Wednesday, February 28, 2020

The Critical Importance of NOT Doing Things

Why a “don’t do” list is vital to good working habits

Most gurus and teachers spend their time telling people what to do. But if you’re already over-stretched and facing an unending future of still more pressure, that’s not likely to appear palatable. Here’s how NOT doing things can help even the most stressed person find ways to improve their working life.
I’m always a little uneasy about all the websites and blots devoted to Getting Things Done and avoiding procrastination. I see the attraction—especially to those who feel frustrated and harassed—but it seems to me that getting things done is less than half of the problem. The greatest part is stopping yourself from spending time on all those unnecessary activities that clutter the working day, force people into staying late to catch up on essential tasks, and provide an enormous workload with almost nothing to show for it.

Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day.

Take meetings. My own experience has been that as many as 75% of meetings are unnecessary. They’re mostly called to provide either an illusion of team consensus; to pass information that could be passed in one hundredth of the time by other means; to allow the self-important to have a forum to enjoy hearing their own voices; or to engage in the widespread game of synchronized cover-your-ass. Of the remaining 25% of meetings, close to 100% take too long, are ill-prepared, have poorly coordinated outcomes, or involve far longer in travel time than the meeting itself. Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day. Not doing them would get far more done than any fancy scheduling and prioritizing system.

Unnecessary communication is another sinkhole for time and effort. All those copied e-mails, circulated memos and minutes, papers marked “FYI,” and constant demands to “keep me in the loop” and make sure this, that, or the other person is “on side.” The culprit here is a deadly combination of fear and ambition: fear that something will happen behind your back that might harm you; and ambition to become so essential that nothing—and I mean nothing—can happen without your implicit approval. All nonsense, of course, but still accepted as normal.

Cutting out all useless communication, and trusting people instead to get on with their jobs and do what they are paid for, could transform productivity overnight. All it would take is the determination to stop behaving in ways that even clinically-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics would see as crazy.

Another great way to save time and cut waste would be to stop rushing into action before you’ve spent enough time thinking about what you are going to do. Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start. The workplace equivalent of the old saying, “marry in haste, repent at leisure” should be posted in a prominent position on every boss’s desk.

Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start.

An hour’s quiet thought might save a month’s wasted work. A few days of reflection and consideration might prevent 20 people being given a project that they will work on for a year, before it’s finally abandoned as unfeasible. Holding back on angry words, until you can understand clearly what is going on, could save you weeks of trying to repair a shattered relationship.

We are action-mad, reactive idiots for much of our working days, and pay a heavy price for the luxury of feeling that we’ve done something instead of merely thinking about what we ought to do.

Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before.

Don’t add to your own distractions. That latest electronic gizmo, that neat computer software, the fashionable cell phone, or the device to check e-mails fifteen times every minute is only going to make your level of distraction greater. Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before. Enough distractions in a day can leave you exhausted from constant effort, but with nothing actually accomplished—which is pretty much what may people experience as routine.

If you want to make a serious impact on all those activities which consume time with an inadequate—or non-existent—return for the energy expended, try these:
  • Take time to make a list of those activities that consume most of your time.

  • Sort out all the ones that you can stop doing with little or no real effect. Cal this List A.

  • Make a second list of all the ones you can reduce in frequency or delegate. Call this List B.

  • Make a daily “Do not do” list alongside any “to do” list. Make sure that you stop all items on the “ do not do” list. Keep this up until you are no longer even tempted to consider doing them.

  • Delegate everything on List B right away.

  • Spend the time that you’ve freed up thinking, completing essential tasks, and being creative. Defend it like your life.

  • Repeat on a regular basis.

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Monday, February 26, 2020

Are you having fun yet?

Try these nine ideas and start making your work fun again

I just came across a web site dedicated to “The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun.” It’s not specifically about the workplace, but the principles it suggests would work really well there. Most of them fit closely with the basic principles of Slow Leadership, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here, with my own, workplace-oriented comments. I also added a ninth principle of my own:
  1. Stop hiding who you really are. So many people do this. They pretend to be someone else: someone more acceptable to the boss; someone more serious and determined; someone who might appear to be a high-flier; someone who “fits in.” Even professional actors need to take a break sometimes and just be themselves. Can you imagine the stress that you’re putting on yourself, trying to be someone that you aren’t, every hour of every working day? And what’s the point anyway? You are who you are. Totally unique in space and time. Who says you aren’t good enough? Don’t fall for that rubbish. All that matters for a satisfying life is to be the best possible version of whoever and whatever you are: to develop your unique talents, express your special personality, and contribute all that you can to the life and people around you. Never, never, accept that you aren’t “worthy.” That’s crazy talk. Being yourself, openly and with joy, is essential to having fun anywhere—and especially at work.

  2. Start being intensely selfish. I’m not quite sure about “intensely selfish,” but I see what they are getting at. I would rephrase this as: “Start standing up for yourself and what you believe in.” No one will ever have the same degree of interest and investment in your life and future as you. No one will ever care as much as you do. No one will ever understand your needs as well, or know what it is like to be you and do what you do. People are always trying to make us into the kind of people they want us to be; to make us fit the mold and conform to their views. Do they do this for our benefit? No way! It’s for them: to stop us causing them trouble, messing up their neat lives, asking for things they don’t want us to have. This isn’t the same as people who give us good advice or share their experiences to stop us making bad mistakes. I’m talking about those who will compel us to fit in, if they are able. Focus on yourself and your own needs. At work, it’s likely that no one else will.

  3. Stop following the rules. Yea! Those rules are there to force you into conformity. The more you follow them, the less creative, individual, interesting, and open-minded you will become. There are two kinds of workplace rules: necessary ones (like rules for safety) and the rest. The first account for probably less than 10% of all the rules around. You’ll never have fun by following the rules. You’ll just become a grey, boring, wage slave, with not a single difference from all the other wage slaves around you. You won’t even advance your career much. No one ever promoted someone who didn’t stand out from the crowd in at least some way.

  4. Start scaring yourself. To learn, to grow, to develop who you are, to find excitement and fun, you have to take risks. If it doesn’t scare you, it isn’t a risk. Fun is all about taking risks—look at all the theme parks with their scary rides. Look at all the people who go surfing, or snow-boarding, or climb scary mountains, or challenge their minds with reading and listening to great music. Don’t wait for the universe to start scaring you. It may well do so in ways you really don’t want. Start scaring yourself. At work, this means taking on new and scary challenges, volunteering for jobs that you aren’t sure that you can do, taking on learning opportunities that scare you. Dare to do what you’ve never done before. Practice “conscious incompetence.” Just do it!

  5. Stop taking it all so damn seriously. Especially yourself. The most boring, least fun people around are all those who take themselves so seriously it hurts. They drone on and on about whatever tedious things they are involved in. They get hung up with never losing face or admitting they are wrong. They demand constant reassurance about their inflated sense of self-importance. There’s one life. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all there is. Crap happens—often. The more seriously you take it, they more it will worry you, and the more pain you’ll suffer as a result. Most of the misery in the world that humans cause (and that’s an awful lot of it) comes from people trying to control their lives down to the most minute details. They think they’re so damned important that everyone, and everything, else has to be lined up for their convenience. It will never happen. Give it up, sit back, and enjoy your ride around the sun. You might as well, since there’s usually damn all you can do about it anyway.

  6. Start getting rid of the crap. I am constantly amazed at how much crap people collect around them, especially in the workplace. Pack rats look tidy by comparison. All those electronic gizmos to stay in touch, all the “to do” lists, the constant meetings, the endless e-mails and memos. How much of it ever accomplishes anything? My guess is that 80% of it is simply distraction and a waste of time. People complain that they have no time to do their jobs, yet waste most of the time that they have reading e-mails, attending pointless meetings, and contributing to the tide of organizational crap engulfing them by producing e-mails and calling meetings of their own. Give it up. You’ll be amazed how much time you have suddenly; and how much fun you can pack into it, in place of all the “stuff” that was there before.

  7. Stop being busy. Constant busyness is the curse of our generation. People believe that if you aren’t constantly busy, you’re not pulling your weight. The curse of the Puritan Work Ethic hangs over us, like a cloud full of misery and drizzle. Busy is not the same as productive. Busy doesn’t mean “good” or “worthy.” Mostly it means “doing things for the sake of convincing others that I am worth keeping on here.” When lay-offs started becoming commonplace, people began extreme efforts to appear busy every moment of the day. As Hamburger Management became conventional, bosses starting measuring activity, because they had no idea how to measure effectiveness, and they thought they should measure something. The result is people who are too busy to have fun, too busy to live their lives, too busy to enjoy anything. Don’t join them. Life has enough misery without adding to it.

  8. Start something. I can’t do better than quote a comment from an earlier post: “Trying something new is like catnip—irresistible fun. Getting better and better at something that I initially did badly—THAT breeds enthusiasm.” Don’t wait for others, or you’ll wait for ever. Start it yourself.

  9. Don’t worry what others will think about you. This is my “extra” principle. All too many people are stuck because they’re worried what others may think. The truth of the matter is that others are mostly doing what we all do most of the time—thinking about themselves. They aren’t concerned with you at all. A lot of the time, they aren’t even aware of your existence. So if, from time to time, they drag themselves away from self-absorption just long enough to disapprove of whatever you’re doing, ignore them. It’s your life, not theirs. Self-doubt and fear of embarrassment are major dampeners on any kind of fun. Throw them away. They aren’t worth the time of day.
When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing and more of less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up and enjoy your life.

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Friday, February 23, 2020

Stepping through the looking glass

It’s long past time to try something new in management

Management today is mostly based on standard responses to problems. But like Alice, stepping through the looking glass into a wonderland on the other side, it’s always open to us to consider what might happen if we didn’t follow the set path, but broke out into fresh ideas and opportunities.

Suppose that we implemented the opposite of today’s standard management responses? What kind of business world might lie on the other side of the looking glass? Would it be a wonderland of untapped potential, or a wasteland of risk and problems? Let’s take a look.

Gone would be the cramping over-emphasis on instant results and avoidance of risk. No one was ever inspired to great ideas or endeavors by thinking only about immediate or short-term practicality. Only idealism ever inspires. That’s why corporations that favor idealism over pragmatism produce more innovative, more inspiring, and more motivating ideas. Pragmatism is fine for second-rate businesses handling commodity products, but that route will never win long-term market leadership. Visionary companies, and leaders with a fierce resolve to implement those visions, consistently win over the long haul.

If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust.

On the other side of the looking glass, organizations would retain key employees with long-term rewards, such as development, security, and opportunities for personal growth; not just short-term ones like bonuses and stock options. Where employees have learned to distrust the long-term security of their employment, they will always demand large rewards now as insurance against future lay-offs. If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust. The corollary of this must be that consistent, long-term performance would be seen as more valuable than quick wins (and long-term losses).

The more the demand grows for quick, measurable results, the more our aims become distorted to give only these—even if it hurts the organization’s interests in the longer term. Creativity and long-term potential is worth so much more than merely current performance. Instead of paying reluctantly to try to deal with any present performance shortfalls, which are only the symptoms of some underlying malaise, through-the-looking-glass organizations would go straight to the fundamental drivers of excellence: being trusted to do your job, set in the right role, given the right support, and allowed the freedom to contribute freely whatever gifts you can bring to your work. A group of free people, having fun and acting together out of choice and shared beliefs, will always outperform pressed labor and those whose loyalty and interest goes no further than the salary check.

Most management is still based on the underlying assumption of a “master” stipulating what the “servants” must do and judging them according to their performance against his or her imperious standards.

This is not the way to promote creativity, learning, or fun in the workplace—let alone real productivity. Leadership of this kind is always ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the expert leader instructing the ignorant subordinate and demanding compliance. Yet compliance never produces better than mediocre performance. None of us can do anything well if our hearts are not in it. Real achievement only comes about when people engage in an act of free will—an act with joy and passion—by choosing to thown themselves wholeheartedly into their work and seeking to understand what will improve their output, knowledge, or skill the most. Our public schools should have shown us all that when alienated pupils withdraw their consent to work and learn, no amount of discipline or teaching produces any result at all.

Our organizations and its leaders, like our society, have a long history of trying to deal with problems by coercion of one kind or another—legislating against them, or trying to drive them out of existence, instead of exploring to understand what produced the problems in the first place and continues to sustain them. At best, this drives problems underground; at worst, it gives them something to push against to build up their muscles. We need at long last to understand the total futility of this kind of behavior.

I shall be away until early March, so posting will be more intermittent than usual, as my access to the Internet will be sporadic at best. Please be patient and things will return to normal in about 10 days or so.

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Thursday, February 22, 2020

Russell Ackoff: a wise and subversive thinker

How flawed, out-of-date, and misplaced teachings are crippling management

Professor Russell Ackoff has recently published a new book about the f-Laws, uncomfortable truths about the (mistaken) way most organizations are run, and how this approach is embedded in decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching. If you don't already know about Professor Ackoff, this article will introduce you to a grand old man of management non-conformity.

Here's a fascinating short piece from the BBC in London about Russell Ackoff and his f-Laws: the view that business is riddled with “flaws . . . from decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching.”

According to Professor Ackoff:
f-Laws are truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore—simple and more reliable guides to managers’ everyday behavior than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers.
Here are a few examples:
  • The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.

  • Executives make mountains out of molehills; subordinates make molehills out of mountains.

  • The relationship between executives and subordinates is complementary: neither knows why the other does what they do, nor cares about it. This leaves a large black hole between them into which most important issues and communications fall, lost and, like Clementine, gone forever.
This one I really love, because it seems to me to speak exactly to the current idiocy about measuring activities: “Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.” As Ackoff says:
In the workplace it’s also true that managers will measure anything that can be quantified in order to be able to set targets.
Then there is this piece of wisdom from Sally Bibb, Professor Ackoff’s collaborator, that speaks directly to Slow Leadership and the current craze for over-ambition and Hamburger Management:
Managers don’t know what they want because they never think about it. One executive told his psychotherapist he was depressed because he felt he wasn’t successful. To the therapist he looked successful: good job, great salary, lovely family and beautiful home. She asked how he would know when he was successful. He couldn’t answer. He just kept on striving without knowing what he was striving for.
Ackoff's books on the f-Laws are published in Great Britain, and you can get a free “taster” from the publishers. His latest book is Management f-Laws: How organizations really work and it’s definitely worth reading, The publishers are offering readers of this post a 10% discount on the book. Order from them here and type “triarchy-ten” into the Promotional Code box (which you’ll find when you get to the checkout).

I’ve said in many posts that I believe traditional organizational ideas are out-of-date and badly flawed. We still owe far too much to methods dreamed up in the days of Henry Ford and the Model-T. Despite great books like Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, business schools seem happy to go on trotting out half-truths and out-of-date nonsense and calling it management theory. I’m looking forward to the next piece by Peter Day of the BBC, in which Professor Ackoff promises to tell the truth about business schools!

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Wednesday, February 21, 2020

You Are Not John Wayne

He may have been a great action hero, but Hollywood is still not like the real world.

Today’s media-driven, action-obsessed organizations are losing sight of the reality that sheer effort often goes unrewarded, unless it’s directed by some careful, complex, and time-consuming thought. Busyness and thoughtfulness are poor companions. Until organizations stop assuming greater effort is the simple answer to every problem, people will continue to work harder and harder for the same meager results—or none at all.

We live in a culture where action is highly prized and thought is seen as either pointless or suspicious. I’m not sure why this should be so. Of course, powerful rulers have always been suspicious of those whose motives and actions they can neither quite understand nor easily control. The bluff man of action was relatively easy to deal with. The quiet schemer was always the greatest threat. That’s why it paid to keep the cleverest people where you could see them, and deny education, and the leisure to think, to as many people as possible.

Maybe we also have Hollywood and our media-based beliefs to blame. It’s easy to display action on screen. It’s exciting, full of grand visual effect and opportunities for loud music and terrific over-acting. Displaying thought is tricky. Nothing much appears to happen, and complex thoughts can be hard for an audience to follow. It’s not impossible—William Shakespeare did it pretty well—but few screenwriters manage to reach his standard. Besides, pitting the brave, honest action hero against the skulking, devious, too-clever-by-half villain is such an easy driver of plots that few can resist it.

Whatever the causes, we are left with a culture where action—preferably lots of it and the more assertive the better—is assumed to be the answer to every problem.

Whenever people feel uncertain or doubtful, greater effort—more action—is called for at once. Do next quarter’s, or next year’s business prospects look shaky? Work harder, cut costs, increase everyone’s efforts. Is a project sliding off track? Stay at your desk until 10:00 p.m. every day, then take work home.

Never mind stopping to discover the real reason for the problem. These future sales projections may look bad because the product is falling out of fashion, or an unexpected competitor has brought out a superior alternative. The project that’s causing you to work 16-hour days may be doomed because it was badly conceived from the start. In neither case will extra effort alone make any difference to the outcome. It’s as if people feel that, in a just universe, all that determination and hard work deserves to be successful. The honest, perspiring hero, (or gallant, open-hearted heroine) should prevail, even if she or he hasn’t a clue about the problem or its causes.

That might be the case in a just universe. I wouldn’t know, because neither I nor anyone else has ever inhabited one. In the real world, effort very often goes unrewarded—especially if it, too, is misdirected, poorly conceived, or based on a total misunderstanding of the real nature of the problem.

No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it.

No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it. Hollywood may prefer simple plots that can be easily written and acted, but the universe rarely agrees with the neatness needed to make a one-hour TV show, with 20 minutes of commercial breaks. I recently heard on the radio that military personnel are copying what they see on TV as battle tactics. Rush in, shoot a few villains, and those who survive will immediately tell all they know. Works on TV. Sadly, in the real world, the survivors do inconvenient things such as lying, making up any old story to save their lives, or refusing to talk even under prolonged interrogation.

A corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.

Constant busyness is practically guaranteed to drive any thoughts away, and leave no spaces where they might return. A determined focus on short-term actions destroys all chance of creating long-term advantage. And a corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.

Relying on effort nearly always means doing what you are doing already—only harder. It’s very often taking a doomed idea and continuing to feed it with effort and resources, long after it should have been abandoned in favor of something better. It’s running about in a frenzy of action, when slowing down and giving yourself time to think up an alternative approach is the only likely path to success.

Stop shooting from the hip. John Wayne may have got the bad guy with every draw of his six-shooter, but he had considerable help from special effects, the director, and the script. In a 19th century gunfight in Phoenix, Arizona, two people stood on opposite sides of the street and blasted away at one another until both ran out of bullets. Neither suffered a scratch.

The only things that frantic busyness is guaranteed to produce are exhaustion, stress, and numbed resignation—exactly what many feel in today’s workplaces. Slow down and think instead. Then there’s at least a chance you’ll discover a way to succeed—and probably with about a quarter of the effort.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2020

Extra News and Views: February 20th 2007

My regular Saturday “News and Views” posting hasn’t been able to keep up with all the items I have collected over the past few weeks. I shall also miss two Saturdays, since I am away from this Friday and will have only very limited Internet access. I have therefore decided to add an extra posting of interesting items, most of which I have been holding for one or more weeks.

Staff don’t trust senior executives

[link] Yet another survey lamenting the poor levels of trust in the workplace. Sadly, the consulting firm that commissioned it trotted out the old platitudes about “communications problems.” Maybe it will eventually sink in that problems with trust usually mean that someone isn’t actually behaving in trustworthy ways. No amount of “better communications” will deal with that. And, while I’m on that topic, here’s another survey blaming communications for what is much more likely to be good, old-fashioned mistrust.

The downside of office politics

[link] There’s evidence to suggest that office politics have “grown from being a peripheral issue ten years ago to the single biggest cause of stress in the workplace today, according to British researchers. Unfortunately, they seem to have few ideas what to do about it.

Ideas on happiness at work

[link] Alexander Kjerulf offers some thoughts from various well-known people. Interesting to see the founder of Honda saying that people will not sacrifice themselves for the company. I’d be even happier if he said should not . . .

Are you obsessed with your cellphone?

[link] It seems that some Australians are. According to Management Blog, the average Australian spends over an hour on their mobile phone each day (this time consists of 35 minutes of texting and 25 minutes of talking) and lots freely admit to being addicted to them. Sadly, the research quoted gives no idea how much of the up to A$500 some people spend on cellphone calls each month is really necessary. I suspect the answer is “very little.”

Scary Co-Workers?

[link] [via] Business Week lists the colleagues people can’t get away from fast enough, and how to deal with them. The pictures in the accompanying slide show are scary in themselves. Unfortunately, the advice is mostly based on journalistic platitudes.

Is a good company like a good user interface?

[link] Kathy Sierra thinks so. She thinks they should support people in doing what they’re trying to do, and stay the hell out of their way. Seems like very good advice to me. The post is a good read, as always with Ms. Sierra, and the comments are fascinating as well.

Too apathetic to write about apathy?

[link] Max McKeown explains that a quick search on Amazon reveals not one single business book or pamphlet about overcoming apathy. Yet getting people to do things is, he believes, the essence of leadership. I quite like the part where he says: “Stress can cause apathy—and here the competent leader can help (and other slacker incompetents can learn) by giving back control of the situation to the person who has learned to be helpless at work, or doing a certain task, or simply in your presence.” Not so sure, though, about his continued emphasis on the idea that it’s all caused by learned helplessness. To my mind, many more people have learned that doing anything other than agreeing and trying to do their jobs as best they can is a recipe for being blasted by some ambitious Hamburger Manager eager to blame everyone else for his or her own shortcomings.

One bad apple is enough

[link] William Felps and Professor Terence Mitchell from the University of Washington’s School of Business analyzed some two dozen published studies that focused on how teams and groups of employees interact, and specifically how having bad team mates can destroy a good team. They found that teams that had a member who was disagreeable or irresponsible were much more likely to perform badly. Hardly a surprise, but it’s good to see intuitive ideas born out by research. Sadly, they also found that negative behavior outweighs positive behavior—that is, a bad apple can spoil the barrel but one or two good workers can’t unspoil it.

A warning for top dogs

[link] Janet Dowd explains the origin of the terms “top dog” and “underdog” and suggests that until the underdogs of the business world are properly acknowledged and valued, the top dogs will always be in danger of being caught off balance by the uncertain force of the thrust from below. Good advice.

Don’t let life “happen” to you

[link] Craig Harper from Down Under believes that most people have never really defined success. They want to be “different” and “better” and have more, but they don’t know what any of that is. He says: “we need to step back from the busy-ness and mayhem of our life, be still for a moment . . . and get some perspective, space and clarity . . . We need to stop looking for the convenient, easy, comfortable path and look for the rewarding, challenging, exciting, amazing and fulfilling path.” Good on yer, mate!

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Monday, February 19, 2020

Lies, Damned Lies, and Executive Platitudes

Why pretending to value people and acting otherwise is a corporate crime.

That handy platitude about our people being our greatest asset is trotted out in everything from press releases to annual reports to executive speeches. But does it mean anything? Is there ever any real intention to act on it? And if there is not, as so often appears, what are the implications for the businesses and organizations involved?
Recently, one of the regular readers of this blog, Dan, mentioned in a comment that the business platitude about our people being our greatest asset didn’t often appear to translate into action. Corporations, and the executives who run them, may claim that “our people are our greatest asset,” but their actions certainly suggest some very different assumptions. Staff are habitually accounted for as a cost, to be limited and minimized wherever possible, along with all other costs. Aside from the obvious ethical implications of such casual dishonesty, what are the true implications for an organization that fails to treat people as an asset at all?

A good place to start is to explore what actions might we expect to see, if this phrase about people being assets (let alone the organization’s greatest asset) was acted on in good faith. Any business’s assets are carefully protected and nurtured&mdashit;’s greatest asset most of all. And that asset would obviously be the central focus of most business strategy. Not only would it be used as carefully and effectively as possible to build and develop the business, it also surely be enhanced and added to whenever circumstances allowed. If someone says that their home, or their 401(K) pension plan, is their greatest asset, you would expect to see them invest time, money, and effort in adding to its value whenever they could.

On this basis, the action that prove something is believed to be a critical asset include:
  • Protecting and nurturing it.

  • Making its use and development central to any strategy.

  • Using it as well and as carefully as possible.

  • Making it the central point around which other activities revolve.

  • Working to increase its value whenever circumstances allow.
Does that sound like the way most businesses treat their people? Not to me. What I see is almost an opposite range of actions:
  • People are treated as expendable and often subjected to rough and stressful treatment.

  • They are rarely seen as central to any kind of business strategy.

  • Far from using existing people to generate fresh ideas or come up with new projects, this is increasingly outsourced to consultants -- as if it is automatically assumed that internal resources are inadequate for handling anything other than routine.

  • People are expected to fit themselves around financial and technical demands, not the other way around.

  • Expenditure on increasing the value of employees (training, development, benefits) is seen as the first and most obvious target for cost reductions.
Does it matter if it appears that in this case, as in so many others, organizations and executives say one thing and do another? I believe that it does.

This type of casual reliance on platitudes that no one intends to take seriously represents a serious ethical lapse: an automatic and institutionalized level of dishonesty.

Politicians regularly try to deceive the electorate with “spin” and lies, and more and more business leaders seem to be using similar tactics. In both cases, the result is widespread distrust, anger, and resentment. Taken too far, such actions undermine the basic respect for authority on which all countries and organizations depend for stability.

If business leaders fasten on the use of meaningless platitudes and “spin” as a way to sugar-coat their true intentions, they will wreck such trust as they still enjoy and create instead an atmosphere of continual suspicion. People are not compelled to work for a particular employer. They can refuse to join, leave, or (worst of all) stay to collect a paycheck, but give as little of themselves as possible in return. Destroying trust is both foolish and economically wasteful.

What would an organization look like if its people really were treated as its greatest asset?

Maybe it would be something like this:
  • Expenditure on people would be classed as a natural and laudable investment, not a cost. It would be among the last things to be cut in bad times.

  • Staffing cuts and lay-offs would become so rare that their use would signal the very worst kind of crisis. Instead, an organization’s people would be seen as its most obvious source of ways to survive bad times, and the most value asset available to top executives in fighting off competition.

  • Concert for the welfare and development of staff would automatically be number one on every manager’s list of priorities.

  • As many staff as practicable would be involved in proposing more effective business practices and helping to develop strategy.

  • There would be an automatic zero-tolerance policy for anything that undermined the value of the organization’s principal asset—its people—such as bullying, discrimination, dishonesty, cruelty, imposition of stress and overwork, or simply behaving like a total jerk. Bob Sutton has traced research suggesting that the presence of even a single asshole in a business has grave consequences on overall productivity.

  • Each person would be seen as a source of unique value, so it would become mandatory to discover what they do best -- then help them do it.

  • Executives would be expected to be leaders and mentors, working for the benefit of all, not autocrats and egotists focused mostly on their own aggrandizement and profit.
Imagine the impact a mindset like that could have on a business. I wrote earlier that I thought it really mattered if organizations talked about valuing people, but acted in the opposite way. This is why: they are ignoring or wrecking what could be a genuine asset of huge value to the business, if only they treated it as such.

To my mind, that is close to being a corporate “crime.” It is certainly a gross dereliction of the duty of any executive to the owners or shareholders. Suppose some executive neglected maintenance and allowed expensive machinery to be ruined. Wouldn’t you expect them to be disciplined, or even fired? So what should happen if a boss treats people in ways that ruin their effectiveness through increased stress, lowered morale, limited creativity, or increased turnover?

Actions, it is said, speak louder than words. In the Christian Bible, it is written that you can know people’s true nature by their “fruits,” meaning the visible results of what they do. If many of today’s organizations were trees, their fruits would range from bitterly unpalatable to downright poisonous. It that any way for a civilized society to organize how it deals with work?

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Saturday, February 17, 2020

News and Views: February 17th 2007

More about stress and disease

Link to studies showing that workplace stress can lead to an increase in rates of heart disease, flu virus, metabolic syndrome, and can negate the heart-healthy aspects of a physically active job. There’s so much scientific evidence about the negative impact of job stress, I cannot quite see why the authorities haven’t stepped in with preventative legislation as they have with, say, seat belts in cars. [link]

Even government watchdogs can be caught out spoiling their own patch

Great Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (the government body charged with monitoring how employers deal with work-related stress) has been strongly criticized after one of its senior employees claimed he was forced into early retirement by work-related stress. [link]

Regular napping may reduce risk of heart disease

Researchers from the University of Athens Medical School in Greece found that those who took regular, mid-day naps lowered their chances of heart disease by more than a third. I think I’ll look into that as soon as I’ve had my next nap. [link]

When you feel that surge of blood to the head . . .

How to curb your primitive instincts and save yourself from wrecking your environment, your possessions, and your relationships. [link]

Accountants still don't get it

A study by Arizona State University suggests bosses at large public accounting firms don't like people who try to achieve work/life balance. Employees who worked part-time or flextime hours were less likely to get plum assignments going forward, and their career prospects took a hit, and (surprise) the negative impact of part-time and flextime work schedules packed more wallop against men than women. Seems the top bean-counters can't count the benefits of a happier workforce. [link]

A vigorous attack on “the market and its workaholic ways”

Oliver James, writing in The Times (London, UK), is unhappy that Britain came bottom of Unicef’s league table of the happiness and welfare of children in industrialized nations (one place below the USA. Holland was top). He blames Margaret Thatcher, who he claims began a trend towards what he calls “affluenza virus” values—placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame, plus what he calls a “men in skirts” version of feminism that is, he believes, vigorously hostile to parents being at home when their children are small. Worth a look, whatever side of the argument you’re on. [link]

Aussie professor also targets “affluenza”

Professor Niki Ellis says that highly skilled workers are putting in 50 hours per week, not because they love their jobs but because they’re trapped by their lifestyles. She also claims there’s an “attitude of denial” towards workplace stress in Australia. 50 hours a week is mild, compared with what is sometimes the norm in the USA, but I applaud her point. [link]

Transatlantic comparisons

Brian Lee compares Americans and Europeans and notes that what Americans lack in leisure time, we tend to make up for in work ethic. In his view, Europeans tend to place a much greater emphasis on the arts, spending time with family, and relaxation. I know which I prefer . . . but I’m a European, even if I now live in the USA. [link]

Motivation run amok?

Is ambition is a good trait to hold? Here’s a carefully argued view that says that it isn’t. The anonymous writer also has an interesting turn of phrase: “You don’t have to murder to be ambitious though. You can also tweak your accounting. The leaders of Enron and MCI didn’t kill anyone, but their ambition devastated thousands. I’d call them gentleman despots.” Worth a look for the passion alone. [link]

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Friday, February 16, 2020

Workplace Karma

Do unto others, and they will make sure they do unto you

A thought floated across my mind recently, when I was reading something about the ideas of “karmic law.” I’m not an expert in Buddhist or Eastern thought, but what I understand of the idea of karma is that it’s a refined version of cause and effect: what you do affects what happens to you, or “what you give out is what you get back.”

It seems to me that you don’t need to have any kind of belief in either the supernatural or Eastern religion to see that “what you give out is what you get back” represents simple realism.

Suppose that you’re a typical “Hamburger Manager.” You’re tough, assertive, macho, obsessed with short-term results, and tireless in your pursuit of your own ambition. What you “put out” in terms of behaviors will likely include:
  • Constantly talking tough—then complaining that no one likes you, though you’re really a nice person.

  • Hounding subordinates to do more and more with less and less—until everyone is so tired that they produce less and less, however hard they work.

  • Demanding longer and longer hours of unpaid overtime—and expecting bigger bonuses for yourself as a result.

  • Claiming that money is the only incentive—while cutting back wherever you can on salary payments.

  • Refusing to consider anything other than “meeting the numbers”—even if those numbers are based only on wishful thinking.

  • Accepting bad behavior from anyone who “brings home the bacon”—and sneering at the “impractical idealism” of those who suggest that this is unacceptable.

  • Thoughtlessly copying the cult of disdain for anything “soft,” “liberal,” or “impractical”—which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit with the opinions of your bosses.

  • Maintining rigidity of outlook—because true believers never even consider the tiniest doubt about orthodoxy.
What will likely come back to you as a result?
  • Tough talk and macho behavior provokes the same kind of response. Aggression breeds aggression in return, so life becomes a constant battle of wills. All the aggression that you encounter will then likely make you more aggressive, and so on, round and round, in a never-ending process of escalation.

  • Hounding subordinates and forcing them into longer and longer working days will produce stress, tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Hourly productivity and creativity will fall—so the only way to catch up on targets will be still to demand still longer hours and exert yet more pressure. You’ll constantly have to do more and more hounding. It won’t end until there’s some kind of collapse.

  • Whenever money is used as the sole incentive, people quickly discover that any amount that you give soon becomes accepted as the “going rate” and loses its incentive effect. If you raise pay to bring back an incentive, you need to make still more profit to cover the extra cost. It turns into a continual, fruitless game of “catch up.” If you hold out and refuse to drive up salary costs, you have no further incentive availave—and you incur higher costs elsewhere as you are forced to replace those who leave. This is (politely) known as a lose:lose strategy.

  • Accepting any kind of behavior from jerks and bullies, so long as they meet the numbers and get results, creates an atmosphere so toxic that few people will stay in it for long—especially anyone with talent and intelligence. You’ll get the staff that you deserve—along with the high turnover, constant hassles, and looming law suits. Besides, anyone who tolerates jerks is, by definition, a jerk themselves. He or she who tolerates most jerks is the jerk-in-chief.

  • A rigid, numbers-based, macho outlook is a great way to destroy any sparks of creativity in yourself and others. Your competitors will have the ideas, and you will be driven back to competing on low costs and desperately trying to mimic what others have produced before you.
What the universe will give you back from giving out Hamburger Management is all the worst, most stressful, and least fulfilling aspects of the business environment. And if that tempts you to respond with even more rigorous Hamburger Management thinking, you’ll get still more of the same. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you lead like an idiot, you’ll be surrounded by idiocy. If you act like a bullying, aggressive bastard, you’ll be amazed at how many other nasty, callous bastards you will encounter every day; and how keen they will be to screw you over on every possible occasion.

The other reality of this faux-karmic law is that it multiplies. There’s one of you (one manager, one organization), but thousands upon thousands of other people to return what you send out. Act aggressively and thoughtlessly and all these thousands will return the same behavior, often with interest. So, if you act like a jerk, what you’ll get back is the same behavior, multiplied by the number of people who suffer from what you do.

There it is: behave like the stereotypical, bullying manager and that’s exactly what you’ll encounter in return. Do it consistently, and your return will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Give out honesty, trust, creativity, and sensitivity to others and that’s what the universe will most likely play back to you, also enhanced and extended.

It’s your choice. If your daily experience at work is that the world is full of people throwing sh*t around, the chances are extremely high that you are a major contributor to the process that put all that brown stuff there for them to throw back at you. Maybe, if you stop dishing it out, you’ll begin to find that less comes back. If everyone did that, very soon there would be none to throw around any more. Think about it.

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Thursday, February 15, 2020

Do you recognize today’s biggest business killer?

Audit mentality puts efficiency first, but innovation is what sells

Today’s standard responses business issues are limited and uninspiring, even as we stand in serious need of a steady flow of creative ideas and fresh innovations just to keep our high-tech, high-earning, and high-expenditure lifestyles in place—let alone to add still greater prosperity for more people. Cost cutting, increasing working hours, and driving employees harder and harder are all based on doing what you do today more cheaply and efficiently. But what if doing what you’re doing now, only better, isn’t enough? What is you need to offer the world something altogether new? No one ever stimulated creativity by staying longer at the office, cutting benefits, or driving people to the edge of exhaustion and beyond. If the audit mentality takes over, the future will be bleak.

Many of today’s businesses are too focused on the present and the past. Their futures are extremely short-term, usually bounded by the next reporting cycle and Wall Street’s immediate expectations. They talk about change and innovation, yet act almost entirely on making current activities less costly. It’s a kind of corporate schizophrenia: one personality jabbers away about taking on global competition through innovation and new technology; the other—the one actually in charge—assumes that the only way to succeed is by doing what is being done already, only more cheaply.

Today I read that DaimlerChrysler will cut 13,000 jobs in an attempt to return to profitability. Their sales have fallen drastically and they are running out of money. Why has this happened? Because, like the rest of Detroit’s automakers, they bet the farm on huge, gas-guzzling SUVs. Now, like their competitors in that market, the only way out seems to be to cut back hard and hope for the best.

But, wait a moment. Their product line isn’t selling and they are losing market share. How will drastic cutbacks address those issues? It may buy them time before Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the only alternative, but surely what they need most is a new, more attractive, more innovative product line?

If Americans are buying from foreign car manufacturers like never before, especially brands like Toyota, becoming more efficient as manufacturers will only help after you have a product line that more people want to buy.

That’s the wrong way around, it seems to me. Toyota aren’t successful just because they’re more efficient. First and foremost, they have products that people want to buy.

That’s the wrong way around, it seems to me. Toyota aren’t successful just because they’re more efficient. First and foremost, they have products that people want to buy. Then—and only then—they work to produce those products as effectively as they can. Can you buy an MP3 player more cheaply than the cost of an iPod? Sure. So why do Apple sell so many iPods?

The audit mentality in many companies is hopelessly inward looking. It sees only costs, efficiencies, and margins. Of course, the consumer has no interest in any of these. Unless you operate in a commodity market where every version of a product is identical, save in price, people don’t buy the cheapest product, whatever economists claim. They certainly don’t buy the one that yields the highest return to its producer. They buy what they like most, what will win them the admiration of their friends, what provides the most features that they want (not the ones the technical geeks get most excited about), and what will make them feel good about their purchase.

People want what they want—and then they want to get it at a good price. Low cost comes after desire, not before. It’s not what drives sales.

Efficiency is nowhere on this list. Nor is price. Of course, some people like to boast about getting a bargain, but few, if any, will buy what they don’t want, just because the price is good. They want what they want—and then they want to get it at a good price. Low cost comes after desire, not before. It’s not what drives sales. The corporation that can produce desirable, exciting products first—then do so in a way that prices them competitively and yields a good margin second—is the one that is going to dominate the market.

In any business, you need first of all to have a product or service that people want to buy. Then, and only then, you need to be able to provide it in a way that renders you a good profit. Today’s conventional approaches to management have it the wrong way around. That’s why we see once proud corporations reduced to survival mode: they concentrated on being the “lowest cost producer” and ignored what they were producing.

Creativity needs time, relaxation, the willingness to take risks, and the long-term vision to see something from concept to reality. When corporations truly take risks in the cause of producing ever more innovative and exciting products, no one begrudges them the profits needed to support that endeavor. We all benefit. When those same corporations try to drive up profits by scrimping and cutting back, stifling innovation and damping down every avoidable risk, with the intention primarily of rewarding financial institutions and top executives, almost any profit they make appears self-serving and excessive.

Business is risky. Investment in the future is never certain. The pay-off may take many years. But capitalism, as a system, exists precisely to provide the money businesses need to take those risks, hopefully to increase everyone’s prosperity and the range of goods and services available in the market. It is not there to wring the last few dollars from dying products to enrich a few, while allowing those with more imagination, a longer-term focus, and less obsessive interest in short-term share-price movements to take over the market.

Get together an offering that excites people. Then, when it’s out there and selling, focus just enough on keeping down the costs to maintain a solid margin.

Slow down. Take the time needed to be creative. Drive innovation, not still more stress. Get together an offering that excites people. Then, when it’s out there and selling, focus just enough on keeping down the costs to maintain a solid margin. But, whatever you do, never allow concern with efficiency to limit creative thinking about the next new thing.

The past is gone; whatever money you made then cannot be changed. The present is fleeting; it’s usually too late to change what you’re already doing, good or bad. The future is wide open; only there can change alter how things will happen. The audit mentality is a business killer. Have nothing to do with it, or it will slowly choke the life out of whatever future is open to you.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2020

Accepting the unacceptable : a thought for Valentine's Day

Here’s a simple yet profound thought from Jessica at indexed about gifts for Valentine's Day. [link]

Here’s my “workplace” version:

Why do we accept this as normal?

I cannot see that any working culture marked primarily by constant haste and distraction, continual pressure, and frustration on a massive scale could possibly be described as either “efficient” or “inevitable.”

Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it.

Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it. The competition is simply different, that’s all. But even if the level of competition has increased, that’s no reason to accept a wretched kind of workday and career experience as normal.

Human beings choose and sustain their working environment the way it is. It isn’t a natural product, like the weather, over which mankind has no control. We chose capitalism over communism and a centrally-planned economy; that wasn’t an “act of God,” it was an act of mankind. We choose to operate within a global economy, because enough people believe that it works for them—at least in the sense of increasing their prosperity and that of their organizations. Boards of directors don’t have a totally free choice over how they structure and run their businesses. They have to comply with the law and various regulations and expectations. Yet, even with all that taken into account, they still have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to do. That’s even more true of private companies, family-owned businesses, and sole proprietors.

Why do so many stick to a business model that creates so much stress and misery? Is it a failure of imagination, a lack of nerve, or a simple ignorance that any alternatives are possible. People like Ricardo Semler have shown that there are other ways—probably many, many of them.

Shouldn’t we be trying a few?

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Tuesday, February 13, 2020

Start Practicing “Conscious Incompetence”

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly first. In the real world, doing something new almost always means doing it poorly the first few times. Improvising never produces a polished result, but it's nearly always the first step towards creating something new and worthwhile. To do something new, you have to make a conscious decision to let yourself try things that you know you can't do. That's practicing "Conscious Incompetence."

Sir Winston Churchill wrote:
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
The way to get out from the herd and let adversity itself turn you into the next big success is to practice “Conscious Incompetence.”

Why do you need it? To make time and space for learning. What is it like when you do something you haven’t done before? You do a pretty poor job of it. You do it badly. There’s no other way to learn. If you’re only willing to do things well, you can’t improvise or do anything new. To develop your potential you must start to cultivate a new skill: the skill of “Conscious Incompetence.”

In the world of work, there is so much pressure for doing things correctly from the start that most people live in a constant state of anxiety. If you aren’t allowed a period of grace to learn by doing things badly, you’d better stick just to what you know you can do already. If you’re to “hit the ground running” in a business that has “no room for passengers,” you must either do everything competently from the start or risk being pushed aside. The result of such needless torment is that people draw back from new areas. They’ve survived to the point of doing something—anything—capably, so they don’t want to risk themselves by stepping outside this hard-won comfort zone.

“So what exactly is it?”

“Conscious Incompetence” is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop. And if your boss or your organization demand near perfection from the first moment, they’re fools. The only result will be employees who never try anything new at all.

“Conscious Incompetence” should be required behavior in every organization. This is true for individuals, teams, and the whole corporation too. The world makes unavoidable and unexpected demands on us. Such demands force us along new paths, if we want to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. Improvising and learning by doing are perfectly natural human activities. So are making a mess, failing the first few times, and getting in a muddle with new ideas, but only making them deliberate will allow us to use them effectively, whenever and wherever and however we want—without feeling so embarrassed or silly that we resolve not to risk either again.

“How do I start?”

By seeing what might work and trying it, even if you’re certain that you’ll do it badly at first. This requires four steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself, “Do I think this might be a useful idea or skill?”
If the answer is “yes,” consider how you can try it out. It’s very easy to be misled by appearances or the opinions of others. Those who advised major corporations to indulge in creative accounting were simply giving opinions. Were their opinions correct? Events have proven they were not. What appears to be new and useful maybe a delusion or a miracle. You won’t know until you try.

This sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often managers turn down most fresh options without even trying them, purely because they aren’t things they know they can already do well. If what you try doesn’t work, drop it. But at least you now know that it isn’t really an option, and—far more important—you know why.

Don’t accept conventional wisdom. Don’t make easy assumptions (to assume, it is said, is usually to make an ass out of U and me). Distinguish causes from their effects. Explore, poke, probe and question. Don’t worry what others think. What passes for thinking most of the time within organizations is merely the rearrangement of old habits and preset opinions. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was neither troubled by modesty nor inhibited in his comments on others, once wrote:
Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
Merely by trying things others ignore or turn down without question, you’ll build an enviable reputation as an outstanding creative thinker.

Step 2: Ask yourself, “What tells me that the conventional answer to this is true?”
You need to be clear about what is going on. If someone tells you, “we have a retention problem,” take the time to ask whether that is true; and if you think it may be, take the next step and explore what you can see, hear or experience that actually tells you that’s the problem that exists.

Confusion is the enemy of effective judgment. Perhaps a problem does exist, but if you’re confused about its nature and extent, there is little chance that you can take correct decisions on what to do about it.

The fear that is generated in harsh times makes us hurry to premature action. If we believe we need to do something immediately, we have little option except to reach for the conventional solution. Yet most of our requirement for immediate action comes from anxiety, not reality. Few things that occur in organizations demand instant responses. Even half an hour of focused thought can prevent disaster and a major loss of face.

Make a list of the “proofs” that demonstrate the problem. You will need this for the next step.

Step 3: Ask “why not?” repeatedly until exhausted all the options you can discover.
“Why?” and “Why not?” are the most useful questions in the universe. Perhaps that’s why toddlers use it so often. They haven’t yet had it knocked out of them by hostile authority figures. They also need to learn a whole lot in a hurry and know, instinctively, that asking “why?” and “why not?” all the time is the best way to do it. Most parents find their child’s persistence in asking “why not?” soon becomes maddening. Most bosses feel exactly the same way about their subordinates. Both groups are wrong. Asking “why not?” can be uncomfortable, but it is nearly always productive.

Step 4: Give yourself (and those who work for you) permission to improvise and try new approaches, even if you all get it wrong first time.
Suppose that Brad is afraid of anything that might suggest incompetence or threaten failure. Many high performers are. They’re typically extremely superstitious about risking even the possibility of failure, because they have never experienced it in their past.

Brad is faced with an important decision. He wants to shine—and he really, really doesn’t want to make a mistake, or take any risks that he can avoid. The best way to meet both these objectives looks to be to use his knowledge and memory to see how this kind of decision has been made before, then replicate it.

Brad looks for this information in the past. He remembers what he has done that turned out well; recalls what he learned at business school and corporate training events; searches out industry best practice. He finds many things that he already knows, and uses this knowledge to make a decision that has the best chances of being correct in terms of past knowledge. That’s why he will probably never develop more than a fraction of his potential.

Susan comes up against the same decision, but decides it’s a great chance for stealthily practicing “Conscious Incompetence.” (It’s usually best done in secret. The conventional parts of the world tend to misunderstand.)

Now she adds the magic ingredient that is going to transform her career. She takes time to review all the other options she can think up that don’t match industry best practice, and aren’t in line with how things have been done before. She knows that she isn’t likely to be good at them, but checks them out just the same. By doing this, she has started learning something new, not just learning more about what she already knows.

When Susan starts to implement her idea, she makes many mistakes — she knew she had little previous competence to help her — but each one teaches her more. She persists in the face of failure. By the end of the project, Susan has accessed more of her potential, the company has gained a new approach, and senior management has recognized a talent in the making. Brad is still polishing his existing knowledge and wonders why his career isn’t progressing.

“Conscious Incompetence” (and the deliberate testing, improvisation, and experiential learning that it produces) should be required behavior in every organization. It is the only way for organizations, and the people in them, to access untapped ideas and unused potential and put them to practical use.

“Now I get it!”

In today’s harsh, macho, grab-and-go business environment, the real risks come from repeating the past and believing that you already know all the answers. Sure, experimenting takes time. Sure, there will be many mistakes and stumbles along the way. Sure, people will have to persist in new activities to become good at doing them. So what? That’s how things work. The only new things you can do instantly, without time to practice or develop a skill, are so inconsequential that they’re hardly worth doing at all.

And, sure, you’ll look silly many times. But not half as silly as you’ll look when it becomes clear that the idea that you rejected without fully considering or trying turns into a killer advantage for a competitor.

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Monday, February 12, 2020

Beware of Management Fashionistas

Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.

Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.
Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.

Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]

The rise and fall of management fads

Ambitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.

Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashion

Something sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.

In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.

In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.

Fashion industries breed gurus

Successful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]

Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).

Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?

Does it matter?

Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!

There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.

In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.

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Saturday, February 10, 2020

News and Views: February 10th 2007

Juggling life's demands

The Miami Herald reviews books that might be helpful in dealing with work/life balance issues. A wide choice, it seems. [link]

What are the tell-tale signs that you need to find a better job?

Kate Lorenz, Editor of, tells all. Better start polishing that resumé right away! [link] [via]

Do people “quit their boss” not their job?

Adelyus of CIO Asia shares personal experience of managing attrition in a competitive environment. Seems that Asia is just like everywhere else when it comes to coping with the shortage of high-quality IT staff. [link]

The Happiness institute claims that flexibility leads to happiness at work

Their view is that without good work/life balance there’s little happiness at work—and without happiness at work, there’s less productivity, lower energy levels and less effective team work. Sounds fair to me. [link]

Wall Street Journal jumping on the work/life balance bandwagon?

Even the venerable Wall Street Journal, hardly a likely publication in which to find “soft” management ideas, has started its own blog about work/life problems. Called The juggle, it claims to focus on “choices and tradeoffs people make as they juggle work and family.” [link]

Breaking point?

According to Celia Milne, writing in the Canadian journal Financial Post, many of the worst sufferers from stress and burnout work in “what might otherwise be seen as ‘good’ jobs—full-time, high-income positions in large organizations that, like it or not, come with a lot of unpaid overtime.” Duh? [link]

Attorneys at breaking point too?

It seems that attorneys are in the forefront of cases of burnout—and the billing structure in that profession is to blame, according to Chris Marston. He says that: “professionals either face enormous pressure to ‘bill time’ to meet quotas, or they feel tremendous pressure to ‘fill time’ by billing time when work is light because of the beauty contest that our industry has created by comparing the ‘spreadsheet’ of numbers of each attorney against one another as means of determining their value to the firm.” Now where have I heard that before? [link]

Stress and the Knowledge Worker

According to Eclectic Bill, Googling this topic throws up some heavyweight reserch from the likes of the Canadian Policy Research Unit that a good business case can be made for increasing knowledge worker productivity by reducing workplace stress. [link]

Future gloom

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, a recent official survey suggests that the daily juggling act of balancing work and caring responsibilities is destined to get harder rather than easier. [link]

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Friday, February 09, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 3)

Deficit Thinking Ruins Lives

Whatever else you do, drop the habit of deficit thinking: concentrating on what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what’s not working, rather than what is. It’s a very poor way of looking at the world, and a major source of all kinds of limiting and negative beliefs.This is the third and final posting in this series. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The principal source of negative beliefs is an ingrained habit of deficit thinking. This means focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression.

All beliefs need regular scrutiny

You should challenge all your beliefs. All beliefs need to be checked regularly for accuracy and usefulness, so question them constantly. It’s tempting to take comfort in beliefs when life is difficult and the future is uncertain. Beliefs help you feel stable. You’ll feel uneasy about recognizing the ideas you trust could be false. But if you’re thinking clearly, you’ll see that a true belief will always stand up to scrutiny. It’s the false, outdated beliefs that must be moved out of your way. It is always worth asking yourself, “Is this true? How do I know it is true? Is it still to be trusted?”

Negative or limiting beliefs need to be subjected to especially rigorous questioning. Since they stop you from doing something, it’s hard to prove them false in any other way. When you try some idea, you find out how well it works. But when your beliefs prevent you from even making an attempts, you cannot know for sure what might have happened if you had. That’s why these belief are so pernicious: they remove options and possibilities without testing them—or, usually even considering them properly.

Here’s how to get rid of deficit thinking

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. You’ll always find plenty, especially if you set your standards so high at the start that there’s no way you can even come close. That’s like deciding to start playing golf, then deciding that you’re no good unless you can beat Tiger Woods right away.

  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Perfectionism can easily become a disease. Life is what it is. The skill is to be able to do something useful and fun with whatever the universe serves up.

  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong and the problems don’t exist outside your mind. Many people fall into the habit of over-dramatizing their lives, perhaps to make them feel more exciting than they are. But when you play up the good parts, you do the same (or more) to the bad ones. Look at the media. How many good news items do you see, compared to all the ones promising doom and gloom?

  • Quit taking yourself so damn seriously. Life is uncertain and difficult enough without adding to your problems. Slow down, relax, and chill out. It’s good to be insignificant. It lets you have fun while all the pompous, important types are giving themselves ulcers.

  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Get used to it.

  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again: random gyrations like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying.

  • Don’t casually pick up beliefs from other people. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people pick up beliefs and assumptions from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? They’re even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth.

Free yourself from the tyranny of useless beliefs

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some unexamined belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a serious management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long past their “sell by” date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves, and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. They’ll come out of the process unscathed. If they aren’t useful any more—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated ideas and cripple you with deficit thinking.

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Thursday, February 08, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I considered the power and importance of essentially unprovable beliefs in determining people’s actions and outlook. In this part, the focus is on limiting beliefs: those that actively reduce the options open to you in dealing with whatever life brings. Limiting beliefs can block your future and confine your choices. Start by recognizing them and understanding how they work and what they do. Then counteract the effects by broadening your outlook and adding to your strengths. You don’t need these beliefs. Let them go.

Suppose you think that you have no chance of ever living the kind of life you want. Maybe someone in the past told you you would never make anything of yourself—and you believed them. Children are very impressionable. They easily believe what they’re told, especially by parents and others they look up to. You may have been living with this ever since. Something in your head keeps telling you it’s not worth making an effort, because you’ll never succeed.

Stop and ask yourself whether this is true or not. Was it ever true? Has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? My guess is that it’s true as long as you believe it is. The minute you tell yourself you can do it, you can succeed, that will be true instead. Try it.

Limiting beliefs have power over you only because you treat them as the truth

Remember, a belief is no more than a thought or opinion that’s automatically treated as correct. In reality, they have no greater likelihood of being right than any other thoughts. But once we give them the label “belief,” we convince ourselves they’re different and must not be questioned. Whether they’re our own beliefs, or ones we’ve accepted from others, or the commonly-held beliefs of the society in which we live, they aren’t necessarily true—even if that’s how we’ve come to treat them.

There are at least four distinct sources of limiting beliefs:
  1. Hidden fears. Nearly everyone has a few long-standing, hidden, and irrational fears. My mother was deeply afraid of frogs, though she knew they couldn’t hurt her. For other people, it’s spiders or snakes (not so irrational here in Arizona!), flying or enclosed spaces. The one that’s most likely to block people’s careers is fear of risk. Any change involves risk. Life itself is risky. Beware telling yourself: “I could never do that.” It may be true (I could never be an Olympic athlete), but it may be nothing more than an irrational fear. Check it out. You have nothing to lose. Try kissing a few frogs to see if you can find a prince.

  2. Outdated habits. Outdated habits are like worn-out, shabby clothes. They may be comfortable but they look ridiculous to everyone else. Comfort is more powerful than most people believe. Look at all the people who know they ought to change something in their lives, but keep putting it off because they’re comfortable as they are. The clue is when you notice yourself thinking: “It’s going to be trouble. Probably more than it’s worth.” Ask yourself if you want to stay fat, dumb and happy. I guess many people do.

  3. Mixed-up values. Inner values are much more powerful in people’s lives than they credit. But, like everything else in our world, they sometimes get a little muddled and crazy. People tell themselves they must do something. Why? Because it’s their duty. Because it’s “right.” Because it’s the way to get ahead. Because … whatever. Beware of emotional reactions driven by your values. If your decision is a thoughtful one, that’s fine. If it’s an immediate, instinctive reaction, take care. The world has many shades between “black” and “white” and they’re worth exploring before you settle on a choice.

  4. Untested assumptions. Untested assumptions are caused by mental laziness. There’s no kinder way to put it. People who don’t check out their beliefs and assumptions are the couch potatoes of the mental world. Hey, it’s easier to reach for the mental remote and look for some more entertainment than do the work of weighing choices and checking data seriously.
Until you’re conscious of your limiting beliefs, and how they work against you, you’re powerless to overcome them. Take back your freedom of choice. Don’t let mere opinions call the shots in your life. Look around inside your head. Do some mental “spring-cleaning.” Chase those silly fears and outdated habits out of the dusty corners of your mind. Sort out your values and get them working to help you instead of hinder. And most of all, get off that mental couch, put down the remote and do some serious exercise. If you let your mental muscles get flabby, you’ll pay for it one way or another, believe me.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2020

The unseen toxic waste from organizations: battered people and stunted lives

We all know about the kind of toxic waste that pollutes waterways and groundwater. Rightly, there are laws to limit and, where possible, prevent this unpleasant result of modern business practices. But what about a different kind of toxic waste: one that typically goes unnoticed? The pollution and destruction of working people’s lives and peace of mind caused by bullying bosses and aggressive organizational cultures.

Hamburger Management is institutionalized bullying on a corporate scale: a culture of macho disregard for anything other that personal, short-term gain and admittance to the ruling clique. It only “delivers results” because those results are defined in the narrowest of terms: typically quarterly corporate profits. The true results it delivers undermine the organization’s future well-being and act as a cancer in the communities of those who work there.

This modern flashy, shoot-from-the-hip kind of management has spawned a corporate culture that favors those who believe that the simplest way to get what they want is to push other people around. Here’s a quote from an article in Fast Company magazine, published in 2006:
A business culture that celebrates aggression, toughness, endurance, and the ability to endure pain, as our does, runs dangerously close to endorsing bully bosses. As long as we perpetuate the myth that business is not emotional, we fail to develop the language we need to deal with the emotion which business will always engender. Moreover, our tradition of keeping our work lives and our private lives severely compartmentalized makes it feasible for people to behave at work in ways they would never dream of behaving at home.
Much of our corporate and business culture is riddled with bullying in various forms: from outright aggressive unpleasantness to more subtle pressures to toe the line and deliver what is required—or suffer the consequences. This macho style of operation seems to be rooted in much of conventional management thinking and actions. While some degree of lip service is paid to “softer” approaches, when you look at what actually takes place in most business environments—and listen to the pronouncements of business leaders—what you get is a continuation of the myth of the strong, no-nonsense, tough-talking, never-mind-the-heat leader. The one who simply gets results, whatever it takes—and whoever gets hurt along the way.

Macho-style leadership may work for Hollywood epics and TV dramas—neither of them reliable guides to how to deal with real life—but it has little relevance to running a successful organization.

For a start, it does matter who gets hurt. Hurt people cost money: in time off work, in lowered productivity, in extra turnover, in an inability to hire and keep the best people, and in potential litigation costs when things get too far out of hand.

Even the “business is war” metaphor has gotten out of hand. According to research reported by the BBC:
“The symptoms displayed by people who have been in conflict situations and workplaces where bullying happens are strikingly similar.”
Do we really want working in our organizations to resemble serving in a war zone—complete with post-traumatic stress syndrome for many of those involved? And hurt people don’t simply disappear. They tell friends and neighbors about their experiences. They move away to work for competitors, taking knowledge and skills with them. In extreme cases, some of them seek revenge.

Nor does getting results whatever it takes make much sense. Today’s business world is highly integrated. Rival companies use the same suppliers, deal with the same authorities, face the same laws and regulations, and serve the same communities. Using business practices that cause unease and anger can easily backfire. Everyone may be out to make a buck, but not everyone wishes to be marked down for the way that they do it.

Many businesses claim that what they mean by a phrase like “get results, whatever it takes” isn’t to be taken literally. What they mean is whatever it takes out of you, the employee. Whatever hours have to be worked, whatever journeys made, whatever time spent away from home and family. But that’s exactly what hurts people, causing stress and burnout.

The continual, unthinking pressure to “get results” acts as a license for bullies of every kind.

Just about everyone has suffered from at least one thoughtless, callous, bully of a boss, who throws tantrums and demands total obedience. Many have also suffered from the cruel boss: the one who delights in humiliating you in from of everyone else, usually as a punishment for some infraction of his or her unwritten rules of subservience. Then there’s the bigoted boss, the one who goes in for harassment, and the type who likes to pick on minorities and the weak to show off their supposed toughness.

What’s worst of all is the organization that tolerates such abusive and uncivilized behavior on the spurious grounds that the person “gets results.” Thieves and embezzlers get results and make lots of money, but no one suggests tolerating anyone who steals from the organization. Mafia bosses get results. Are they a good role model for the corporate executive? Of course, the bully boss makes money for the organization and those in charge, and that seems to excuse the plain fact that the person is a jerk who deserves to be fired.

Cary Cooper, Professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, claims the way that we work has altered considerably over the last decade:
There are fewer people to do more work, and the work tends to be more bottom line driven, with short delivery dates. There is much more stress and so much more bullying.
According to, workplace stress in the United Kingdom cost the country close to £30 billion a year in 1997. With nearly four times the population of Great Britain, and a far larger economy, the cost to the USA every year is likely to be astronomical. And none of that includes the social cost in unhappiness, wrecked relationships, damaged children, and wasted careers.

We need to stop seeing organizational leaders as steely-eyed warriors in Armani suits and get back to reality.

All organizational leaders are merely stewards of things that do not belong to them: other people’s money, other people’s resources, and other people’s lives and well-being. They must be held to account for their total stewardship, not just the limited financial element. Running a business is not fighting a war for survival. It’s more like running a farm, where actions taken today may affect the fertility and returns from that land for decades to come. Bad stewards can be replaced, but inept warriors get people hurt.

So before organizations subscribe to the “business is war” scenario, they should perhaps ponder a while on the casualty count. Even generals aren’t immune from featuring in it.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2020

What’s Stopping You? (Part 1)

Be careful of what you believe. Sometimes strong beliefs get dangerously close to being treated as unchallenged fact. Wrong and negative beliefs can easily get in your way. Limiting beliefs—those that tell you what you cannot (or must not) do or think—can stop all progress dead in its tracks. This short series looks at how our beliefs can lead us astray.

Belief is often hailed as something important, even praiseworthy. I’m not so sure. After all, a belief is generally a second, or even third best way of looking at a situation. Let’s set aside whether any particular belief is widely assumed to be true or not. It doesn’t much matter, since to remain a belief it has to be unprovable. Once you can prove a belief is true, it becomes a fact. It you prove it’s false, it becomes a lie. Either way, it stops being a belief. If the best kind of knowledge is a provable fact, the second best is probably having a hypothesis that is capable of proof. That makes a belief—an unprovable opinion—third best, one step above not having any kind of knowledge at all.

Because belief depends on the individual, it’s possible to find people who believe in all manner of strange and dubious propositions. Conspiracy theories are good examples of beliefs that are unprovable, yet still have a powerful impact on large numbers of people. Some groups believe—and act on—the idea that there’s a conspiracy by their political or ideological opponents to subvert the media, seize the government, and enforce all kinds of laws designed to require a particular lifestyle. It may be correct, but who knows? It may be no more than the product of overheated imaginations. You get to choose your own beliefs, so you can choose to believe more or less whatever you want, even if others see it as screwy.

Making a bad choice of belief can seriously screw up your life. Don’t confuse beliefs with values (the importance or worth of something) or principles (a fundamental proposition used as the basis of a set of logical arguments, or a morally or ethically held position). Beliefs have a powerful impact on behavior, but they’re still simply opinions, however strongly and consistently you hold to them.

What matters about beliefs is whether they’re useful.

Useful beliefs lead to positive actions, successful outcomes and an increase in the happiness and well-being of the people involved. Poor beliefs do the opposite. For example, if you believe that most people in an organization are well-intentioned; that they do the best they can and try to help each other; and that they have the good of the business at heart, it will likely cause you to behave in positive ways. Suppose you believe all bosses, by definition, are greedy, self-centered, egotistical and corrupt; everyone is seeking to rob you of what’s due to your efforts; your colleagues are idle, dishonest and whispering about you behind your back; and the business is screwing its customers and the products are badly produced and overpriced. If you believe most of that, your life at work is going to be frustrating, miserable, stressful, and probably unsuccessful as well.

I’m not recommending a Pollyanna approach of stupidly optimistic beliefs. But it’s worth taking a look at all your beliefs and asking yourself if they’re still useful to you. Facts are facts, you should not need to argue with them. But beliefs are just opinions and should be argued about constantly. After all, if they aren’t helping you, all you need do is drop them and choose some others.

Limiting beliefs are potent blockages to progress

The most useless and harmful beliefs aren’t just wrong; they actively prevent you from doing or understanding things that would improve either your own life or the lives of the people around you. Limiting beliefs tell you what you can’t do, what you mustn’t do, what you mustn’t even think of doing. They block off possibilities without any further consideration. Those possibilities are wrong, impossible, unacceptable, evil—and all without any kind of proof, other than your own, assumed, unprovable, and unproven belief.

Here are some signs to help you recognize when your beliefs are likely holding you back from considering possibilities that might enrich your life:
  • You are constantly telling yourself that you have “no choice” about what you can do in a situation. There are always choices. Sometimes you may not like them, but they’re there, just the same.

  • You listen constantly to your inner critic and let that voice tell you what’s good for you. Your inner critic’s put-downs and snide remarks are generally based on one or more limiting beliefs. Tens of thousands of people have their lives impoverished by letting their inner critic stop them in their tracks.

  • Most decisions appear to be black and white, or an either/or situation. Life is made up of uncountable billions of colors and shades. It’s our unwillingness to face reality, and our constant hope that we can find a simple, easy answer to every problem, that tempts us into using unprovable beliefs to reduce the world to black or white.

  • You rely on a few, long-standing assumptions that you never challenge. If you tell yourself “that’s the the way the world is,” that is how it will be—at least for you. Limiting beliefs create self-fulfilling prophecies on a grand scale. Sadly, they’re almost always negative and depressing. If you want to create a world for yourself based on misery and frustration, give in to every limiting belief you have.

  • Many of your decisions are based on fear. Limiting beliefs produce fears like mangy dogs produce fleas. Nearly all the fears are irrational too, and probably 99.9% of them are false. Since their source is a set of unprovable and untested beliefs, it can hardly be otherwise.
In the next posting in this series, I’ll look more closely at the causes of limiting beliefs.

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Monday, February 05, 2020

Why most “communication problems” aren’t

It’s become rather fashionable to see communication as the most common problem in organizations. While there are certainly situations when poor communications make problems worse—or even create them—errors in communication are far more likely to be symptoms of a more fundamental issue than the problem themselves. If you don’t recognize this, any corrective action that you take is going to be wasted.

I constantly come across people describing fresh “cures” for problems of communication in organizations. Sometimes it feels as if nearly every difficulty or source of discontent is labeled a “communication issue” as a matter of routine. On the surface, it may even look as if this is correct. Bosses and their subordinates routinely misunderstand and miscommunicate with each other. Information becomes garbled as it is passed through the organization. Customer queries are mishandled because what the customer wanted wasn’t clearly understood or communicated internally. Projects falter in a morass of poorly-communicated data and inadequate reports. Is it any wonder that trainers and coaches spend probably more time trying to help people with their communications that any other single topic?

When communications are bad, the real cause is likely to be something else.

With all the current emphasis on communications training and techniques, you might reasonably expect this to be a problem in decline. The fact that it isn’t makes me believe that, in most cases, people aren’t addressing the right problem. Difficulties with communications are just the symptoms of a more fundamental area of difficulty. They are not the source of the problem itself.

Communications break down for many reasons, but some of the commonest ones are these:
  • Pressure: When people are under pressure, they rarely pay sufficient attention to how they are communicating. They know what they want other people to understand, so they give out their message and turn away to get on with whatever is bearing down on them. Often, their communication is terse and demanding. After all, they don’t have the energy or time to mess about making sure the other person’s grasp of what they want is clear, let alone be concerned for their feelings. The result can be interactions that are brusque, insufficient and high-handed. Then, when things go wrong as a result, they blame the other person for being unable to grasp a simple instruction or request.

  • Haste: This produces much the same pattern of quick, superficial, poorly-handled communications. When mistakes and upsets occur, putting things right claims still more time, so any consequences of the original, poor communication are usually handled just as badly. Plus there is now anger and irritation to further mess things up.

  • Stress and tiredness: Overworked, stressed, exhausted people aren’t likely to communicate well. We all know that when we’re overtired and miserable, what we say isn’t likely to come out as we want it to.

  • Distraction: This probably produces the most destructive effect on communication. When people are distracted, as most people are today, they miss things out, fail to listen properly, lose track of the message part way through, and provide insufficient information for others to understand. Distracted bosses snap out partial instructions and wonder why their subordinates are so stupid. Distracted subordinates barely hear half of what is being said to them, so they get the wrong end of the stick and turn even simple tasks into a series of muddles.

  • Aggression: Aggressive bosses often take a delight in barking orders and making their subordinates do the hard work of finding out what they really mean. Besides, asking an aggressive boss for a more detailed explanation is likely to get you further examples of just how tough he or she can be with dim-witted team members. Better to say nothing, even if you subsequently don’t do the work properly.

  • Mistrust: When colleagues and people up and down the hierarchy don’t trust one another, communication is the first casualty. People withhold vital data out of fear that the other person (or department) will “misuse it:” usually a code for “use it against me(us).” Questions are treated with deep suspicion and answers become evasive. Getting information becomes an obstacle course, sometimes so bad that people give up and try to muddle through without it.

  • Politics: If individuals and groups are locked in political warfare for influence or status, communication becomes a weapon. “Spin” is more important than the facts. Knowledge is seen as power, to be traded only for political advantage, or withheld altogether to harm an opponent. Lying and deliberately causing mistakes and misunderstandings are seen as justifiable ways of waging political campaigns.

  • Fear: If someone is afraid of losing face, losing influence, losing power, or losing their job, they aren’t going to give away anything that they suspect might be useful, including information. Nor will they be open about anything that might be used to harm them. Communications will be censored, limited, and grudging at best.
While all of these are communication problems, none originate in difficulties with communicating. Improving someone’s communication skills won’t have any impact on them. Relationships won’t improve until the underlying cause is dealt with fully.

Communication seems to be the problem because it’s highly visible. The real problem is locked into the organization’s culture and systems.

What kind of corporate or management culture is characterized by pressure, constant haste, stress, tiredness, distraction, aggression, mistrust, office politics, and fear? The answer, of course, is our old enemy Hamburger Management: toady’s routine approach to running a business. The kind that disfigures corporations throughout the developed world, based on harassing people and demanding “results” whatever the cost in lives and relationships.

It’s no co-incidence that the epidemic of Hamburger Management has arisen at the same time that communications have become the number one concern of many HR people and consultants. Sadly, most of those well-meaning folk are merely trying to alleviate the symptoms, while ignoring the true cause. Most communications problems aren’t, because they’re really indicators of a corporate culture gripped by today’s macho, grab-‘n-go, short-term management orthodoxy. Until that is seen for what it is—as bad a cause of corporate cancers as smoking is of physical ones—no amount of fussing about communications will make any significant difference.

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Saturday, February 03, 2020

News and Views: February 3rd 2007

Fatigue flattens U.S. productivity

Research shows that almost four out of 10 Americans suffer from fatigue at work. [via]

Generation X: A different type of leadership

As Generation X replaces the Baby Boomers in leaderships positions, a radical change is predicted. [via]

New generation attitudes

In a new survey of undergraduates, the highest ranking career goal was the desire for balance between personal life and career. [via]

Money and work are leaving Scots more stressed out than ever

Scots are being urged to take more effective measures to combat stress, as a major survey reveals the condition is endemic in the UK. [via]

American workers lag the rest of the world in work-life balance

The U.S. lags much of the world in helping workers balance work and family, a new study by Harvard and McGill universities finds. [via]

Work-life balance retards Aussie optimism

CONFIDENCE among Australian consumers has slumped to its lowest point since 2003 thanks to a pessimistic outlook on employment and quality of life. [via]

Nine ways to devastate productivity in others

Nine ways to wreak havoc on someone's ability to get work done. [via]

Power turns people into assholes

People with power tend to be more oblivious to what others think, more likely to pursue the satisfaction of their own appetites, poorer judges of other people's reactions, more likely to hold stereotypes, overly optimistic and more likely to take risks. [via]

Global discontent afflicts middle managers

On average, just four out of 10 (39 per cent) described themselves as "extremely" or "very" satisfied with working at their current organisations. [via]
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Friday, February 02, 2020

Britons, feeling poor and more stressed than ever, hit the bars to cope

I just learned that yesterday, February 1st 2007, was “Stress Down Day” in Great Britain, organized by Samaritans, a charity that exists to provide support and help for people contemplating suicide. People were encouraged to go to work wearing bedroom slippers, as a way of reminding them to relax more during the working day. In a survey brought out to mark the occasion, the charity noted that more people are stressed than ever before.

According to Samaritans, more Britons than ever are “turning to the bottle” to relieve stress—and half the nation isn’t sleeping or is grumpy due to stress. In summary:
  • Half of Britons (exactly 50%) say there are more stressed now than they were five years ago.
  • A staggering 17%—almost a fifth of the nation—are stressed out every single day.
  • 27%—one in four—say stress causes them to argue with their partners. 18% find their sex life suffers because of stress.
  • 25-34 year olds drink more often than other age groups to relieve stress—at 41%.
  • The issues which most affected people most were the same as when Samaritans last carried out the survey in 2003—although money is now the top reason people give (51%) and work has dropped to second (38%) and family issues are third (27%). Issues which feature in “world affairs” rate very low as people’s stressors in their day to day life.
  • Many people choose ways to relieve stress which may not work in the long run, as they could be avoiding their problems.
According to Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, an expert in the field of workplace stress:
People need to talk about the stress and anxieties they have, not hide them away. Facing your problems with support is the best first step. The Stressed Out survey clearly shows that too many people are turning to the most inappropriate ways to deal with whatever is stressing them - and that’s if they’re making any attempt to deal with it at all.”
I wonder what the results would be if a similar survey took place in the United States? A recent, large-scale survey has found that almost four out of 10 Americans suffer from fatigue at work, so I guess there is probably little difference between people either side of the pond.
A study of nearly 29,000 employees published in the January Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that 38 per cent said they had experienced “low levels of energy, poor sleep, or a feeling of fatigue” during the past two weeks. Fatigue was more common in women than men, in workers less than 50 years old, and in white workers compared with African Americans. Workers with “high-control” jobs relatively well paid jobs with decision-making responsibility also reported higher rates of fatigue, the research found.
Alexander Kjerulf has this picture and comment on his post How to succeed with way less stress — Putting abundance to work today. Maybe more people should think about it.

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Thursday, February 01, 2020

Sometimes, enough really is enough

Our consumer society runs on the premise enough is never enough. Whatever you have—wealth, possessions, power, fame—is only the basis for getting more. Every achievement is no sooner reached than discarded. You’ve done that; on to the next goal.

Bigger, better, farther

Everyone is constantly striving to get somewhere else. Wherever you are today, you’re quickly convinced that you need to move on. The organization tells you where to head for next. Gurus constantly urge you to set yourself goals, assign a time line, establish some way of measuring success, and so enable yourself to achieve whatever you are told that you want. If you reach a goal, set a new one. Do well in life, and your goal should be to do better. Reach a career goal, then forget it and set a new one. Hit this month’s budget and you can be sure next month’s will be bigger, tougher, more challenging. All this within a culture of urgency and push, rather than one of slow, gentle, thoughtful progress.

This pattern raises three questions for me:
  • Why do people behave like this?

  • Is it natural and inevitable, as people assume?

  • Is there an alternative, besides “dropping out?”

Ambition sometimes gets out of hand

When achievement drive is allowed to take over, the result is precisely what I’ve described. Once reached, every goal instantly loses its value. We’ve been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt. It no longer counts for anything. This is sad. Enjoying what you’ve achieved is one of the great pleasures of life. Does it make sense to spend hours preparing a gourmet meal, only to throw it away as soon as it’s ready? Don’t you want to savor it?

If you discount each achievement the moment the goal is reached, what effect does that have on others? Imagine a child coming home from school elated by some success, only to hear his or her parents rush straight from “well done” to setting another, tougher goal. “Okay, you did that. Big deal. What we expect now is . . . ”

Far fetched? Not really. That’s exactly how many bosses behave. Achieve—even surpass—your current target and your reward will be a new target that’s bigger, tougher, and probably less achievable. It’s what people are urged to do in the rest of their lives. And it isn’t natural behavior, it’s learned. You don’t see animals hunting, catching their prey, then instantly rushing off to hunt again. They eat, then relax until they need to move on. Primitive tribes “waste” time sleeping, socializing, dancing, and creating art works. If this obsessive, goal-oriented behavior were natural, they’d be spending all their time inventing the wheel, trying to corner the market in loincloths, setting up multi-tribe trading cartels, and building thatched shopping malls to sell cheap goods bought in from more primitive tribes in the area.

So do you give up? Drop out of the rat race and go back to oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons? I don’t think that’s going to work, do you?

There is an alternative. Slow down. Take a little time to celebrate and enjoy each achievement. Praise is worth far more than money. Say “well done” and congratulate others as if you mean it. Take time out to celebrate success—both yours and other people’s. Savor the pleasure of a job well done. When you’ve enjoyed to the full what you worked hard to achieve, then you can start to think about moving on. No pleasure lasts forever. There’s a natural point when people start to focus on recreating the pleasure by setting a new goal.

Over-active achievement drive can and should be tamed. Take time to appreciate this life. It’s the only one you’ll have, so if you rush through it from one goal to the next, never pausing to enjoy anything, you’ll reach the end having done much and enjoyed little. That doesn’t seem much of a life goal, does it?

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