Wednesday, January 31, 2020

Hamburger-Management-prone organizations may be born, not made

In May, 2006, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times (subscription), which began by referring to an experiment in gauging the natural self-control of infants:
Around 1970, Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes—desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.
It makes you think, doesn’t it? Self-control and delaying personal gratification may well be essential elements in living a good life. Brooks concludes:
Young people who can delay gratification can sit through sometimes boring classes to get a degree. They can perform rote tasks in order to, say, master a language. They can avoid drugs and alcohol. For people without self-control skills, however, school is a series of failed ordeals. No wonder they drop out. Life is a parade of foolish decisions: teen pregnancy, drugs, gambling, truancy and crime.
Hamburger Management is instant gratification translated into a corporate context. It is putting short-term desires above both long-term benefits and the common good. And it is using crude, short-term pressure to make that happen. To echo Mr. Brooks’ article, Hamburger Management is often a parade of essentially foolish decisions, hastily covered up by shifting the blame and distracting other people with a show of zeal and excessive effort.

Is Hamburger Management innate in an organization, or created by current business conditions?

I suspect the answer, as so often, is that both contribute to its prevalence. The most common set of corporate norms today, created by failed ideas such as motivation by monetary incentives and the mantra of “advancing stakeholder value,” certainly make Hamburger Management more likely—and more acceptable. Since most organizations also recruit people they believe will fit in with present norms, there is probably an unconscious selection for anyone whose willingness to do what is generally approved make utilization of Hamburger Management approaches still more common.

Still, I do think that you can distinguish between organizations who seem to possess abundant self-control and those who don’t. Those that have a long-term outlook built into their corporate culture fall into the first group. They seem to find it relatively easy to persist with stable strategies through good times and bad. They often place a higher value on creativity, research, and projects that will not show full results for many years ahead. They don’t fall for fads or indulge in high-risk, quick-fix actions. As a result, they tend to last, steadily making their way towards the forefront of their industries, but rarely displaying any sudden or spectacular surges of growth.

In contrast, there are organizations that seem to make a specialty of chasing every management and business fad around. Their fortunes go up like a rocket and down like the stick. They are the darlings of Wall Street one year, and on the verge of bankruptcy the next. Mostly, they don’t last very long, either crashing and burning (often in a mess of criminal charges and ethics violations), or being bought out by other, equally short-term businesses hoping to make a quick killing through mergers.

Do organizations also move between these categories? I think so. In the past few years Ford has moved from being a huge, vertically-organized, ultra-blue chip business to laying off tens of thousands of workers and closing plants to stay afloat. Is the problem simply market conditions? Surely not. In the run up to Ford’s current woes, we saw a period of rapid acquisitions, seemingly driven as much by trying to deny those companies to others as by any merit in buying them for their own sakes. We saw a high-profile, glamorous CEO in charge, and some significant problems with the ethical handling of product quality failures. The Telecom industry also indulged in a mad period of mergers and acquisitions, paid ridiculous sums of money for cellphone licenses, claimed to be about to change the world of communications … and crashed in a mess of criminal prosecutions and evaporating profits.

Maybe, like people, organizations find exercising self-control either relatively easy (perhaps because that ability has been part of their corporate psyche from an early age), or extremely difficult. Also like human beings, those who behaved in controlled ways for many years can suddenly burst out in a fury of self-indulgence and instant gratification, perhaps under the influence of new leadership chosen to be “less boring and staid” that what went before (HP might be a case in point). When this happens, the organization has little or no experience of how to operate in such risky ways, and often makes a complete mess of the attempt to be suddenly “hip.” Just as in the old story of the prodigal son, decades of carefully-saved resources can be spent in a few wild years of non-stop sensation seeking.

As an investor, I would start to worry as soon as I saw any organization whose shares I owned begin to act like a four-year old with an uncontrollable urge for a marshmallow now. As an employee, I would swiftly polish my resumé and scan the job market. And as a competitor, I would rejoice and settle back to watch the fun.

Self-control is never sexy and rarely fashionable. Still, that doesn’t make it wrong. Today’s Hamburger Management organizations are exactly like teens addicted to drugs: willing to sacrifice almost anything for the next “fix.” Only they aren’t using cocaine or meth. Their drugs of choice are outsourcing, mega-mergers, quick profits, huge payoffs for a few at the top, and unethical or criminal behavior to keep the “highs” rolling in.

We prosecute drug-pushers and suppliers of illegal substances. Maybe we should think about applying similar sanctions to the consultancies, purveyors of dubious accounting practices, financiers, and management gurus who supply our organizations with the “drugs” they crave to give them an instant high—and, like their counterparts among the drug dealers of Colombia or Mexico, make fortunes as a result.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2020

Picky, picky . . . or compliant team-player?

Look at this statement from Great Britain about the coming year’s cadre of university graduates entering the job market:
There were also worries that graduates were becoming increasingly selective and demanding, with many dismissing industries because of a negative perception about them or being unwilling to travel or relocate to other parts of the country to land a job.
It seems that: “employers are increasingly worried that picky university leavers lack not only the right skills and qualifications, but even the right outlook to get on in the world of work.” Among the “problems” that British employers note are “finding applicants with the right combination of skills, particularly those with ‘soft’ skills such as team-working or leadership.”

Words such a team-working appear clear enough, but I suspect there is a coded message in here. The word “picky” gives it away. For traditional employers, team-working means fitting in, doing what you are told, and putting the needs of the “team” (read “organization”) above your own. Leadership means making sure that those under your charge behave as good team-workers.

From this standpoint, when problems arise, the place for change is clear: it’s you. If an organization is falling behind in terms of creativity or product innovation, the problem is that the workers aren’t creative enough. If customer service is poor, that’s down to the people involved. Replace them, re-train them, put in new bosses to whip them into shape. If the whole organization is failing, sack the CEO and hire some high-profile “company doctor” to sort it all out.

Many problems are not due to employees at all: they’re caused by organizational failings and lousy systems. Corporate culture has often been able to “solve” them, without recourse to difficult changes of policy or structure, by requiring individuals to change themselves and their lives in order to dig the organization out of the hole it has put itself in.

It doesn’t seem surprising to me that employees are becoming picky. Marketing has been training consumers to be more and more picky, promising the ability to “customize” virtually anything. Why not customize your job? Why not refuse to relocate at the employer’s whim, work hours that you don’t want to work, or put up with bosses who make your teeth ache? If you feel good about your prospects (and most freshly graduated young people do), you’ll be tempted to lay down your terms, not just accept those on offer.

Do employees have to “fit in” and accept compromises?
Yes, but not in every instance, or as a matter of course.
Do organizations need team-workers?
Yes, but not in every job.

Just as the casual meaning of “work/life balance” assumes a false contrast between working and living, so casual assumptions about the need for complaint workers miss the point that there must be a balance between what organizations should ask of their employees, and where organizations must adapt to better fit those same employees’ needs and aspirations for a good life.

A civilized organization is one that takes these questions seriously and seeks to find good answers. Today’s typical organization whines about picky employees and assumes that the “correct” state of mind to be sought in recruits is one where what the organization wants is seen as inviolable law.

Those who run our society, whether in business or politics, naturally hanker after a totally compliant population. It makes their lives easier and ensures that they are not asked awkward questions. Yet democracy, which we hold up as the ultimate form of government, requires exactly the opposite: a population ready to question, probe, and refuse support to those who no long put the general good before their own interests. In business , those in charge are faced with the same ethical choice: aim for the common good, or run things to suit their private interests.

With a complaint workforce, they don’t have to face that issue at all. That’s why we should maybe applaud those picky British graduates for refusing to toe the corporate line.

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Monday, January 29, 2020

If actions speak louder than words . . . what do yours say?

There are many reasons put forward to explain why change is so hard to initiate and so difficult to implement. Perhaps an exploration of what has been proposed as the 1/9/90 Law for blogging can throw more light on the phenomenon.

Earlier this week, I came across a mention of a supposed "law" of blogging: the 1/9/90 Law [link] . This states that of every 100 people, just one will write a blog and create content, putting forward their ideas and starting a dialog. Another nine will post comments on that blog and thus contribute to the dialog by sharing their responses to the original idea. They enrich the content created. The other 90 will read the bog . . . and do nothing else. They simply consume the content.

I have no idea whether any of this is true, but it seems plausible. If I contrast the number of people who are recorded as looking at this blog with the number who leave comments, a ratio of 9:1 seems overly generous. My own guess would be that far fewer than 9% of readers ever post any kind of comment.

However, this post is not about blogging, and my reason for mentioning the 1/9/90 Law is that it seems to me to apply really well to the topic of people's reactions to change and whatever serves as the prevailing culture and established norms in their place of work.

Maybe just one in 100 people will come up with ideas for change and decide to try to see them implemented. That one person is very likely to make him or herself unpopular as a result; perhaps even to the extent of being fired. It takes a great deal of courage to challenge the prevailing corporate culture (some would use the term foolhardiness instead) and to do so openly.

However, it does happen and there is usually a response. Maybe between 5% and 9% of people will respond by taking up the idea and looking to see if it has any merit. They will discuss it and add to it, maybe alter it somewhat, and exhibit at least some willingness to see it turned into action. If the one person who started the process is the creator, the catalyst for change, these folk are the polishers, enrichers and implementors.

Of course, if the initial idea is a bad one, they'll likely choose to leave it alone. And if the response from on high is unusually ferocious and negative, they'll probably put self-preservation above any interest the idea aroused in them. After all, it wasn't their idea. They just thought it might have something in it, and were looking to see what that something might be and how it might be made to work.

Inertia rules?

The remaining 90% will almost certainly do nothing, and outwardly register little or no interest either. Is that simply inertia or apathy? Are most people immune to curiosity; or totally unconcerned with things that might make their working lives better?

I don't think so. Some may be, but this seems to me to be an unduly negative view of the human condition. What I think is happening in that vast majority of people (be it 90% or some other number) is far more complex. Understanding it may point to why change—even beneficial change—can seem to slow to emerge and so easy to squash.

Most people accept the status quo, even if they don't like it much, because:
  • They have been led to believe that there is no other viable way.

  • They fear that being seen to be on the side of change will harm their career. Those in charge will consider them lacking in commitment, disloyal, or disaffected.

  • They have become cynical and disillusioned. They've seen so many previous attempts at change fail and noted how the instigators have been treated.

What do your actions say about you?

This brings me back to the headline of this article. If you're the one person who constantly instigates change, your actions speak of your courage (or foolhardiness), your creativity, your willingness to stand up for what you believe—and possibly your long history of being forced to change jobs and accept loss of prospects. If you're typically one of the nine or so percent of polishers and enrichers of other people's ideas, your actions likely speak about your curiosity, your ability to take an initial idea and work to improve it, your willingness to discuss many options, and your openness to change as a continual possibility. They also probably suggest that you have a better sense of self-preservation that the one percent who constantly go out on a limb.

For the rest, lack of action may be due to need (I can't afford to risk this job for anything), or satisfaction with the way things are (This works for me and I don't want it changed). But your inaction may just as easily suggest fear, cynicism, disillusionment, and a sense that the future offers few alternatives.

Which of these is right—if any of them are—only you can say. I'm not going to make any sweeping generalizations or label anyone. But I do think you might want to take a little while to think about the picture I have painted. Even if it has only some partial truth in it, it may help you reflect on what does seem to be a fairly general workplace malaise: whining about the miseries of work and doing nothing about them.

Not everyone wants to come up with new ideas. Not everyone can do it, or is willing to accept the risks. But surely everyone can think about the ideas raised, add their two cents to the discussion, and maybe support any useful initiatives that result?

Then we might have a new—and better—version of the 1/9/90 Law. One where 90% explore and support ideas, 9% produce them, and only 1% sit on their hands and complain.

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Friday, January 26, 2020

How to Make Problems Work for You

Thanks to an article in the Toronto Star, [link] I came across a book by Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon from the University of Toronto. His book is called The Upside of Down; Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Despite the title, it’s actually quite a hopeful book.

Professor Homer-Dixon sees the current state of our world as untenable in the long term. But he isn’t simply a doom-monger, prophesying the end of civilization or the extinction of the human race. He certainly foresees some kind of breakdown, but looks to the middle ground between the (untenable) status quo and the (catastrophic) collapse of intelligent life on earth as a source of hope. I’m not going to rehearse his ecological and scientific arguments—you can read the book for yourself—but I will borrow some of his ideas to apply to similar mounting stresses in the business world today.

Just as the world has become extensively interconnected, so a disastrous breakdown anywhere will spread to all (like the rolling electricity blackouts that have affected North America and Europe in the recent past). Organizations have become internally and externally dependent on one another. Computerization and centralization of data mean that a single computer glitch (hardly an unusual event) can bring a massive organization to a standstill. Externally, organizations and markets are so tightly linked together that an economic downturn spreads around the globe faster than any virus—and has equally negative effects.

By shutting down the natural change processes, we risk a build-up in tensions whose eventual release could be more than we, and our commercial and political systems (or our world), can handle.
The professor actually sees some degree of breakdown as a positive outcome that may be what it takes to break out of inflexible systems and substitute better ones. In his view, the worst that can happen is that the “revolutionary” breakout is shut down by conservative forces before real change can take place. The penalty for such actions is that the next breakdown is likely to be more violent and upsetting. By shutting down the natural change processes, we risk a build-up in tensions whose eventual release could be more than we, and our commercial and political systems (or our world), can handle.

Organizations are, as a rule, very conservative places. Change is difficult and slow, and must always struggle to overcome both apathy and strong counter-measure by those who defend the status quo. By blocking off the middle-ground of reasoned change, such organizations leave themselves only the extremes of no change at all or catastrophic breakdown, leading either to extinction or revolution.

If you think this is overstating the situation, consider how few of the household name organizations of even a decade ago are still with us. Most have either been swallowed up in mergers or acquisitions—usually brought on by dismal results or impending collapse—or have disappeared altogether. And if today’s corporate behemoths look impregnable, so did their predecessors in their day.

In my experience, rather few people or organizations are ready to consider significant change without some strong sense that to do otherwise will be far, far worse. Most hold out against it as long as they can. That s why so many discover, too late, that the opportunity to save themselves—however painful that process might be—has passed, and only catastrophe, revolution, or voluntary extinction remain.

We mistake stubbornness (which refuses to budge) and complacency (which refuses to listen) for resilience (which means bending and shifting whenever the alternative is to break altogether).
There seems to be an innate desire in many people to avoid change of any kind. Despite all the evidence that the future, just like the past, is comprised of equal parts of volatility, surprise, and unexpected reversals of fortune, we cling to the insane belief that this time things will be different. Our institutions, our ways of thinking, even our future plans, will somehow manage to remain stable. We mistake stubbornness (which refuses to budge) and complacency (which refuses to listen) for resilience (which means bending and shifting whenever the alternative is to break altogether).

Here’s what you can do to make the problems that life brings work for you:
  • Slow down, spend time watching and thinking, and open your mind to the widest range of options that you can envisage. Rushing down the current path, eyes wide shut (as most people and organizations are doing), simply gets you to the point of catastrophe faster.

  • Be imaginative. Stop assuming things cannot be different than they are.

  • Accept that breakdowns and problems will always occur, and that the future is unknowable. Try to concentrate on becoming more flexible and resilient. Work out what can be sacrificed, in what order, before you have to accept defeat. Stop treating the status quo as anything other than a temporary state that deserves no particular reverence.

  • Try to keep pace with external changes as far as you can. That means being ready to accept new ideas (even if they seem risky) and let go of old favorites (however dear).

  • Reverence only creativity and the power of rational thought to preserve you from the consequences of your own folly.
Organizational histories are packed with examples of complacency and short-term thinking gone horribly wrong. It seems that groups of people have the potential to act even more stupidly than individuals do—especially when status and influence are at risk. That’s when you need rules, norms, and corporate cultures strong enough to expose the stupidity and force people into acting smarter.

We live in a complex, interdependent, continually changing world. Our current, Hamburger Management style of management thinking ignores this in favor of simplistic answers, short-term profit, and a cult of frantic busyness. It is amazing that so few people see the disconnects and the looming disaster it foretells.

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Thursday, January 25, 2020

If You Don’t Slow Down and Think Now, You’ll Curse Yourself Later

This posting on Newsvine struck a chord with me. I have written several times about the way that people—especially many managers and executives—ignore the extent to which sheer chance influences the success of businesses and organizations. It’s as if we cannot accept that our “control” over our future is strictly limited. As the article states:
Human beings are genetically predisposed to find patterns and to assume that events are linked in time by cause and effect, and it’s quite easy to see why. If you assume that a rustling in the bushes means that a tiger is about to pounce, then being wrong nine times out of ten is probably better than failing to make that connection once. This contributes to a natural human inclination to simplify memory by constructing a single linear narrative.

History is taught to schoolchildren as if events were the consequence of a series of decisions and actions by leaders and heroes. “Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo.” When this cannot be done causes may be located in physical or emotional pressures. “The Pilgrims set sail for the New World to escape religious persecution in their homeland.”
In businesses, rising sales are typically attributed to the brilliance of management strategies. Falling sales are blamed on external competition, lack of effort by staff, or changes in fashion. No one ever says “I don’t know why.” The pundits who comment on the stockmarkets of the world are perhaps the worst of all at attributing events to clear, simple causes when the reality is almost certainly so complex that it defies any kind of explanation.

This process may seem to be harmless enough: a case of the media once again over-simplifying events to get a good headline and keep the word count low. You may blame it on the rooted belief in many circles that you cannot possibly under-estimate the public’s intelligence and attention-span (See? I’m producing instant explanations now!). But whatever “cause” you choose, the harm remains the same. When people seize on an explanation for events, that explanation conditions how they will respond.

If you assume a reason, then look for it, you will almost certainly find it.
When people force events into some pattern that seems to make sense, that sense always matches their assumptions, beliefs and prejudices. If you assume a reason, then look for it, you will almost certainly find it. This is made infinitely worse by the well-documented tendency in people to link things causally simply because the happen closely together in time. You give someone a pay increase and notice that person produces a series of sales. Bingo! Salary incentives increase results from sales people. But maybe the sales would have happened anyway—simply by chance.

It’s dangerous to have an explanation for everything—or even to assume one exists. It blocks your mind from considering alternatives. It makes you blind to data that doesn’t fit your supposed explanation. It lowers creativity and increases the tendency to rush into action without adequate thought.

Speed, stress, pressure, and short-termism all inflame this tendency. That’s why Hamburger Management is such a curse. When people grab for quick, simple, and, above all, quick answers, they lay themselves wide open to the mistakes collectively called attribution error: this process of assuming links and patterns where none exist.

Slow down. Think. Reflect on other options. Skepticism is more useful in this life than belief: the skepticism that looks for actual evidence, then tests it rigorously before placing any reliance on what it seems to say. Even then, you should always by open to discovering that what you thought that you knew turns out to be wrong.

The speed that Hamburger Management offers is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that.
Of course, this will slow things down. But not as much as making a series of mistakes and ill-considered actions that you will have to put right later. The speed that Hamburger Management offers is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2020

Here's A Quick Way to Lower Your Stress

There are many, many causes of stress at work and in life: too many to list. But one or two of them are such major producers of stress and anxiety that dealing with them alone will lower your overall stress level by a massive amount. Here are two, linked stress producers that you can tackle right away. Reduce their impact on your life and you will see a major lessening of stress overall.

Amongst all the causes of stress, two stand out from the rest as massive producers of every sort of anxiety: trying to control other people and trying to control the future. These two probably account for more than half of all stress in the workplace—probably in life in general. They are linked because both are, fundamentally, attempts to control what is not controllable.

Controlling Others

Aren’t managers and supervisors paid to control the members of their team? Don’t organizations exist to marshal and control large numbers of people and focus all their efforts on a few, chosen goals? That is the theory, at least. But however many people assume it to be true, the facts show otherwise.

How do you propose to exercise this control? By discipline? Even bloodthirsty tyrants, who will kill opponents (or anyone else) without a moment’s thought, eventually fail when they try to coerce people to bow to their will. No organization has sufficent power to force compliance by discipline alone. By persuasion? Better, but still unlikely to produce more than partial success. There will always be some who refuse to be persuaded. Bribery? Organizations are full of legal forms of bribery (usually called incentives) whose purpose is to get people to conform. Do they work? Sometimes, and sometimes not. They also have a limited shelf life. Today’s incentive becomes tomorrow’s norm.

The underlying problem with all attempts to control others is the same: by doing so, you make yourself responsible for each and every situation in which people don’t do exactly what you wanted them to do, say what you wanted them to say, or respond exactly as prescribed. In effect, they take the action and you take the blame.

Believing that you can control people at work in anything but the most general sense is futile. Accepting responsibility for doing it is going to send your stress levels through the roof.
However hard you try, getting even a few people to act exactly as ordered is difficult. The military, who used to have a culture of absolute, unquestioning obedience to superiors, eventually accepted that it did not work. Organizations have no such culture. Nor do they have available any sanctions that go beyond being fired. Plenty of people will choose to lose their jobs rather than do something they don’t agree with or don’t want to take part in. Believing that you can control people at work in anything but the most general sense is futile. Accepting responsibility for doing it is going to send your stress levels through the roof.

Controlling the Future

When you look at this phrase, “controlling the future’” it’s obviously a non-starter. How on earth will you do that? Can you make the markets and your competitors shift at your whim? Can you control the global economy—or even the fashions that often drive spending? Do you have supernatural powers of foresight and divination to know what will happen next week, next month, or next year?

Nonsense, isn’t it? Yet every day, hundreds of thousands of working people agree to be held responsible for controlling at least their part of the future. It’s called “getting results” or “delivering the goods.” They agree that if the desired results don’t materialize on time and on budget, it is down to them. What happens in the future is their responsibility. They will “make it happen.”

Armed with everything from sheer determination to sophisticated planning and scheduling software, that is what they try to do. They accept that the task is both possible and reasonable. If they fail, they must, therefore, accept the blame.

Is it any wonder that stress is more prevalent in the workplace than the common cold? They are both taking on an impossible task and agreeing to be judged by the results. Not their effort, their input of time, expertise, or skill, but the actual result: the one thing in that list over which they have no control whatsoever. You can control how much effort you make. You can control how much you work to apply your skill and knowledge to the task before you. Within the limits of a 24-hour day, and however long you can stay awake, you can control your input of time. Will any of these guarantee success? No. Will the results depend entirely on what you do? No again.

Things will always go wrong. The future will always disappoint, just as there will always be lucky breaks and unexpected good times. Yet by claiming the credit when luck is on your side, you find yourself accepting the blame for when it isn’t.
My own guess is that maybe 75% of all workplace stress comes from people agreeing to be held responsible for outcomes that are not under their control, whatever they do. Things will always go wrong. The future will always disappoint, just as there will always be lucky breaks and unexpected good times. Yet by claiming the credit when luck is on your side, you find yourself accepting the blame for when it isn’t.

Human beings dislike the idea of blind chance. They long for some way to control what happens to them, whether it’s by sacrificing animals (as used to the norm in the ancient world), prayer to their chosen god, or simple belief in their own determination to make things turn out as they want. Since reality is essentially random and many outcomes are due to little more than chance, each one of these approaches will seem to work on occasion. You will always be able to find someone who slaughtered a chicken, prayed in a particular way, or demonstrated personal drive verging on mad obsession, and got the result that he or she wanted. That’s how chance works. You’ll be able to find just as many people who did all of those things and got a load of lemons instead. But we don’t want to think about those, because they undermine our faith that there is something, or someone, somewhere who is in charge of events and whose actions we can influence in our favor.

But don’t accept the absurd idea that you can control the future or other people.
Give it up. By all means try, pray, or do whatever you hope may increase the probability of success (short of abusing helpless and innocent animals). But don’t accept the absurd idea that you can control the future or other people. Being fallible is part of being human. So is dealing with the times when everything goes wrong. If you pretend that either is your fault, you’ll never be short of stress in your life—plus a massive dose of guilt to add to your woes and anxiety.

Smile. Shrug. Let it all go. Get on with life. That won’t affect the future either, but at least it will drastically lower the amount of stress that will come with it.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2020

Success You Can be Proud Of

Going through some “to read” saved blog links, these words from Steve Olson jumped out at me:
Many of our interpersonal anxieties and social problems revolve around a dysfunctional belief that money is a measurement of fairness, equality, and human value. [via]
He linked to a piece by Charles Wheelan at Yahoo! Finance [link] which quotes research showing that people are often more motivated by a sense of competition than by the absolute amount they earn. That is, they want to feel they are doing better than others more than they want to get any particular level of reward.

Here’s Mr. Wheelan’s key point:
In other words, we care less about how much money we have than we do about how much money we have relative to everyone else. In a fascinating survey, Cornell economist Robert Frank found that a majority of Americans would prefer to earn $100,000 while everyone else earns $85,000, rather than earning $110,000 while everyone else earns $200,000.
This ties in with similar behavior in other fields, such as “competing” over who works the longest hours or suffers the greatest amount of stress [link]. It seems that our competitive society has so infiltrated people’s minds that they care more about “beating” others than anything else.

This is the path to madness.

If all you achieve is the same again, the sense of pride and excitement quickly goes out of it.
The trouble is that achievers must continue to achieve, and we have built a whole business culture around a cult of personal achievement. In many ways, achievement is always relative. Even if your are not openly competing against someone else’s success, you are competing against your own in the past. Whatever you do today can be done better tomorrow. If all you achieve is the same again, the sense of pride and excitement quickly goes out of it. Like the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like success,” you could say that nothing gives you a buzz like succeeding more than you did the last time—or more than somebody else. Just as in sport, the belief goes around that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Is competition somehow wrong? Should we be trying to set up some kind of collaborative utopia, where no one ever competes with anyone else?

I cannot see that this makes any sense either. Competition is everywhere throughout the natural world. Many of the comforts that we enjoy were discovered and developed from a sense of competition. Our whole capitalist economic system is based on competition.

Still, competition needs to be kept in perspective. Winning isn’t the only thing—even in sport. If it were, there would be no reason to stop athletes from using drugs to increase their chances. Much of the pleasure of a sporting match comes from it being a fair test of skill between opponents. At the end, everyone lives to play another day. The winner who humiliates and belittles the loser is seen as doing something reprehensible. Crowds love to support the underdog and see the proud champion brought down a peg or two.

If people would only take the time to slow down and reflect on what is really going on, I don’t believe there would be a problem with competition.
In business, as everywhere else, competition needs to be tempered by compassion and a sense of fairness. Payment should reflect proper reward for work done, not be used as yet another forum to display crude one-upmanship. Those who do well are rightly praised; but those who do not manage quite the same standard (yet) should be encouraged, not humiliated. That is something everyone should bear in mind as the dreaded (and typically negative) performance appraisals come around.

If people would only take the time to slow down and reflect on what is really going on, I don’t believe there would be a problem with competition. It gets out of hand because people are carried away by the thrill of winning (over almost anything) and never stop to consider the implications, or the other people involved. I hope most of us aren’t really so crude and uncivilized as to want to crow over others regardless.

Years ago, I talked with a man who was a keen tennis player, as well as a ruthless competitor at work. He told me he played tennis with his 11-year old son every weekend. “I wipe him off the court,” he said. I felt amazed (and a little sick) and so asked him why he did it. “So that one day, if he is ever good enough to beat me, he’ll feel the triumph,” he said. Then he laughed, and added: “Not that it will ever happen.” He was sick. It never seemed to occur to him that beating a child in a game of tennis was hardly an achievement; or that the constant reminder to his son of who was “top dog” was probably doing terrible things to the child’s mind.

An extreme case, of course, but it makes a point. Winning isn’t everything. Sometimes, it isn’t even anything. Success that you can be proud of comes from fair and reasonable competition. And setting a boundary on success isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s proof that the person involved has thought it through and decided that when enough is enough, keeping some balance between life’s many aspects counts for more than being better than the next guy in any one of them. Earning more doesn’t make you a better person. Nor does having a grander job title or a bigger office—especially if what it took to reach that position soiled and diminished your true worth as a human being along the way.

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Monday, January 22, 2020

Thinking About Success (Part 3)

This is the third in this short series. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 via these links. Once you have decided what success is—at least for you—the next step is to work out how best to achieve it. The subject of this posting is the clashes this can cause in your life. Achieving success raises both practical and, quite often, emotional and ethical questions. Most people experience some clashes between the actions that they believe are most likely to bring them success and prosperity and their personal values and beliefs. Work/life balance is usually seen purely as a problem of scheduling time. This is far too superficial. The reason why it is often so difficult to obtain a balance between the working and non-working aspects of life is the clash of values and expectations that lead to the symptoms of scheduling problems.

It’s easy to assume that personal achievement and workplace success are more or less identical; and that material prosperity is probably more important as an external sign of success than for the extra comforts and richer lifestyle if provides. Looked at this way, long hours, constant availability for workplace demands, and the expectation that work will always come first are expressions of an underlying set of values. Work is what matters most, because success at work is the most important aspect of a “good life”. All other aspects of living must be held subordinate to the central drive to do well in career terms. And since that matters so much, it’s obvious that you must do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Seen through the filter of this value set, there are no scheduling problems; no issue of work/life balance. Work comes first. Period.

The hidden problem lies in the phrase: “do whatever it takes.” In reality, while many ambitious people are prepared to take this almost literally, even they will have some inner boundaries that they will not cross easily, or without bad feelings afterwards. For the rest of us, the demand to do whatever it takes to achieve working success causes far more obvious clashes. That’s why there is a prevailing sense that to be successful usually means “selling out” to the corporation. Given the unspoken expectation in most organizations that fitting in with every corporate demand comes with the paycheck, it’s clear that setting boundaries on what you are willing to go along with is going to cause trouble some time.

If we look at some of the most common activities associated with career success, it’s easy to spot the potential problem areas:
  • Playing office politics.

  • Putting advancement before friendship or loyalty.

  • Never questioning the corporate line.

  • Subordinating all other aspects of life to the organization’s needs.

  • Making yourself visible (and amenable) to the demands of the “movers and shakers.”

  • Following the expected script (to the letter) in all external dealings.

  • Putting organizational needs and interests before our own or those of your family.

  • Doing whatever it takes (those words again) to achieve your goals and budgets, however demanding (or unreasonable) they may be.
It’s easy to characterize work as a kind of paid slavery to the all-powerful employer, but that isn’t really how it works. Most people fit in more or less willingly with what they see as the inevitable demands of a successful career. They want the money, the prestige, the recognition, and the status. They’re willing to “pay” a price for getting these things, because that’s how the world works. You cannot be an independent spirit and still succeed in the corporate world. At least, that’s the general assumption.

Yet our inner values and needs won’t simply go away. You may believe that smooching the big bosses, and displaying yourself to best advantage on every minor occasion, will get you to the top. But if, deep down, such behavior makes you feel bad, what you are creating is an internal dissonance that will eventually cause you great stress and upset. Those inner values are part of you. They define who you are. If what you have become and who you are don’t match reasonably well, there will be problems.

The major questions about how to achieve success are not the practical, superficial ones about what job to choose, or which career to pursue. Those things matter, but they can be changed and adjusted until you get them right. The real problems of attaining success are matters of value:
  • What kind of success best fits with your personal values?

  • Can you honestly do what it will take to achieve that success in that context and still be who you are?

  • How can you decide on which compromises are acceptable, if what you value in different aspects of your life turn out to be incompatible?

  • How far does your personal view of life’s priorities match with what your employer expects?
Most of us live in societies where material and career success are highly valued; where questioning the prevailing view of the “good life” is seen as both suspicious and lacking justification. I suspect it has always been like this. But, in the past, people had many fewer options and far lower expectations. In the remote past, survival alone would have been enough. Even in the 19th century, few peoples’ expectations ran much beyond a life of modest comfort and a reputation for basic respectability.

In recent times, the meteoric rise of the advertising and marketing industries has changed that. Almost every moment of our waking time, we are bombarded with images of desirable goods and services. We are encouraged to aspire to “lifestyles” that necessarily include a certain level of disposable wealth. We are constantly urged to push ourselves towards even more prosperous ways of living, because doing so demands that we spend more. No one urges a life of simplicity and modest aspirations. There’s no money in it. The 1960s produced an urge to drop out, but it didn’t last. Aside from those dealing in drugs, no one else in the commercial world could base a business on a lifestyle like that.

Achieving real inner success is never going to be easy, not just because it may demand considerable determination and talent, but because it will almost always require you to act in ways that are contrary to the prevailing expectations of others.
The inner values that tell you what is right, wrong, good, or bad are essentially personal. It’s almost impossible to explain them to anyone else, since what formed them was a set of life experiences unique to you. Yet our own values always feel unquestionably right and inevitable. Since they determine how we see the world, and everything in it, we cannot view reality in any other way. So if our values do not quite match those of the people around us, we must either suppress them (and “sell out”), or risk being seen as eccentric or worse. Achieving real inner success is never going to be easy, not just because it may demand considerable determination and talent, but because it will almost always require you to act in ways that are contrary to the prevailing expectations of others.

Truly happy and successful people—however much or little they earn—are always those who have managed to match their life choices to their inner values. For some, this may lead to fame and wealth. For others, it may produce a life of contented obscurity. Whatever it produces, that life is right for that person.

I often urge people to slow down and reflect more. The reason has a lot to do with hoping that, by doing so, they will take the time to act out of their own values and nature, not just blindly follow what is seen as conventionally good for them. Most of the misery in the corporate world comes from people getting themselves into situations that force them to act in ways that violate their real nature.

You can do it, but the cost in stress and unhappiness will be an extremely high one. And the highest cost of all may be to look back on your achievements in old age and realize that what you gave up in return was what you truly wanted.

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Saturday, January 20, 2020

Introducing the “Slow Leadership” Newsletter

I will shortly be publishing the first ever “Slow Leadership” newsletter. I haven’t rushed into it, because there are so many newletters around and I hesitated to add to their number. However, some of the topics being covered on this site—and some raised by excellent and thoughtful comments (This blog has an amazingly bright readership!)—cry out for the slightly longer and more detailed treatment that will only work in a newsletter.

As it stands, the intention is to publish in-depth articles on topics first raised on the blog, additional thoughts based on reader’s comments, more “How to . . . ” articles, and links to interesting news snippets.

If you would like to be on the mailing list, please use this link below.

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P.S. When you subscribe, you will receive an e-mail asking you to confirm your subscription. Please respond to this e-mail, or you will not be added to the mailing list. It’s a simple precaution against anyone else signing you up for something that you do not, in fact, want.
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Friday, January 19, 2020

What Everybody Needs to Know About Secrecy in the Workplace

The main thing people need to know about secrecy is that is usually isn't needed anyway. And unnecessary secrecy wastes time, costs money, and gives a huge boost to frustration and stress in the workplace. Here's how to combat it.

Unnecessary secrecy isn’t just plaguing governments these days, it seems that companies too do a better job of hiding data from their own managers that they do in making sure competitors can’t access it.

That’s the message from a recent survey, conducted on both sides of the Atlantic [link]. The consulting group Accenture spoke with more than 1,000 middle managers in large companies in the United States and United Kingdom to learn how they gather, use and analyze information.
[The survey] found that middle managers spend more than a quarter of their time—up to two hours a day—just looking for the information they need to do their jobs, and when they do find it, more than half of it is wrong or of no value to them. As a consequence of this, almost six out of 10 said that they miss information that might be valuable to their jobs almost every day because it exists somewhere else in the company and they just can't find it.
It seems that much of the difficulty arises because vital information is held on personal computers and databases, not in places on servers that are easily accessed by others.

Our corporate cultures are obsessed by questions of power and status, so this doesn’t surprise me. The old adage that knowledge is power has never been more widely acted upon. And during times when people fear for their jobs, nothing is more predictable than an increased tendency to hang on to any kind of leverage they possess. If that means making sure no one can get to important information except through them, that is what will happen.

Secrecy has one simple cause: lack of trust in others. If you trust your colleagues and bosses, there is no need to be secretive. You probably know perfectly well what information they need—or ought to have—and it’s clear that you should make sure that they get it. This doesn’t happen because you don’t trust them. And you probably have good reason. We no longer see those in charge taking the common good as their guide. Greedy executives put themselves and their own enrichment first, regardless of all the cant that is written about the purpose of management being to increase shareholder value. the invention of payment by stock options is only one of the ways that “shareholder value” has been converted into “executive enrichment.”

Unnecessary secrecy increases costs, wastes time, and hands competitors a huge advantage.
If trust breeds trust, mistrust breeds mistrust even more quickly. Greedy, self-serving executives create mistrust on an organizational scale. that’s why they should be reomved from positions of power. What they do is so harmful to the future of the business—and the true interests of the shareholders—that any short-term profits increases that may produce are insignificant in comparison. When you create a culture of greed, you virtually ensure that the organization will be filled with secrecy, backstabbing, and a massive waste of resources as people and departments fight their colleagues for advantage, not their competitors for market share.

Creativity thrives on the free flow of information. You never know when someone will connect seemingly disparate pieces of data and come up with a new product or approach that no one has thought of before. By making data hard to access, you are stifling one of the major engines of innovation. In that way too, your organization is shooting itself in the foot, if it allows unnecessary secrecy to become widespread.

To deal with pointless secrecy, you should:
  1. Assume all information should be open to everyone, unless you have a powerful and logical reason to keep it secure.

  2. Make sure that data is easily accessible when you aren’t there. If it’s on a personal computer, tell others how to find it. If it’s on a server, don’t hide it behind passwords and barriers.

  3. Don’t keep important information only on a laptop that you carry around with you. Indeed, don’t keep it there at all. We’ve seen too many cases where genuinely confidential data, such as people’s personal details, has been put of a laptop and them left in a cab or restaurant for thieves to find.

  4. If you think someone needs data that you have, and isn’t asking for it, send them a simple note explaining what it is and why you think it would be useful to them.

  5. If you find that any of your subordinates are hoarding data for no purpose, sit them down and explain why this is a bad idea. If that doesn’t work, you may need to resort to discipline.

  6. Before you do this, make sure that your own conscience is clear. Many people hide data from the boss as a matter of routine. Don’t be one of them.
Trust has to start somewhere, so that somewhere might as well be you.
We need to break the cycle of mistrust and that means taking the risk of trusting people instead. You can’t wait for them to “earn” your trust, because until you trust them they never will. And it has to start somewhere, so that somewhere might as well be you.

Secrecy should be restricted to an absolute minimum. In many cases, that means virtually none at all. Your competitors are probably far more interested in their own internal battles than they are in what you are doing. Besides, the more information that you make available to everyone, the harder it will be to pick out the small amounts that are truly significant to a competitor.

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Thursday, January 18, 2020

The Road Least Taken to Happiness at Work

“Living From the Inside Out” is the Best Path to Happiness and Success

Most people make decisions about their life and work based on what is generally considered “right” and “good.” This is living from the outside in: letting others people’s expectations rule your life. You do what you do because that’s what you have been told to do. It’s a good recipe for frustration and stress. Living from the inside out means finding your own innermost values and basing all choices on those. That’s the best way to increase your happiness with whatever you do for a living.
In writing about careers, especially in the professions, management, or leadership, it’s not unusual to find the advice that you should “follow your bliss” or “seek out your calling in life.” That’s all well and good, if you know clearly what your calling is and you feel it strongly. What if you don’t? What if you’re quite unsure about the kind of work or life that would be best for you?

Many people—perhaps the majority even—don’t have much, if any, sense of having a “calling” to their particular work, but they do the job just the same. They want the money, or the status, or the sense of achievement. Trouble is, they aren’t very happy doing it, so they get frustrated and sometimes take it out on the people who work for them.

Can you find a calling, even if you aren’t aware of having any such thing? Would it help you feel more satisfied with your life?

I believe the answer to both of these questions is “yes.”

The root of the problem is living from the outside in: letting the world and its expectations set your values and choices for you, instead of doing it for yourself. When that happens, you do things because that’s what’s expected, even if it makes you cringe. You make yourself unhappy and the unhappiness spills over onto others.

There’s more than enough unhappiness in the world. How about increasing the store of happiness instead? Here’s what to do about it.
  1. First of all, slow down and give yourself time to think. It’s tempting to give in to all the pressure simply to get on with life, without wasting time asking yourself awkward questions about what you might prefer to do instead. This is a mistake. You can suppress your inner doubts for a while, and substitute all the supposed certainties given to you from conventional thinking, but they won’t go away. They’ll lurk inside you, making you unhappy and increasing your stress.

  2. Next, make yourself a list of what you enjoy most. Think about whatever matters to you most. Ask some friends what they see about you that you might have missed for yourself. Think back to the things that you enjoyed most in the past and put them on the list. What you’re looking for are the values that are most important to you.

  3. Never show your list to anyone else. If you do, they’ll suggest things you have missed off and ones that you should drop. If that happens, it will become their list, not yours and you’re back with living from the outside in: basing your choices on what others think. Besides, if you know others will see your list, you’ll likely censor it to be more “respectable” and conventional.

  4. Take your list as a work in progress. People change. What matters to you today, may be less important in a few years time. Still, it’s a good start. Now it’s time for action.

  5. Then try living from the inside out. Start with your deepest values. Focus on what feels most important to you and ignore what others say. It’s your life, isn’t it? If you’re called to be a manager, that’s a great calling. But so is the calling to be a musician, or a baker, or a candlestick maker. Whatever your values point you towards, that’s what you should do. You’ll do it better, enjoy life more and have more satisfaction.
Your life’s true story and direction are written in the “language” called values. It’s there, right in front of you, so learning to read it should be your top priority if you want a life that’s true to who you are. Following other people’s values and expectations isn’t a recipe for happiness. Following your own is.

Oh . . . and along the way, you’ll be spreading some of your newfound happiness to others instead of adding to life’s little miseries. Wouldn’t that be worthwhile?

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Wednesday, January 17, 2020

Thoughts About Success (Part 2)

Is True Success Non-Material?

Another way to ask this question is to consider whether “doing well” in life is the same as “living well.” In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed various definitions of material success—prosperity, recognition, status, and independence—and considered whether they offered a clear path to follow on a quest for a good life. It seemed that the answer had to be “no,” mostly because no definition of material success seems to offer a sound recipe for living well. It also became clear that deciding how to achieve a good life via any definition of material success was equally open to dispute.
Many people dismiss the whole notion of finding a path to a good life through purely material success as a sideshow. They argue that what produces a life well-lived, together with feelings of satisfaction and personal value, has little to do with conventional measures of prosperity. Success in life and work, they argue, is not material. Prosperity and advancement are pleasant—even desirable—but should not be seen as sufficient life goals. True success has to do with matters such as finding meaning, value, happiness, and personal satisfaction.

One way of coming to grips with this viewpoint is to recognize it’s underlying premise: that success is not an end in itself, but a means to arrive there. Non-material definitions of success see the true goal of life as existing apart from all aspects of visible achievement. Indeed, they may see conventional indicators of success as blockages on the path to life’s real goals.

Does Success Guarantee a Meaningful Life?

Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining living well, but it does not really offer a clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.
Large numbers of people share the belief that personal prosperity is not a reliable source of meaning or value. They cannot feel satisfied with life unless it gives them some assurance that what they do has value over and beyond any rewards that they may gain. In certain circumstances, gaining this sense of achieving something meaningful may actually conflict with what it will take to be successful in a material sense. That is why such people may well forgo wealth, fame, even comfort, in pursuit of what they believe to be a more important set of goals. Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining living well, but it does not really offer a clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.

The difficulty with all such value-based definitions of success in life (and the actions and choices that leads to it) is plain: each definition is individual and depends on the fundamental values behind it. Unless you accept those values, the subsequent choices rarely make much sense. For example, those who value ecological responsibility might judge success in terms of minimizing any negative impact on the planet. To anyone who does not share those values, that definition of success would be, at best, meaningless—even incomprehensible.

Enthusiasts for any cause often to want to impose their values on others, by persuasion or force. The results are nearly always unfortunate, since values are highly personal and the majority of people resist anyone else interfering with them. Living a meaningful life is an appealing approach to defining success, but it does not offer any clearer definition than more materialistic outlooks.

Will material success guarantee a life that includes a sense of meaning? No, it won’t. If living what you judge to be a meaningful life is important to you, you must subordinate prosperity to your primary goal of finding meaning—however much other people see your choice as eccentric or idealistic.

Is Success About How You Feel?

From this viewpoint, success is purely instrumental. What each of us is really seeking is this set of feelings; happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, contentment, excitement, or whatever else we desire.
Perhaps material success is a proxy. If so, any objective definition of success is doomed to fail because success itself is merely acting as a means for gaining something else—something entirely subjective and emotional. Whatever feelings achievement is expected to produce are the true goal. Maybe feelings of pride, or recognition, or power, or importance in the world.

From this viewpoint, success is purely instrumental. What each of us is really seeking in our lives is this set of feelings; happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, contentment, excitement, or whatever else we desire. Successful actions would thus be defined purely as those most likely to produce such feelings in a suitably reliable way. If praise brings you feelings of intense pleasure, any action that produces praise is a successful one. In such subjective territory, one person’s source of positive emotions may differ profoundly from another’s. Besides, such an instrumental view would allow any action to be judged successful that produced the desired feeling. If a criminal derived pleasure from killing people, murder would be accepted as successful for that person.

This is obvious nonsense. To be acceptable to society as a whole, actions that people use to produce a life based on achieving positive feelings must also be socially acceptable (or, at least, tolerable) ones — which takes us straight back to conventional definitions of success: the ones that that are built around society’s current norms.

There is also another problem with an instrumental view of success. While we want to experience positive feelings, we usually want to avoid negative ones even more. Absence of pain may be as important as pleasure; success and prosperity may be sought, not so much for itself, but to escape from poverty and want. There is a good deal of evidence that people are more likely to choose actions that promise to help them avoid negatives that they are to select those that offer positive outcomes. We’ve already seen that a meaningful life may be neither easy nor happy. Now it seems that seeking a good life that is based on achieving positive feelings might have as much, or more, to do with escaping from negative ones. In either case, such feelings are entirely personal , so it’s hard to use what works to produce them as the basis for a wider definition of success.

Besides, success usually requires others’ approval or co-operation. Pursuing an individual feeling of happiness in defiance of what others see as acceptable behavior quickly lands you in trouble. You may want the constituents of material success because they lead to emotions that you desire; but unless those success patterns are also generally approved they are unlikely to allow you to avoid pain or other negative results at the same time.

Does “Doing Well” Really Mean “Doing Better Than the Next Guy?”

Does “doing well” actually mean being more successful that those we see as our peers, even if we try to keep this element in the mix hidden?
We live in a highly competitive society, where almost all success—at least in conventional terms—includes some element of winning out over others. Is it really the case that we cannot feel successful unless we are somehow clearly beating our “competition?” Does “doing well” actually mean being more successful that those we see as our peers, even if we try to keep this element in the mix hidden?

“Doing Well” almost always carries some connotations of being more successful than others. Indeed, where success is open to all, with neither competition nor significant obstacles, it is often dismissed as insignificant and “too easy” to be worth pursuing. To succeed is almost always equated with being a winner; and winning is all about causing others to be seen to lose. The adulation accorded to sports stars, those who win TV talent shows, and film starts or singers who win Grammys, Emmys, or Oscars makes it obvious that most conventional ideas of success—material or non-material—include coming in first in a tough race.

Of course, many people are uneasy with such definitions of success precisely because they must always produce more losers than winners. In a large field, like a whole organization, very few can win the greatest indicators of success, but huge numbers can—and must—lose to allow it to happen. Are all these losers by definition also unsuccessful in living good lives? Can you establish relative measures of success that allow for ability and effort, even if the final goal was not achieved? Won’t all such measures be seen for what they are: merely consolation prizes?

Defining success as winning satisfies a few and leaves everyone else out in the cold. On a large scale, it produces an under-class of those who have given up hope and are therefore prey to feelings of revenge towards the winners. In an organization, it leads to a favored elite trying to keep a mass of more-or-less alienated employees in their place. While competition may be an acceptable enough basis for defining success in sport, it’s drawbacks in the workplace seem to outweigh any benefits. Of course, it is still widely used, which perhaps accounts for persistent problems of morale and turnover in the most competitive businesses.

Using competition as a basis for defining success also causes people to focus on simple, tangible, and easily measurable indicators of winning or losing: like money, percentage changes in output, or comparisons with industry norms. It has become obvious that some of the outrageous payments given to top executives are driven less by greed than a wish to keep score and indicate your placing amongst your peers. Similar reasons lie behind the urge to seek promotion—even if you suspect the higher-level job will bring only greater stress and a higher chance of failure.

Maybe Success Cannot be Defined in a Single Way?

All the definitions of success that we have examined have failed in one way or another to form a sound basis for living a good life. Perhaps there is no clear definition that can be agreed upon that can serve in this way. Maybe, like obscenity, a good life is something we cannot really define—yet everyone recognizes when they see it.

In the end, we must each make our own decision about what constitutes success in living a good life. It may be conventional, like winning or making lots of money. It may include a commitment to seeking some higher meaning or acting in the service of others. It may include following a dream, or chasing a vision of life based on purely subjective desires. Whatever it is, it is the only kind of life success that will be truly satisfying. Success is what we say it is, whether others agree or not. Following external definitions of success may bring wealth, power, or prestige, but it will never bring happiness if it runs counter to our own, internal values.

These values, and they impact they have on achieving any kind of life success that will bring satisfaction, are the subject of Part 3 of this series.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2020

Knowing What is (Really) Good for You

The connection between how we feel about life today and how well life is working for us is complex. Many feelings are transient. What we assume to be good and desirable may turn out not to be so in time. Our lives have many facets and events can be positive from one perspective, yet negative from another.
Most of us like to believe that we make positive life choices: that we take aim at some desired goal and do whatever we can to reach it, making decisions about what we want and what, we believe, will make us happy.

I wonder is this is true?

I seems to me that a great many choices, especially in the world of work, are more about what we want to avoid. We don’t so much set out to achieve happiness or satisfaction as to avoid feeling bad or frustrated. The trouble is that our beliefs and forecasts about what will make us happy—or help us avoid being unhappy—tend to be seriously wide of the mark.

Why should that be? Surely each of us ought to be the greatest expert on our own needs and sources of happiness?

Maybe not. There are quite a few reasons why people tend to make serious errors in choosing what will work best for them.
  1. Short-termism. It’s easy to be carried away by something and ignore the question of whether that enthusiasm will last. You buy the latest gizmo and the world seems a marvelous place. A few weeks later, it’s lying untouched and unregarded. Businesses do this too, chasing after the latest fad to build business, only to drop it in a few weeks or months. I wonder how much time and money is wasted this way?

  2. Instant gratification. Few of us like to wait to get what we want. Sometimes, however, that waiting time is useful in letting us have second thoughts. It’s no coincidence that marketers and advertisers urge you to buy instantly. The longer you must wait, the more likely you are to realize you don’t really want the item. Delay generally sharpens true needs and wishes, and blunts those that are not much more than whims.

  3. Exaggeration. It’s a human tendency to dramatize whatever concerns us. We focus on the differences between options (which may be minor) and ignore the greater similarities. Job A, we believe, will give us our dreams, so we ignore its drawbacks. Job B seems dull in comparison, so we ignore its benefits. In reality, we may be equally happy and successful in either one. So if Jobs A and B have similar potential for happiness, we’ll probably find in time that Job A’s pluses don’t really compensate us for the drawbacks we saw at the start.

  4. Aversion to loss. Once we have something, we are loathe to give it up, even if that might be the better option. The high-paying job is ruining our health, but we persist in hoping that we can somehow avoid the pain and keep the cash. The actual amount of loss may be virtually negligable in the wider context, but it seems huge because that is all we focus on.

  5. Myths about probabilities. Gamblers sometimes persist in a losing streak in the incorrect belief that, next time, they must win by “the law of averages.” It’s nonsense. Each wager has the same odds of winning or losing as the last, regardless of whether you previously won 10 times or lost 10 times in a row. Things only “average out” over thousands or millions of examples—by which time all your cash has gone.

  6. Foolish pride. Many, many people cling to bad decisions because they can’t bear to lose face by backing down. You are not your decision. Being wrong does not make you a bad person. Sticking to a wrong choice is going to hurt far more in the end.
One of the prevailing assumptions of modern life is that people know what’s good for them. There’s not much evidence that this is true. It’s usually justified by pointing to a supposed alternative: that the state or some tyrant takes over and runs our lives. That’s not an acceptable prospect. Why should he or she or they know better? If you think a little, you’ll quickly see that this isn’t an either/or situation. The only alternative to poorly-used freedom to choose isn’t tyranny. There are many alternatives—and one of those is to learn how to choose better.

Instead of rushing into decisions, or following the herd, or handing your choices over to someone else to make for you, what about learning how to use your freedom to better effect? Maybe slow down, think carefully, let any immediate emotions subside. Leave space for second and third thoughts. Food that tastes best isn’t always best for you. Immediate, intense desires aren’t somehow less prone to error than slower, less powerful ones.

Don’t let yourself fall into simplistic attitudes where judgement is narrowed to black versus white opinions, and the calculation of what is really in your best interests is reduced to advertising-like slogans. Take your time to consider all the options, long and short term. Hold back from premature commitment, if you can. Superficiality and haste are associated with weakness, not strength. Regret is no substitute for prior thought. In the end, nothing is certain, but you can still aim to make the best choice that you could at the time.

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Monday, January 15, 2020

Thoughts About Success (Part 1)

What is Success?

This blog, like many, many others, is fundamentally about success: success in combining the needs and demands of the workplace, the profession of leadership, and all the other opportunities of life into some satisfying package. But do we even know what success is, let alone what it may take to achieve it? Today begins a four-part series exploring the topic of success and how it may be achieved.
Success is a constant topic of conversation. Proud parents tell their friends how well their children are doing at school or in their careers. Vehicles display bumper stickers proclaiming that a child is on the Honor Roll, attends a particular university, is a member of the military, or follows a particular profession. When you meet a friend whom you haven’t seen in a while you ask: “How’s it going?” “I’m doing pretty well,” the friend replies, and you nod and smile.

Worse still for any generally agreed measure of success, can we even reach a shared position on what aspects of life we are seeking to make successful?
But are we all talking about the same thing? Is there any definition of success—even so-called worldly success—that we can all agree upon? And if there is not, what are so may people pursuing in their lives? If success can be defined in many ways, some of them conflicting, is it worth chasing after at all? We know that getting what we think we want often leads to disappointment. Is that because the way we defined success was wrong? Or were we merely seeking success as a way of producing something else—and it’s that process which has failed? Worse still for any generally agreed measure of success, can we even reach a shared position on what aspects of life we are seeking to make successful?

Success at work is perhaps easiest to define, at least in conventional terms. It appears to have three distinct aspects:
  • Attaining prosperity and advancement.

  • Winning respect, recognition, power and status.

  • Increasing independence and choice.
As we’ll see in a later posting in this series, even these three aspects of purely working success are not totally compatible and require constant trade-offs in order to operate together.

If you turn to life as a whole, the definition of success becomes far wider and much more diffuse. I don’t believe this is a compete list, in any terms, but it may do to make my point:
  • Getting what you want.

  • Being happy.

  • Being liked or loved.

  • Having successful relationships (and how do you define “successful” there?).

  • Doing something meaningful and of value (to whom?).

  • Serving others.

  • Being a good member of your community.

  • Following a specific creed, set of beliefs, or worthy aspirations (who says they are worthy?).
The clashes multiply as soon as you try to combine life and work success. Many clergy, philosophers, and teachers of all creeds despise worldly success and see it as fundamentally incompatible with “real” success in living. Are they correct to do so? Or are those right who see prosperity and a secure place in the community as a mark of divine favor or an indicator of a life well lived?

Should you get what you want (which others may disapprove of or which may be harmful to you in the long-term)? Should you focus instead on what you ought
to want? But that at once raises the question of whose authority supplies the “ought” and whether they are to be trusted.

Things don’t get much better if we drop the speculation and turn instead to practical definitions of success, based on what we can see that people do that leads to them being described as successful. There are at least three sources of definitions even here:
  1. What produces success in material terms.

  2. What leads to someone being admired or held up as a role model.

  3. What are conventionally held to be marks of success.
It’s probably fair to say that success in material terms is widely agreed to be a mark of “success” in life. However, how you achieve material success is also a component. Unrestrained self-interest, acquisitiveness and a ruthless disposition are almost certainly major components of achieving material success as swiftly and reliably as possible. We all know that, but seem to close our eyes to it when praising those who amass fortunes and fame. Such unpleasant means do not fit well with respect for what has been attained. We solve the dilemma not by decrying the success but glossing over how the person reached it. The drug-taking and sexual practices of media and sports stars; the corruption of politicians; the greed and callousness of business tycoons; all are somehow set aside in the adulation their success can bring.

If success was defined by what these role models did, very few people today are even trying to be successful.
Those who are held up as role models—people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr, or Nelson Mandela—are admired far more than their actions are emulated. That’s probably because most of them suffered to achieve their goals, and very few had any significant material success in life. People may point to Gandhi as an example of greatness, but very few choose to live as simple and ascetic a life. If success was defined by what these role models did, very few people today are even trying to be successful.

Conventional descriptions of successful behavior also tend to rely heavily on pointing to “great men” of the past (They are nearly always men, by the way. Successful women are routinely ignored as role models.). There has been a rash of books supposedly sharing secrets of greatness derived from the lives of almost every hero you care to name. The authors rarely seem to care that these people lived in a different age, dealt with very different contexts, and were usually engaged in totally different activities (like fighting medieval warfare or being an absolute monarch) from their modern readers. The hunt is on for “transferable skills” of greatness and success—preferably ones that can be packaged into a saleable format. In time, just about every human attribute has been pressed into service to account for success. As a result, conventional definitions have become vague and all-encompassing to the point of being virtually meaningless.

In the end, most definitions of success are circular: they define success as what successful people do to become successful. Because of that, it’s difficult to pursue even material success without the constant concern that what you are chasing may not be precisely what you think it is.

Perhaps focusing on material success is the problem. Maybe true success—the actions that lead to personal satisfaction as well as (or in place of ) material prosperity—is non-material: a matter of feelings, values, and subjective perceptions. That will be the topic of Part 2 in this short series.

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Friday, January 12, 2020

Competitive Stress

Being constantly tired and stressed is bad enough, but boasting about it? It appears that stress too is becoming competitive in our crazy world. It’s no longer enough to be stressed. Now you have to be more stressed and overworked than everyone else. Where will such stupidity stop?

According to an article on entitled “Stress showdowns”, it’s chic to be stressed. It seems that work-obsessed people are now competing in how much stress they are carrying, based on the assumption that the more stressed you are, the more successful you must be.

It’s hard to rationalize the idiocy that this reveals, but I guess that, in our hyper-competitive culture, almost anything can become the basis for rivalry. And the typical attitude of organizations and bosses, based on the Puritan Work Ethic, backs this up with an equally irrational belief that the harder you work, the better you are as a person. Besides, persuading more people to take on that kind of attitude benefits the organization by ensuring that these folk will be only too willing to work themselves almost to death without needing any greater incentive than showing-off to their peers.

Leslie Reisner, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychologist and corporate trainer specializing in stress, who is quoted in the article, says:
Not only do many of us want the stress in our lives, we want more stress than the next guy. It’s the new way of keeping up with the Joneses.

By such twisted logic, the highest achievement comes not from producing the best results, but from being the one who was the most stressed by getting there. You can add to that the common element of boasting. If one person says he or she works 50 hours each week, you can be sure that someone else is going to claim to be working 60—and so on, up to 70, 80, and beyond. Maybe it will even be true. But, in terms of useful results achieved and from any other sensible perspective, doing 40 hours of productive, creative work is always going to beat 60+ hours in a tired, stressed, and mind-numbed state. Exhaustion is no friend to creativity or accuracy.

If stress is becoming the badge of success, that’s mostly because people love to keep score—and stress is a way of doing it that allows them to appear oppressed at the same time. Sadly, stress causes real health and relationship problems. It is one thing to brag about staying longer at work that anyone else, but quite another to be the one who dies youngest, or whose children have the most juvenile convictions, and whose spouse has the most affairs or wins the largest divorce settlement.

The MSNBC article also list other “benefits” from claiming to be significantly stressed by overwork:
  • If someone has no time for anything but work, hasn’t had a proper vacation in 10 years, and gets 1000 e-mails each day, he or she must be important. Right?

  • Stress is an easy, ready-made excuse for all sorts of bad behaviors, from being a bad-tempered and dictatorial jerk, to ignoring promises, and screwing up important work. The message is: “Don’t criticize me. I’m only being a jerk because I’m so stressed. You should sympathize.” Of course, there’s no excuse for being a jerk—not even that you were born that way.

  • All sorts of other socially undesirable behaviors, from sexual harassment to drug abuse, can be blamed on the “stresses of my job.” Politicians and film stars have played this game successfully for decades. Going into rehab has become the instant response to being caught involved in anything compromising—followed by a tearful news conference at which the “incredible demands of my job” are duly trotted out as justification for whatever mess-up has been made.
James W. Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, says a stress-based strategy is also quite a good way of avoiding extra work:
Wearing stress as a badge of honor can also serve as defense mechanism. When you show the world you are totally stressed out you’re sending out a signal: Don’t give me any more stuff to do.
So what can you do when the people around you are competing in a mindless round of one-upmanship, each one claiming to be more stressed-out and overworked than the rest? It’s easy to feel that you’ll be seen as the most despised wimp if you smile and say that you’re feeling just fine, thank you very much, and looking forward to your vacation next month.

Here are a few ideas:
  • It’s probably a fairly safe assumption that those who talk most about their stress aren’t nearly as frazzled as they claim. That’s true in almost any area of human life: the ones who boast loudest about their sexual conquests, for example, aren’t usually those who have so much to boast about. If you keep quiet and say nothing, others will probably assume that you are the one who actually has the most reason to boast.

  • Working long hours is no guarantee of doing anything useful. Some of those who stay longest at work do so because they are the least competent. They need all that extra time just to keep up. If you get good results in a reasonable working week, staying longer is unlikely to improve them.

  • Overwork and stress ruins creativity. You can be an exhausted drone or an alert, innovative worker bee. It’s your choice. Which one will work best for you?

  • If the organization favors those who make a show of working hardest, even if they become too tired as a result to do anything but pull the levers, take careful note. It’s telling you that the guys in charge are morons. I suspect they—and their business—won’t last too much longer in our competitive world. You might want to get out sooner than later.

  • If stress and overwork are badges of honor, why does our society pay some of the most stressed and overworked people (hospital interns, nurses, public school teachers, for example) such pitiful salaries? Have you ever heard of a top executive being so tired that he or she falls asleep while talking to a customer? It seems that it’s far from unknown for junior doctors to fall asleep while examining a patient.
Competing over stress is a badge of only one thing: being an egotistical, brain-dead jerk. If that’s what you want to prove yourself to be, step right up and get in line. It seems others are just as keen as you are to prove their stupidity.

I, for one, will decline the honor.

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Thursday, January 11, 2020

Hamburger Management and Stress

It seems that Fast Company magazine has published a list of 10 coping mechanisms for workplace stress that managers should avoid [via]. Here is the list:
  • Avoiding confrontation to circumvent an angry outburst.

  • Not listening to advisors because of fear of change.

  • Refusing to own up to being wrong.

  • Thinking that dealing with problems will unearth more problems.

  • Not being able to let go of a losing venture.

  • Being fixated with strategy while ignoring its execution.

  • Taking the logical path and ignoring gut instincts.

  • Trusting gust instincts alone and ignoring analysis.

  • Encouraging a culture of favoritism.

  • Choosing to overlook issues they don’t understand.
This is a sensible list, for the most part (save for the odd statement that suggests deification of gut instinct, which is foolish). It is, also, a list of some of the typical characteristics of Hamburger Management.

Hamburger Managers:
  • Make confrontation their normal pattern of dealing with others.

  • Don’t waste time listening to anyone.

  • Never admit to being wrong. They think it makes them look weak.

  • Keep repeating the old mantra; “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions” as if it represents some transcendental wisdom. In reality, they just don’t want to have to deal with any more problems.

  • Cling to whatever they have done before, however obviously it has failed.

  • Love to talk about “strategy” because that allows them to blame someone else for their failures.

  • Revel in gut instincts. Their guts are gurus. They have no time for logical thought at all. That’s why they never see the consequences of their actions until it is too late.

  • Think analysis is only for geeks.

  • Only like people who toady to them. Hate anyone who questions them.

  • Ignore whatever they don’t understand, don’t like, or don’t feel will reflect well on them.
The conditions that cause stress—especially crazy expectations and an obsessive focus on short-term profits and “making the numbers” every quarter—also cause Hamburger Management. It’s not surprising, therefore, that you find so many Hamburger Management responses to conditions of stress. Such responses produce a circular pattern: more stress produces more Hamburger Management, which in turn produces more stress.

To lower stress, stop this cycle. Let go of Hamburger Management and you will soon start to lower the amount of stress present in any situation.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2020

It's Time to Think Again About Productivity

The simplistic formula for calculating productivity, based on hours worked and costs incurred, is no longer sufficient for today’s environment. Following it seems to be as likely to harm a business as help it. It’s time for something better.
How far are the long hours that many people now work increasing productivity?

This seems a simple question. If you work longer, surely you will accomplish more? And if you work longer for the same pay, the cost of what you do will be lowered. More output with lower costs equals higher productivity. Q.E.D.

Well, maybe.

It seems that British workers currently put in around one full working day of overtime each week [via].
Unpaid overtime often increases only gradually, with employees . . . failing to realise how much extra time they are working, and the negative effect this is having, until it is too late.
A US survey found that employees working overtime were 61 per cent more likely to sustain a work-related injury or illness than employees who did not [via]. Research published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2002, showed that working over 60 hours a week and missing out on sleep can double the chances of a heart attack for the 40+ age group.

Once again, it seems that short-term benefits can be quickly wiped out by long-term results.
The impact of such outcomes must decrease productivity and raise costs by the amount of cash that has to be devoted to covering lost working hours, paying for health benefits, and hiring replacement workers. Once again, it seems that short-term benefits can be quickly wiped out by long-term results.

Recently, a survey by Microsoft suggests that some of these extra working hours are being wasted anyway [via]. Here are the key findings:
  • Surfing the web during work time consumes almost an hour a day (54 minutes).
  • Formatting documents and sorting out PC problems consume a further 46 minutes (Couldn’t Microsoft do something about that?).
  • Another hour or more is spent gossiping with co-workers, making calls to friends, drinking tea or coffee, taking toilet breaks, and daydreaming.
So will working longer hours automatically raise productivity?

… almost six out of ten (58 per cent) Americans identified poor management as the biggest obstacle to productivity. Long hours won’t help with that.
The 2005 Workplace Productivity Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that almost six out of ten (58 per cent) Americans identified poor management as the biggest obstacle to productivity. Long hours won’t help with that.

A 2004 UK survey [via] found that slow decision-making and unproductive meetings were the biggest wasters of company time, losing companies 36 million days of management time annually.

Is output per working day truly a sound measure of productivity, save in the old-fashioned way that applied to people shoveling coal?

Suppose you have tired, fractious people dealing with customer queries or complaints. How much can be lost in profit terms by making customers angry? If a customer has to wait for 30 minutes or more on the telephone, before being confronted with a lengthy menu of computer-speak “options,” what is the cost impact of his or her irritation? If more quality problems emerge because workers are tired and stressed; if morale falls and more good people leave; if creativity (which takes time and relaxation) is replaced by mindless conformity, what is the cost to the company?

One of the refrains of Hamburger Management is “what is measured gets done.” This is too simplistic to be sensible, since the most crucial aspects of business success are, generally speaking, difficult or impossible to measure accurately.

The current drive for high productivity can harm a business as easily as improve it, if it is not done carefully and with proper insight into the context.
You cannot properly measure innovation, creativity, or human happiness. Even supposed measures of the willingness of your customers to stay loyal, or your product’s marketability, are suspect. Many contain loaded questions or are poorly analyzed. Nor can you relate a rise or fall in such criteria to simple actions. Life is far too complex for that. Customers may be loyal only because there is no viable alternative to your product or service. Give them one and they will desert you in droves immediately.

The current drive for high productivity can harm a business as easily as improve it, if it is not done carefully and with proper insight into the context. People like Bob Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer have shown clearly that many management assumptions are based on zero actual evidence.

Why should old models of productivity, derived from the factories of 100 years ago, work today? Why treat knowledge workers like unskilled day-laborers? Do we want to live in a world where work is the equivalent of being a galley slave and human beings are retained only so long as there is no machine to replace them?

It’s time to rethink what we mean by productivity and bring a wider definition into use: one that includes the intangibles of working life, not simply money and time.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2020

Don't Let It Get to You

Sometimes the most important thing to do is to slow down, calm down, and simply shrug, instead of allowing yourself to become worked-up.

Here’s an interesting post from Bob Sutton, titled Why Indifference is as Important as Passion. In it, Ann Michael says:
We all need to be able to step back and disconnect. In order to see flaws in the plan, respect the input of others, and maintain an open mind, a little indifference can go a long way.
My post this Monday on was along roughly similar lines. I suggested that it’s more important to success to take action, regardless of how you feel, than allow your emotions to take charge, so that you are constantly putting things off until you “feel like it.”

The result has been a torrent of comments, one or two of them quite rude. It seems that there are folk out there who think that their right to be emotional is under attack, and respond in highly emotional ways.

As Anne Michael adds:
One other thing, too many disrespectful actions are explained away by passion. It’s as if passion can be the get-out-of-being-called-a-jerk-free card.

Passion is NOT a license to steam roll everyone in your path!
Hurrah to that!

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Monday, January 08, 2020

The Plain Truth About Work/Life Balance

Achieving an acceptable degree of work/life balance is never going to be easy, but it won’t even be possible unless you first understand clearly what that balance is and how it works. Unfortunately, much of what has been written on the topic misses out this stage. Worse still, it misunderstands the term “balance” completely. What follows will set you on the right track.

Work/life balance is an ambiguous idea. We all think that we know what it means, but I would take a large bet that few of us have exactly the same thoughts in our minds when we read those words. Of course, we act as if we do, but that’s mostly because we each assume that our idea of work/life balance is the correct one.

Work is part of life, isn’t it?

Talking about work/life balance seems to imply that work and life are in opposition to one another; that work isn’t part of life, and you only start to live once work is finished. This is a very odd notion, but it’s easy to see where it comes from. If your viewpoint is that work is, at best, a necessary evil (with the emphasis on evil), then you will believe that life only begins when work stops, and vice versa. In the old days, when work for most ordinary people meant hard, physical labor in the fields or the factory, there was a measure of truth in that. Few had much choice about what work they did and starvation was the only alternative. That’s hardly true today. Nearly everyone has a wide choice of work, limited only by their educational background and skills—and even those can be changed and improved with a little effort.

So here’s the first plain truth about work/life balance: if your life only begins when work ends, you need to find another job or career. Until you do that, nothing else will have any effect. Work is not only an integral part of life, it can—and should—be an enjoyable and fulfilling part. A wage packet alone is not a sufficient reason to go to work.

Think about what you enjoy doing most and set out to find work that includes it. If you need to, go back to school to get whatever qualifications are required. If you hate your job, change it. Period.

All balance is dynamic

Balance is never fixed or rigid. You can prove that by spending a moment balancing on one leg. If you try to stay absolutely rigid, you’ll fall over almost at once. The only way to stay balanced is by continually adjusting the distribution of your weight.

Work/life balance is no different. Many people make the mistake of trying to set some kind of global, unvarying pattern for their lives. It won’t work. There will always be times when you simply have to “violate” your resolution to cope with the normal ups and downs of living. If there’s a rush job, or an important customer needing urgent help, and everyone else is pitching in to deal with that need, you can’t simply walk out of the door at 5:00 p.m. with a cheerful wave. Not unless you’re ready to be extremely unpopular and an immediate candidate for the next pink slip.

Forget setting global patterns. Forget rigid behavior and unyielding resolutions. All they will bring you is heartache and frustration.

The next plain truth about work/life balance is this: balance is something you’ll need to vary on a daily, maybe an hourly basis. Achieving a balanced life means doing it one way today and a slightly different way tomorrow. You’ll need to make small shifts all the time to stay upright.

We all need boundaries

Let’s go back for a moment to standing on one leg. If, while you are balancing like that, you lean too far in any direction, you will lose your balance and fall over. There are natural limits on how far you can move from being upright and still keep your balance.

The same is true of work/life balance. While you need to be constantly shifting your balance in small ways to cope with daily demands, you also need to set boundaries to avoid becoming so flexible that your desired balance is lost.

That leads to our next truth: the goal of work/life balance is to keep within your chosen boundaries, while staying flexible to short-term needs. Don’t compromise too far, or you might as well give up on seeking balance altogether.

Setting priorities matters

If you are going to have boundaries to how far you’re willing to move away from an ideal balance, you’ll need to have some clear priorities to back them up. Besides, even the non-work parts of life contain all kinds of competing claims. If you spend every non-working moment on a single activity, you’re as much of an obsessive as any workaholic.

Not only that, but your priorities are bound to change as time passes. Someone in their 20s, just starting out on a career, will not have the same priorities as a person approaching retirement. If you have a young family, or a sick relative to care for, you won’t have the same priorities as a single person who has only him or herself to please.

Sadly, too many organizations still ignore this plain truth. They take the easy, thoughtless route of demanding that work demands should always come first, regardless of personal circumstances. As a result, most women—especially single mothers—and a significant number of men with a sense of duty towards their families, find themselves excluded from promotion, regardless of merit. If that’s your current experience, you should think hard about whether your current job is worth compromising all the other parts of your life to retain. If the answer is negative, find another job with an organization that isn’t run by Neanderthals.

This plain truth means that it’s well worth taking time out to re-evaluate your priorities on a regular basis. Unless you do, you may find your out-dated ideas on what matters most in your life are blocking you from reaching any kind of acceptable balance.

“Having it all” is nonsense

You cannot have it all. I know this has become a mantra amongst some groups, but it’s still nonsense. As soon as you set priorities in your life, something has to go to the end of the line. And the reality is that almost no one has the time, money, energy, or talent to have everything they want during their life time. The disgustingly rich probably get to have more than the rest of us, but even they don’t manage everything smoothly—sometimes not at all. The most casual glance at the news media is enough to prove that.

So the final plain truth is this: you cannot have everything you would like in life, so get over it. For all ordinary people, keeping an eye on major life priorities, and achieving a majority of them over their three score years and ten, is a huge accomplishment. Life is uncertain. Things go wrong. Luck plays a greater part than we like to admit. So always coming close to your ideal work/life balance will be exceptional. Getting close more often than not is extremely praiseworthy. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss quite frequently. So does nearly everyone else. Just put it down to experience and keep trying.

Those are our plain truths:
  1. Work is simply a part of life, but it needs to be an enjoyable part. If it isn’t, do something about that right away.

  2. Look for balance on a short-term basis only. Stay flexible. Remember it’s like balancing on one leg: rigidity will quickly bring you down.

  3. Set boundaries and try to stick to them. If you compromise too much, your balance will be lost. The ideal is to shift flexibly within your boundaries without going past them.

  4. Have priorities that reflect your stage of life and personal circumstances. Change them in line with life’s changes. Don’t cling to out-dated choices.

  5. You can’t ever have it all. Be willing to let some aspirations go with a smile. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t Wonder Woman or Superman. At least you get to wear your knickers underneath your pants.
Too many gurus, coaches, and marketers have jumped on work/life balance as a way to make a quick buck. You don’t need any of them. All you need is a clear idea of what true balance means, the courage to set and keep your boundaries, and a little luck. None of those will cost you one dollar.

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Friday, January 05, 2020

Hamburger Management Rampant

There is yet more evidence of rampant Hamburger Management in a survey from Florida [via Brent Kallestad, Associated Press].

A survey by researchers at Florida State University makes depressing reading. It seems that almost 40% of managers fail to keep their promises—surely the very basis of trust and honesty. An almost equal number fail to give their people due credit, while nearly one third badmouth their subordinates to others. Just about a quarter blame others to cover up their own mistakes.

You might object that this says little more than that leaders are human beings. We have all done these things on occasions, to our shame. Yet leaders aren’t paid to be no better at handling others than the average person. Part of the basis for their privileges and rewards is that they should be professionals in leadership and all that goes with it. This research suggests that most are not.

Such poor leadership is demonstrably harmful to organizations. As the Associated Press article says:
Employees stuck in an abusive relationship experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed moods, and mistrust, the researchers found. They found that a good working environment is often more important than pay, and that it's no coincidence that poor morale leads to lower production.
The results of the study are scheduled for publication in the Fall 2007 issue of The Leadership Quarterly. They include:
  • 39 percent of workers said their supervisor failed to keep promises.

  • 37 percent said their supervisor failed to give credit when due.

  • 31 percent said their supervisor gave them the "silent treatment" in the past year.

  • 27 percent said their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.

  • 24 percent said their supervisor invaded their privacy.

  • 23 percent said their supervisor blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment.
Why am I not surprised by these findings? Because they are inevitable, given the epidemic of Hamburger Management soiling our organizations. Hamburger Managers sacrifice principles to expediency; ignore human needs in favor of financial demands; and place short-term profits (and their personal enrichment) before the demands of honesty, professionalism, and humanity itself.

Until we stamp out Hamburger Management, tens of thousands of people will continue to suffer daily oppression and humiliation in their places of work. It is as large a scandal as any in this world—and it is still going largely ignored.

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Thursday, January 04, 2020

Barriers to Creating Work/Life Balance

A new survey of more than 1000 US employees suggests that it isn't just organizations that are getting in the way of improving work/life balance. Old habits and assumptions, corporate cultures, and even plain fear are blocking progress too.
It's not surprising that we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to making progress on work/life balance. That's the message from a new survey from Opinion Research Corp [via].

It seems that that old demon, an over-developed work ethic, together with peer pressure and fears of losing out on raises and promotions prevent many people from taking any action to improve the way they organize their lives between work and other demands. And that's without the additional problem of hostile bosses and negative workplace cultures.

Maybe that's why progress on this issue is still so slow, even though the vast majority of people see it as a real issue:
While an overwhelming nine out of 10 Americans (95%) agree that striking a balance between work and life is an issue for everyone – not just mothers - less than one in seven (15 per cent) say they actually achieved this balance.

Holding back the other 85 per cent are the old stereotypes about money, work and supervisors which mean that those New Year's resolutions about getting to grips with the work-life conundrum are bound to fail.
According to the survey, men and younger workers are particularly worried what others will think of them if they change the way they work. This peer pressure may, of course, be more imagined than real—they will never know what others think until they try it—it's clearly powerful in holding them back from change. This group is also more concerned that they might loose their jobs.

All these assumptions and biases continue to support the status quo. Worse still, they seem to prevent open discussion of the issues of work and other life choices:
. . . more than half of all those surveyed also said they have not discussed work-life balance with their supervisor, even though two-thirds acknowledged that it's not just the company's responsibility to create a flexibility-friendly work environment.
Until we can lessen people's fears that making any change will mark them out for persecution and derision, we won't make much progress in developing a more civilized way of organizing our workplaces.

That's why this kind of forum is so important. It helps people realize that they are not alone, that others will not automatically assume they are shirkers, and that there is far better justification for seeking civilized organizations than for sticking with the way things are.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2020

Small Things Matter More Than You Think

It’s the Simple, Insignificant Decisions that Prevent Change

Every day is made up of thousands of small choices. We feel they don’t count for much, and it’s true that each one is insignificant in itself. But small decisions are often the key to acting on the bigger choices you want to make about your life.

At this time of year, tens of thousands of smokers decide to quit. Other people decide to lose weight, go on a healthy diet, take more exercise, or make one or more of hundreds of similar good resolutions. Some make it happen; many don’t. Even if we assume that not all of their decisions were serious, the question still remains: “Why do so many good and genuine resolutions for change fail so quickly?” It’s easiest to explain by working through an example.

Let’s suppose that our smoker determined to quit is faced with a simple, insignificant choice. It’s a time of the day when he or she almost always had a cigarette. A friend holds out a packet and offers one of the former smoker’s usual brand. “Go on,” the friend says. “You know just one won’t matter. You can give up after this.”

No single choice to smoke or not to smoke is of any great weight. That’s what makes it so very easy to give in and decide that this one time won’t matter.
Logically, what the friend says is true. Smoking one “last” cigarette is such an insignificant act in itself that it will have virtually no effect on health or, supposedly, the resolution to quit. The trouble is that the same holds true for every cigarette smoked. No single choice to smoke or not to smoke is of any great weight. That’s what makes it so very easy to give in and decide that this one time won’t matter. Your resolution isn’t affected. You are still determined to give up—only not right now.

Recovering alcoholics understand that even a single glass of alcohol will set them right back into addiction. Why should this be? It may be physiological effects with alcohol, but the same doesn’t hold true with a decision to quit getting so stressed about minor issues, for example. There’s no addictive quality about stress, so far as I know. You may be used to it, but giving it up doesn’t cause you to face “cold turkey” or massive physical symptoms.

What is happening, I believe, is a mismatch between the sudden, dramatic, and global nature of the resolution itself, and the gradual, barely significant actions needed to turn it into successful action. To decide to quit smoking, or give up overeating, or cut back on stress, or work for a better work/life balance is a clear-cut and obvious choice. It’s made today for an indefinite period ahead. It’s big, visible, and carries strong emotions.

Old habits take over, as they always do when your attention is elsewhere. Before you fully realize it, you’ve gone back on your resolution.
In total contrast, each decision to refuse a cigarette, choose a salad over a cheeseburger and fries, or go home on time instead of working late again, is so minor in itself it almost passes unnoticed. Indeed, most such decisions occur when your mind is occupied with something else. Old habits take over, as they always do when your attention is elsewhere. Before you fully realize it, you’ve gone back on your resolution.

“It won’t matter, just this once,“ you tell yourself. And it won’t, in itself. But what is true of this instance will be true of the next, and the next, until you give up in disgust at your own weakness.

Is there an antidote to the mismatch between sudden, large-scale resolution and gradual, small-scale surrender to the past? I believe there is.

My father smoked more than a pack of cigarettes each day. Suddenly, he stopped and never smoked one again. No nicotine patch, no gum, no support group, no carefully crafted program. And cigarettes were still always within his reach, because my mother went on smoking until she died from lung cancer.

What did he do?

I think that all successful programs of personal change have the same element at their center: a clear redefinition of personal identity. In 24 hours, my father went from defining himself as a smoker to defining himself as a non-smoker. He was never someone trying to kick the habit.

. . . all successful programs of personal change have the same element at their center: a clear redefinition of personal identity.
As a non-smoker, he naturally refused cigarettes and ignored the packs in his wife’s purse. Whatever cravings he felt no longer related to his inner identity. He was a non-smoker and stayed that way until his death more than 30 years later.

Many of you who are reading this post are, I guess, interested in achieving a better work/life balance. You want to slow down, lose some of your stress and anxiety, and create a more civilized working atmosphere. Like most of us, at one time or another, you’ve found yourself addicted to haste, overwork, and continual tension.

My suggestion to all of you is never to define yourselves as people trying to achieve a better, more satisfying working patten. Never see yourselves in progress from the past to your desired future. There are too may daily pressures and demands to give up on your resolution: macho bosses, sudden panics over some project, not-so-subtle hints that failing to pitch in on this one occasion will be seen as evidence of poor commitment—like a former smoker surrounded by the sight or offer of innumerable cigarettes. ”I don’t smoke“ is the only response that works, not “I’m, trying to give them up,“ which already includes the possibility that you’ll try and then fail.

”Sorry. It's really important to me to set aside enough time to be with my family“ or “I'll gladly help out some other time, but now I need to have a break for the sake of my health" are the only effective answers to excessive work pressures. Might your short-term career suffer? Sure. But a person who maintains a healthy work/life balance as part of who they are will simply leave an uncivilized organization to find a better job elsewhere. It isn’t so much what that person does, it’s who he or she is.

In the end, you’re either a person in control of your life or you’re not; a wage-slave or a person with a job that fits your chosen lifestyle; a responsible adult or a whining child. Who you are will be shown not in those grandiose New Year’s resolutions, but in a thousand tiny, almost insignificant choices over the weeks and months ahead.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2020

Forget the Forecasts

At the start of a new year, thousands of forecasts are made of what the next 12 months will bring. Virtually all of them will prove to be wrong—many hopelessly so. Organizations indulge in the same pointless game. They call it budgeting and demand that managers deliver results to match the forecasts or face the consequences. That process accounts for almost all the ills of today’s management, from stress and burnout to lousy ethics and criminal fraud.

This is the time of year when a myriad pundits make their forecasts of what the new year will bring. The evidence is simple and clear: they will all be wrong. Even a casual look at forecasts of the past is sufficient to provoke laughter. As Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in one study of forecasting, based on 284 people making 82,361 forecasts over 20 years, the pundits proved to be “poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys.” [via]

Most managers are compelled to get into the forecasting business on a regular basis (it’s called budgeting), with no better results than anyone else in actual forecasting terms.
Why should this be relevant to today’s dire state of management? Most managers are compelled to get into the forecasting business on a regular basis (it’s called budgeting), with no better results than anyone else in actual forecasting terms. However, there’s a major difference between forecasts from the various political and economic pundits that appear constantly in the media and those made in organizations: managers in organizations are tasked with making their forecasts come true. It’s known as “making the numbers,” and is the Holy Grail of those organizations infected with Hamburger Management.

Since it is clear that even experts whose professional lives are spent developing forecasts are extremely poor at doing it (nearly all highly-paid managers of financial funds, for example, fail to match the returns from the market as a whole), it seems inconceivable that tens of thousands of ordinary managers should be any better at the job. Their forecasts will, therefore, be inaccurate; some merely a little off the mark, others wildly out. But since they are compelled to make good on their budgets, they must bend reality, one way or another, to make it all work out.

Setting high expectations isn’t a panacea for motivation. Unless those expectations are solidly justified by reality, it’s stupidity on a massive, corporate scale. You don’t motivate anyone by trying to force them to accomplish the impossible, and punishing them when they fail.
Crazy expectations and inaccurate forecasts lie at the heart of our management malaise. The continual pressure from above to “make the numbers” fuels 99.9% of overwork, stress, and burnout. The much-publicized descent of managers into unethical and criminal behavior is mostly due to seeing no other way to square the circle and make their forecasts come true. And the continual demands by Wall Street for ever more optimistic forecasts, plus the instant punishment that institution gives to any business honest enough (and foolish enough, in their terms) to forecast lower numbers, merely fuels the madness. Setting high expectations isn’t a panacea for motivation. Unless those expectations are solidly justified by reality, it’s stupidity on a massive, corporate scale. You don’t motivate anyone by trying to force them to accomplish the impossible, and punishing them when they fail.

It’s reasonable to express hopes for the future, and to try your best to turn those hopes into reality. But even hopes need to have some basis in fact and probability. If they don’t, you’re setting yourself up to experience disappointment and frustration. And since that yawning gap between expectation and actuality is the basis for burnout, you’re probably putting yourself at risk of that as well—especially if you respond to the gap by trying to bridge it by sheer hard work and ever longer hours in the office.

Budgets and forecasts have become part of the unchallenged orthodoxy of management. It’s high time they were challenged and seen for what they are: at best, expressions of hope; at worst, the creation of crazy expectations doomed to crash and burn.

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