ever about this. He said, “People are always telling you follow your passion, follow your passion.” He said, “That's ridiculous. Follow your effort. Track your day. Look at how you spend your day and what you spend your time doing, that's what you should be doing.”
And so, I spent my time reading about brain science, and I found a way to make sharing what I know about brain science a fairly lucrative speaking career.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. I've had the benefit of hearing two of your talks. You probably have more than two. Really transformational and very, very helpful. I want to give everyone a chance here, if you're listening to this podcast and you have a company and you want to bring Valerie into speak, do it. Really Valerie, transformational information.
Valerie Alexander: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: And I want to make sure that people know how to find you and work with you.
Valerie Alexander: The best place is at my website which is speakhappiness.com. So, that's speak … S-P-E-A-K … speakhappiness.com. You can find out more information about the talks. You can reach me there. Or connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm on LinkedIn and I connect with everybody.
Melinda Wittstock: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us.
Valerie Alexander: Oh, thank you for having me, Melinda. This really was fun.