Five TEDx Talks for the HR Professional (2.0)

We can’t get enough of TED Talks, and judging by the popularity of our recent blog post (‘Five TED Talks for HR Professionals‘), neither can you! So we’ve gone back and scoured the TED website for the best talks providing food for thought for passionate HR people – except this time we’ve shaken things up a bit. Instead of picking five TED Talks, we’ve chosen five TEDx Talks.

TEDx are events organized and run independently of TED, but adhering to the same set of rules (e.g. 18 minutes or under) – similar to a franchise. They feature “local speakers presenting to local audiences” and there over 30,000 to watch online, filmed across the globe.

So here are five of our favourite TEDx Talks that we think HR people will enjoy too:

Shane Snow: ‘Those who tell stories rule the world’ at TEDxColumbiaCollege

Who would you trust more as your leader: J.K. Rowling or the Queen of England?

This is the question Shane Snow, US technology journalist and COO of Contently, asked 3000 people. The answer (by 63 percent) – which may or may not surprise you – was J.K. Rowling, the author of the beloved Harry Potter books, over the woman who has sat at the head  of the table in the UK and Commonwealth realms for almost 60 years.

In keeping with the topic of his talk, Snow jumps straight in with a story about the French poet Jacques Prévert, who encountered a homeless man begging with a sign reading “blind man without a pension.” After finding out that the sign hadn’t been hugely (or even moderately) lucrative for the man, Prévert wrote him a new one that read “spring is coming but I won’t see it,” which proved to be much more successful. By changing the wording from a fact about the man’s condition to a simple story highlighting the implications of that condition, people were more responsive to his plea.

Stories have the power to transport the listener/reader into another person’s world, which, according to research from American Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, causes our brain to produce Cortisol (which focuses our attention on something important in relation to feelings of distress) and Oxytocin (which promotes feelings of care, connection, and empathy): the more Oxytocin produced by the brain, the greater the feelings of empathy. In an experiment on the effects of stories on human behaviour, Zak showed some of his subjects a video of a man and his two-year-old son walking around the zoo, and to another group he showed a different video with the same man talking about the impending death of his son. It’s is probably no surprise that those who watched the second video showed increased levels of Cortisol and Oxytocin, while those who watch the first video showed no changes.

Afterwards, viewers of the second video were given the opportunity to donate money to a children’s charity. Interestingly, the research found that the levels of the Cortisol and Oxytocin produced in each person directly affected the amount they donated. Zak’s experiment shows that stories have the ability to change the way we behave by temporarily altering the chemical architecture of the brain, which can also be observed in Snow’s story about Jacques Prévert and the blind man.

The emotional response elicited by stories means they can be effectively utilised by HR as a tool for influencing and motivating. As Martin Couzins and his ‘Storytelling for HR’ co-authors argue, “HR is a very complex, nuanced subject because it deals with human relationships in the workplace, and it is difficult to bring down to black and white bullet points. Storytelling is a very effective way to explain complex and nuanced issues to people because we can all relate to them. Too much of our communication is based on the rational and not the emotional. Effective story telling works on both levels.”

Mary Schaefer: ‘Putting the human back into human resources’ at TEDxWilmington

Empowerment expert and 20-year veteran of corporate America, Mary Schaefer, begins her talk by distinguishing between her personal definitions of the terms ‘humanely’ and ‘humanly’ in a bid for organisations to treat their employees more the latter. Treating staff humanely, she explains, means providing them with water fountains and bathroom breaks – the basic requirements for operating a human body. But for employers to treat employees humanly, they need to be addressing their mental and emotional needs, such as the need to be appreciated, to belong, and to feel like they’re making a meaningful contribution.

The 2013 ‘State of the American Workforce’ study conducted by Gallup, which Schaefer refers to in her talk, worryingly indicates that 70% of US workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. These figures are even more troubling across the pond, where Gallup found in their ‘State of the Global Workforce’ report that 57% of UK workers are “not engaged” and a further 26% are “actively disengaged.” Whilst I, along with Jack Zenger writing for Forbes, have reservations about the total accuracy of these statistics, there is no doubt that they point to a serious employee engagement problem that, Schaefer argues, is bad for business. It can be easy to forget when looking at a business on paper (or spreadsheets) that your workforce isn’t a resource first and a group of humans second, but real people with children named Robert and Holly, diabetic cats, part-read copies of War and Peace, savings accounts, and 6-year-old laptops that need replacing. As Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, remarked in a recent LinkedIn blog post, what employees “want most is a great boss who cares about their development, and a company that focuses on and develops their strengths.”

You don’t necessarily have to spend lots of money on employee engagement initiatives to get the best out of your staff, Schaefer argues. Just try treating them like humans rather than resources. “When human beings are treated in a way that they are capable of more, they rise to the occasion,” she explains. “The more human needs are met, the more engagement increases — meaning that employees want to be there and are willing to go the extra mile, even when no one is looking. Higher engagement has been positively correlated to increased profitability.”

Mark Burgess: ‘The rise of the social employee’ at TEDxNavesink

Many HR people are naturally wary of social media, and probably with good reason. There is, after all, so much that can go wrong with tools that unreservedly offer such great power to communicate with so many people at the click of a button. As many Hollywood screenwriters have famously written, “with great power comes great responsibility” – except now every Johnny and Sally has this power at their fingertips, without necessarily fully grasping the possible implications. There have been more catastrophic social media blunders committed by supposed professionals that have ill reflected upon their respective company than I care to recall – a quick Google search will throw up hundreds. But the pattern we can observe from the many examples available is that generally this power isn’t necessarily being abused, rather misjudged – yet the results are the same.

Like Pinocchio’s nose, with each occurrence of these all-too-common blunders, the list of reasons for HR to distrust social grows longer. But in his talk Mark Burgess, co-author of The Social Employee, looks at the transformative effect of social employees on the modern workplace, and makes a strong case for embracing employees who actively use social media to build engagement and maintain a compelling and distinctive company brand.

Social employees, Burgess explains, are very different from “normal” employees, in that they’re empowered agents for change, highly-skilled in using social media, engaged, and most importantly, are building personal brands that are fully integrated with their professional selves. Rather than operating under a single brand, social organizations are the product of all the personal brands of their social employees: social employees humanize brands in the digital age.

In his talk, Burgess refers to research that indicates that 90% of people do not trust advertising, but 78% would trust a recommendation – even if they don’t know the person making the recommendation. This is reiterated by Jörgen Sundberg, founder of Undercover Recruiter and Social Media London, in a recent blog post entitled ‘How to turn your employees into social media ambassadors.’ Sundberg argues that “within the world of business, credibility and transparency is something that is rather important to the public nowadays… When the public sees that the employee would personally recommend their company’s service or product to their direct network, they surely have confidence in the quality.”

A similar idea has been adopted by the film industry in recent years, in which we have seen the birth of film posters quoting Twitter users alongside the usual plaudits from magazines, newspapers, and film critics – such as 2013’s The Impossible. Although the Twitter quotes are from the general public (we assume) rather than people employed on the film, the decision to source reviews from social media as well as from established publications reveals a recognition that the opinions of the everyman are just as influential; social media has given Aunt Patricia the same power as Vanity Fair or The Times, and people want to hear her opinion just as much – if not more – because she’s one of us.

By no means a hard and fast rule, but as digital natives, Generation Y are more likely to be social employees than Baby boomers and Gen. X; as they grow more populous in the workplace, companies should remember they’re here to stay and they’re going to shake things up, so embrace their natural affinity for social!

Kirsty Walker: ‘The impostor syndrome’ at TEdxWhitehallWomen

The impostor syndrome, Kirsty Walker explains, is a psychological “condition that leads women to believe that despite external evidence of their competence, they are frauds and do not deserve the success they’ve achieved.” Walker, Co-Founder of HerSay – a media resource centre for female experts – and former Political Correspondent for the Daily Mail and Daily Express, admits that in spite of her notable credentials, she herself has suffered from imposter syndrome and still experiences the occasional impostor niggle.

Although Walker refers to imposter syndrome exclusively in relation to women, it is by no means a gendered issue, although the statistics suggest that it affects women more than men. As entrepreneur and ‘Dragon’ from the BBC’s Dragon’s Den (the UK’s version  of Shark TankHilary Devey asks “why should women be singled out for insecurity in the workplace? Men are perhaps more practiced at covering up insecurities as there is still a strong culture for men to ‘big up’ their achievements.”

Citing a survey conducted by the Institute of Learning and Management (ILM), Walker reveals that 50% of women and 30% of men harbour feelings of self-doubt about seeking promotion. Even big names like acclaimed author Neil Gaiman and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, have admitted to feeling like they have been “getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.”

But what does this mean for HR? Imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young reports that the fears brought on by the phenomenon prevent those experiencing it from “fully enjoying their success and seizing opportunities, and can cause them to overwork to compensate for supposed deficiencies.” For the employers of ‘imposters’, this means “the cost […] in terms of unrealized human potential can be enormous. When qualified workers fear risks, they get caught in the ‘expert trap’ and are prone to perfectionism and procrastination, there’s a leak in the corporation’s human resources pool.”

Walker encourages us to actively recognize when unfounded feelings of self-doubt are encroaching upon our thinking, and to make a conscious effort to rise above them and grab the opportunities available. But it’s also worth thinking about how HR can recognize and support those who may not be achieving their full potential because of pervasive feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness.

Pamela Meyer: ‘Workplace to playspace’ at TEDxPeachtree

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold” – Joseph Chilton Pearce.

After catching up with a former pupil who attributed much of his success to the improvisation class she taught him at university, Pamela Meyer, author of three books on creativity and innovation, was inspired to write her doctorate thesis on what happens to people as they’re learning to improvise. What she discovered, to her surprise, was that more than the skills and knowledge they were learning, improvisation students attributed their experience of transformation to… the space.

In the context of an improvisation class, the physical space where the session takes place transforms into a mental safe space where students can experiment, play, and step outside of their comfort zone without worrying about looking silly or being judged. But playspaces don’t just happen, Meyer explains, they are brought to life by the people who give us permission to explore. Permission-givers can appear in any form (teachers, bosses, parents, friends, etc.), and can give permission in many different ways – from an improvisation teacher encouraging experimentation, to a business manager wearing a funny hat. Some permission-givers don’t give explicit permission, but take it upon themselves to create playspaces, setting an example to those around them of the possibilities available.

A report from New Chapter in February 2014 entitled ‘Relaxed Office Environments – Fad or Future?’ found 80% of respondents (of a sample of 401) believe that playful office environments motivate employees, and 94% believe playful offices encourage greater team spirit/bonding and working together. Although physical workspaces that are designed to be playful and fun don’t necessarily equate to playspaces, they are, in most cases, utilized by organizations with an ethos reflecting the environment, and that ant to encourage staff to be creative and innovative.

Leading the way in merging workspaces and playspaces in the name of employee engagement, Google was recently named the best place to work in the UK for its ‘cool culture’ and ‘offices to die for’. In a visit to one of Google’s London offices earlier this year as part of OpenCo London, attendees were told about three concepts the tech giant uses in idea development, progress and innovation: the small step, the jump step, and the moonshot. Small steps are small improvements or tweaks; jump steps are new, more consequential ideas that push boundaries; and moonshots are crazy, revolutionary ideas, or “the grey area between audacious projects and pure science fiction.” By giving its staff the freedom, time, space, and resources to develop ideas as seemingly off-the-wall as the self-driving car, Google act as the ultimate permission-givers in a seemingly infinite entrepreneurial and technological playspace.

A similar ethos has always been practiced by founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, who for many years has been developing a literal moonshot project (well, almost) with Virgin Galactic – his company aiming to develop commercial spacecraft. Branson is clearly a man who loves to play and have fun, whether it’s through his business ventures or his public persona, recently writing in a blog post on the Virgin website: “Playing is one of the most important parts of life, and something many people forget to put into practice.”

It’s no coincidence that Google and Virgin are two of the most successful commercial businesses, and places that people love to work – they’re doing something different and it’s working. Meyer’s fascinating talk, charismatically delivered, clearly illustrates the infinite possibilities arise from play and safe environments in which people feel comfortable experimenting, innovating, and stepping outside their comfort zones.

Have we missed any of your favourite TEDx Talk? Let us know in the comment box below.

You may be interested in our previous blog, Five TED Talks for HR Professionals.

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  1. Thank you so much for including my TEDx talk among your top 5 TEDx talks for HR people. I am so honored. And I’m looking forward to getting to know the other speakers’ work.

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