Wednesday, May 31, 2020
How Can It Be Done?
I love your mix of effective and civil and have enjoyed the fact that you balance these two in your test. Like you... I too remain concerned with how systems have promoted an inhumane atmosphere for workers and leaders. I am very interested in the motivations and tactics to turn that around for those who are ready for change. What do you think?For those of us who believe the workplace can — and must — be made a more civilized place, Ellen’s comment points to the essential question: How can it be done? What will convince those with the power to instigate change to turn away from the barren, ego-driven demands of the typical command-and-control methods of leadership to embrace new, less inhumane ways? Is it even possible?
I took several days to think over Ellen’s question. I don’t say I have the answer — maybe you can see a better way — but this is what I believe will be the best route to significant change.
It isn’t by trying to convince people by logical argument — though there are few arguments to support driving people to the edge of burnout and beyond, and many that will show a more humane route is likely to be better for profits as well as people. Few conventional leaders take much notice of logic. Nor will it be helpful to appeal to people’s better natures. Sadly, such appeals seem increasingly to fall on ears deafened by the constant clamor to make ever greater profit.
I believe the only way to win over more business owners, directors and organizational leaders is by showing them — showing them a civilized, humane and satisfying workplace works. Not only works, but works better than the alternative; better than pushing and driving and harassing people to deliver results they would produce — yes, and more than produce — willingly and with joy, if only they were trusted to do so.
Civilizing the workplace will take hundreds and thousands of individual leaders — people like you who read these posts — taking whatever action each one can to introduce the ideas of Slow Leadership into their own teams, sections, departments or divisions. It will take small business owners who are ready to try the great experiment of being both an entrepreneur and a leader whose actions make the lives of those who work with them better. It will take leaders at all levels and in every walk of life — in healthcare, in education, in every profession and type of business endeavor, even in government — each doing what they can in their own areas of accountability: making small changes, adjusting what can be adjusted to improve people’s experience of work, showing, by their actions, that you can have efficiency and profitability along with humanity and civilized methods of organization.
Organizations are always ready to copy what they can see works. That means it’s up to us to show them this way of leading people truly does work. If we can do that, I believe more and more will join us. If we can’t, nothing will change. And that’s a prospect I don’t think anyone should willingly accept.
Don’t wait for others to act. Don’t wait until change has become widespread and general. If you do that, it probably never will be. Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Nothing can stop hundreds of thousands of individuals intent on making change, however small each change may be. There’s no need to make a fuss. It doesn’t have to be some grand act of defiance. Simply do whatever you can, in whatever way is possible, to change your own workplace to become a more humane place. Do it for yourself, for your colleagues and for those who will come after. If enough people act this way, change will come … and come soon. That much, I believe, is certain.
Monday, May 29, 2020
The Work/Life Balance Bandwagon
David Cameron, the opposition leader, must have been on a personal “road to Damascus.” Here’s an excerpt from his recent speech:
Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It can't be required by law or delivered by government. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.So far so good. But, like most executives, commentators and other pundits, Cameron quickly moves onto “safe,” structural ground like better facilities for women who work and raise a family, more opportunities for flexible hours, and the benefits of working from home.
Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times. It's a challenge foreshadowed by one of Britain's most famous economists - though not someone whose work I usually agree with. Writing in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now, society would have "solved its economic problem" - that is, worked out how to create permanently rising standards of living.
In his essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, he argued: "For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem - how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well."
I’m not decrying any of these. They’re all useful. In a civilized workplace, nothing should be present that discriminates against women — or anyone else. But they’re ways to deal with symptoms of macho, “grab’n go” management, not methods to set right the causes. What truly makes a difference is the attitude of top management. Plenty of organizations have paper provisions for flexible working, shorter hours, job-sharing and support for working mothers. It all looks fine — but heaven help anyone who takes advantage of what’s on offer. They’re swiftly marked down as “not committed” or “not executive material,” or “more interested in family than work.”
We won’t solve the work/life balance problem — nor any of the other issues that make work uncivilized and oppressive — until there is a real change in values; and everyone — from the CEO and the shareholders to the newest employee — believes that work is about more than making profits.
Looking good on paper is the first resort of those who want to appear to acknowledge some public concern without making any significant change. That’s usually politicians, command-and-control business leaders and PR flacks. Real leaders know that looking good on paper means nothing unless it’s the result of determined actions, not a replacement for them.
Friday, May 26, 2020
Good, Blunt Truth
Robert Sutton is the joint author, with Jeffrey Pfeffer, of a book I recommended recently. It’s called: Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management.
Here’s an example of the real wisdom in this manifesto:
Just a few weeks ago, a manager at a Stanford executive program—from a big health insurance company—told me that he had been forced to institute a General Electric-style “A,B,C” ranking system on his team of eight people. He complained to his boss that he had spent years melding together a cooperative and effective team and couldn’t understand why it made sense to fire one of his people and give 80% of the bonus money to his top two people. His boss answered, “This system is being used throughout the Fortune 500.” This logic reminds me of the blunt old saying, “Eat shit. 100 billion flies can’t be wrong.”Hooray for Robert Sutton! That kind of idiot, so-called “management technique” owes more to excessive testosterone and ego than brains. Anyone who considers it sensible needs to visit a shrink. Anyone who acts on it should be put away for a long time in a maximum security jail for serial leadership offenders.
Here’s another gem:
If you want an instructive comparison, read the acceptance speeches given by Nobel Prize winners. I did this a few years ago. All the winners in economics, for example, carefully went through the ideas they borrowed, listed the scores of people who inspired them, and emphasized that their contribution was a logical extension and blend of existing work. Something is wrong with this picture—the gurus claim breakthroughs, but the Nobel laureates do not. As we were writing Hard Facts, the best advice we got about breakthrough ideas came in an e-mail from Stanford’s James March, perhaps the most prestigious living organizational theorist. He warned us that “most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to hubris.” Soundly put.This site too puts out management advice and so may sometimes fall into the 90% that Robert Sutton labels crap. It seems a good idea, therefore, to remind you that nothing here is, I believe, entirely new; nothing is claimed as some kind of a breakthrough; and much of what I write draws on the ideas and wisdom of many other people, some of them long dead. What we’re trying to do at Slow Leadership is remind people of truths that have been around for a long time: that haste makes waste; that driving your people to the edge of breakdown isn’t something to be proud of; and that the real job of a leader is to create and preserve a workplace that’s a more civilized and satisfying place to work than it was when he or she found it.
So read the manifesto, buy the book, and join us at Slow Leadership in our quest to replace all the deadly management-guru crap out there with something closer to plain commonsense and sound logic.
Wednesday, May 24, 2020
How Civilized is Your Organization?
Slow Leadership is the art of building an organization that’s both effective and a civilized place to work. A poll of more than 1,000 UK employees found more and more people at work either behaving discourteously or suffering a barrage of discourteous, unpleasant demands and behaviour that had implicit corporate approval. Is the United States likely to be much better? I doubt it. Nor anywhere else in the “civilized” world.
I recently came across a reference to a world-famous investment bank, whose proud boast to new recruits is: “You won’t know your children. But you’ll get to know your grandchildren really well.” Is that how you want to conduct your working life? Is it enough to make money, even if you don’t have a life outside of work?
Try the quiz . I hope it will make you think, before it’s too late.
P.S. The quiz needs Flash, but most up-to-date browsers should have no problems with that. You can always download a free copy of the Flash player from Adobe.
Monday, May 22, 2020
Slow Leadership and Small Business
Can a startup company succeed without the intense pressure (and almost inevitable burnout) that is synonymous with startups in general? When there is a strict urgency to build one's reputation and beat larger (but slower) companies with more resources to market, what can one do to stay sane?Start-ups, and all small businesses, have a unique advantage. Typically there are no shareholders applying external pressure for ever greater profits; no Wall Street analysts loudly proclaiming what results should be, though few have ever worked in the kinds of businesses they so boldly claim to understand. Of course, small business owners are keen to make money — and may well have large debts to service and pay off — but they can still make their own decision about what level of work and pressure they are going to accept. It may seem like a foregone conclusion in favor of working 25 hours out of every 24, but it’s still a choice.
Most of the pressure for long hours and excessive effort within small businesses and start-ups is internal. It comes from the minds of the business owner or owners. It’s my view that much of this pressure is caused by emotion and superstition rather than need. What is my qualification for saying this? The fact that I’ve started up several businesses on both sides of the Atlantic and made most of the mistakes I’m trying to point to here.
When you start a business, you’re naturally anxious. You know the majority of small businesses fail — and most large ones too, to be fair — and you’re doing your very best to make sure your business isn’t going to be one of them. How can you do this? Logic says it’s all to do with clear thinking about the business itself, its market, the plans and financial backing behind it and — in most cases — luck. Do you listen to logic? No. You listen to emotion.
Emotion has a different take on the risks. Emotionally — superstitiously — you believe you deserve success. Why do you deserve it? Because you’re working so damned hard to bring it about. How can you deserve it still more? By working even harder.
This sets up a cycle of “bargaining” with fortune. You’ll work so hard it hurts and fortune will — you hope — take note of your deserving efforts and give you the desired reward. So you fill every moment with activity. This might produce the desired result — superstitious or not — were it not for the probability much of this work is neither necessary nor useful. It’s busywork, designed to make you feel you’re keeping your side of the bargain. What you’re actually doing is wearing yourself out and probably lowering your business’s chances of success by doing so.
How can you stay sane? Let’s go back to logic. Hard work is always needed to start a business, but it needs to be clearly directed and balanced by enough rest to preserve that other necessity — resilience. You don’t know what problems may confront you next. In a small business, the chances are you’ll have to deal with them personally. You’re not likely to have enough employees to sit back and delegate. So if you’ve worn yourself to a frazzle on things that don’t much matter, you’ll find it that much harder to cope when a real problem comes along.
The sensible attitude to hard work during a start up is this: you know it’s needed; you have to be able and willing to provide it; but you should be as miserly with it as possible. Work hard when you must and relax whenever you can. Keep your resilience levels high and some energy available for the unforeseen. Above all, don’t allow superstition to tempt you into hard work in the belief it will make you more deserving of success. The hard truth is the universe has no interest in what you deserve; many deserving businesses will fold and some quite undeserving ones will succeed. Our world isn’t fair. However hard you work, you won’t change that.
Friday, May 19, 2020
Masters of their Trade
How many of today’s leaders take the time to reach mastery of their professions? How many are willing to ignore the quick-fix panaceas, the “anyone-can-do-it” prescriptions of gurus and consultants, the mechanistic formulae and media-based management fashions?
They all want great results with limited effort. There is a way to achieve that, but it’s not one many are willing to take. They want it, but they want it now — and they don’t want to make much effort to gain it either.
One Way to True Mastery
Masters of Tai Chi, judo or aikido provide a good example of genuine ways to get maximum results with minimum effort. Like organizational leaders, they face determined opponents and must act swiftly or risk serious injury. When someone attacks you, there’s no time to sit down and think about options. When a competitor’s product sweeps into the market and sales take a nose-dive, the organizational leader is also forced into more or less immediate reaction.
How do masters attain their skills in the world of the martial arts? The spend long periods training and studying the reality of their bodies and how an opponent thinks and moves. They need to embed this understanding deeply in their minds, since there will be no time to stop and think once combat has started. They need to know it the way they know how to walk, so it becomes instinctive.
The martial arts are as much intellectual as physical — maybe more so. Excellence depends on wisdom and insight more than personal fitness. That’s why elderly, seemingly frail masters can still send a young, tough, fit opponent crashing to the ground. By refusing to force anything; by going with the flow of the situation and understanding the importance of timing, the master uses the strength of the opponent’s attack to bring him down. Physical strength is not what matters. It’s applying just the right amount of force at a point where the opponent has over-extended himself and is off-balance, that brings success. Could there be a better goal for an organizational leader?
In his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fullfillment, George Leonard sums up the case for seeking mastery in any sphere of life.
The many comments and inquiries that I continue to receive have convinced me more than ever that the quick-fix, fast-temporary-relief, bottom-line mentality doesn’t work in the long run, and is eventually destructive to the individual and the society. If there is any sure route to success and fulfillment in life, it is to be found in the long-term, essentially goal-less process of mastery. This is true, it appears, in personal as well as professional life, in economics as well as ice skating, in medicine as well as martial arts.Slow Leaders must aim to become masters of their art too. Our world is so complex and dangerous we can no longer afford the risk of leaving key decisions in the hands of those who have neither taken the time to master the intricacies of their specialism, nor to master their own minds and emotions.
The world today is more easily affected by organizations and markets than by governments. We’ve seemingly lost the battle to make sure only wise and experienced people should become our political leaders. We’re on the brink of losing a similar battle to place huge multi-national organizations in the care of masters of their profession. Maybe there’s still time to pull back. Let us hope so, with all our hearts.
Wednesday, May 17, 2020
Predictably Unpredictable (Part 2)
It’s obvious that the world organizations must deal with is extremely complex. It’s also very uncertain, and most managers and administrators hate uncertainly. Wall Street feels the same way, which is why stock prices fall any time events increase the amount of uncertainly in the world. Many people are engaged in a constant search for ways to remove — or at least sharply diminish —this inconvenient unpredictability. Governments also dislike what they can’t predict or control, so you can add thousands of government employees to the list of those trying to make the world more predictable.
That’s an enormous amount of talent and effort — and there are still all the academics to add to the list. Surely by now we should be seeing some positive results. the world should be more stable, more predictable and much more under people’s control. Businesses should have most of the tools they need to plan ahead in confidence. The irritating discovery that the business that did all the right things has failed, and some upstart that flouted sound business practice has become an overnight success, should be a thing of the past.
In the world I live in, none of this has happened. If anything, events seem more unpredictable. If anyone’s in control, they’ve got a warped sense of humor. From a more limited, organizational perspective, the markets are as volatile as ever and little or none of the effort spent on careful predictions and planning has been of any use at all.
Probability is about odds, and general opinions and rules of thumb about the working of odds are almost universally incorrect. Worse, they nearly always err on the side of optimism: people wildly over-estimate the odds in favor of what they want and under-estimate the odds against. Organizations do this all the time: it's called budgeting.
It’s fatally easy to assume that you can identify the true causes of success, even after the event. What happens when success arrives entirely at random? Given enough examples, you would find most organizations neither do especially well, nor especially badly. A few suffer anything from serious loss to total disaster. A few find something between major success and an overwhelming triumph. Does this sound like reality? It should. It’s all produced by nothing more than the laws of chance and probability.
Would copying the most successful “winners” increase your own chances of success? No. What they did happened to be successful that time, but may never work so well again. Author and economist Paul Ormerod, in his book Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics, shows that the only choice likely to work is to be as different as possible from your competitors. But doing this consistently would require that you have inside information on every competitor’s plans — something that’s illegal in nearly all countries, as well as impossible to obtain.
Messy, Unpredictable Reality
Organizations are not predictable machines. The outcome of just about any significant activity cannot be known in advance. Even if you improve the odds, you will not remove the likelihood of failure altogether. The best anyone can do is to watch events intently, ready to change direction the moment some assumed result or outcome doesn't materialize.
As organizations collect and analyze more and more data, they’re chasing a mirage. How much of that data is accurate, useful information? How much is random “noise?” Can you ever tell? It seems inevitable that all this activity will be wasted. Mathematicians have proved, conclusively, that far less complex and uncertain problems than running a business cannot be solved by any possible technique of analysis. Yet the search for a simple, accurate and easily calculated method of predicting the correct business decision goes on; and companies pay millions to consulting firms in the hope of finding it.
Today's reality is that top executives are frequently overwhelmed by information, much of it barely digested or understood. In an understandable attempt to cope with a deluge of data, only matched in intensity by constant demands for speed, they do the best they can — often relying on techniques (and people) that claim to be able to distill what truly matters from the roar of background noise. It's amazing, not that this often breaks down, but that it works at all.
The story goes that, during the Cold War, the CIA was infuriated to find the Soviets knew just about everything there was to know about some of the most secret defense facilities in the United States — all the most highly classified programs and projects. No matter how much security was increased, the information still leaked out.
Then someone had a brainwave. Instead of trying to limit information about these sites, they poured it out. Press releases, interviews with key staff, public awareness materials, lengthy reports on non-classified topics. Within a few months, the Soviet analysts were overwhelmed. They had so much data, they couldn’t work out what mattered and what didn’t. To the great satisfaction of the CIA, the information that truly mattered was completely lost in the mass of irrelevant data.
Too much data is today’s problem, not too little. What matters isn’t easily visible amongst all the dross that’s irrelevant. You can get the arithmetic right, but you can’t cram more into one person’s head than it can take. Nor can you make people “think” like machines. Numbers, in theory, can contain a great deal of information; but there’s too much already. Compressing more into poorly-grasped statistical formats won’t help. It disorganizes people by overwhelming their ability to handle all the input.
Leadership is not a science. It relies on the human brain coping with situations that are naturally (and inescapably) uncertain. Leading any part of an organization is like life itself: a continual process of adapting as well as possible to events that are far more often dangerous to survival than beneficial. It takes time, care, reflection — and as much wisdom as the leader can muster.
You can’t get those on one side of a sheet of paper — nor into a spreadsheet on your laptop.
Monday, May 15, 2020
Predictably Unpredictable (Part 1)
Statistics, especially anything about probability, are nearly incomprehensible to the average person. That goes for the average leader — and many of the non-average ones — as well. It wouldn't matter much, except that most organizations today are run on the basis of statistical computations: key indicators, ratios, indexes of performance, comparisons, norms and statistical charts. Unfortunately, it rarely works as intended.
To control an organization through the collection of data, its leaders need to be certain they can do two things: make accurate forecasts systematically and over long periods of time; and understand precisely what effect any change of policy will have.
Neither of these requirements can be met in organizational life. Nearly all forecasts are incorrect even over short time-scales. The markets, the gyrations of the economy, the political and financial outlook are too complex to be predicted, even by the best-equipped of forecasters. There are too many variables and too many chance interactions. Organizational “forecasts” are statements of hope and purpose; they don’t tell you what will happen.
Nor can leaders be certain of the effect of any policy decision. The workings of chance are too strong. Governments try constantly to create the outcomes they desire by wielding far greater powers than any CEO. Yet most government policies too fail to produce what they are designed to create. Even the most despotic dictatorships, like the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin or North Korea today, cannot make their own country function as they desire.
The Laws of Large Numbers
Statistics have been aptly called “the laws of large numbers.” The findings of most statistical techniques apply only when the numbers involved are large. When numbers are small, the amount of uncertainty can be so great the finding becomes useless. That's why drug manufacturers, who use some of the most sophisticated and complex statistical methods in their product trials, can still be caught out by an unexpected side-effect or drug interaction.
Businesses rarely use statistical techniques with any degree of sophistication. Mostly they accept whatever “the numbers” show, regardless of sample size, the likelihood the sample is a fair one, or anything else. In their desire to find a way of predicting what is essentially unpredictable — the behavior of their markets and the businesses that trade there — they clutch at almost any scientific-sounding straws.
One example will suffice. Key indicators are used to show when things are going well or badly. They do this, it is assumed, because changes in the indicator — a number or calculation — correlate closely with changes in the real world. It’s important to be clear correlation isn’t cause and effect. That’s one of the commonest mistakes. Correlation means only that some statistical link has been found. Changes in business activity don’t cause the key indicators to move; the indicators move by themselves, in ways that are believed to correspond to events. The uncertain nature of this link is often misunderstood.
Strong correlations are hard to find in real-world data, but let's suppose an extremely strong correlation to illustrate this misunderstanding. A correlation of 0.8 would be an amazingly powerful link in statistical terms. But what does it mean?
It doesn't mean you can be 80% certain of the outcome; or that there's an 80% chance that what you predict from the correlation will happen. A link like this is often, erroneously, expressed as “this predictor is 80% accurate.” It isn't. Even 80% accuracy allows that one chance in five won't succeed, but the true odds here are far worse. A correlation of 0.8 accounts for only 64% of the variability in the situation. It's the square of the correlation that shows how much variability it's accounting for. Around 36% of variability is not covered by the key indicator at all.
In real situations, correlations of 0.3 or 0.4 would be more likely to be the best available. That means the link between the key indicator and that aspect of the business would cover between 9% and 16% of all the sources of variability. That’s not much of a link. For it to be a link at all it relies on large numbers — not your one chance at a business breakthrough, but maybe thousands of attempts by hundreds of companies, most of which will still fail.
Leadership cannot be a mechanistic process, nor even a precise science. There’s too much uncertainty for either to work. Why do people follow inaccurate “key indicators” like they do? Mostly, I suspect, because they’ve been told it’s the right thing to do; ignoring them risks being blamed for any subsequent mistakes — though the mistakes would probably have happened anyway. Tracking figures feels more objective than it is. It feels safer than it is too. Yet, whatever else, it’s quicker and simpler. A page of summarized, simplified numbers is much easier to deal with than the messy, unpredictable and uncertain situations of the business itself
In Part 2 of this short series, I’ll explain why many of the fashionable types of analyses and predictions are more like disorganizing principles than organizing ones.
Friday, May 12, 2020
Don't Force It
“But,” I can hear them complaining, “it’s not our job to do such things. We’re decision-makers. Strategic thinkers. We look at the options others present to us and decide which to take. That’s our role.”
And how will the decision be made? What will be the basis for choice, when all the insight and understanding and hands-on feel for the problem are found only in those underlings and consultants? Suppose the leader is given just two or three options (not too many, because that leaves too much complexity and takes too much time), each accompanied by simplified, pre-digested “evidence.” Now where does the decision lie?
Leaders are faced with many complex decisions. That’s what they’re paid for. The problem lies in the way many expect these decisions to be simplified down to “pick one from three” before they reach their desks. Today’s management cliché proclaims the good subordinate never brings questions or problems, only answers — and the simpler and easier the better.
Like monarchs of old, leaders who operate like that are forced to rely on their “advisors,” since they’re so out of touch with reality. They no longer have much power to think for themselves. “Good” kings always managed to stay in charge; always spent time listening and asking questions and maintaining their independence of thought. It was the “bad,” lazy and arrogant ones who dismissed detail as below their dignity, and so fell into the hands of unscrupulous advisors and courtiers. Nothing much has changed, though few CEOs today wear crowns.
Where do these instant answers come from? When you surrender to the emotion of impatience and the urge to “get it done,” what are you left with? There are few reliable sources for immediate answers to any problems. You can blindly do whatever worked in the past — that’s a favorite. You can copy what someone else did that seemed to work — another classic. Or you could look for an “expert” who claims to know the answer and follow his or her prescription.
What all these approaches have in common is this: none of them expect you to spend any time or effort to understand the specific problem and consider how it arose and what it might be telling you. Yet that’s the one course of action most likely to produce an effective result.
Impatience isn’t just about instant gratification — though that would be foolish enough. It’s about saving the time and effort it takes to think for yourself. Leaders have convinced themselves their time can more usefully be spent on other things: attending endless meetings, watching dreadful PowerPoint presentations, fussing about budgets and listening to planning scenarios that have more in common with astrology than real science. Anything except thinking, exploring and tacking the really tough questions themselves.
The Effects of Impatience
Given all the effort put into ways to lessen the load on leaders and give them time to “think strategically,” you would imagine they’d all be spending their time like contemplative monks: sitting in their serene offices meditating on the meaning of the organization and its path through a clearly-marked future. They aren’t because the way they’ve been taught to operate doesn’t work. All this eagerness to save time and effort nearly always produces exactly the opposite: more mistakes, re-working, re-organizations, re-planning and attempts to rescue the organization from all the errors made through haste and inattention. By trying to force their way through in double-quick time, managers magnify errors and increase delays. Their approach fails so badly they’re usually amongst the most over-burdened and stressed people in the whole organization.
Surrendering to impatience and forcing the pace is nearly always a poor option. It means running ahead of your understanding; trying to make things happen to your timetable, not at the speed that’s natural. Those who do it act as if they can control the universe, so sure are they of their ability to command people and events to comply with their will. Even the most ruthless and powerful dictators fail at that game. There’s a natural pace to the world you upset at your peril. Wise people have always known when to act and when to wait. It’s a major part of their wisdom. And fools have always rushed headlong into greater folly, whatever wiser people have said to them.
You can’t make good decisions without being involved in at least some of the nitty-gritty of what you’re deciding. You can’t evaluate options independently, if all your information comes from those lobbying for their chosen options. If you have to rely on others to do your thinking for you, you can’t be a creative force. How can you lead others unless you can prove you understand the situation better than they do — and that you’ve thought of the questions they missed?
Leaders don’t need to know all the answers. They don’t have to be magicians who wave a magic wand and solve every problem in a flash. They don’t have to be able to command time and force everyone else to bend to their whims. But they do have to be the kind of people others look up to and respect for their personal insights and wisdom. You can’t buy that from any firm of consultants, however high their fees.
Wednesday, May 10, 2020
The Stress Epidemic
According to the survey, the “top ten” professions for stress are:
- Information Technology
- Medicine and other Caring Professions
- Sales and Marketing
- Human Resources
- Feeling undervalued
- Type of work people have to do
- Having to take on other people’s work
- Lack of job satisfaction
- Lack of control over the working day
- Having to work long hours
- Frustration with the working environment
For a start, if work is so highly valued in our society that we have a specific “ethic” — the Work Ethic — to underscore the importance of hard work as a route to personal and civic virtue, how can so many people feel both overworked and undervalued? Surely the first would remove all possibility of the second? Or is it that they don’t feel valued because they suspect their employers are treating them like machines — to be worked as hard as possible for the least possible cost?
In the past, the so-called “professions” (medicine, the law, the church, teaching, accounting and other similar roles demanding long periods of learning to achieve qualification) were seen as vocations — personal callings — not simply jobs taken to earn money. While this may always have owed more to sentiment than reality, the fact remains that those from families wealthy enough to afford the required education and “apprenticeship” to join one of the revered professions were looking for a working life based more on enjoyment and stimulation than hard graft. But here we have medicine near the top in terms of stress, and education and finance up there as well. I suspect law is only missing because of the oddities of a sample selected by a primarily IT-based company.
People’s lack of satisfaction with their work and the absence of much control over their working day also seem to fall naturally together. Again, in the past, educated, skilled professionals worked mostly in private practice. Although they might start in a fairly lowly and regulated kind of work, they expected quite quickly to advance to a state where they could organize their own clients and schedules. Today, their equivalents have no such expectations. Even if they reach high executive positions, their days will still be more or less at the mercy of external demands. It’s no wonder nearly 40% of the people surveyed wanted to leave corporate life and start their own businesses.
What this survey, and others like it, are showing is the “industrialization” of organizations. The kind of treatment that used to be reserved for unskilled manual workers (“clocking on,” “piece work” and payment by results, enforced overtime, swift replacement of trouble-makers) is now the norm for highly educated “knowledge workers.” What Taylor started by measuring men’s capacity to load more pig-iron each day has extended itself into professional offices — even boardrooms. People nowadays may be more highly educated, better paid and working with their brains, not their muscles, but they’re still being treated much as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were: as “labor.”
Modern industrialization of the workplace has long abandoned the crude stop-watch and regimented, class-ridden traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But enforced overtime, crippling working hours, constant pressure to produce more in less time, and pay linked firmly to output are all aspects of work that the Victorians would have recognized as normal amongst the “laboring classes.” Can we truly think of ourselves as having progressed if they are just as prevalent today? Progress is more than technology. It is the creation of a better life, not just for the CEOs paid millions and the financiers of Wall Street, but for everyone else as well. So far, we seem to be standing still.
Monday, May 08, 2020
Gresham's Law and Leadership
Let's take a company whose sole objectives are financial. It needs ample funds to drive growth forward, and the best way to persuade Wall Street and the banks to keep handing over more cash is to provide spectacular business and profit growth, quarter after quarter. At first, let's assume, it isn't too hard to do this. The business has a good product and has found a market niche ready to be exploited. The trouble starts when it gets difficult to keep on exceeding Wall Street estimates. If all that matters is "meeting the numbers," sharp management practice will be accorded exactly the same value as any other approach.
It's far easier to produce the required numbers by pressurizing people or cheating than by the "good coinage" of sound, thoughtful management. Since the numbers are all that matter, the extra effort (and potential risk) of doing things right doesn't seem worth it anymore. Bad management — exploitation of staff, creative accounting, manipulation of figures and other unethical practices — quickly drives out good. The result is Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia and a host of other corporate scandals, all directly attributable to Gresham's Law.
A Culture of Bullies
Honest leadership is a demanding activity. It means getting to know your staff, understanding their lives and aspirations, and helping them find a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do. The alternative — macho bullying — demands much less effort, understanding or even concern. That’s why the various types of bullying are so common in high-pressure corporations. People aren’t led, they’re driven by a mixture of threats, derision and continual harassment. Those who fail are labeled "under-peformers" and either forced out, fired or removed at the next corporate downsizing.
Bullies survive because their behavior is tolerated. If all top management care about is reaching or exceeding target, they're likely to overlook “little things” such as bullying. It's a fine line between being a "go getter" and being a tyrant to subordinates and a toady to the boss — especially if the only risk lies in getting caught doing something so unacceptable the boss can't overlook it by focusing on results alone. In time, tough, macho, results-obsessed “leadership” becomes the norm. Bad practices drive out good.
Hitherto unacceptable business practices have become allowable because top executives focus solely on Wall Street and their stock options. When all that matters to the upper echelons of the company is that the numbers are achieved — and getting there the right way or the wrong way leads to much the same approval — the right way soon dies out. It takes more effort. It's less certain. And those who think it's important are quickly sickened by the sight of bullies and incompetents reaping the same rewards they've worked so hard to obtain. They quit. The bullies and shysters remain.
What's the Solution?
Gresham's Law will continue to produce bullying, macho management in "grab 'n go," marginally-honest corporations as long as making the numbers is all that counts. So long as investors are dazzled by profits and don't ask how they've been produced, companies and their leaders have every incentive to take the easiest route — and that's nearly always the one that's least concerned with ethics and sound business dealings. The only way to produce a working environment worthy of a civilized nation is to value some things more highly than financial results. That means accepting "the numbers" won't be achieved — shouldn't be achieved — if the price to be paid is the loss of dignity, honesty and humanity as guiding principles of corporate life.
Being ethical has a price. Most talented people prefer to pay it than work in an environment where their values are violated and their dignity counts for nothing. As a society, we need to return to valuing results only when they've been achieved fairly and honestly. Whether it's grasping, unpleasant business practices, or the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, bad methods will always drive out the good as long as no one inquires too closely into how those outstanding results have been achieved.
Slow Leadership is based on values higher than simply delivering the goods. Leading well and leading ethically demand time, thought, consideration for others and the willingness to fail rather than produce a result by uncivilized or unethical means. It's up to leaders to uphold these values, even if it costs more in the short-term than ignoring them. If they don't, they'll find themselves working in a society where bad managment coinage is the norm and ethical behavior is considered old-fashioned and eccentric.
Friday, May 05, 2020
It's worth looking at such comforting assumptions, starting with the belief that business goes on in generally stable, predictable ways. There are still more fundamental tenets of business thinking behind this assumption: that an organization is a mechanical set of processes that can be fully understood by its designers; and that those processes are by nature stable, unless something happens to upset them.
Don’t Rely on Economics
Much business thinking is derived from classical economics, with its belief in a natural equilibrium of forces. Left alone, those forces find a perfect point of balance that can be shown in mathematical terms. Supply and demand eventually reach equilibrium. There's a perfect price where you make the maximum possible profit, based on an assumed balance between the costs involved and people's willingness to buy more when the price is lowered.
Amongst academic economists, such ideas of stability have come under sustained attack. The current consensus seems to be that the teachings of classical economics are more comforting than accurate. As P.J. O'Rourke wrote in Eat the Rich:
One thing that economists do know is that the study of economics is divided into two fields, "microeconomics" and "macroeconomics." Micro is the study of individual behavior, and macro is the study of how economies behave as a whole. That is, microeconomics concerns things that economists are specifically wrong about, while macroeconomics concerns things economists are wrong about generally.All organizations are consistently unstable. Stability and predictability are ideals, not events that anyone has ever experienced. Yet these beliefs are so tenacious people still try to act as if the reality they experience is the aberration, not the imaginary stable state. One result is the continual emphasis on "success stories" of all kinds as the basis for management thinking. The reality is that the majority — the overwhelming majority — of organizational projects end in failure; as do the majority of organizations themselves. Few have lives as long as the people who founded them.
It's understandable that management gurus should focus firmly on success in creating their pitches for business. They are selling something and success is popular. Besides, who wants to be told their chances of achieving what they desire aren't terribly good? It's hard to imagine too many sales for a book with a title like: "Organizational Disasters and The Leaders Who Caused Them." Most leadership training is more marketing than instruction. Like all marketing, its attitude is relentlessly up-beat. The Universe is not.
We like to believe success is the norm and failure the avoidable exception. It's not true. Reality more usually works the other way around. It’s enjoyable to hear about people who made it big, but assuming what worked for them will work for you is like deciding that you'll win a million-to-one bet because you read somewhere of a person who did. It's the classic gambler's mistake of confusing risk with uncertainly. Toss a coin and the risk it will come down "tails" when you bet "heads" is perfectly clear. It's a 50:50 bet. How uncertain is the next toss of the coin? Totally. You know the odds, but you have no idea how the coin will fall. Even if it fell "heads" the last hundred times (and assuming it's still not a weighted coin), you still have no way of predicting how it will fall next throw.
Just because something worked for another company, there’s no reason to assume it will work for yours. The past can indicate — maybe — the odds on a future outcome, but the future remains completely unpredictable in detail —and detail is what counts in business. A strategy might be extremely successful "on average," but still unsuccessful in any specific case. If that specific case is yours, tough luck. That "average outcome" — as mythical as the “average person” — is still as successful as ever. Besides, most successes are due to chance and good fortune, not whatever strategy was in people’s minds at the time.
Organizations do not function like machines. Nor do their "designers" understand clearly how each part operates under actual working conditions. It’s virtually impossible to predict what any change in policy or operations will produce. The number of variables is too great. The potential range of interactions between these variables approximates to infinity. Many changes produce totally unexpected results. Most initiatives fail, completely or partially, and those that succeed usually do so in unpredictable ways.
To believe you can plan ahead and implement the plan exactly as drafted is to assume the universe is stable, or changes only gradually. It isn't so. Even the processes of evolution itself don't operate at a steady pace. The fossil record shows a pattern of sudden bursts of new species, long periods of more gradual change, and sudden spikes of extinctions. While changes on the basis of global species' extinctions seem to be infrequent, smaller changes are equally unpredictable and far more common. Massive, world-altering changes may be rare, but, like volcanic eruptions, you can never say when the next one will happen.
Changes in the business environment are neither fast nor slow: they’re erratic, now one, now the other. Assuming the world will end tomorrow is taking a chance on odds running into crazy numbers: so is assuming it won't. If we prefer to operate on the optimistic choice, it's just because it makes life more tolerable that way. In business, assuming relative stability is less stressful, not more realistic.
Questions Are Worth More Than Answers
Instead of trusting in the marketing talk and optimistic scenarios of consultants and gurus, wouldn’t it better to use your own intelligence and experience to think through the problem? It’s time to quit looking for that instant panacea, or the sure-fire answer Company X used that will work just as well for anyone else. They don’t exist. All that matters is what will work in your specific and unique circumstances.
Studying what others have done, or what theories predict, is useful to provoke questions, not provide answers. Thoughtful, wise leaders value good questions highly. Sadly, most people are so rushed and distracted all they want is answers — and the faster and simpler the better — even if those answers offer only comforting fairy tales. To take Mr. O'Rourke's comments into today’s organizational world, local leadership concerns decisions managers are mostly wrong about on a limited scale, while executive leadership concerns being mostly wrong about the direction of the business as a whole.
Wednesday, May 03, 2020
Office Irritant or Looming Burnout?
In Great Britain, a Monster Meter poll recently asked the question, "What irritates you most about your job?" 2,226 respondents voted. Here are the top three irritants:
- 30% (650 votes) – My colleagues
- 25% (570) – The long hours culture
- 24% (550) – Red tape
Feeling irritated or angry with colleagues is one of the most common symptoms of stress. If people feel that they’re in control of their work, this can have both a dramatic and positive effect on their happiness and relationships with colleagues.It's worth considering each of these irritants separately.
1. Maddening Colleagues
Getting annoyed with colleagues is natural. Some people are downright aggravating. But becoming so mad at their human foibles it turns into a major cause of irritation starts to look like a symptom of a more serious malaise. People suffering from clinical depression often find others too maddening to bear. The effects of burnout aren’t too different from those of depression — loss of interest in anything, constant negativity, debilitating feelings of pointlessness. The early signs of becoming seriously overwhelmed in the workplace are similar to the early signs of the clinical disease.
Stop and listen to yourself. See what’s happening to you. Admit the stresses and pressures which are manifesting in this way. If someone’s on their way to burnout, it’s often obvious to everyone except them. When normal snits turn into vendettas and a state of permanent bad-blood, it’s essential to call a time out.
Here are some other early signs of trouble:
- Hiding behind your office door to avoid having to “waste time” dealing with others.
- Feeling unable to say no to anything or anyone, in case it provokes a confrontation.
- Doing everything yourself because you’ve decided you can’t trust others to do it properly.
- Never putting off to tomorrow what you can do by staying until midnight.
- Starting to believe the only thing that matters is work and that high personal productivity is a sign of divine favor.
- Developing superstitious rituals to ensure work success.
- Believing if you're not always worrying about work, your boss will decide you’re not committed to it and find someone else who is.
2. The Long Hours Culture
Sometimes people feel pride in juggling all the demands; a sense that lesser mortals might crumble under the strain, but those with real executive potential can handle everything thrown at them. Long hours, constant pressure and crazy schedules become the signs of future greatness — almost “medals,” since this attitude equates business with a form of warfare. The kind of working day that might be just acceptable to meet a deadline or cope with a panic job becomes the norm.
This attitude of "heroic" working and stoic acceptance of too much work in too little time isn’t only detrimental to physical and mental health — it’s very often harmful to business success. Stress produces adrenaline, which gears your mind for spontaneous, reflexive responses to stimuli. The more adrenaline, the more rapid and extreme your response — just like a driver subject to Road Rage. An effective business leader doesn’t act like this. What he or she needs is exactly the opposite: careful thinking, calm analysis and objective, rational decision-making. Adrenaline junkies are reactive and emotional. Successful corporate leaders should be proactive and considered in their actions.
3. Red Tape
It isn’t even as if all this work was useful. Think of the piles of reports that go unread; the multiple drafts of budgets and forecasts; the duplicate collection of similar data by three of four separate departments; the endless returns and consolidations of spreadsheets; and mundane activities like compiling meeting notes or sales estimates for next month. Much of the output of “corporate warriors” is like the activities of the real military: square-bashing and polishing kit. It’s corporate “bull.” The old adage, “Haste makes waste,” could be proved a thousand times over in nearly any large corporation.
Organizations seem totally blind to the amount of daily waste in administrative departments. According to a recent article on CFO.com (based on findings by McKinsey)…
In a recent exercise that benchmarked efficiency at consumer goods companies, the best finance function was nine times more productive than the worst. Production times also varied widely. Among the largest European companies, for example, it took an average of 100 days after the end of the financial year to publish the annual numbers: the fastest did so in a mere 55 days, while the slowest took nearly 200.
Watching For Burnout
Maybe all three of these irritants are really one: the prevailing macho culture of believing the route to profitability makes workplace stress and tension inevitable. If organizations confuse constant busyness with productivity — which is what happens when they try to squeeze more work onto ever fewer workers — people are forced to pack too much into their working day. As a result, they usually end up doing less useful work, doing it less well and having more problems.
Are you working harder and harder and feel like you’re getting nothing done? Overwork and frenetic intensity are great ways to lower productivity and increase mistakes and reworking. You may be able to outperform your colleagues, but you can’t outperform your own limits.
Don’t just shrug off burnout as superstition or think you’re immune. It’s a serious issue that can wreck lives. Your health and well-being is more your concern than anyone’s.
Change comes best from within. Slow down. Take time out to think and reflect on your needs. As long as you take on tough assignments and push yourself you run the risk of going to far. You must learn where your limits lie and stay this side of them. Forget the macho nonsense that you can take whatever the world throws at you. You can’t and nor can anyone else. The sooner you slow down and allow your own best ways of coping with life to guide your actions, the better off you’ll be.
Monday, May 01, 2020
Why "Slow" Leadership?
Other "Slow" Movements
The Slow Food movement links pleasure and food with awareness and responsibility, defends diversity in the food supply, aims to spread the education of taste, and link producers of excellent foods to consumers through events and initiatives. This is an excellent analogy for Slow Leadership. Leadership too can give enormous pleasure and satisfaction, when done well. It also depends on awareness and responsibility: awareness of the reality of the whole situation, now and in the future; and accepting responsibility for making the best possible decisions, not just acceptable or conventional ones. That's why it's sometimes slow: it takes time to consider information fully, think through the options and consequences, and make certain nothing has been missed you could have known about. You don't expect a gourmet meal to be thrown together in five minutes. Why should you expect a decision affecting the future of a business, its employees and customers to be made a the drop of a hat?
Slow Food also spawned Città Slow, a campaign to recognize cities where living is good and the pace of life matches human needs. Their aim is to draw attention to quality of life issues in urban environments. They look for “towns rich in theatres, squares, cafes, workshops, restaurants and spiritual places, towns with untouched landscapes…where people are still able to recognize the slow course of the seasons…" (from Cittàslow Manifesto).
Slow Leadership too is focused on improving the quality of life for everyone involved in organizations. People spend so much of their waking lives in the workplace it surely ought to recognize the needs of the whole person, even if its primary focus will always be economic. The organizational equivalents of “…towns rich in theatres, squares, cafes, workshops, restaurants and spiritual places…" include time to think, discuss, debate, ponder and seek those spurs to creativity that turn work from drudgery to inspiration. Work is a social activity; an arena of life where relationships are fundamental to success. Surely in a civilized world we should seek to extend those relationships to enhance our lives, not restrict them to the most simplistic levels of command and control?
If we are to claim any sense of progress, our working lives must include ways to meet our economic goals without sacrificing our brains, our lives or our pleasures. Why can't people work in easy and pleasant ways? Why must success be arduous—or more arduous that it has to be? The Romans had a saying: festina lente. It means "hurry slowly." Haste breeds carelessness, cutting corners and making mistakes; all of which usually mean the project takes longer—and contains more problems—than it need have. It's the leader's job to set the pace. That often means slowing people down to make sure jobs are done right first time, not standing behind people with a whip to drive them headlong into folly.
The Ideal of Progress
Research from the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis shows too much change leads to overworked, cynical and slapdash employees. Professor Judi McLean Parks said: "With overworked employees, and employees that endure multiple change initiatives, the workers get cynical. Employees start thinking only of the short-term gains and ignore the long-term consequences. Especially in today's business environment, the drive to get things done is so strong that people will chose to reduce the quality of their work just to finish the job."
Overwork, cynical and slapdash workers, burned-out leaders, wrecked families and work/life balance in tatters: today's "conventional" organization is more like scenes from a movie about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition than a 21st-century understanding of how best to bring people together to produce the goods and services we all need. Of course there have been as many—maybe more—examples of corporate greed, tyranny and dishonesty in the past as in recent years. That's hardly reassuring. To say today's industrial and commercial leaders are no worse than their Victorian grandfathers suggests for all our technological progress over the last century there hasn't been any progress in improving people's working lives.
In his book In Praise of Slowness : Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré makes the point that seeking "slow" is not a rejection of speed itself. Travel by jet is better than spending weeks in a covered wagon trekking slowly across the United States; a car is usually more convenient, though less ecologically friendly and less fun, than riding a horse. The problem is today's obsession with going faster regardless of anything else.
When Speed Is Wrong
Some things in life should not be speeded up. The price we're paying for our pathological urge to go faster, run harder and drive ourselves beyond our limits is too great.
Slow Leadership aims always to be rational, in the sense that it is reasoned, considered and consistent with the reality of the situation. Too much leadership today is irrational. It's based on knee-jerk reactions, emotional responses, instant judgments and quick-fix solutions that ignore or avoid the real issues. Why? Because there's no time to do better and no reward for anything beyond "making the numbers" this month or this quarter. Taking time to consider the past and present is a prerequisite for any rational approach to leadership. If you don't know clearly where you are now and how you arrived there, you can't possibly judge which path is most likely to take you somewhere you would rather be.
Today's leaders are over-stretched, over-burdened and over-concerned with instant gratification of the demands of the financial markets. In organizational life, as elsewhere, you get what you reward. One reason why high-profile CEOs demand such outrageous packages of rewards is their recognition that life as a CEO is nasty, brutish and short. They grab all they can in the knowledge they'll likely fall from grace in less than two years. Few humans can match the demands they face from the markets for longer — if only because all their short-cuts and quick-fix decisions are bound to produce a slew of negative results in that time or less. Corporate "sins" find you out as surely as any others.
Slow Leadership is a movement aimed at finding and publicizing ways to beat this dysfunctional trend towards greater material wealth with a poorer quality of working life attached as a non-optional extra. I say movement, because later this year we'll be launching a program you'll be able to join to advance the aims of Slow Leadership in your own workplace, with newsletters, promotional materials, training programs and other ways to spread the word and help educate people that being effective isn't the same as being uncivilized.
Until then, please keep reading this blog and adding your comments.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.