4 Strategies For Keeping Remote Workers Engaged and Accountable


Remote teams are here to stay: so say Forbes and Glassdoor. Though there is still resistance against the idea of it–Yahoo and Reddit, for example, axed their remote work policies in recent years– it’s undeniable that remote work will be an integral element of the workplace of the future. Despite this resistance, there already are companies that are built entirely on fully remote teams.


As long as you have remote workers on the payroll, it’s vital to understand that managing virtual teams presents a different (but not insurmountable) set of challenges.

Effective communication is key for the performance of any team, but when it comes to remote workers, it’s indispensable in maintaining engagement and accountability.

P.S. Take a step closer to mastering effective remote team management today with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on leading virtual teams!


1. Set clear expectations


A lot of the general resistance against remote work comes down to role ambiguity. The perception is that since you can’t see the people you work with, it’s much easier to slip into uncertainty. What exactly is a remote worker expected to do? How is their performance measured? Are they getting work done at all?


With remote teams, the answers to these questions are presumed to be relatively open-ended. Companies thus shy away from remote work because of this.

Clearly, though, managers can easily minimise this ambiguity if they ensure that they set clear expectations for their remote teams right from the start.



Independence and a can-do mindset are crucial qualities for remote workers. Even then, a lack of clarity about how to gauge one’s performance can easily thwart these qualities. Managers need to communicate their expectations of their remote workers in terms of performance.

Be as specific as possible about what has to be delivered, the timeframes for delivery, and any other crucial performance indicators.




People who opt for remote work generally tend to do so because they prefer flexibility in their work schedules. Managers need to communicate the degree of flexibility that each remote worker will have. This differs from company to company and team to team.

For example, you might allow each person to determine what time they start and end work, but mandate a compulsory time for everyone to be online at the same time every day. The bottom line is that you need to communicate exactly what flexibility looks like to you and your team.



2. Build a culture of ownership and accountability

One of the most common reasons for the push against remote work is the fear that remote workers aren’t going to be putting in the work. For that reason, virtual team managers need to make ownership and accountability an integral part of the company and team culture.


Hiring the right people

Remote workers will spend most of their working hours being alone. Thus, it’s vital to look for people who are effective communicators and can work well independently.


Use task-tracking apps

Maximise your team’s usage of various digital productivity tools to help keep remote workers accountable. Buffer’s fully remote team, for example, uses iDoneThis to send in daily updates on what work each person accomplished for the day.

If you need something more comprehensive, use project management tasks like Asana to ensure that everyone can access each other’s daily workloads and schedules.

Alternatively, if your remote team members are in the same time zone, you can choose to hold daily Scrum meetings. This is where each member shares what they did the previous day and what they have to do today.



3. Establish effective feedback mechanisms

Giving and receiving regular feedback is vital to ensure that your team remains dynamic, adaptable, and engaged. However, even teams that have the privilege of being physically together tend to fall short of this measure. Traditional corporate culture tends to leave feedback to the rare performance review.

When you’re managing a remote team, it’s even more vital to ensure that this doesn’t occur. You need to ensure that you’re constantly in touch with your people virtually so that they don’t feel out of the loop or isolated from the rest of the team.



Set the right tone

It starts from the onboarding process; make it a point to formally introduce new team members to everyone else. At the same time, right from the start, set the right tone to let everyone know that feedback is always welcome. Importantly, communicating that learning is a top priority is vital in getting people in the right mindset for giving and receiving regular feedback.



Have regular one-on-one check-ins

Managers need to set aside time for individual virtual sessions with everyone on the team. Use the time to check in on each team member. People need to know and feel that their managers don’t see them as company minions; they need to know that they’re valued and cared for.


Use the time to:

  • Ask how they’re coping
  • Find out if they’re facing any challenges in their work or with the team in general
  • Give specific feedback on what they’re doing right and what they could improve on
  • Glean any suggestions or feedback to give that could potentially improve the team’s performance


4. Build team rapport

Psychological safety is the most critical ingredient for team performance. Remote teams are no different in this regard. Since they have less face-to-face time than traditional teams, it’s even more important to ensure that they trust and feel safe with each other.

Allowing the team to build rapport with one another is also crucial in facilitating the kind of comfort that allows people to be more forthcoming in giving and receiving feedback.



Have “virtual bios” for each team member

Consider making it compulsory for everyone on your team to have a virtual bio that reads like a DIY manual for how to interact with them. Use these to share personal interests, preferred communication mediums, regular online timings, communication styles, and so on.



Hold non-work related meetups

Virtual teams don’t have the benefit of a physical water cooler, team lunches, or drinks after work. Hence, it’s vital to help simulate a similar experience to help build rapport.


Establishing chatrooms or channels for non-work related communication is much more useful than it seems. For example, Zapier holds weekly virtual sessions where everyone is online at the same time. They use these sessions for “lightning talks, demos, or interviews.”



Invest in physical company retreats

Having a physical meetup a few times a year can go a long way in facilitating team bonding and networking. Most importantly, for people who spend most of their time working together virtually, putting a face to the username gives a huge boost to rapport.


For that reason, Buffer sets aside time and money for a regular physical company retreat. Every 5 months, their fully remote team spends a week together in a different location around the world. They take advantage of the physical proximity to work on new projects together, while also engaging in recreational activities on the weekend.

Why Introverts Make Such Good Leaders


It’s time to do away with tired, over-used stereotypes. Introverts are not complete social recluses; neither are they incapable of prolonged social interaction.


While society by and large favours extroverts, introverts bring their own strengths to the table, particularly when it comes to management.

Leadership tends to be construed as a highly extroverted endeavour. Management, for one, is essentially the art of relating and influencing others. While it might sound like it’s rigged for extroverts so that they can climb smoothly up the corporate ladder, introverts can make excellent managers as well.

In fact, they can be far more effective leaders than their extroverted counterparts. Cases in point: Richard Branson, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s why.

P.S. Learn to use your natural introversion to your advantage as a manager; sign up for SSA Academy’s WSQ course on applying emotional competence to manage self and others in a business context today!


1. They’re good listeners


The Gardening Analogy

Leadership has a lot in common with gardening. Seasoned gardeners know that different plants have different needs in terms of sunlight, water, soil conditions, and so on.


Similarly, the best leaders know their people well enough to know what every team member needs and desires at work and in their lives. This is only possible because they make it a point to pay attention to and listen to each of them. That’s why introverts excel in this regard; they’re often pre-disposed towards listening more than talking.

Richard Branson himself has repeatedly pinpointed listening as the most critical leadership trait, saying that leaders need to “listen more than [they talk]”; you learn by listening to others, not by talking.


Meaningful personal relationships

People want to know that their leaders are genuinely paying attention to them. Having an open-door policy alone, for example, isn’t sufficient to let people know that their inputs and welfare are valued. Leaders who say they’re always open to feedback but don’t listen when push comes to shove are likely to lose respect fast.


In contrast, giving credence to people’s input is an introvert’s strong suit. They tend to be more focused on establishing stronger, more meaningful, personal relationships as opposed to having many flimsy acquaintances.

That doesn’t just make them better listeners, it also makes them excellent leaders; good one-to-one relationships form the basis of effective management.


2. They think carefully before speaking or acting

Introverts generally have a more deliberative thinking style than extroverts. This is crucial in the workplace, especially for management. Of the two new qualities of effective management that Google recently added to its Project Oxygen findings, one is “strong decision-making skills.”

That’s where introverts excel; since they are built to be more self-reflective and thoughtful, they also tend to put much more thought into decision-making. They’re far less prone to the rash impulsivity that tends to characterise bad decision-makers.


It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean they’re indecisive. Introverts simply prefer to be comprehensive in their considerations when they’re deciding on a course of action. Once they’ve made up their minds, though, they do so with surety and firmness.

Additionally, it also makes them better at risk-taking. They’re smarter and more intelligent risks because of their deliberative cognitive styles, which gives them a leg up when it comes to innovation.


3. They’re more attuned to others’ feelings

Because of their self-reflective and observant natures, introverts generally find it much easier to be more sensitive and attuned to others’ feelings.


Psychological safety

That puts introverted leaders at a great advantage; empathy is undoubtedly the most essential skill that a leader can have. It’s not as difficult for them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand different perspectives.


Research has shown that in any team, there are always team members who are much more dominant than others. Introverted leaders can help make quieter and less participative members feel more welcome, psychologically safe, and included in the process of teamwork.



Most people associate the word “coach” with aggressiveness and brusque motivation. It seems hardly compatible with introverted personality types. However, the most important skill for a coach isn’t shouting at people till they churn out results. It’s knowing how to motivate others, and this isn’t dependent on personality.


Because of how attuned they are to other people’s emotions and characters, introverts make excellent coaches. They can, for example, better identify insecurities that might hold back their people. Since they understand that different people thrive in different conditions, they’re also more adept at personalising their motivation strategies to each team member.


4. They tend to prefer leading from behind


Servant leadership

True leaders put their people before themselves because they understand that success is contingent on helping their people grow. Similarly, introverts tend to be less motivated by the power and attention that leadership affords them, taking it more as a responsibility than a privilege.


As opposed to extroverts who tend to lead at the helm, introverts excel at leading from behind, a leadership style championed by everyone from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama. Mandela said it best: “It is better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

6 Steps To Boosting Employee Self-Confidence


Leadership is a lot like parenting. Clearly, you don’t want to be the overly critical parent that means well, but ends up destroying their children’s self-esteem.


At the same time, the last thing you want to do when you want to improve employee self-confidence is to be a “helicopter leader.” As a manager, you need to provide the right amount of space and support for them to come into their own.

In other words, you need to be a good coach. Coddling your employees, micro-managing them and generally being over-bearing will only have the opposite effect. It’s much more helpful to provide enough autonomy and opportunities to increase their sense of ownership. To that end, here are six steps to boosting employee self-confidence.

P.S. Boost your coaching and leadership skills; take up SSA Academy’s WSQ course on leading workplace communication and engagement today!


1. Reframe confidence

People need to think of self-confidence as a trait that some just naturally possess while others don’t. Defining confidence in this way leaves relatively little room for manoeuvring and makes it easier for employees to place the locus of responsibility outside of themselves.

The more people see confidence as a static trait, the less likely they are to be motivated to change it.


Nelson Mandela once said that “the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Likewise, being self-confident does not mean you are entirely free of self-doubt. As long as you’re continually pushing yourself towards growth, self-doubt will always niggle at you. Confidence is simply the decision to push ahead in spite of that self-doubt.


2. Cultivate a growth mindset

Confidence is less about talent, and more about mindset. If it rested so much on talent, you’d think that child prodigies would grow up to be the most self-confident and successful ones amongst us. The reality is quite different.

In her book “Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child,” Alissa Quart writes that “they’re often left with a distinct feeling of failure.” Being raised to believe that the natural abilities were the defining characteristic of their personhood has led many former child prodigies down self-destructive paths.

Since they grew up with the notion that their gifts were static, dealing with failure was particularly hard. They tended to take failure as a naysaying reflection of their incompetence, which destroyed their self-confidence in the long term.


Developing self-confidence necessitates having a growth mindset, which, according to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, means:

  • Knowing that your skills are always subject to change
  • Approaching every challenge as a learning opportunity

People tend to shy away from growth opportunities that can build their self-confidence because they fear failing. Growth mindsets shift this perception and effectively minimise that fear; it makes these growth opportunities win-win situations regardless of success or failure.


3. Give them the right tools

Self-efficacy–your belief in whether you have the right skills and expertise to overcome a particular challenge–is a crucial element of self-confidence. It differs slightly from the latter in that it is based on practical self-assessment and is linked to a particular challenge. You may, for example, be a self-confident person in general, while also lacking self-efficacy in a task you’ve never taken on before.


Ensuring that your employees receive the training they need to be well-equipped in terms of their knowledge and skills is vital in increasing their self-efficacy. The more well-trained your employees are, the higher the chances that they


4. Enhance their strengths

You can’t build self-confidence by buttressing employee weaknesses. You might succeed in helping them feel less bad about themselves when they improve at something they’re not good at.

In contrast, when you enhance their strengths, you’re helping them see the value that they can add to themselves and the people around them.


This is vital in changing the way they see themselves. Knowing what each of your people are good at and allowing them to maximise their strengths goes a long way in facilitating higher self-confidence. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “You cannot build performance on weaknesses. You can build only on strengths.”


5. Assign “stretch” tasks

Self-confidence is built by overcoming adversity, not avoiding it. There’s no need to treat your employees like fragile goods; it’s essential to ensure that they have a good amount of challenge at work.

According to Karl Rohnke, one of the pioneers of adventure education, there are three zones of personal performance:

  • The comfort zone
  • The stretch zone
  • The panic zone

The stretch zone is where the most growth occurs; this is where your work challenges you without being completely overwhelmed.


Assigning tasks that help your employees to enter their respective stretch zones is crucial in assisting them to build their self-confidence. The more incremental advancements they make in the stretch zone, the better they’ll feel about themselves over time.


6. Recognise & reward

The corporate world generally construes employee rewards to mean financial compensation. This alone, though, isn’t enough. Managers need to be much more attentive in facilitating greater self-confidence.

Receiving recognition at work is instrumental in providing a boost to self-confidence. You can do this by:

  • Providing specific, genuine praise when employees succeed: instead of simply saying “good job,” specify what exactly they did well at
  • Highlighting employee success on a public platform regularly. Spend a few minutes during team meetings to call attention to employee and team successes



7. Listen to what’s not being said

People who have low self-esteem tend to hold back a lot; it takes a lot of vulnerability to open up about why they may feel incompetent or plagued by self-doubt.

Paying attention to your employees is even more crucial in this regard. It isn’t enough to just listen to what they’re telling you, though. Self-doubt is very often masked and carefully hidden. Practicing good empathy and active listening can help you connect to your employees on a deeper level so that you can coach them better.



Bad Sleep Habits Part II: What Worsens Your Daily Stress Levels

It’s no secret that Singaporeans are an over-stressed, sleep-deprived bunch. A recent study by Philips reported that the leading cause for sleep deprivation here is stress and worry. In fact, we’re so stressed that we don’t know how to relax; another new study showed that 1 in 2 Singaporeans get stressed out by the thought of doing nothing.


Poor sleep habits are an inevitable consequence of this. We can’t fall asleep because we can’t get our minds to stop running at full speed.

The cycle then repeats itself. When you’re not getting enough sleep, your mental, emotional, and physical health suffers. You also tend to feel tired all the time, which eventually hurts your work performance. That stresses you out even more and makes it harder for you to fall asleep at night.

The first step to rectifying this to understand how your sleep habits contribute to increased stress levels.

P.S. Pick up more stress management strategies with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on developing personal effectiveness today!


1. Not having a daily shutdown ritual

It’s crucial to ensure that you have a regular power-down ritual for yourself daily. As reported earlier, most Singaporeans are sleep-deprived because of stress and worry. Making sure that you have an effective stress management strategy is key to practicing good sleep habits.

Otherwise, you’ll probably suffer from the “leaky thoughts syndrome,” where stress is a constant hum in the back of your mind that never goes away even when you want it to.


Subsequently, you’ll find yourself unable to fall asleep quickly at night because your brain is still on overdrive from stress.

One way to prevent this is by incorporating what Cal Newport (mentioned in part I) calls a daily “shutdown ritual.” So much work-related anxiety is tied to the fact that we’re worried we haven’t done enough, or that we’ve left important work incomplete.

This is natural; according to the psychological phenomenon called The Ziegarnik Effect, unfinished tasks tend to command our attention. For most of us, since the work is neverending, that means we’re always stressed.


Newport suggests taking an extra 10-15 minutes at the end of the workday to go over your incomplete tasks to:

  • Ensure that you’ve planned out how you’re going to complete it, or
  • Left it somewhere you can easily come back to it when you can

Once you’ve done this, it’s much easier to shut off all work thoughts from your brain. Remember, there’s a time and place for everything, including for work.

Practicing a shutdown ritual like this is vital to helping your brain counter The Ziegarnik Effect. Once you do this, it matters less that you have incomplete work, because you know that you just can come back to it the next day since you already have a plan in place for it.


2. Abusing the snooze button

The alarm goes off at 7 AM, and you can’t drag yourself out of bed. So you hit the snooze button. It rings again in a few minutes, so you hit it again and again until you finally get up at 7:45 AM.

Sound familiar? Abusing the snooze button is something a lot of us are guilty of. Logically, getting a half-hour more sleep by hitting the snooze button will help your body more than if you don’t.


Science, though, doesn’t support this. First of all, making a regular practice of repeatedly hitting the snooze button will disrupt your cardiovascular system. That, in turn, raises your stress levels unnecessarily; you’ll wake up more stressed than you would if you hadn’t abused the snooze button.

Secondly, if you fall back into a deep sleep after hitting snooze, you’re making it more taxing on your body to wake up when it needs to. Since your body will restart a new sleep cycle when you fall asleep, getting woken up by another snooze alarm a few minutes later makes it feel as though you barely had enough sleep. That probably explains those days when you don’t feel like you slept at all even though you did.


Interestingly, in her book “The Sleep Revolution,” media mogul Arianna Huffington advocates setting a “work down” alarm instead of a wake-up alarm. Letting your brain know that it’s time to rest and sleep every night can be much more relaxing than waking it up prematurely in the morning.

In fact, once your body is used to a regular sleep schedule, you’ll be less dependent on an alarm clock to wake you up since your body does that for you with its own internal circadian rhythms. It’s far less stressful than having a mad rush in the morning because you hit the snooze button too many times.


3. Poor dietary practices

We often underestimate the effects that stimulants can have on our sleep quality. Caffeine, for example, can have such a robust energising impact on our bodies that it can last for as long as 12 hours. Hence, most experts recommend that coffee consumption should be kept to the mornings, and not later than 2 PM.


Likewise, drinking alcohol before bedtime doesn’t help you to sleep better, contrary to popular belief. It functions like a sedative; when you go to bed after drinking alcohol, you don’t fall asleep, you pass out. Consequently, you’re likelier to wake up frequently throughout the night, and still feel exhausted when you wake up in the morning. Keeping these habits up in the long-term has a detrimental effect on your stress levels.

Bad Sleep Habits Part I: What Kills Your Daily Productivity


It isn’t that we don’t know that being well-rested is essential; we just tend to deem it less important compared to our other priorities. Whether it’s because of a crazy workload or having a full plate of responsibilities besides work, sacrificing sleep seems to have become a normalised aspect of our daily routines.

Wakefield Research’s 2018 study of 12 countries found that Singapore is the second-most sleep-deprived nation in the world. Additionally, 62% of Singaporeans aged 18 years and older say that they don’t get enough sleep.


According to sleep expert Michael Walker, sleep is the foundation upon which good health rests. Your healthy diets and regular exercise routines are far less effective when you aren’t sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours daily.

So fixing your poor sleep habits isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it is a good place to start. Here are a few pointers on how to do just that.

P.S. Master the art of self-management with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on developing personal effectiveness at operations level!


1. Sacrificing sleep for productivity

So many of us consider sleep a luxury we can’t afford. We choose to get by on fewer hours of sleep because we think it helps us fit more things into our day, thus increasing our productivity and performance.


Indeed, the nature of modern lifestyles (along with the demands of work) does necessitate the odd all-nighter or two. Making a regular practice of this, though, is especially harmful to our productivity and general health. Sleep deprivation doesn’t make us more productive; it diminishes it.

Just look at how professional athletes calibrate their minds and bodies. They don’t cram their days with as much training as possible. Instead, they fit in a few solid hours of focused practice, then make sure that they have a good sleep regimen. Roger Federer and LeBron James, for example, ensure that they sleep 10-12 hours a day.


The reason for this is that sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug. It’s the rent you pay for being able to focus intensely while you’re awake. Cal Newport, New York Times bestselling author of “Deep Focus: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World” concurs.

In his book, he writes that the key to higher work performance is to put in a dedicated number of hours a day in deep focus. This is what differentiates high achievers from others; deep focus enables them to produce a more substantial amount of high-quality work in a shorter amount of time. Additionally, it also helps them to learn new skills faster than others.

The catch is that for our bodies to be able to go into deep focus, we need to have consistently high attentional resources. Without sufficient rest, we’ll have more difficulty focusing. This is what reduces our performance and productivity: failing to get enough sleep.


2. Paying off your sleep debt on the weekends

The same Wakefield Research study cited earlier also found that 8 in 10 Singaporeans have a regular practice of sleeping in on the weekends. The logic is that we can use the weekends to compensate for lost sleep on weekdays. To us, what we perceive to be productivity gains during the weekdays justifies this strategy. In other words, we treat our sleep like a credit system that we can pay off as soon as we’re able to.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. According to Walker, if you’ve had a sleepless night and try to compensate for it by sleeping in for the next one or two nights, it’s not going to get you back the eight hours of sleep you’ve lost.

Furthermore, when you sleep in only on the weekends, your body has a harder time getting up at the regular weekday hour on Monday. Since you’ve been waking up at noon on Saturday and Sunday, your body expects you to do the same on Monday. It’s no wonder that your Monday blues are amplified, then, with the extra grogginess and exhaustion that this sleep habit induces.

It’s far more beneficial to ensure that you have a consistent and regular sleeping schedule regardless of whether it’s the weekend or not.


3. Using your phone just before going to bed

One of the worst sleep habits you could have is to sleep with your phone next to you. If you had a TV, a few newspapers, several photo albums, a pile of books, some mailboxes, and a video game machine all within arm’s length of your bed, you wouldn’t want to go to bed either. There’s too much to do.


This is what sleeping next to your smartphone does. Instead of slowing down your brain and helping it enter a restful state for you to fall asleep properly, you overstimulate it with digital information right before bedtime. Ultimately, you’re reducing the quality and duration of your sleep.

Sometimes, we justify pre-bedtime phone usage by telling ourselves we need to check our emails or to keep abreast of the latest developments in the market. Collectively, though, the productivity gains accrued from this are relatively insignificant compared to the substantial loss of productivity that results from being sleep-deprived.


What’s more, the blue light that your phone emits also tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Hence, it continues to function as it does during the day instead of shutting down for bed.

Huffington suggests not bringing your digital devices into the bedroom at all. She herself leaves them in the hallway to charge for the night so that they aren’t the last thing she checks before sleeping and the first thing she sees when she wakes up.

How To Facilitate Effective Collaboration In Cognitively Diverse Teams


Teams with a higher degree of diversity of thought tend to present a slightly different set of challenges for management. For example, while communication troubles will generally hurt every team’s performance, it can be especially debilitating for cognitively diverse teams.

In the case of teams that are assembled with cognitive diversity in mind, it may be hard for team members to empathise with one another when interpersonal conflicts arise. Conversely, for teams who are still in the developing stages of cognitive diversity, it may create new tensions in the team once people start to express contrary opinions and alternate modes of thinking.


Doubtless, cognitive diversity is essential for better team performance and innovation. Hence, it’s crucial that leaders know how to address these challenges to ensure more effective collaboration in their cognitively diverse teams.

P.S. Supercharge your supervising skills; sign up for SSA Academy’s WSQ course on facilitating effective communication and engagement at the workplace today!


1. Align goals and strengths

Having fewer things in common can undoubtedly be a challenge for collaboration; people who think and see things differently also tend to work differently and may find it harder to get along.

It’s vital to ensure that cognitively diverse teams are united by the same team goals. Everyone needs to be clear on exactly how team successes are measured and how each person on the team is indispensable in achieving those targets.


To this end, leaders need to assert the importance of role complementarity. Knowing and understanding that each team member brings a different set of skills and expertise to the table is critical in encouraging the kind of interdependency that is necessary for effective teamwork.


2. Focus on strengths building

Harnessing the power of cognitive diversity requires that you know exactly how to maximise the strengths of each team member. Instead of looking too much at how to make up for individual weaknesses, you need to emphasise strengths-building.


For example, a brainstorming session typically requires good ideation, followed by practical evaluation. Team members with more creative thinking styles thrive during the ideation stage, while those with analytical thinking styles perform better in the evaluation stage.

Additionally, assigning a devil’s advocate who is more adept at lateral thinking can boost creative problem-solving. It also encourages deeper understanding of alternative viewpoints, which is crucial in cognitively diverse teams.


3. Facilitate interpersonal understanding

In the process of managing differences, facilitating greater interpersonal understanding between team members is vital. People who are going to be working together a lot need to not just know of their personal differences; they also have to embrace them.


For instance, at Ultra, a software-testing company with a fully remote team, each team member has a personal “Biodex”: a short user manual for others on how to work with them.* In about 28 points, it condenses important information like which learning styles this person prefers as well as their preferred modes of communication.


4. Cultivate open communication

Conflicts are inevitable, as with every team. Cognitively diverse teams, in particular, may initially be more susceptible to fallout since they tend to have less things in common.


Interestingly, though, studies have shown that task-related conflicts can have a positive impact on performance when teams are characterised by high degrees of openness and emotional stability.

Once people in cognitively diverse teams begin to express themselves fully, there are bound to be lots of task-related conflicts. Having a culture of open communication can go a long way in using this to the team’s advantage.

  • Ensure that each team member gets an equal amount of airtime during meetings, so that it’s not the same few people who dominate every discussion
  • Check in regularly with each team member. Ask how they’re doing, what challenges they’re facing, and give and ask for feedback from them.


*As reported by Forbes.

How To Encourage Greater Cognitive Diversity For Higher Team Performance


Workplace diversity is often generally associated with demographic diversity, or the inclusion of employees from various socio-cultural backgrounds. In recent years, however, ensuring diversity of thought (or cognitive diversity) has become increasingly important as well.

According to a recent study published in The Harvard Business Review, teams that have more differences in perspective and information-processing styles tend to perform better. Because of their cognitive differences, they were much more adept and rapid at problem-solving than teams that were more cognitively homogenous.


Crucially, cognitive diversity is an essential condition for innovation. Innovativeness necessitates thinking out of the box and being unconventional; cognitively diverse teams are in a much better position for this precisely because of their differences in thinking styles.

So, greater cognitive diversity promotes better team problem-solving, more innovation, and higher performance. The trouble is that workplace dynamics often reward conformity and penalise difference. As a supervisor, you need to encourage your people to come into their own and turn cognitive diversity into a weapon; here’s how.

P.S. Be the team supervisor you always wished you’d had; take up SSA Academy’s WSQ course on facilitating effective work teams today!


1. Provide psychological safety

The most critical ingredient for high-performing teams in any situation is psychological safety. People need to know that they’re allowed to themselves; they have to feel comfortable expressing differences without fear of being judged, ridiculed, or condescended to for it.


Psychologically safe teams don’t hold back from one another; dissenting and supportive opinions are equally welcome, as is positive and negative feedback. They do not treat differences as crippling. Instead, they embrace it. Ergo, cognitive diversity is likelier to be more salient in psychologically safe teams. (Read this to learn more about how leaders can provide psychological safety at work.)


2. Know your biases

Biases are a colossal hindrance to diversity. We are often naturally more partial to those who think and see things the same way we do. This can send a clear message against cognitive diversity in teams.

Before you can prevent your team from conforming to the same thinking styles, though, you need to confront your own biases. The same HBR study mentioned earlier found that managers showed a high degree of diversity of thought when they were asked to assess themselves. However, when their direct reports assessed them, they showed a much more considerable amount of conformity in thought.


In other words, leaders themselves are guilty of censoring their own thinking styles at work. If you hope to discourage your people from doing the same, you need first to confront your own biases.


3. Know your people

People might be highly reluctant to express differences right from the outset. In group settings, they may initially prefer to stick to the status quo and play it safe at work instead of daring to be different. In fact, they may not see the value that their specific thinking style can bring to the team.

Introverts and extroverts, for example, generally have different thinking styles. Introverts, however, tend to self-censor much more than extroverts, although both thinking styles are essential in different contexts. In this case, if you don’t know your people well enough, you won’t be able to help them come into their own.


To support the true expression of cognitive diversity, leaders need to start with building strong personal relationships with each team member. You need to understand them as people to understand what makes them different in the first place.

More specifically, you need to know:

  • What motivates them
  • Where their strengths lie
  • How they prefer to communicate
  • How they prefer to work


4. Practice active listening

The tricky thing about diversity of thought is that it is easily overlooked. People who aren’t willing to express their differences often cover themselves up well or simply not say anything. If leaders aren’t paying attention to their surroundings and their people, it’s easy for this to go unnoticed.


If you want to encourage cognitive diversity, you need to help people express themselves without making them unnecessarily uncomfortable. This requires excellent empathy skills as well as active listening; you have to hear what’s being said as well as what’s not being said. In fact, if you don’t know your people well enough, you won’t know what to pay attention to in the first place, or how best to help push them out of their comfort zones.

7 Tips For Deeper, Distraction-Free Focus (Part II)


This is part II of a two-part series on improving your ability to focus. Part I emphasised how to accustom yourself to deep focus (read it here); Part II deals with cutting out distractions. 

Every day, we’re each bombarded by distractions that scream for our attention from the minute we wake up to the time we go to bed. While it’s part and parcel of modern life, it also harms our ability to concentrate.

While the techniques in part I were targeted at changing how you concentrate, part II will deal with minimising your dependency on distraction. Even when you’re not engaging in deep focus, having a mind that quickly defaults to distraction can eat into your ability to concentrate when you do need to be in deep focus.


To that end, here are some ways you can start cutting the number of distractions in your life for better focus.

P.S. Learn how to achieve maximal productivity through effective personal management with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on developing personal effectiveness today!


1. Wean yourself off instant gratification


Allow yourself to be bored

A huge reason for our perpetually distracted state of mind is that we entertain our desires to fill every second of our lives with activity. The minute we feel the onset of boredom, we succumb to the need for distraction. We’ve conditioned ourselves to equate distractions with benefit since they help to stave off our boredom.

Unfortunately, this is also why we often find it so hard to concentrate when we need to; we can’t sit still because we’re addicted to distraction.


Paradoxically, getting yourself to focus better requires that you allow yourself to be bored from time to time. It’s not about increasing your inactivity. It’s about retraining yourself to get used to sitting still.


Schedule your distractions

According to research psychologist Larry Rosen, we each need to “retrain our brains to respond based on a set schedule rather than spontaneous cues.” In other words, instead of responding to sitting still by immediately seeking a distraction, we need to be more systematic, disciplined, and intentional about the way we allow distractions.


One way to do this is to regulate your daily email-checking to specific time windows during the day. Similarly, resisting the urge to check every chat alert and social media notification can do wonders for your concentration, though it’s not easy.


2. Work according to your bodily rhythms

To make it easier on yourself to concentrate at will, pay attention to how your body feels throughout the day. If you’re a morning person, you’re better off doing your deep focus work first thing in the morning when you get to the office. If you find yourself generally more energised and alert in the afternoons, schedule your deep focus time for then.


You may not always have the option to limit your deep focus time to particular sections of the day. However, merely knowing working along with your mind and body instead of against it can make it that much easier to slip into full focus when you need to.


3. Keep your rest times restful

Deep focus can be taxing on your mental reserves; without sufficient rest, in the long run, you might end up quickening the onset of job burnout and mental depletion.

Being able to concentrate better at work necessitates that you keep your mental, emotional, and physical health in tip-top condition. A huge part of this involves giving yourself proper rest-and-recharge time each day.


Leave work thoughts behind at work

Some of us have a hard time leaving work thoughts behind when we leave the office. Subsequently, work stress seeps into every aspect of their lives and takes away from proper restfulness. Because of it, they can take up to an hour to fall asleep at night, and even then, end up waking up several times throughout the night. This eventually affects their concentration ability adversely.


Cal Newport writes that it’s vital that you shut yourself off from work once you’re done with it. He advises having a daily shutdown ritual at the end of every workday to help facilitate the transition from deep focus mode to rest. You can read more about it here.


Practice good sleep habits

Additionally, having bad sleep habits can be just as detrimental. So many of us sleep with our phones within reach of us at night so that we can use our phones just before we sleep. The blue light that most of our phones emit, though, can trick your mind into behaving as though it’s daytime, which reduces the restfulness of your sleep.


It’s also crucial to practice good sleep habits. Most of us know that it’s essential to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. We do, however, tend to neglect other equally essential restful habits like:

  • Keeping your phone outside of your room when you sleep so that you don’t spend hours online before sleeping
  • Not abusing the snooze button when we wake up in the morning so that our bodies can wake up naturally and properly
  • Going to bed and waking up at around the same time each day so that your body gets used to going into rest mode by that time

The bottom line is: when you need to focus, cut out all distractions. Once you’ve finished, cut everything out besides rest.

7 Tips For Deeper, Distraction-Free Focus (Part I)


This is part I of a two-part series on improving your ability to focus. Part I emphasises how to accustom yourself to deep focus; Part II will deal with cutting out distractions; stay tuned!

When was the last time you could sit down alone and stay still without reaching for your phone every 5 minutes?

A recent survey published in the Straits Times found that 1 in 2 Singaporeans feel stressed out by the thought of doing nothing. At the same time, just as many people said that they “felt stuck in a daily routine they were unable to get out of.” Even though we’re well aware of our stress levels, we’re also trapped by our habits and lifestyles.


The digital age has dramatically eroded our ability to unplug from our lifestyles, just as it has also dissipated our adeptness at concentrating. It might sound counterintuitive, but the worse you are at focusing when you need to, the more subject you are to constant stress and eventual burnout.

Think about it. When you’re subject to a constant cacophony of pings, notifications, reminders, alerts, and alarms all day long, shutting out distractions can seem like a monumental task. Subsequently, when we need to concentrate, we fail to focus as deeply as we actually could.


We take longer to get fewer things done, we can’t fully concentrate at work, and we can’t shut off our work modes after leaving the office.

The solution is obvious. For higher productivity, better work-life balance, and less stress, we need to train ourselves for deeper, distraction-free focus. It’s easier said than done, though; cutting out distractions when they’ve become an inevitable part of your life is hard. So here are seven tips for you to work towards better focus at work and in life.

P.S. Supercharge your concentration abilities and maximise your productivity; take up SSA Academy’s WSQ course on develop personal effectiveness at supervisory level today!


1. Identify your main distractions

Finding the best solution to any predicament starts from having a clear problem statement. Before you can do anything else, you need to pinpoint the biggest distractions that take away from your ability to focus in the first place.


For example, if it’s your phone, identify which apps eat up the most screen time. Likewise, if it’s checking emails or replying to office chats, think about which particular co-workers, topics of discussion, or comment threads, you tend to default to repeatedly and why.

Once you have a clear understanding of how you get distracted, go back to your short-term and long-term goals. Evaluate each distracting item with regards to how essential it is vis-a-vis your biggest priorities. As you evaluate, bear in mind that there’s a big difference between “necessary” and “vital.” Checking emails, for example, may be necessary, but it’s probably not vital for your success except for on occasion.


2. Never start the day without a prioritised task list

Evaluating why and how exactly you get distracted isn’t going to help you if you’re only doing it once in a blue moon. To facilitate deep concentration, you need to revisit your goals and priorities daily. Starting every day with a prioritised task list helps to get you in the right frame of mind for focus.


Since it gives you bird’s eye view of which tasks demand your attention, and for how long, you’re already aware of where you need to focus on instead of merely thinking “I have to cut out distractions and focus more” in a general sense.


3. Ritualise deep focus

In his book “Deep Focus: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World,” Cal Newport writes about the indispensability of having a daily deep-focus ritual.

To maximise the way we use our mental resources for personal success and productivity, we need to get our brains used to deep focus. When you’re first starting, this isn’t easy since we’re so used in this day and age to being constantly distracted.


That’s precisely what necessitates a deep-focus ritual. According to Newport, “rituals [minimise] the friction in this transition to depth, allowing [you] to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.”

For any deep focus ritual to be effective, though, it must address three issues:

  • Where you’ll work and for how longSetting a time frame to your work challenges your mind to concentrate better so you can get everything done by the end of the session.
  • How you’ll work once you start to workWhat rules do you give yourself for your deep focus ritual? For example, how are you going to measure your productivity during this period? Will you swear off Internet usage entirely while you work, or just social media usage?
  • How you’ll support your workHow will you give your brain the energy it needs to keep going during the session? Simple things like making sure you have access to coffee, energy bars, or even short walks can go a long way.


4. Try out different productivity techniques

Most beginners find it hard to keep going after the first hour of distraction-free concentration. Not to worry, though; there are other options to make the transition to deep focus easier on yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to experiment with different productivity techniques.


Newport suggests a “Roosevelt dash, ” a technique that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt utilised during his student days at Harvard. Here’s how to do it:

  • Pick a task that requires deep focus
  • Estimate how much time you need to complete it
  • Self-impose a deadline that dramatically reduces this time & commit to it (publically, if possible; if not, use a timer to motivate yourself)
  • Try this routine once a week at first, then increase the frequency as your concentration ability improves

Alternatively, you could try the Pomodoro technique, which requires short 25-minute bursts of intense concentration. (Read more about it here.)

Why Are Some People Such Bad Listeners?

Empathy can get you places. Most of us know that when you’re able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, the quality of your relationships at work and home will improve. The subsequent ripple effect on your personal and professional success is enormous.

It’s a deceptively simple concept. We say “deceptively” here because it necessitates listening, which is hard to do. In fact, most people who are bad listeners probably think they’re good at it, especially if they’re in leadership positions.


At some point, you’ve probably worked for someone who automatically regarded her opinion as the most well-informed one in every situation. (Or maybe you’re that person yourself.) The reality, though, was just that no one bothered (or dared) to provide contrary opinions.

Similarly, just having an open door policy in the workplace is not in itself an indication of effective listening. If people feel that you’re only listening to them because you want to prove them wrong or exert yourself, they’re not going to walk through that open door.


It’s actually mind-boggling how a person could have such a positive view of themselves when the reality is the opposite; you might not even be aware that you’re a bad listener yourself. Here a few reasons why it’s so difficult to stop talking and just listen.

P.S. Build your listening skills and position yourself to help provide value for everyone around you; sign up for SSA Academy’s WSQ course on communicating and relating effectively in the workplace today!


1. The ego gets in the way

Listening requires you to prioritise the needs of others above your own. It necessitates that you enter into a conversation wanting to know where the other person is coming from, and not just wanting to make yourself heard at all costs.


If you don’t do this, you’re starting with the wrong intentions for paying attention in the first place. When you start on the wrong footing, you’re paving the way for all sorts of dire miscommunications.

Starting a discussion with the pre-conception that you know best and that your opinion is always right can be destructive, plain judgmental, and almost always makes genuine mutual agreement much more complicated than it needs to be.


2. They’re not prioritising learning

In a similar vein, people who fail to listen well often don’t think there’s anything to be gained from it in the first place. In other words, they don’t perceive that there’s anything to be learned from the other person in any shape or form.


Even if they do, they tend to deem it unimportant or unnecessary relative to their own concerns.

Conversely, those who realise that there’s something to be learned from everyone and in every situation are often more willing and able to pay attention to what the other person is saying.


3. They don’t practice careful consideration

Irrespective of the size of their egos, some people are just brash. In some cases, what seems like a disproportionate ego is actually the exact opposite; it might that they refuse to listen because they’re trying to compensate for low self-esteem by exerting themselves excessively over others.

For that reason, they tend to prefer being listened to instead of doing the listening. Hence, they’re also generally likelier to:

  • Keep interrupting others while they speak
  • Jump to conclusions before hearing the whole story
  • Condescend to others
  • Be presumptive and prematurely dismissive without fair reason




4. They think of listening as a passive activity

Sometimes, it’s not because people can’t put their egos aside; it’s that they can’t concentrate properly. Given the number of distractions we’re subject to every day, it’s not difficult to fathom that some people can’t sit still long enough to have a proper discussion without reaching for their phones, doodling on some rough paper, or straight up just tuning out.


If this sounds like you, then you need to, first of all, figure out a way to stop being constantly distracted. Secondly, you need to learn to truly engage yourself in the conversation. Listening doesn’t have to be a passive activity. If you’re approaching it that way, you’re probably doing it wrong. The key here is “active listening.”

According to sound and communication expert Julian Treasure, there are four steps to listening well. Summing it up in a neat acronym (“RASA”), he says these are:

  • Receiving
  • Appreciating
  • Summarising
  • Asking

Most people think listening stops at the first step; receiving information. Those who have a particular penchant for distraction are likely to find this particularly hard because it’s relatively passive.

If, however, they understand the necessity of the next three steps that follow “receiving”, they’ll realise that good listening isn’t just about passively understanding, but actively responding as well.

The best listeners are those who show that they’re paying attention, have a good grasp of what was communicated to them, and know how to ask guiding questions to deepen the discussion as and when necessary.



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