Thursday, May 31, 2020

To get the best from your next vacation, put yourself into “rehab” with these simple steps

Vacation time is ideal for breaking out of that addiction to work—before it gets to ruin your life and relationships

Do you tend to take less vacation that you’re entitled to, because you “can’t get away?” Do you cancel vacation plans at the last minute? Do you have trouble “switching off” when you are away, so you spend time worrying about what you’re missing, and constantly checking-in? The path that descends into serious workaholic behavior has deceptively gentle slope. Before you realize it, your life can be in a mess. So why not use this coming vacation season for some “do-it-yourself detox?”
It isn’t only media stars who may need to check into rehab from time to time. Workaholism is just as much of an addiction as being dependent on alcohol or drugs. Those who suffer from work addiction like the “high” it gives them; the dopamine-assisted lift that they get from completing yet another of the hundreds of items on their to-do list, or rushing to another meeting, or overcoming yet another impossible deadline. Like all addicts, they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they’re deprived of their “fix” for more than few hours. And they can be extremely devious and ruthless in ensuring that they have a way to continue to feed their addiction.

What’s the link to vacations? A recent survey, reported in BusinessWeek, found that more than half of American workers don’t take all the vacation time they are entitled to. Thirty percent take less than half their allotment, and 20% take just a few days, at most. Amongst professionals, 42% report having to cancel vacations “regularly.” And even when they do take time away, a large proportion constantly check e-mails, phone the office, or stay in touch via BlackBerrys or PDAs.

That’s addiction, pure and simple. Forget arguing that it’s what the organization expects. Organizations can’t expect anything, since they’re inanimate. That expectation itself comes from people. It’s work-addicted people who expect others to share their addiction, just as drunks try to get others to drink with them. If you want confirmation that it’s a widespread and serious problem, the same BusinessWeek article says that several high-end resorts are offering “detox programs” for those obsessed with work, confiscating their communication devices and keeping them away from telephones. Some employers are even monitoring how much vacation time people take and ordering those who don’t take enough to leave the office behind them for a time.

So, since we’re now at the start of the vacation season, here’s a simple, gentle “detox’ program you can follow on your own to break up any burgeoning tendency to spend too much time focused on work and its demands:
  • “Contract” with someone to keep hold of your cellphone, BlackBerry, or PDA and refuse you access, save in the very greatest emergency.
  • Do the same with telephone calls. Don’t answer any yourself. Have each one screened to keep distractions away.
  • Leave your laptop at home. No excuses.
  • Tell everyone that you will not be contactable—and don’t contact them either.
  • Give yourself a complete break from the media. No news, no shows, nothing. You can read (nothing work-oriented), think, exercise, and spend time with friends and family. Nothing else.
  • Fill your vacation time with definite—preferably highly interesting or demanding—activities. Don’t just lie on a beach or have whole days with nothing specific to do. The temptation to fill the time with work-related activities will be too much.
  • Have someone monitoring you all the time, with permission to call you to order sharply. All addicts are devious and very ready to find ways to feed their addictions in secret. If you find yourself hiding some work-based activity—or, much worse, lying to conceal it—be very afraid. Your addiction is serious.
And the benefits? BusinessWeek reports that an Air New Zealand study found that people who returned after a proper break increased their personal productivity by 82%.

Workaholism—even the milder kinds—gradually destroys major parts of your life, especially your relationships. It also puts you on the path to burnout, which will destroy your career in time. Don’t you owe it to yourself and your family and friends to use your proper vacation time to make yourself a better person to be around, a better employee, and a better family member?

So, if you tend not to take all your vacation, repeatedly cancel vacation plans, or even just have trouble “switching off” when you are away, heed the warnings before it’s too late. Act now, when all it may take to put yourself right is a little discipline and a sensible detox program of the kind I’ve detailed above. Don’t wait until you’re in real trouble and most of your options have already gone.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2020

21st century rules for career success

Penelope Trunk’s new book tells it how it is

When I was starting out on my career path (it seems a hundred years ago now), I was given the advice that we all received at that time:
  • Get a job with a “good” company that offers a pension scheme.

  • Hang onto it.

  • Wait patiently to retire and collect your reward.
Times have changed, but, sadly, the advice doled out to those starting their working lives today hasn’t changed nearly as much. A good deal of what we were told then turned out to be rubbish. It’s even less relevant in today’s world.

Enter Penelope Trunk with her new book: Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. Her writing is sassy, irreverent, often extreme, but it just about always goes right to the point. What she says is directly relevant to today’s world, where pensions and benefits are no longer things that you can rely on, jobs disappear at the stroke of some accountant’s pen, and the only person in the organization that you can trust to have your best interests at heart is you.

In those far-off days when I was starting out, we were encouraged to believe that the right way to get ahead was to hand over control and direction of your career to the organization, keep your nose clean, work hard, and take whatever was given to you. Is that the advice I gave to my daughters when they started out in the world of work more than 30 years later? You bet it wasn’t! I didn’t have the advantage of having Penelope Trunk’s book then, but what she says in it rings true to my own experience.

What’s new and different about this book is that it doesn’t stop with how to choose a job and get past the selection process. With headings like “How to get what you want from the people you work with” and “Get what you want from your boss,” it’s there to help you find ways to succeed even after you enter those hallowed corporate portals. And if the idea of having a cubicle in some vast office complex doesn’t inspire you, you can turn to “Checklist for starting your own business” instead. For women, there’s even a section called “Sex discrimination is everywhere, so don’t try to run.” (I could point out that, as a young man, I was sexually harassed by several women in various places of work . . . but that was long before we even knew what it was. I think in those days it was known as “making the new guy blush and look an idiot.”)

Slow Leadership aims to tell the truth about the world of work. It isn’t a place where working hard always brings you a just reward—or any reward at all, save exhaustion and burnout. The best and brightest don’t naturally rise to the top. Many bosses shouldn’t be in the jobs they hold. The organization neither knows what’s best for you (only you can know that), nor is it especially interested in you, save as a source of profit that it can’t (yet) get more easily by outsourcing your job to someone it can pay half as much. Sure, there are good bosses and ethical organizations out there. There are also open-minded, non-partisan politicians and rap artists who don’t do drugs. It’s just that they can be pretty damned hard to find.

The real advice young people should be given starts with “it’s your life, so make sure that you do only what you believe is right for you” and ends more or less in the same place. In the middle, I would put a few other points like “if it feels like hard work, you’re probably in the wrong job” and “copying the boss is likely to make you into a jerk as well.” Fortunately for the world, I don’t offer young people career advice for a living.

Penelope Trunk does, so if you’re in the early stages of a typical 21st-century career—feeling lost, staring at your resumé and trying to work out how to hide the blemishes, wondering whether you made the right choice, or trying to plan the best way to get that promotion—this is the book for you. Many of the older generation—my generation—are going to hate this book. Your parents may even be shocked by some of it. But if you want advice that is 100% up-to-date and real, go for it just the same.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2020

What do businesses and Las Vegas have in common?

Both typically produce big winners as a result of one or two lucky bets

Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. People are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for blindly repeating the past. Failures, however, always have a learning message and the potential for growth. Coyote explores why getting the reasons for success wrong dooms people and organizations to long-term mediocrity.

One of the enduring myths about the world of work is that effort is the key to success. Whether that effort comes in the form of long hours, constant endeavor, or sacrifice of much of the rest of what life has to offer, the belief that, somehow, hard work is always going to be rewarded is at the heart of much of the folklore that governs how people behave in the workplace.

This belief endures because it is both comforting and convenient: comforting to the individuals who do the hard work, and can always believe that it will help them win big one day—even if it hasn’t yet; and convenient to employers, who use it as a way to persuade staff to continue to make determined efforts on the basis of vague promises about the future.

But is it true?

Simple observation suggests that it is not—at least in most circumstances.

Of course, some degree of determination and persistence is important. Giving up too easily, or lacking determination enough to make the required effort, will doom almost any hopes of success. But they are rarely the prime reasons for success in themselves; and there are many, many instances where individuals and organizations have exerted themselves to an almost superhuman extent, only to fail. There are also many cases where someone, or some organization, has done very little, only to be “rewarded” with an amazing amount of success.

The decisions that count for most

Most businesses depend on a relatively small number of large, often risky, decisions. The launch of a new product line. Entry to a new market. Purchase of a competitor. Expansion overseas. To see these as “bets” is quite fair, because that’s what they are, however carefully they have been researched and discussed beforehand. An obvious, safe, incremental step isn’t going to produce large rewards, if only because everyone else will know about it too and probably already be doing it. It’s defensive, not a move to extend or enhance. Only decisions that aren’t obvious, carry risk, and take the organization into new territory stand a chance of creating significant profits and stealing a march on competitors.

The same is true for individuals. The solid, hard-working, cautious, risk-averse person who always does the obvious isn’t going to make it to the top—especially in competition with those willing to take bigger risks and flaunt their successes more openly.

These make-or-break decisions are bets on an uncertain future. Get a few right, and you’ll look like a genius—even if what won you that acclaim is almost entirely luck, or other factors outside your control. That’s why you often see high-profile leaders with a track-record of recent success suddenly run out of steam and appear clumsy and incompetent. They haven’t changed. They’ve just run out of their lucky streak, or found themselves in new circumstances unfavorable to their way of thinking or doing things.

Why success doesn’t help you learn

People are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives—save when they are looking for an excuse for some bad mistake. We much prefer to believe that our successes are due to our own brilliance, while our failures are caused by bad luck and the mistakes of others.

This would be a harmless, if childish, failing were it not that it stops us from learning how to do better. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for continually repeating the past. There is not much to be learned from them, especially if you mis-attribute the reason for success to some personal action, when it was really the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Failures, however, always have a learning message—often one that is a vital step towards eventual success. But you cannot hear that message if you are always mis-attributing the reasons for your failures to bad luck, the errors of others, or unforeseeable events.

All the rush and haste of Hamburger Management leaves neither time nor inclination to sort out the true reasons for success or failure. Like the gambler in Las Vegas, the Hamburger Manager usually believes that he or she can somehow win over the odds consistently, even if no one else does. The result is the same in both cases: repeating the same behavior that once (supposedly) let you win big, until it causes you to lose even bigger. Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. It takes a long-term view to see the truth, but that’s something few people or organizations seem to possess.

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Monday, May 28, 2020

Bad workmen or bad tools?

Handling today’s communications technology wisely

From time to time, people take me to task for my criticism of communication approaches such as instant messaging (IM), cellphones, and BlackBerrys. They usually point out that all these tools can be used positively, especially amongst people who must work together while being geographically separated. It’s a variation on the old saying that only a bad workman blames his tools. The tools, they tell me, aren’t “bad,” just misused. Let’s think about this.

Are cellphones a blessing or a curse? Is instant messaging a useful way of making quick contact or a source of constant, usually unnecessary interruptions? Are the people who must stay “always on” obsessed, or simply responding to a genuine workplace need?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “yes.” You can encounter situations where a cellphone is a life-saver—and when people seem to use one to talk non-stop about the most pointless and inconsequential topics. When a single IM message saves hours of frustration—and when people waste working time sending and receiving IMs about “American Idol” or gossip about colleagues. No technology of this kind is always a benefit or a curse. It’s bound to be how it’s used that makes it one or the other.

Most people believe they can have the good parts without the bad, but experience suggests that the bad parts keep creeping in and spoiling the show anyhow.

Control-freaks and gossips

My experience suggests that IM is more often used for gossip and trivia than serious communication. Control-freak bosses use it to demand constant updates, and reassurance that the people that they cannot see are actually working (or were, until the IM message interrupted them again). E-mails are useful, but not when people’s in-boxes receive many hundreds in the course of every day.

The problem, I believe, is that the power and availability of modern electronic communications has outstripped the need. We are able to communicate faster, more easily, and more often than the vast majority of working situations require—to say nothing of the rest of life. It’s possible now to contact almost any employee at any time, whether in the middle of the night or on vacation, just about anywhere in the world. But does that make it necessary? Sure, it’s convenient (to those still in the office) to interrupt that honeymoon to ask what the password is to part of the system. But couldn’t you save that happening by a little forethought and proper organization? Just as those people walking around the supermarket asking someone back home to look in the store cupboard and check on whether they need to by potato chips could easily have checked before they left the house.

We all do such things from time to time. What causes the problem is when it becomes a habit and therefore “normal.” When, for example, a recent visitor to my home, supposedly on two week’s vacation, rang the office every day to deal with messages and handle questions. Were the rest of the staff totally incompetent? Could nothing wait until he returned? What was the message being sent along with all those phone calls, except that no one trusted anyone else, unless they were constantly under surveillance?

Interruptive power

I think that what makes the most difference in the “interruptive power” of e-mails and the like is choice. If you can choose what to pay attention to—and when to do it—focusing when you need to and taking a break at other times, they aren’t so much of a problem. Unless, of course, you’re totally bored with your work and spend all your time being “interrupted!” My point is simply that too many distraction —especially those that arrive without choice—are usually bad for concentration and increase stress. Many folk don’t seem to have the willpower and discipline to ignore e-mails until they’re ready to pick them up and read them; at least, not if the e-mail software is open and making little pings every few moments. Nor can they ignore that IM message that is clearly nothing but idle chatter.

It’s the demands from others to meet their schedules that really messes up your day. And yes, sometimes you have no choice about that. But that should be the exception, not the rule. One of the reasons some people are more productive working at home is simply that they can manage that way to be free from so many distractions.

It’s never the essential, important communications that cause the problem. It’s people who get addicted to constant chatter, whether face-to-face or via the Internet, the cellphone network, and cyberspace. It’s the temptation to use the system just because it’s there. It’s stupid bosses who can’t bring themselves to find out the answer on their own, or—heaven forbid—wait until a more appropriate time. Let’s not kid ourselves. If we’re drowning in a morass of useless e-mails, wasted phone calls, and other interruptions, we’re the ones to blame. We can stop the problem any time by exercising discipline, using forethought, and trying to be considerate of others. It’s not the tools, it’s the folk using them—and the corporations that make millions of dollars by encouraging gullible people to text-message, call, IM, or e-mail all their contacts twenty times during the day.

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Saturday, May 26, 2020

News and Views: May 26th 2007

On being yourself, not a cheap imitation of anyone else

Herman Najoli has a series of articles on being yourself, prompted by watching his son as he grows up and explores the world. There’s too much imitation going on, especially in the workplace. Being yourself isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always authentic, and usually the best course of action too. [link] [link] [link]

Do you fancy a five-day weekend?

If so, here’s a site where you can join in the movement to petition the US Congress on the subject. Sounds like a good idea to me! Why are they trying to change the law? “Because overwork has become a major problem for Americans, and it’s getting worse by the year. The two-day weekend was created in 1930, and despite decades of unparalleled technology growth, our people are actually working more and more each year.” [link] [via]

Thoughts on work/life balance from Ellen Galinsky

Ellen Galinsky, founder and president of the Families and Work Institute, gave an interview to the Washington Post. Here are some selected snippets: “We have found that the most people who do best at managing work and family life are what we call dual-centric. They don’t put work first all of the time, but they prioritize their work and their family lives. . . . In the long run . . . having a rewarding life at home is good for work life and having a rewarding life at work is good for home life.” “Change is hard and in the industrial age, productivity and commitment were seen as ‘face time.’ So you need to replace that measurement in your manager’s mind with another way to assess your performance. Then if you deliver, you will hopefully have a convert.” [link] [via]

Need a break?

Vacation time is almost upon us, But if you think that a vacation is going to cure all your stress problems at work, think again. It seems that many people return from vacation just as stressed—or even more so—than they were when they went away. That’s the conclusion of a survey of more than 2,000 workers. “A quarter of managers admit they return from vacation more stressed than when they left, with a third having spent at least part of their break checking in with the office—often every day.” When are organizations going to realize that people need a complete break from work to recharge their batteries? [link]

“Mobile snacking”

This, it seems, is the latest trend—at least in Canada: people using their cellphones and BlackBerrys as entertainment. A recent survey found that, from a sample of “tech-savvy 30-to-50-somethings,” 73 per cent admitted emailing on a mobile device as a form of entertainment, 44 per cent reported using mobile technology for text messaging and listening to MP3s, 33 per cent reported using mobile technology for listening to the radio, and 19 per cent use mobile technology to watch videos. Maybe all that time in the office is actually spent doing something other than work. [link]

Good? Or just consistent?

Andy Haselman suggest that we should not make the mistake of assuming consistency always equals good. “A consistently great experience is not the same as a consistent experience,” he writes. “As far as many businesses are concerned, their attitude towards customers is all about consistency. Consistent mediocrity, that is. The only way to break this habit is to break the rules.” Laced with amusing examples, this is an article all managers and supervisors should read— especially those who have anything to do with customer service. [link]

Type A or Type B?

It’s long been believed by many people that some people (Type A) have a natural tendency to overexert themselves, while the more laid-back Type Bs cope better with stress and pressure. Which are you? Jonathan Farrington posted an article that might help explain and indicate why being a Type A person or organization can be a problem. His description of Type As sounded to me exactly like Hamburger Management. [link]

Are good times just around the corner?

Alexander Kjerulf shared a really funny cartoon on his site— a cartoon that says far more about the stupidity of engaging in the rat race the most of the articles that I’ve read on the subject. As he writes: “Does anyone honestly think that making more money, consuming more stuff, driving a bigger car or bagging that fancy title will make them happier?’ [link]

Sometimes realization comes hard

Here’s a quote that just about sums up the whole need for more civilized working styles: “After sitting in a meeting and being told that 60+ hours a week was a reasonable amount of time to give to the company and there was absolutely no need to work on the work/life balance and then the next day pulling my 4 year old into daycare at 5:30 am with him kicking, screaming and pleading with me to stay home I realized that management was either smoking some heavy drugs or I was for agreeing to sacrifice the entire reason I took the job in the first place.’ What did she do? She quit. A brave (and very rational) lady. [link]

Emotions, not smoke, get in your eyes.

Cali, at Work+Life Fit, quotes one manager saying this about requests from his subordinates for understanding of their need for family time: “I look at these young parents who want to work from home periodically, or leave early and then work later after their kids go to bed, and I am jealous. I think of all the times I had to work late getting a project done in the office, and what I missed because of it. It’s not that they can’t effectively work from home or shift their hours, it’s just that I wish I could have done it. So I do find myself resentful and resistant.” Full marks for honesty! I wonder how many other managers turn down reasonable requests for the same reason? As Cali writes: “Until we all start being honest about the outdated ‘because I did it that way,’ beliefs that keep us from innovatively rethinking work, real change will be limited.” [link]

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Friday, May 25, 2020

Keeping Hamburger Management alive

Hamburger Management is a cycle kept alive by a false belief that it is the right way to get ahead. Only when enough people reject it will the downward spiral into ever more demanding and unpleasant working conditions be broken.

What is the single, most powerful force that keeps Hamburger Management alive and well in our workplaces today?

No, it’s not the greed of shareholders, nor the demands of Wall Street. It’s not executive egotism either, nor even the conservative outlook of business schools, constantly repeating old, outworn ideas that should have been given a decent burial decades ago.

It’s imitation.

That’s right, imitation. It’s subordinates copying whatever they see their bosses doing, in the belief that this will get them promoted in their turn.

Imagine all those underlings watching and learning the same mistakes and bad habits that their managers already have, simply because of their belief that those are the actions required to do the job, achieve the results, and get themselves promoted. That’s what keeps the cycle of bad management going: constant, thoughtless copying of bad habits and negative styles of leadership.

Daily “learning”

Most people “learn” far more by imitating those people who seem to have succeeded in the past than they ever do by attending courses or reading books or articles. Sadly, while they are often very choosy about the courses they take or the books they read, they are not always so discriminating when it comes to the habits that they allow themselves to pick up.

When I was a teenager, many years ago now, a teacher at my (single sex) school gave this piece of advice to those about to leave and go to university: “When you meet a pretty girl and think about marrying her, take a careful look at her mother. That’s what she will be like in 20 years.” (I guess that it should apply to boys and their fathers too, but this was in the days long before any of the pupils could have “come out” and still been accepted by their peers or by society.)

Now I have no idea whether this piece of homespun wisdom has any validity. And before people deluge me with instances where it isn’t true at all, I need to point out that the reason why I quoted it is this: what you imitate today, you will become tomorrow.

If your boss is a jerk and you imitate what he or she does, you’ll become a jerk too. It’s not just the desirable parts that will rub off on you—the promotion, the status, the power—it’s everything else as well: the stress, the bad temper, the tendency to steal subordinates’ ideas, the constant nagging. Before you thoughtlessly imitate what you see the boss do, take a good, hard look at the whole package. That’s what you will be like if you continue to copy the boss’s actions.

Be very careful what you choose to copy

Some bosses deserve to be imitated. They’re helpful, wise, kind, capable, and inteligent. Many are far less attractive. They’ve picked up on Hamburger Management behaviors from imitating their bosses. If you imitate them in your turn, the downward spiral into stressful, uncivilized workplace conditions will continue. Only by refusing to imitate behaviors that you can see are negative and unpleasant—even if they are said to lead to promotion—can you play your part in changing a small part of your world for the better.

So . . . take a long, hard look at the bosses around you. See the good and the bad, the benefits and the drawbacks of their behavior. Then choose what to imitate and what to leave alone. It’s the only way to stop the cycle of Hamburger Management once and for all.

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Thursday, May 24, 2020

The great sine wave of life

Why recognizing the ups and downs of life and business is vital

Success in life rises and falls, yet most organizational projections proceed ever upwards in straight lines. What is going on? Can organizations and their leaders really manage what nature never does—continual, uninterrupted progress? Or is it just hype and self-delusion?

A little while ago, Steve Roesler posted an extremely perceptive comment on this site. I replied at the time, but I think what he drew attention to is sufficiently important to warrant its own article. He referred to “the great sine wave of life.” That’s the way success rises and falls in a natural, but unpredictable, pattern. He contrasted this with the way that managers continually show charts with progress (sales, results, profits, or any other measure of achievement) continuing in a straight, upward line, far into the future.

Here’s an extract from his comment:
I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I’ve sat down with clients and asked why, in the face of both evidence and the uncontrollable nature of life, they insisted on putting up one more slide that showed an upward straight line as an indicator of where they were going. It is as if anything less than the projection of near-total success is a sign of weakness or defeat. Yet looking back over years of performance, it is obvious that we are on the “Great Sine Wave of Life.” . . . There is a great peacefulness that comes from recognizing that one is not in control (even if one is in charge!). And that is the ability to enjoy the ride, even when it’s bumpy. When you hit the smooth tarmac again it feels that much better!

The ups and downs of accountability

We all like to believe our successes are due to our own brilliance and effort. It isn’t so. Much of it is due to luck, whether we admit it or not. Some is due to the efforts of others, which we may or may not recognize as we should. And all of it rises and falls, sometimes showing a welcome boost, sometimes falling back or getting blocked by some problem or unexpected change in events.

Yet we also want to believe that our mistakes and failures are due to something—perhaps anything—other than our own mistakes, failures, stupidity, and weakness. This is also not so. Luck plays a major role here too, of course. So do the actions of others, or the rise and fall of markets and customer confidence. But we cannot shrug off our own accountability quite so easily. As Steve says, we’re not in control but we are are still in charge. And if we’re not entirely responsible for our failures (though our actions play a significant part in bringing them about), we’re not entirely responsible for our successes either (though we can help things along by acting in sensible ways).

So why do we persist in believing that we—and our organizations—can somehow cheat the natural order of things and compel continual, unchecked progress by mere effort and willpower?

On a personal level, this delusion is sad and causes great misery and stress. But on an organizational level, it gets twisted into a doctrine that states that people can be required to make things happen exactly as others demand; and that they deserve blame and punishment if they fail to do so. It’s as if the mere setting of some goals—regardless of how realistic they may be—is sufficient to cause them to happen. Unless, of course, individuals or teams “fail” in bringing them about. No account is taken of circumstances or external events. Successes are gleefully mis-attributed to human action (when luck is often the main cause), and failures are mis-attributed in the same way, this time for the simple reason that those in charge are also expected (impossibly) to be in control. By accepting such nonsense, people and organizations set themselves up to experience unnecessary stress at the slightest sign of “failure.”

The madness of macho managers

Worst of all, the macho bent of Hamburger Management creates a further layer of craziness: the assumption that a successful person should be able—who knows how?—to bend the future to his or her will.

Can anything be less productive of a calm, beneficial, and satisfying working environment? Can there be an attitude that is more likely to produce confusion by obscuring the real reasons why success comes about, in favor of silly myths about heroic personal endeavor? Is any set of beliefs more likely to generate stress and result in the punishment of the innocent and the adulation of the merely fortunate?

Does individual effort count? Surely it does, but not for nearly as much as we like to believe. Should people be held accountable for making things happen, regardless of the context and the effects of chance? Of course not. That is insanity on a corporate—even societal—level.

Nature contains no straight-line graphs, only waves

It’s time for a strong dose of realism. There is no such thing as continual progress. It proceeds in fits and starts, accompanied by times when everything seems bleak. Increasing profits without intermission can only be sustained by trickery, such as buying back large numbers of shares to inflate the price of the remainder, or other forms of creative accounting. That’s why much of the business of accountants has shifted from auditing past results to finding ways to change the appearance of present and future ones; and why consulting companies thrive on finding new ways to manipulate organizations to produce—at least on paper—the straight-line increases the financial markets now expect.

Until we can see clearly what is down to personal endeavor and what simply has to be accepted, like the vagaries of the weather, we cannot have a process of organizational leadership that is rational or civilized. Until we admit that we are not in control of the future—nor even fully in charge of this week’s results—we will continue to create our own, entirely artificial stressors.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2020

Who is the highest flier of them all?

Is egotism necessary to achieving leadership?

Most high fliers are self-confident and have plenty of self-esteem. When they look in the mirror, they like what they see. It’s assumed that people with low levels of self-esteem rarely make it to the top. They won’t take the risks needed; the bold, opportunistic decisions that bring personal and organizational success. Maybe. But sometimes, self-confidence definitely goes too far.

Narcissism is egotism gone mad. It puts the self first and anyone and everything else a long way behind. Everyone must recognize the narcissist’s superiority. No one must challenge or question it. While a healthy degree of self-confidence is seen by many as a necessary attribute in achieving success, narcissism takes egotism and self-confidence to an extreme degree.

The Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus is a warning of what happens when self-esteem gets out of control. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and ended up being turned into a bunch of flowers, forever gazing at their beauty in the water below.

It used to be only dictators who made themselves into crazed narcissists, stomping around in Ruritanian uniforms surrounded by sycophantic toadies, like Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.” Historically, some became simple figures of derision. Most added viciousness and cruelty to their delusions and brought death and shame on their countries.

Recent history has shown many instances of CEOs and other top executives who clearly suffer from narcissism. They’re so obsessed with their own importance that only constant adulation from colleagues, and continual media attention, can satisfy them. They’re obsessed with being seen as superior. They exaggerate their abilities and ignore the contributions of others. A few are quite ready to use lies, creative accounting, and criminal acts to try to make reality fit the demands of their colossal egos.

Sadly, narcissism isn’t only found in a few people at the top of organizations. It is an affliction of many bosses. When it strikes, it causes them to claim ideas their subordinates dreamed up, belittle other people’s achievements, and demand unquestioning “loyalty” and adulation from all around them.

This behavior often serves the narcissist rather well on their way to the top. They exude confidence. Many are intelligent, obviously ambitious, and ready to undertake any risks to win that coveted recognition. The organization is dazzled by their appearance of leadership and readily forgives “minor” faults like egocentricity.

Today’s “grab and go” management style and obsession with short-term results is tailor-made for narcissists. It offers a sure route to recognition—provided that you don’t care who else gets hurt, stressed, or burned out to fuel your path ever upwards.

Only later does the true nature of the narcissist appear. To win continual recognition, many sacrifice integrity, honesty, ethics and all civilized and humane values. They surround themselves with adoring acolytes, pushing aside real ability with its annoying habit of questioning their ideas. As we have all seen, some will even sacrifice the good name and survival of the business itself to feed their narcissism.

What’s the answer? It’s probably too much to expect the media and the public not to be carried away by surface “flash,” but there’s no excuse for organizations who join in. It’s not hard to spot a narcissist. Clarity of thought and firm values can ensure that true ability isn’t set aside by the more fashionable, fake variety. In nearly every bad situation, subsequent analysis shows the warning signs were always there; people simply ignored them in favor of going along with the flow.

A major part of being a Slow Leader is refusing to put the creative, rational part of your brain to sleep; taking time out to sort reality from appearance; valuing honesty above ambition; and sometimes having the courage to speak the truth, even when no one else wants to hear it.

So if you see some boss or senior executive spending too much time polishing his or her self-image, go buy yourself a bunch of narcissi and put them somewhere prominent to remind you of what may happen to you, unless you take heed in time.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2020

How useful is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle is often quoted as a way to save time and effort and thus lower pressure. In theory, it’s a great idea. And, if you look back at the past, it can seem quite easy to identify the 20% of situations, actions, or even people that generated 80% of the returns. But is it quite as simple as it appears? The Coyote investigates.

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results from any series of actions are caused by 20% of the actions themselves. In other words, most of the results we get because of a minority of our actions. The rest are either wasted or produce little of value. This sounds like a useful observation. However, before you decide the Pareto Principle is true and can be used to guide your actions, I want to ask some important questions.
  1. Can you identify which actions make up the useful 20%? And can you do so in advance? We have to live forwards in time, so to be useful a principle has to be predictive.

  2. Going forward, will this useful 20% still contain more or less the same actions? If it doesn’t, repeating them won’t produce any benefit.

Identifying the “magic 20%”

Let’s take the first question. It’s easy to feel intuitively that most results arise from a small group of actions. The Pareto Principle feels immediately valid. It also feels like a practical tool. Identify the “magic 20%” of actions and you can more or less dispense with the other 80% without much impact on your results. What a marvelous saving of time and effort.

Of course, this only works if these conditions hold true:
  1. You can reliably distinguish the 20% of actions that produce that disproportionate amount of benefits.

  2. These actions or behaviors remain the same for long enough to produce enough benefits to make a difference. If they change more rapidly, not only will repeating them be useless, it might even prove harmful. History contains many instances of people clinging on to actions that used to be helpful, long after they have ceased to be anything of the kind.

  3. The beneficial 80% of results come from single, identifiable actions—or at least small, obviously-linked groups of them.
Is all of this this true? Can you distinguish, reliably, which 20% of actions matter? Don’t some results rely on the interaction of large numbers of events, choices, actions and decisions? Can we know which count and which don’t? What if we dropped some, only to find later that they were essential in some way? Maybe they only produce good results in combination? Cutting seemingly unnecessary actions because they don’t obviously fit into the “magic 20%” might turn out to be a poor idea.

What about change?

How long will the beneficial actions remain valid? Change can come quickly and unexpectedly. Sticking with what used to work might become a liability in a fast-changing world. And can you be certain that is it always the same 20% of actions that count?

The Pareto Principle is perhaps most often applied to sales. Suppose you could reliably identify the 20% of sales calls that produced 80% of the orders you took this week. How much might the success of those calls rely on the market intelligence, knowledge and simple practice you gained by making the other 80%? Could you miss out all the rest, or even a significant number of them? That would include new customers being encouraged to place larger orders, most prospects and those former customers who might be won back from a competitor.

Suppose that this week, 20% of your calls do produce 80% of your sales. Pareto rules! Next week, you need to sell just as much. Will you visit the same 20% of customers and receive the same orders? Surely that’s unlikely. They only just placed an order. Most, maybe all, need to use up that order before buying again. Fine. You just need to find another 20%. But how? Everyone else was in the “unproductive” 80% last week. Why should that change?

What’s going on? My guess is that:
  1. The Pareto Principle distinguishes groups you can only find after the event, once you can see what worked and what didn’t.

  2. The 80:20 proportion only works over quite long periods. Take any shorter period and it’s much less likely to be correct. 80% of sales might come from 20% of customers over a year or more, but not over a month or a quarter.

  3. The membership of the “magic 20%” of people, behaviors, or actions shifts. Wait long enough and just about everyone will sometime be part of that 20% group.
If my reasoning is sound, the Principle is almost worthless as a guide to future action, which is how it’s most often used. There may be some actions or people (20% again? Who knows?) that figure so rarely in the “magic group” they could be removed without loss. There may be some regular members of that group that could be identified and given more focus and investment. Either way, what’s needed is time, careful observation and recording over many occasions, good records, and much patience and reflection. None of these are actions or qualities much associated with today’s frenetic organizational pace.

I’m not saying Pareto is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the lengthy and extensive research needed to find out. I’m merely suggesting it’s not the universally applicable principle, or the simple course of action, or the practical guide to decisions that we’ve been asked to believe it is.

To sum up

I think the Pareto Principle has great intuitive attractiveness—which says little about whether or not it works, nor how it works (if it does). However, these questions remain unresolved for me:
  1. How do you know which 20% is producing the results? Can you ever find out at a time when the knowledge might be useful? I suspect you can usually only find the answer—if there is one—after the event. And if that’s so, it leads me to a second question.

  2. Is it always the same 20%? If it’s not (and I suspect it isn’t), maybe the whole 100% will be in that magic 20% group sometime. And if that’s true, the Principle applies only to a specific time period (if it applies at all).

  3. Are the beneficial results caused by either single actions, or small, readily identifiable groups of actions? If they come from complex patterns of linked causes and effects, it may be impossible, in practical terms, to identify the “magic 20%” under any circumstances.
If any of these concerns are valid, the whole idea becomes fairly worthless as a guide to future action or allocating resources (which is how people try to use it). Maybe its real use lies in encouraging exploration. Looking for the “magic 20%” might well throw up all kinds of useful data and insights, whether or not you ever find exactly what you were looking for at the start.

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Monday, May 21, 2020

Loyalty and a culture of fear

One of the reasons that many people agree to long hours and extra pressure is a sense of loyalty: to the company, to the boss, to colleagues. Yet is such loyalty always admirable, or even useful? Are there times when being loyal is actually wrong?

Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable? Loyalty has long been prized by leaders; to be disloyal is typically seen as an obviously negative trait. Yet too much emphasis on loyalty can stifle dissent, dulling people’s willingness to tell the truth and use their creativity. If no one is willing to rock the boat by pointing out problems or faults, or suggesting new ideas, how many opportunities, mistakes or instances of questionable practice will be missed? When does loyalty become misplaced? Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on; especially in areas that you don’t want looked at too closely.

In my career, I’ve experienced times when disloyalty was disruptive and killed any sense of trust. But I’ve also seen cases where too much unquestioning loyalty meant important issues were ignored or suppressed until it was too late. It’s made me wonder if open questioning of authority, short of defiance, may be essential if we’re not to lose our way. After all, the United States was created by people ready to fight my English ancestors for the right to live free from unquestioning loyalty to a sovereign.

Principles of a civilized working life

Socrates, one of the world’s most revered philosophers, described himself as a “divine gadfly” sent to stir up his fellow citizens and shake them out of their complacency. They valued his efforts so much they had him executed for “corrupting the young” by teaching them to think for themselves. He was just the first of the many martyrs for the three principles that perhaps best express a civilized life, at work or anywhere else: freedom, reason, and respect for others.

The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators—political and organizational—crush freedom and surround themselves with “yes-men,” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the person in power will find most acceptable. The pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. That loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves, or their work. Competitors ought to cherish excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete.

The use of reason to find solutions to problems demands that people are free to speak their minds and question anything that doesn’t seem right to them. Excessive loyalty puts all the emphasis on an irrational belief in the wisdom of leaders and the correctness of organizational decisions. You don’t have to look far to find leaders who are not wise and organizations whose decisions were far from correct. Reasoning demands questioning and makes no assumption that those above you in the hierarchy always got there by merit or intelligence.

Surely respect for others should extend to respect for their opinions, concerns, and anxieties? To be respectful means to listen with an open mind and a tolerant outlook. You won’t find Hamburger Managers with either. That’s why they make such poor listeners. They think they already know everything useful, and they have no respect for anyone who cannot directly advance their prospects. Of course they demand loyalty, even though they give none to others.

Getting the balance right

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t simple. Loyalty is good for comfort and support, but bad for promoting initiative and truth-telling. Organizations need people who support one another. They also need those ready to see with different—even “disloyal”—eyes and bring uncomfortable realities into the open. Without them, everyone gets fat, dumb and happy—until the dam breaks. Teams are good for support but bad for encouraging initiative and truth-telling. At the same time, we need the sense of acceptance and stability that comes from being able to trust those around us.

If your unthinking assumptions are about to break under the pressure of change, shouldn’t you be thankful to those who draw them to your attention in time? What about the “disloyal” whistle-blowers who alert the public to hidden corruption and deceit? Aren’t they important and valuable people, often moved by a stronger sense of moral duty than the rest of us?

There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on exercising ethical choice. When people think through the ethics of trust, and the basis of their support for boss or employer, they can see where the balance lies between being honest (even if that involves dissent) and being disloyal.

In any culture that prizes loyalty above all else, fear becomes the major emotion: fear of doing or saying anything that might suggest dissension; fear of exercising individual freedom to think and speak. Sadly, some major commercial and political organizations seem not too far from producing exactly such a culture.

Few things in life are black-and-white, however much some people try to make them so. Failure to question received opinions quickly leads to ethical blindness. Unquestioning loyalty is no loyalty at all. Sometimes what the boss most needs is to hear the truth, before he or she says or does something that will bring harm to themselves and others. Our intellectual and personal freedom is too important to surrender it to help our masters shut themselves away from uncomfortable questioning.

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Saturday, May 19, 2020

News and Views: May 18th 2007

Feeling Overwhelmed?

Here’s an interesting article with ideas to help you get out of situations in which you feel overwhelmed. As the author writes: “We often deny we are overwhelmed because we do not know how to stop the frenetic behavior that leads to this feeling. So we do nothing.” [link]

In Pictures: Ten Ways To Recharge At Work

If you prefer messages in visual format, rather than words alone, check this out from This will strike home with many people: “From there take an annual career physical. Ask yourself: Am I get paid enough? Does my work challenge me? Am I learning and contributing? If most of the answers aren’t yes, it might be time to look for a new job. . . . Looking for a new position might be just what you need.” [link]

Life laundry

It seems that a head teacher at a school in Great Britain is doing the laundry for her staff as a way of helping them cope better with the stresses of work. Another offers car washing and valeting services at bargain rates, and has done a deal with a local car mechanic to carry out vehicle servicing, picking up cars from school and returning them at the end of the day. What next? CEOs acting as baby-sitters? Top executives doing your weekly trip to the supermarket? The CFO handling the school run? nice idea, but somehow I can’t see this catching on in most organizations. [link]

9 Quick Tips for Managing Overwhelm

These come from Molly Gordon. I like this one: “2. Putter. Puttering orients you in time and space of your life while making mental room for you to notice what really wants to be top priority. Tip: Set a time limit on puttering if you are worried that you will lose the entire working day to it.” And this: “. Be real. However linear or spontaneous, ground your choices in your real life and work experience. It doesn’t make sense to simply ignore a deadline or to pretend that a complex piece of work can be done in 10 minutes..” [link]

The Greatest Productivity Tip in the World?

That’s what the author claims. I’ll leave you to judge, but this article certainly contains plenty of interesting ideas. Plus it’s almost worth it for the picture of Gloucester Cathedral in the header alone (Gloucester is in the West of England, by the way, less than 30 miles from where I was born). [link]

French workers biggest whingers: study

I found this picked up (gleefully!) in many parts of the world. This is from Australia. But before I get too smug, I also noted that Britons come second in in the moaning stakes, followed by Sweden, the United States and Australia. It seems that Dutch workers are the happiest, followed by their Thai and Irish counterparts. [link]

Do you terrorize yourself?

How about this from Steve Roesler: “Please think on this: In order to induce terror, you never have to commit the act. It is the unresolved possibility of terror that keeps one--or the world--in a state of fear and stress.” And this: “If you’re a manager, you have thoughts about people’s performance that you are carrying around. And they are building up. Your employees don’t know how they’re doing. And the first thing we humans do in the absence of truthful information is fantasize about it--negatively. Do something now. Feel the relief that follows.” [link]

The value of praise

I’ve always felt that praise is grossly underestimated as a source of motivation and good feelings in the workplace. Many managers act as if being seen praising anyone is worse than being found in the stationery cupboard having a meaningful sexual relationship with a laptop. So I was interested by this article from the Chief Happiness Officer. [link]. This one, called “Choose happiness at work,” is even better. [link]

The nine biggest myths of the workplace

Here’s the wonderful Penelope Trunk writing for Guy Kawasaki. I think my favorite is: “Work hard and good things will come.” Or perhaps: “Do good work, and you’ll do fine.” And how about: “Authenticity is a tool for changing the world by doing good.” [link]

Curing e-mail addiction

Yesterday’s posting here was about distractions, especially e-mail and IMs. That’s probably why this article from appealed to me so much. E-mail can easily become addictive, just like IMs and cellphones. As the article states at the start: “The biggest obstacle to productivity is connectivity. Too many of us have become addicted to email, to our feed readers, to Twitter and IM, to forums, to social sites like MySpace and YouTube and Digg. It’s an addiction, and as yet, no good cure for it has been found.” [link]

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Friday, May 18, 2020

Keys to saving time

How to lose the useless items that weigh down your day

Many people complain that they never have enough time for all that they need to do. It’s true . . . only a large part of the problem lies with the way that they fill their day with useless and unnecessary activities. Time to go on a “time diet.”

This article is about getting rid of the flab that fills your working days: all those unnecessary activities that clog up your schedules, weigh you down, and make your day feel longer and tougher to get through. Activities that leave you miserable and exhausted, with little or nothing to show for all that extra effort.

We’ve all got them: bloated in-trays, calendars that contain more junk activities than there are calories in a Mega-Mighty-Gigantic Whoppaburger with triple fries, grotesquely obese work schedules, and an e-mail inbox that fills every 15 minutes. Getting rid of them won’t be always a complete answer to stress and burnout. Many people are genuinely overworked. But it’s sure going to help.

If you could drop all this useless flab, wouldn’t you feel better? Imagine what a difference it would make to your day, your life, your enjoyment of your work. There would be more time to spend on important matters. More time to get things done. The chance to end the day knowing you’ve accomplished more than you dreamed you could with far less effort than you might have imagined.

You can do this. It takes a little time, some initial effort, and a small amount of self-discipline, but anyone can at least stop wasting a significant part of every working day on actions that gobble time and give nothing useful back.

One of the primary areas for saving time is cutting back on pointless communication. E-mails, instant messaging, BlackBerrys, cellphones. All are useful in their place. All are major consumers of time and providers of pointless distraction anywhere else. How many of the messages you get through these means really matter? How many matter enough to interrupt whatever else you are doing?

Very, very few—especially compared with the time and energy they take up. It’s time to get tough with these thieves of time . What about blowing away those irritating Instant Messages for good? Putting yourself on a strict e-mail diet? Turning off the BlackBerry and the cellphone whenever you can? We give these nasty little beasts altogether too much importance in our lives. Even in the supermarket, you see people walking around with cellphones to their ears, telling some poor soul that they’re in the supermarket and picking up a packet of Cheerios. Who cares? And what about all those morons driving and yakking on their phones at the same time/ Aside from being a major cause of traffic accidents, what are they talking about? The traffic. The weather. Some inconsequential element of their day. I want to yell: “Shut the *@!*&$ up! and concentrate on your driving.” Maybe if they did we’d all be safer and get home sooner.

  • If you have Instant Messaging on your computer, turn it off. Now! Better still, remove the hideous abomination altogether. Do not use IM. You don’t need it, unless you’re a pre-teen geek without a life.

  • Never keep your e-mail software open all the time. Open it to check for e-mails only when you choose.

  • Set fixed times to check for new e-mails and let everyone know when they are. At other times, ignore it.

  • Filter everything coming in, so you can sort out what matters from what doesn’t. For e-mails, use the filtering facility in your software.

  • Give each one a priority and deal with it when you choose. Only respond immediately to genuine emergencies. Make everyone else wait (and I mean everyone).

  • When you send someone an e-mail, make a practice of telling them when you need a response (be specific; say “by Monday at 3.00 p.m.” not “a.s.a.p.”). Ask them to do the same when they e-mail you.

  • When you receive e-mail copies that you don’t want, send a polite note to the sender asking them to take you off the circulation list. Don’t stay on the list from inertia, or “just in case” something important comes along. It won’t. Be ruthless. If they don’t take you off the list, use your filtering software to classify that e-mail as “junk” and ignore it.

  • Only use BlackBerrys and cellphones when you must. Turn them off the rest of the time.

  • Discourage people from calling you on your cellphone, save on matters of genuine urgency. Don’t use it for gossip.

  • Keep cellphone calls short and to the point. Leave anything else for when you have more time.

The worst complaints about your new-found discipline will come from yourself. People get addicted to e-mails because of fear: the fear of missing something, being “out of the loop,” or not knowing what’s going on.

Get used to it. Like most fear, it’s irrational. You can either have a sensible work schedule, or give in to your inner demon and waste your time “just in case” you might miss something. Are you too weak to cope with this stupid obsession? Of course not. Kick it out. Bad news travels very quickly and will be sure to reach you. Good news will be a nice surprise when you next check your e-mail. In the meantime, you’ll have a calmer, more productive day.

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Thursday, May 17, 2020

Let’s make an end of accepting authority uncritically

There’s altogether too much deference to authority practiced today. It’s time to give it up.

It’s so tempting to look for some authority figure to tell you what to do—especially if you’re tired, confused, stressed, or miserable. At times, everyone wants to be able to relax, knowing that someone else is in charge and knows what’s best. Sadly, while there is no shortage of would-be authorities in the world, trusting them to have your best interests at heart is usually a poor idea—especially if they’re eager to convince you that they have. Uncritical acceptance of authority lies behind a great many of today’s problems. It’s always your life. Don’t let others run it for you.

A little while ago, I came across this great article on the temptations of submitting to authority. It’s so easy to do it: it’s socially approved, takes zero effort, promises freedom from the awkward business of making your own decisions, even claims to offer access to the absolute, unchallenged truth. As the article says:
For many reasons, submitting to authority is extremely attractive. It takes the pressure off. We don’t have to think for ourselves. If any problems arise we don’t have to worry about deciding what to do. We can just do what the leader says and be confident that answer is the final truth.
The trouble is . . . this conventional belief in the value and importance of authority is total BS. It really doesn’t matter whether the authority in question appears as the boss, the organization, Wall Street, dogmatic belief systems, political ideology, or anything else. Any system, doctrine, or person that claims to be able to reveal the absolute, unchallenged truth about anything is lying. Any dogma that can’t accept constant dissent, modification, or the high possibility that it’s wrong is tyranny. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Take any set of authoritarian statements that you like and trace them back over time, and you’ll quickly see that they change and shift—only that fact is never admitted. All our authorities have feet of clay. Some are drenched in blood too.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing” (Socrates)

Take management orthodoxy. How to run a business ought, perhaps, to be a safe candidate for a very high degree of certainty. It’s not too complex, has easily measured outcomes and results, and hundreds of thousands of people do it for most of their working lives—millions even. Surely by now we would know, pretty much with complete certainty, how to do it correctly. The fact that we don’t—that highly-qualified, lavishly-paid executives get it wrong all the time—ought to tell us something about believing that there is one right way and we already know what it is. Many of those authoritative texts you’re made to read in business school, perhaps even most of them, are wrong. Worse, they’re authoritatively wrong.

Do I know the answers? No way! But at least I know that I don’t know. I don’t try to convince myself, or anyone else, that I have an answer to anything. Hell, I don’t even want an answer. Once you have a definite, exact answer, there’s no need to go on looking and exploring. And that’s pretty much death, mentally and spiritually. Which is why boardrooms and executive suites around the world are filled with zombies: the living dead. They know all the answers and stopped looking years ago.

Which is also why so many of them make such a pig-awful job of running their businesses.

Creativity is being different. Mediocrity is being the same.

Deference and obedience to authority is far too highly valued today—even when it’s called “being a good team player,” or “practicality,” or “commitment.” It’s actual value is zero, nil, zilch, nada. It ensures you’ll never learn another thing in life, and all you have to look forward to are years of repetitive, stylized behaviors, like a circus animal pacing endless around its cage. Whatever happens, whatever changes, all you will be able to do is follow the dictates of authority. Welcome to hell.

Hamburger Management, with its obsession with speed, superficial flashiness, limiting costs, avoiding questions that might lead to delay, and being right first time (even if—especially if—you aren’t), produces managers who don’t have the time, the humility, or the ability to reflect or be creative. All they want is answers, the quicker and simpler the better. Since there are none, what they get is BS, humbug, snake oil, and lies, so that’s what they follow.

The essence of creativity is being different in some way, challenging even the most widely-accepted truths, always wanting to know more and to ask why. It’s no surprise that creativity is rarest in organizations that most value fitting in and following the corporate line. To be creative is not just to challenge authority. It goes deeper than that. It is not to pay any heed to authority.

And that, of course, is the most unacceptable sin in the whole canon for those who rely on dogmatic, authoritarian beliefs.

As John Wesley writes in the article that began all this (no, not that John Wesley):
When we submit to authority, we willingly pull the wool over our own eyes, exposing ourselves to manipulation. The greatest catastrophes of human history were caused by submission to authority. The Holocaust was caused by submission to the Nazi authority. September 11th was caused by submission to Bin Laden’s authority. Everyday people are suckered out of hard earned money because they blindly believe in authority. Be distrustful, question what you’re told, and don’t believe that anyone claiming to have all the answers has your best interests at heart.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2020

The plain truth on the multitasking myth

Isn’t it time everyone dropped the multi-tasking idea for good?

Whatever amazing multi-tasking powers you believe you have, the facts are plain and irrefutable. Your brain isn’t able to switch back and forth between even moderately complex or demanding tasks without a major loss in speed, accuracy, and quality of processing. You may think otherwise, but it’s a myth. With complicated tasks, no one is able to overcome the inherent limitations of the human brain for processing large amounts of information simultaneously—i.e. multitasking. It just can’t be done, any more than a human being is ever going to be able to fly by flapping his or her arms. We aren’t built that way.
There’s abundant hard evidence that multitasking is a poor strategy. Dan Bobinski, writing a while ago in Management Issues, quoted Robert Croker, Ed.D., chair of the Human Resource Training and Development Department at Idaho State University, in support of the view that the human brain simply isn’t designed for multi-tasking.
It’s a common misconception is that a brain is like a computer. A computer is designed to multi-task. A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multi-task environment.
Researchers Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, proved the simple process of switching focus from one task to another ties up a considerable amount of mental processing power. Pointing to the “executive control” processes the brain uses to establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them, the researchers found:
. . . executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that“) and rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
When a person continually switches between tasks, the brain wastes a great deal of time and energy clearing out the processing rules for the previous task and orienting itself to the new one—only to go through the whole cycle again when the first task is back in focus. Activating and completing these procedures wastes copious amounts of time. The research indicates continually switching between tasks can make completion take four times longer, due to the time needed to keep switching mental gears.

David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, says:
The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large—amazingly so.
The quality of your work is severely diminished when trying to do even two tasks simultaneously. The more the tasks differ from one another in complexity and familiarity, the greater the effect on time and quality. According to Time Magazine, quoting Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, automatic actions, or what the researchers call “highly practiced skills” like walking or chopping an onion, can be done while thinking about other things. But any kind of action planning or decision making requires full attention.

So if you’re sitting at your desk doing nothing more demanding than moving papers from one pile to another, your brain is free to think about most anything else. But if the boss calls and asks you what you plan to do about the mess you made of last month’s sales return, you’d better give that your full attention. That’s what catches out the moronic people who drive while yakking on their cellphones. On a straight piece of road with few other vehicles, it seems easy. But let something unexpected arise that requires a choice of actions and they can’t drag their minds back to the job in hand fast enough to avoid an accident.

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do. It increases your likelihood of mistakes, physical or verbal. Used habitually, it gradually prevents you from concentrating effectively even if you want to. It’s a very poor strategy for anyone trying to cope with demanding work.

So why do organizations encourage it? Or even tolerate it?

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do.

Organizations believe that multi-tasking benefits them due to the conventional view that the way to a successful business is primarily based on cutting costs—especially the costs of employing people. To reduce head count, without reducing the amount of work done, demands that all those left work harder and cover more tasks. Multi-tasking looks like the answer. Halve the workforce and make everyone do two jobs at the same time. Simple!

Hence the emphasis on multi-tasking. In the short-term, the organization appears to benefit by a cost reduction (caused by employing fewer people for the same amount of work). In the longer term, reduced productivity and enhanced stress negate that benefit and impose a penalty instead. In fact, continual cost-cutting produces only a short-term benefit, often at the expense of longer-term results. But, since the typical executive rarely considers the longer-term (many don’t last that long in their jobs), they see the short-term gain and miss (or ignore) the long-term loss.

When mistakes multiply, as they will, and quality falls, the link between multi-tasking and an increase in errors is ignored. It has to be, since to do otherwise is to admit that the cost-cutting was an error. That’s quite out of the question, especially since it would invalidate “accepted wisdom” on the necessity of continually cutting costs. It’s usually easier—and far more common—to blame the individual for any mistakes, even if the organization is the real culprit.

Multi-tasking is a failed attempt by people to display super-human powers. Even wearing your underwear on the outside and a tunic with a large S on it won’t change that.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2020

A few ideas to help you through a busy day

Sometimes, working life can seem extremely burdensome. Here are a few ideas that might help:
  • Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance anyway. Sitting life out is a sure recipe for frustration and regrets. If you never try, you can never succeed. If you’re too afraid start out badly, you won’t start at all. Many people stick to doing only those things they can do well, so they end up with a restricted, tedious life. Ignore all the macho rubbish about winning. Do what you enjoy doing and you’ll have a great time, even if you don’t make it to the top.

  • When everything is coming your way, you’re probably in the wrong lane. Sometimes we all need a sharp whack over the head to wake us up and alert us to the fact that we’re on a track that doesn’t work for us. The trouble with rushing through life is much the same as the problems you’ll face if you try to rush through an unfamiliar city: it’s extremely easy to take wrong turnings and end up in a mess. Slow down and look where you’re going is good advice for life as well as driving.

  • Some mistakes are just too much fun to make only once. Nearly all creativity springs from setting out to do, or explore, or research one thing and ending up with something totally different and unexpected. Making mistakes is an essential part of all innovation. People who never make mistakes don’t allow themselves to do anything new.

  • Don’t take it all so seriously. My grandfather’s typical response to me, whenever I complained to him about some problem or setback, was: “It’ll all look the same in 10 years time.” As a child, I thought he was just trying to wind me up. Now I agree with him. Mostly, the things we get most worked up about turn out to be of zero importance in the longer-term. Meanwhile, we’ve no attention left over to notice those things that are going to change our futures. Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.

  • Keep away from jerks as much as you can. Jerks contaminate everything around them. I sometimes wonder if their sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others. Trying to change them usually makes you more frustrated . . . and leaves them exactly as they were. If you lend a jerk $50 and never see them again, it was probably worth it. If you find a way to warn yourself when you’re being a jerk, it’s definitely worth it, even if it costs you $200.

  • Politeness costs little and is worth more than you imagine. You never know when you might need help from that person you’re chewing out; or when you discover, in the middle of laying down the law, that you are the one who has screwed up. Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them. If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be silent. And try never to put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won’t have a leg to stand on.

  • The best way to look the people around you is to consider a box of crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty, and some are worn and dull. Many have weird names, and all are different colors. But they all have to fit in the same box.
Life is fascinating and the more people you meet and know, the more colorful the palette becomes. It’s very interesting overall. Now it’s one thing to observe all of this. It’s another entirely when it affects you personally. So at one point in my assessment, I had to ponder if the people around me were part of the problem or part of what was helping me hang in there. I concluded it was definitely both, so this factor was a wash. (Source:

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Monday, May 14, 2020

Stress is like a glass of water . . .

Most stress is caused by hanging on to problems and difficulties longer than is good for you. Letting go and taking a rest from time to time isn’t the mark of a wimp, it’s a sign of practicality and common sense. Sadly, many of us keep clutching at our problems and burdens until we damage ourselves, sometimes permanently.

I wish I could claim to have thought this up, but I didn’t. I don’t even know who did. It’s based on one of those pieces that go around the Internet, passed from person to person. A friend sent it to me and I couldn’t resist adapting and using it here.

A famous speaker was asked to talk about stress and stress management. Wanting to give the group a practical demonstration of what was being discussed, the speaker poured out a glass of water, held it up above her head for the audience to see, and asked: “How heavy is this?”

There were many guesses, ranging from an ounce or two to almost a pound. After a while, the speaker asked another question: “How long do you think I can hold it like this?”

Again, there were lots of guesses. Some said maybe five minutes, others fifteen. One suggested an hour.

“The actual weight of the glass of water doesn’t matter much,” the speaker said. “I’m not very sure how long I can hold it as I’m doing now, but I can be pretty certain that holding it for a minute or less wouldn’t be a real problem. If I hold it for half an hour, I’ll definitely have a bad ache in my arm. If I hold it for many hours, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it will feel and the more damage I will do to myself. Right?”

Everyone nodded their agreement.

“That’s the way it is with stress too,” she went on. “If you try to carry your workplace burdens all the time, even if they’re quite light, sooner or later they're going to feel heavier and heavier. Soon, you won’t be able to carry on without doing yourself damage. Like this glass of water, you must put them down for a while and rest before going back to holding them up again. When you’re refreshed, you can carry on, if you must.”

There was the kind of silence you get when a roomful of people suddenly realize a truth that ought to have been staring them in the face. A mixture of enlightenment and embarrassment.

“So,” the speaker concluded. “Before you go home tonight, put the burden of work down. Don’t carry it home. Take some rest. Don’t pick it up again until tomorrow. In fact, whatever burdens you’re carrying, let them go whenever you can. Don’t risk hanging on until you need that ambulance.”

Life is short and uncertain. There will always be troubles to be carried. Why spend more time than you must carrying them? Why raise them above your head, if you can carry them some other way? Most stress isn’t caused by some sudden, overwhelming pressure. It comes from holding on to fairly minor problems —often in an awkward or demanding way—until your mind and body have become twisted and distorted with the effort.

Wouldn’t now be a suitable time to let go for a while?

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Saturday, May 12, 2020

News and Views: May 12th 2007

Connecting your values

Do the values that you follow in the workplace and the ones that you use in the rest of your life match up—or even connect? It seems that for 65 percent of Canadians the answer is a resounding “no.” Does that mean that they “turn off” everything that’s most important to them when they go in to work? Or that they willingly compromise their own values in the work situation in return for the money they earn? Either way, it’s a worrying statistic. [link]

Canadian common sense

Canadian columnist P.J. Harston says it’s not just wages that keep businesses competitive and productive. Recent surveys show companies that help employees keep a work-life balance, companies that offer perks, and those that help employees learn new skills while on the job are more likely to retain the best, most productive workers. Seems like common sense. [link]

Eating your way to work/life balance?

Here’s an interesting idea. It seems that Italian workers separate work from the rest of their lives through food. At least, that’s one blog writer’s take on the topic. See if you agree. [link]

The dangerous myth of the dream job

Here’s an interesting contrarian view from Timothy Ferriss. He suggests that converting your passions into your work is the fastest way to kill those passions. He also thinks that we shouldn’t expect too much from our jobs. An interesting point of view, and one that goes against much of the received wisdom from the self-development gurus. [link]

National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife

if you work in the academic world, you should probably be aware of this new web site. It claims to provide resources to help you understand more about all aspects of modern academic work and related career issues, including tenure-track and non-tenure-track appointments, benefits, climate and satisfaction, work/life balance, and policy development. [link]

Five ways to make career change easier

Are you thinking of changing your career? Before you take the plunge, try reading Penelope trunk’s recent column on Yahoo. It may save you from one or two costly mistakes. [link]

Five ways to boost your employees’ productivity

The title might be offputting, but this post contains a great deal of common sense. I particularly liked the point that most people’s productivity depends heavily on the attitude of their bosses. You don’t want a macho boss, you want a boss who cares. [link]

Negative impact of new CEOs

A study has concluded that the promotion of a CEO internally results in executive turnover of 22 per cent. When a new chief executive is selected from outside the company, turnover increases to 33 per cent. Scary stuff—or not, if you want to clear out the guys at the top and start again! [link]

Do you know what a “slash career” is?

Here’s your opportunity to find out. It seems it’s being a consultant/author, or a teacher/musician, or any other combination of roles with slash marks between them. The intention is to add greater flexibility and autonomy, and more sources of income to secure your (patchwork) paycheck . If one well dries up, you still have the other(s). It seems that The New York Times has launched a column on the topic by Marci Alboher, attorney and author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, [link]

Learning from business

I’m always seeing articles that point to where all the problems are in combining work and business with the rest of life, so here’s an interesting variation. This article looks at lessons from business that you can apply to the rest of your life. Interesting reading! [link]

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Friday, May 11, 2020

What would a Hamburger Manager do?

You’ve probably all seen the bumper stickers that exhort you to ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” or “What would The Buddha do?” Their purpose is to urge you to pause before some important ethical or personal decision, using the question to make yourself consider the issue in greater depth—usually with Jesus’ or The Buddha’s teachings in mind. This is my own version of this idea, aimed at helping you to be a better Slow Leader.

Instead of using the teachings of a famous religious figure as a guide to how you ought to react in some difficult situation, I’m going to suggest the opposite: that you take a few seconds of time out to think about what the typical macho, “grab-and-go,” Hamburger Manager would do—then avoid that option whenever you can.

There are two reasons for suggesting this. One: Hamburger Management responses have become the unthinking norm in many organizations, so it will force you to think creatively about a different approach. Two: most of our management problems today are caused by sticking with this out-dated and discredited way of managing, so choosing something else is virtually guaranteed to be better.

Here’s how it might work:
  • Profits are falling and sales are looking shaky. What would a Hamburger Manager do? He or she would cut costs violently (to restore profits in the short term), lay off people (to cut costs still more), and use threats and oppressive supervision to drive those who remain to find quick-fixes to push up sales. The result would be a short-term lift, followed by more long-term decline.

    By avoiding this approach, sensible managers might take the time to explore why profits and sales are in decline, perhaps uncovering quality problems, poor customer service, technology issues, or loss of competitiveness through obsolescent products. Any solution would be permanent and long-term, without the blow to morale.

  • Results are extremely good. Performance is high. There is ample cash available for discovering new ways to grow and sustain the organization. What would a Hamburger Manager do? Hand out huge amounts of money in bonuses and share options to top executives, start on a spree of ill-considered acquisitions, begin claiming to be a management genius and solicit sycophantic articles in major magazines, and generally spend his or her time in actions aimed at self-aggrandizement. Then announce impossible targets (based purely on ego and showing off) and try to force the organization to meet them. Generaly drive the organization's results up like a rocket (and soon down like the stick).

    By avoiding this, executives might spend the cash wisely, keeping their heads and realizing that good times rarely last, accept that luck was probably a major reason for success, and focus instead on trying to strengthen the organization for long-term, sustainable growth (and against the tough times that will surely follow some day).

  • The media (or some consulting firm) announce that the organization spends far more on staff costs than some supposed “benchmarks.” What would a Hamburger Manager do? Cut staffing, find ways to lower benefits and payments to staff, get back as quickly as possible to the benchmark level—so good people leave, it’s harder to attract talent for the future, and there is a general decline in innovation, creativity, and the availability of good staff.

    The alternative? Probably to ignore the announcement and do nothing at all, so long as those extra costs are there because the staff are of a higher quality than in most organizations, and doing a great job. Most of these supposed benchmarks have no real validity anyway. Many (perhaps most) are invented by consultants as a way to solicit business.

  • A new CEO (division head, head of department) is appointed, perhaps to try to revive the organization after a bad patch. What would a Hamburger Manager do? Fire, or otherwise remove, as many as possible of the existing management team and replace them with his or her own people (a.k.a. cronies). Sweep away as much as possible of the previous way of doing things. Organize a series of high-profile meetings, complete with lengthy Powerpoint presentations, to announce vague and grandiose new strategies. Review the performance of the staff and demonstrate “toughness” by letting go everyone rated as “below average.” The result would be a period of total chaos and confusion, during which results would probably fall still further. If so, the new person might be fired, and the process would repeat.

    An alternative would be to spend time listening to current staff, make as few changes as possible during this learning period, show that good people had nothing to fear from the new regime, and seek out and act on creative ideas from all sides for turning things around. Which would make you stay and do your very best?
These are only examples. I’m sure that you can think of more—and maybe better ones. The important thing is that stopping to think in this way might prevent more leaders at all levels from rushing into conventional (and generally inferior) “solutions,” instead of slowing down and taking the time to open their minds to more creative and useful approaches.

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Thursday, May 10, 2020

Kiss the KISS principle goodbye

We all know the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I’ve hated it for years and squirm every time I hear someone use it. Here’s why.
We’ve long been advised by many gurus to Keep It Simple, Stupid—usually abbreviated to KISS. I’ve often wondered precisely what this means. Does it just mean that that it’s foolish to embrace complexity, because people are so stupid you have to make everything simple . . . or they’ll be unable to grasp any of it? Or does it mean that keeping it simple is necessary because you are stupid, so any complexity is bound to be too much for you?

What about situations, ideas, or concepts that are naturally complex? Are you supposed to simplify them regardless of whether this makes them unintelligible or nonsensical? Or ignore them, just because they aren’t simple?

There are two principal kinds of simplicity. One is easily produced: take a quick, superficial view, based on some scrappy sound-bite, and ignore anything that might add complexity. Many examples can be found in most organizations, where complex ideas are reduced to some kind of slogan, like “Delight the customer,” “Be the lowest cost producer,” or “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

The other kind of simplicity is tough, demanding, and may take years to achieve. That comes from long and careful thought, thorough research, and a profound understanding of all the elements involved. It has almost nothing in common with the superficial simplicity that is demanded by Hamburger Management. It seems simple only because you don’t see the huge amount of work that has gone into it, stripping away all the inessentials to get at the fundamental meaning beneath.

All too many corporate managers only understand the first kind of simplicity. They have learned how to use buzzwords without any real understanding of the processes they (very partially) describe. They look around and see the grass looks much greener over the fence in the other guy's organization, so they snatch up whatever they believe the other guy is doing and apply it instantly, usually understanding little or nothing more about it. Let me let you into a secret. The grass very often looks greener over there for one reason only: it’s had greater applications of BS than yours has.

Simplicity Type 1—the quick and dirty kind—fits the KISS principle exactly. Everything is kept simple (not gradually and painstakingly made clearer and simpler to grasp) by ignoring the complex bits and skimming over anything challenging to the mind.

Hamburger Managers like it because they assume, arrogantly, that others are indeed stupid, and couldn’t grasp anything more complex. Besides, they don’t want to “waste” time explaining or answering questions (or, still worse, having to defend what they are doing). In true command-and-control fashion, they shout out the slogans and expect everyone else to jump to attention, salute, and comply.

Of course, the KISS principle also applies because these macho types are stupid themselves. They haven’t the determination, patience, or (often) brain power to work through to Simplicity Type 2: the kind you only reach because you know the topic in such depth that you can step beyond superficial complexity and point straight to the essentials.

Forget slogans like KISS. Problematic complexity almost always has a single cause: you haven’t taken long enough, or thought hard enough, to grasp the topic fully, so explaining or teaching it gets muddled and wanders off the point. The only way to produce the crisp, elegant, utterly comprehensible “simplicities” of the greatest minds is the same way they they did it: hard work and steady application to learning.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2020

Twelve ways to prevent burnout

Twelve simple, proven ways to avoid burnout and step back from the stress in your working life. No one has to suffer workplace stress. There’s always a way out, even if you’ve tried to convince yourself that there isn’t. You may not like it, but it’s there. Don’t let macho pride, foolish ambition, or misplaced guilt feelings ruin your life. The real proof of a winner is knowing when to walk away.

  1. Stop pretending that you can cope with anything. Why does burnout strike high achievers more than others? Because they’re the most prone to macho beliefs that they can handle whatever is thrown at them. Everyone has limits. Find out what yours are and stay on the right side of them.

  2. Take time out to reassess your values and aspirations. What really matters most to you? Forget what others say ought to matter; or what you’ve been told by others. Times change. People change—including you. Some things you used to find compelling probably aren’t so interesting any more. The better you can focus on what is truly essential and means most to you, the easier it will be to let go of the rest—saving yourself enormous amounts of time and energy you can invest elsewhere. Our lives are like the hulls of ships. As the years pass, they collect a heavy load of ”barnacles”—obligations and habitual actions that don’t matter any more—that cling and cause drag unless we take action to get rid of them.

  3. Slow down and pace yourself. One of the earliest effects of stress is an unconscious speeding up. The more anxious you become, the more you will try to rush everything. Stressed people drive too fast, talk too fast, definitely eat too fast, and rarely give themselves a moment’s genuine relaxation. The human body isn’t designed to run flat out all the time. Piling on the hours and tearing through jobs in record time will just increase mistakes and make you still more stressed.

  4. Stop being a control freak. You can’t do everything yourself. You aren’t a superhero with magical powers. Get real! We have little or no control over the greater part of our lives. You can’t control what happens in the world. You can’t control your customers or the market. You can’t control your boss. You can’t control your staff. You can’t even control yourself, or you wouldn’t be in the mess you’re in! The more you try to control the uncontrollable, the more energy you waste and the greater your build-up of frustration and stress.

  5. Turn down the contrast. Highly-stressed people live high-contrast lives. They’re either going at it flat out, or crashed out somewhere in a state of exhaustion. It’s all or nothing. No wonder they burn out. Step the intensity of your life down a few notches. Those who work hard don’t have to play hard too. Sometimes the best place to be is somewhere in the middle.

  6. Make time to spend with others. It’s so tempting to cut back on purely family or social activities as a way of finding time in the day for all the extra work. Or to be present for other people only physically, while your mind is back at the office, struggling with those problems you know will be waiting when you get back. Isolation is a sure route to burnout. With nothing to give you perspective, you’ll quickly lose sight of reality. Not only do your loved ones and friends need you—fully present and paying attention to them, not you—you really, really need them to help keep you sane and switch your mind off work for significant periods.

  7. Practice saying “no” more often. Willing horses get the biggest loads. There are times when saying “no” is the only sensible thing to do. Sure, it can be scary. Other people don’t like it and may try to pressure you into taking on more so they can take on less. Resist. Why be the sacrificial lamb to let them have time to relax? Besides, if you overload yourself they’ll be even madder when things slip through the cracks and you mess up. Then where will you be?

  8. Stop carrying others’ burdens. We all like to be the nice guy who helps other people. But who’s helping you? There are people around who will happily play helpless and wait for you to pick up the problems and workload they can’t be bothered to carry. You are responsible for your own life. Let them be responsible for theirs. Be firm about the difference between offering short-term help in a crisis and adding their burdens to yours on a regular basis.

  9. Detach, delegate, decline. There’s no need to take everything personally. Recognize that most people don’t think about you even once in 24 hours. Greater detachment bring more calmness. There’s no need to do everything yourself to get it done properly. That’s what subordinates are for: to take the load off the boss and learn how to do things well. They want you to delegate. There’s no need to accept every invitation to join a team, a meeting, or a committee. People will talk behind your back even if you’re present. Let them do it in comfort. Decline unnecessary invitations gracefully, but firmly.

  10. Quit worrying. What is the greatest single source of your anxieties? Your own imagination. Just because you can imagine it doesn’t make it likely. The fact that you are worrying about it won’t stop it happening. Save the worrying for the (very, very few) times it may do some good. For the rest, tell that inner demon to get lost while you do something important, like relaxing or chatting with friends. Worries are like stray dogs. If you stop feeding them, they’ll go find someone else to pester.

  11. Keep a sense of humor. Your worries and fears are really funny, if you look at them from the outside. What’s the worst that could happen to you? You could die, but that would end all your worries for good. You could be fired, but if the job is driving you nuts that’s a benefit. Take a look around you. Who are the grimmest people you can see? The control-freaks, the over-achievers, the worry-warts, the pocket dictators. Who are the funniest to watch making idiots of themselves? The same list.

  12. Walk away. Just do it. If all else fails, don’t stay in a job that’s going to wreck your relationships, warp your mind, undermine your health, and leave you burned-out and wrecked. No amount of money is worth it. Think about it. Every case of burnout happens to a volunteer. Every one had multiple opportunities to walk away. Your best friends in coping with stress may be your feet.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2020

Should business priorities dictate so much else?

Pressure from the “money men” is often blamed for increasing stress on managers and, through them, on the organization as a whole. Why should this be?
Wall Street, like all stock markets, began as a way to raise money from people who wanted to take a share in the profits of the businesses that they invested in. Now it seems to drive everything else. At least when sharing in the profits is your goal, your interest is in a steady flow of good dividends. That’s a medium-term objective—maybe sometimes a long-term one too. So how did the modern craze for instant gratification arise?

Nowadays, most of the people on Wall Street are traders. They make their money by buying and selling shares, or gambling on share movements via so-called “financial derivatives.” Dividends are of little interest. Many businesses no longer pay any. Long-term success is also a minor concern, since few traders hold shares for the longer term. They want profits, and they want them now, so they can use them to trade some more.

The result is rampant short-termism. Buying and selling (trading) is essentially a short-term business. Besides, the traders have little or no interest in what they are trading, just as long as they can sell for more than they paid—hopefully in the shortest possible time—and move on. Hence the emphasis on quarterly figures as almost the sole criterion of success.

We also live in a time when it has become fashionable to believe that the ideas and practices of capitalist business apply to many other walks of life. Government departments, health care facilities, charitable organizations, even the arts all try to organize themselves based on the business world.

Capitalism may well be the best way that people have yet found for dealing with business and creating wealth, but it’s arguable whether its priorities should be the ones that determine so much of our lives. As a purely financial outlook, it has difficulty in dealing with “soft” human issues like compassion, altruism, and care. It cannot easily recognize value that can’t be counted or measured.

It would make more sense for us to accept that capitalism is the best we’ve done so far in one aspect of life, but keep it in its place. For the rest of our choices, other approaches need to be found. And even in the business world, I can see no reason why modern capitalist consumerism should be taken to be the last word. It may be as good as it gets at present, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using our creativity and brainpower to find even better, more civilized, ways of organizing wealth creation in the future.

What do you think?

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Monday, May 07, 2020

Playing the game of life

Sports players are not the game. You are not your work.

It’s common for writers to compare working life to sport in one way or another. The idea of winners and losers, of team effort as a key to success, of inspirational coaches and great leadership on and off the field of play, all provide good analogies for handling our working lives. But sport and working life are not quite as similar as some people claim. Knowing the key differences can save you from many bad situations.
Working life certainly feels like one of the more competitive kinds of game. There are usually some more-or-less established rules of play, rewards for success, opponents to be avoided or overcome, and friends to be helped. Survival in such a competitive, often ruthless environment, depends on how well you play. . . doesn’t it?

Good team mates in sport and at work can be a great source of support. The “other side” will try to bring you down if they can. You definitely need skill and practice to be good. Coaches can help you do better. Team managers can—and will—impose penalties for slacking or failure. There are winners, losers, persecutors, and victims in the game of working life. Generally speaking, you can’t opt out of the game of work either, since you need money to be able to live, and working is where most people get it.

So far, so good. But knowing the critical ways in which working life differs from any kind of sport or game is essential to be able to succeed—or just to survive, with your sanity and self-respect intact.

Here are some critical differences from the sporting world that jump out for me:
  • Work really isn’t a team sport. You may be part of a team, but most organizations handle rewards and assessments of performance individually. You can’t avoid direct, personal accountability for your actions or decisions. In a sports team, you expect all your team mates to be on your side. In teams at work, this isn’t always a safe assumption.

  • Sport is a short-term activity, limited by the set length of the playing period. After the game, you get to walk away. Staying in a job or a relationship you hate, or that doesn’t work for you, has long-term consequences. Don’t risk them for short-term success or comfort. Playing the wrong sport won’t ruin your life. Working somewhere that isn’t right for who you are—which means consistent with your deepest values—will. It is a seriously bad idea.

  • The sports field, court, or whatever else it is called, is a clearly bounded, well understood situation. Everyone knows what’s there, what counts and what doesn’t, and where you can play to best effect. The working environment is messy, uncertain, ill-defined, and constantly changing. Yet your survival depends still on how well you understand it and take appropriate action. Sometimes, it’s more like a battlefield than a baseball diamond or a tennis court. Don’t assume others will play by the rules—or that there even are any.

  • Winners in sport almost always win because of better preparation. It may not seem like that to the losers, because winners sometimes seem to carry off winning performances with ease, but winning is rarely an accident. The best players will lose sometimes. The worst lose all the time. In the business world, it’s tempting to assume that the same is true. It isn’t. Chance plays a far greater role. Don’t get puffed up and assume one or two successes mean that you’re brilliant. Luck is sometimes on your side. Too many people ignore the part it plays. Stay humble and you’ll avoid falling from that pedestal you put yourself on.

  • Winners in sport and work learn from past mistakes. They never stop learning and practicing. Do you imagine that Tiger Woods believes he can walk onto a golf course and win without hours and hours of focused practice beforehand? But at least he knows what the game is. To win in the workplace means understanding the politics well enough to know what is really wanted from you. Bosses often don’t—or won’t—tell you.
There are other differences too, but these will do for a start. Sporting analogies can be useful in illustrating ideas about work, but don’t make the mistake of following them too far. Sport and work can both be dirty businesses, but you can always walk away from a sport if it gets too much for you. Walking away from the world of work isn’t so easy. Even people who decide to get out of the corporate rat race usually find that the world of freelancing or self-employment isn’t that much easier.

So what can you do?
  • Stay wake and alert. Don’t be lead astray by simplistic recipes for success.

  • Learn, practice, re-learn, re-practice . . . then do some more of both. Never stop learning and practicing. Nothing will ruin you faster.

  • Don’t be naive, but don’t lose heart either. Sure there are some bad things out there, but there are many good ones too.

  • Most of all, stay calm and detached from the emotional turmoil around you. Neither sport nor working life are as serious as their devotees believe.
You are not your work. It doesn’t define you. Whatever happens, you are still a unique individual with an intrinsic worth far greater than you can imagine. The universe brought you into being and assigned you a place within it. Don’t let mere humans—even self-appointed umpires of our corporate world—persuade you differently.

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Saturday, May 05, 2020

News and Views: May 5th 2007

More problems “Down Under”

According to the Australian Government Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission: “Despite a decade or more of economic growth and prosperity, many Australians say they are not living the lives they want. They feel pressured, stressed and constrained in the choices they can make, particularly at key points in their lives.” Europe, Australia, and Canadia are all much more aware of problems with workplace stress than the USA, where the attitude persists that business is purely about making money—and anyone who can’t cope with that better get out. It’s fine to be on your own when you are ahead of the pack; not so good to be behind everyone else, as the USA was in the debate about global warming. [link]

Britons have the blues too

According to The Guardian newspaper: “. . . fewer people can look forward to a secure old age; most will have to work longer, and harder, for their retirement. Levels of engagement and trust at work are obstinately low. Since real salary increases have been hogged by the best paid, inequality with even medium earners has grown by leaps and bounds.” Does that sound familiar? How about this: “AIM’s work on UK companies’ notorious reluctance to take up advanced management practices shows that the idea that there is something called ‘best practice’ that can be bodily transferred from one context to another is simplistic. Instead, companies need to look within themselves as much as outside to develop their own unique ‘signature’ processes. This is why Toyota remains way out in front of other car firms, despite all attempts to imitate it.” Or this: “Establishing such processes involves building human and organizational capital - patient, painstaking work. But today’s institutional context might have been designed to make such long-term organization-building impossible.” [link]

Here’s a very likely cause of more stress

According to yet another survey: “Many employees spend their careers wrestling with their conscience about how they earn their living, as managers force values on them that conflict with their own personal outlook on life.” No! You mean that employers try to force their staff to compromise their consciences to make more money? Hey, guys, listen to this . . . Seriously, no one needed a survey to understand this, but it sometimes help to see the plain facts in print. [link]

More negative survey data

A survey of retail employers by Harris Interactive on behalf of found: “When it comes to job satisfaction, more than a quarter of workers (27 percent) surveyed feel they have been overlooked for a promotion at their current job. Forty-four percent say they are unsatisfied with their pay. One-third (33 percent) are not satisfied with their work life balance, with more than half (54 percent) saying their workload is either heavy or too heavy, and 44 percent saying their workload has increased in the last six months. In terms of career advancement, 34 percent are dissatisfied with opportunities at their current position and 36 percent are dissatisfied with the training and learning opportunities.” Hardly a good situation for retaining talented staff! [link]

Signs to get out . . . fast!

I know that it’s long been said that when a corporation buys an executive jet, has fancy landscaping done on its HQ, or you see the CEO’s face on the front cover of smart business magazines, it a good sign of impending collapse. But the CEO buying a grand home? I guess it;s much the same syndrome: overweening arrogance and personal aggrandizement. It seems that finance Professors Crocker Liu of Arizona State University and David Yermack of New York University found that: “regardless of the source of finance, future company performance deteriorates when CEOs acquire extremely large or costly mansions and estates.” [link]

How Do I Convince Employers I Want to Downshift My Career?

That’s the provocative question asked by The answer? It’s going to be tough, since corporations are suspicious of motives like wanting to avoid working 18-hour days. You can read the rest here. [link]

Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you

Senior executives seem to believe that they know it all already. Well, I guess many of us suspected that, but here’s some proof that senior managers are rather unlikely to take training themselves, whatever they say bout the need others have for it. This new survey reveals that of all corporate staff levels, the most senior are the least likely to get training. [link]

Yoga anyone? has an article on the best workplace stress relievers. They have pictures too! I wasn't too keen on the snide, journalistic tone, or the seeming emphasis on the obvious (control your schedule, take regular breaks), but you might find something useful. [link]

The Power of 10 Minutes

LifeDev has a fascinating article on what you can get done in 10 minutes. As the author says: “ . . . 10 minutes… now that’s a tasty number. Not only will ten get you started, you’ll probably be finished too, if you focus. And focus is practically required with 10 minutes. It’s a small, focused amount of time.” Worth a look. [link]

Is workplace stress falling?

It is, according to a recent survey. Falling very quickly. Yet extreme versions, characterized as “desk rage,” are rising. Confused? So was I. Maybe reading the article will help sort it all out. [link]

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Friday, May 04, 2020

Slow Leadership in practice

If you want a wonderful example of the principles of Slow Leadership being used—and creating a spectacular and highly-regarded business in the process—you have to read this article by Bob Sutton titled: “Zingerman’s: A Civilized Workplace.”

Based on both a New York Times piece, and his own personal experience, Bob will introduce you to what has been described as “The Coolest Small Company in America.”

Look at this:
But neither the festivities nor the variety would have been possible if Zingerman’s co-founder, Paul Saginaw, had not dragged his business partner, Ari Weinzweig, to a bench in front of the deli about 15 years ago and demanded that they start thinking about where they wanted their business to wind up. Mr. Weinzweig was reluctant to break away from his routine of running the deli, then generating about $6 million a year in sales, to brainstorm. But Mr. Saginaw insisted. Two years later, the result was a vision for what they hoped to achieve by 2009 — well beyond the 5-year or even 10-year plans that most businesses scope out for themselves.
Is that taking the long-term view or what?

How about this attitude to business? The deli’s prices approach New York levels and yet Zingerman’s profit margins are extremely thin. Why is that? Because of the company’s total commitment to high-quality products.
The price difference between regular turkey and free range isn’t just 20 percent higher, it’s three times as much,” Grace Singleton, who manages the deli, said. “Could we do something different? Sure. Would it be authentic and feel as great? No.”
Zingerman’s shares its financial picture with its employees, pays good salaries and wages, gives generous vacation time (as much as six weeks after 20 years), plus health and dental care and food discounts. Full-time employees also receive “gain sharing,” if their part of the company exceeds its annual business plan. Could the owners increase their profits and make that bottom line look better if they took the Circuit City approach and paid as little as possible? Sure. Would that be “authentic and feel as great,” if they did? No way. Would they stay a great business and “The Coolest Small Company in America?” What do you think?

Here’s what the owners say about today’s business shibboleth, profit:
The structure also helps explain why margins remain low even as revenue has risen. To pay employees, support local producers and contribute to the community, “a big piece of it is charging enough money,” Mr. Weinzweig said. But Mr. Saginaw said profit, in itself, was not Zingerman’s motivation. “We’ve had dozens and dozens of opportunities to franchise, sell the name, take the check and walk away,” Mr. Saginaw said. Instead, Mr. Weinzweig said, the idea was to create a special experience. “Our goal in 2020 is to leave our world better than it was when we came here,” he said.
If every business took that viewpoint, our world would be transformed. There would be just as much prosperity and economic growth, but all would share in it, instead of some getting all the gourmet meals and others having to make do with water and dry bread.

If a company takes the long-term view, stays committed to quality and honesty, and treats its employees in a civilized way, what more can anyone ask of it?

As Bob says in his article:
After living in Silicon Valley so long, where there is so much greed, and just about everyone seems focused on squeezing every cent [out] of everyone around them -- employees, customers, suppliers -- Zingerman’s is a refreshing reminder that financial greed isn’t always the first priority for every owner and manager.
Long may Zingerman’s prosper!

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Management Cheapskates

What other profession praises those who skimp on resources, compromise quality, and show disrespect for others?

What happens when you try to manage people "on the cheap?" You get shoddy goods, poor customer service, a frustrated workforce, and a recipe for decline and failure. So why is Hamburger Management—the epitome of management on the cheap—so prevalent? Because the culprits are rarely around when the sh*t hits the fan.
Lisa Haneberg's article “Management on the Cheap“ caught my eye earlier in the week. She lists a series of ways in which managers short-change their staff and their consciences, including:
  • Claiming that you value relationships, and then leaving people are out of the decision-making process.

  • Saying you reward for excellence and then avoiding dealing with people who are not making the grade.

  • Telling your employees that ongoing development is important and then failing to ensure that you keep learning and developing.

  • Saying you value managers and then designing their jobs such that no one wants to do that work (or worse, takes the promotion and then checks his/her brain at the door).
I’d like to add some more examples of my own:
  • Hounding people to increase short-term profits by every means available—then paying them as little as possible for their work.

  • Talking about ethics and integrity—then expecting staff to cheat customers to make more money, and lie to cover up the organization’s mistakes.

  • Talking about building value—then expecting people to work far more than their set hours for no extra payment.

  • Demanding commitment and loyalty to the organization—then laying off people if you can find someone elsewhere willing to do the same work for less money.
We all know that doing anything on the cheap is only going to produce low-quality, shoddy work. How do Hamburger Managers get away with it?

The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry.

Few of them expect to be in the same job when the problems that they have caused start to become apparent. The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry. By the time it’s clear what lay behind your “success,” you’ve been promoted or moved on to bigger and better things. If anyone tries to pin the problems on you, you can simply say that your successor was the one who messed up.

In fact, your successor is almost certain to have changed everything anyway, in an attempt to stamp his or her mark on the new job. Nothing is more annoying to a newly-appointed manager than to see success attributed to the previous manager’s decisions. Nothing is more pleasant than to be able to point to that person’s errors and suggest you are exactly the right person to correct them.

By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking.

Why do you get cheapskates in management? Because that is the behavior that most organizations today reward. We’re told that the average tenure for a new CEO is less than two years. Don’t feel sorry for them. For many, that’s already too long. Their mistakes have already started to catch up with them. What they really wanted was to jump out with the golden parachute earlier, so they could keep the undeserved reputation of leadership genius as the basis for getting the next job. But then . . . even failed CEOs seem to find little difficulty in being hired again.

Managers don’t take the long view because they don’t need to. The short-term will see their time out in the job. By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking. By equating managerial performance with short-term results, they have solidified the link. In the end, organizations get what they reward. The people to feel sorry for are those who have to go on working in that kind of culture.

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Thursday, May 03, 2020

Remember mercy? Boosting forgiveness can be more useful than you think

You’ll get more productivity, fewer relationship problems, more creativity too

Pointing out other people's mistakes, fretting over our own (and working to cover them up), and plotting ways to get even are all common activities that waste time at work. being willing to forgive and forget would save this time. Better still, it would help people take the risks needed to be more creative.
Alexander Kjerulf has an interesting posting on the subject of forgiveness, based on a survey by Sarah Warner, a recent graduate student of Luther College, who presented some of her research at the first Applied Positive Psychology Conference at the University of Warwick, UK.

Sarah found that workplaces with a culture of forgiveness had lower levels of interpersonal conflict and stress and higher levels of productivity. She didn’t mention creativity, but I would guess that a culture of forgiveness is good for that too. After all, creativity is mostly about trying new things, many of which are not going to work first time. If the organization will not to forgive you for these mistakes, the chances are that you will take fewer creative risks in the future.

Of course, in the macho world of Hamburger Management, forgiveness is always seen as weakness. All mistakes are punishable. Only constant “winners” are approved.

Sadly, there are no such animals. As Steve Roesler at All Things Workplace points out, if you have a Powerpoint slide with a graph whose curve always points upwards, you’re lying. I would add that if you have someone in the organization who never fails, you have a fraud, a liar, a cheat, or a cunning manipulator whom you should seriously consider firing. Everyone fails sometimes. The only way that you can produce and maintain an appearance of constant success is by lying and cheating to cover up your true blemishes.

Management staples such as performance appraisal and constant measurement of individual outputs leave little room for mercy. With every tiny blemish recored in detail, then saved to be brought up at the next appraisal, is it any wonder that people take such care to cover up errors? This may help them, but it’s a real problem for the organization. When mistakes, embarrassments, and poor results are covered up, management is denied the opportunity to put things right. Mistakes and misjudgments fester until disaster strikes, the truth can no longer be concealed, and there is panic. No one can lead an organization effectively if they are denied access to correct information, or given lies and half-truths as a means of hiding the bad news.

We all need forgiveness—very, very frequently—and we should therefore be equally ready to extend that forgiveness to other people. There are rather few mistakes in the business world that are truly unforgivable. Perhaps if we spent less time nursing our resentment, plotting to get even, and trying to point out others’ failings, we might find that we had a great deal more time to get on and do our own work better.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2020

Whose life is it anyway?

Giving in to dogma will cripple your identity

Thanks to Ririan Project, via Leon Ho at, for pointing me to this quote from Steve Jobs of Apple:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
There are many subtle ways that we are trapped into following someone else’s opinion of how our life should be lived. It’s not just the obvious pressures, like the norms of society, the demands of employers, or even the laws where we live. It’s the softer and more insidious urgings like these:
  • Wanting to be liked. Most people want to be liked by those they come into contact with. To be willing to be disliked, even by a few, is a price rather few people are willing to pay for staying true to their ideals. But it’s worth asking yourself whether it’s really true that being liked always demands quite so much conformity. Some people will dislike you whatever you do, and being seen as a doormat isn’t much of a way to show others your true value. It’s probably correct that too much conformity is as much a cause of dislike as too much rebellion.

  • Wanting to fit in. There is so much pressure to fit in, to be a good team player, to accept the will of the majority (or, more often, the tiny minority in power). Just recognize what is causing you to yield to this pressure. It’s fear. The fear of being excluded, laughed at, challenged, or even attacked. People who work really hard to fit in are extremely fearful and anxious. It seems as if being part of the team, never rocking any boats, should produce a quiet life. In reality, it causes constant anxiety about avoiding what others might interpret as either being too independent or getting above yourself.

  • Wanting to avoid blame. There are many people who are so afraid of being blamed for anything that they automatically follow every possible rule and always try to avoid doing anything that causes them to stand out. For them, “I was only following orders” is the best excuse possible, should any criticism be in the offing. Does it work? Not really. Instead of being blamed for whatever mistake was made, they usually end up being blamed for blindly doing what they were told: not a person who tried and got it wrong, but a person without any initiative—not even enough to recognize that what they were told to do was likely a mistake.

  • Wanting to appear respectable. In our society, those who question the norms are usually demonized as agitators, lefties, and people with dubious morals—or no morals at all. Creative people are alternately idolized (if they are successful) or laughed at as freaks and losers. Never mind the fact that just about everything the rest of us enjoy in life, from security to iPods, is due to the efforts of just such creative types. Only fear makes respectability look attractive. The more typical marks of respectability are far less pleasant: bigotry, small-mindedness, hypocrisy, and cant.

  • Wanting to please. This is the most insidious trap of all. It feels good to please people. It gives you a glow. Small children want to please their parents. Lovers want to please one another. What could be wrong in that? Only that the cost of pleasing others all the time is going to be the crippling or loss of your own identity. And that, over the years, hidden resentment from doing this can build up to the point where it destroys the very relationships you have tried so hard to preserve.

If you want to live in a better world—and who wouldn’t, seeing the mess this one is in—there’s no alternative but to play your part in changing things. You cannot leave it to others. That’s neither honest nor practical. As another quote from Steve Jobs puts it;
We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?

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Tuesday, May 01, 2020

Some plain truth about control freaks

A posting by Dick Richards, entitled “Arguing with Reality,“ set me thinking.

So many macho managers spend their time either trying to control what is uncontrollable, or trying to force events back onto the track they wanted them to take, when it’s already too late. Much of the stress they suffer themselves—and cause in others—comes from doing this. Yet it’s not just tolerated. Such behavior is often seen as a mark of valuable determination and commitment.

Arguing with reality is illogical, pointless, and a total waste of energy and resources. That is the plain truth. Trying to control the uncontrollable is foolish, at best, and sometimes close to insanity. Control freaks are neither effective managers nor any kind of organizational asset. Mostly their irrational behavior is the cause of a great deal of upset, waste, and unhappiness.

It’s high time that people looked at conventional management attitudes and saw many of them for what they are: pointless, wasteful, and useless. Control freaks are sick. Arguing with reality is insane. Trying to control the future is impossible.

Let’s slow down, take a good, hard look at what people are doing in the name of management, and try to do better. Macho posturing is no course for any leader to take, whatever others do.

And don't miss reading Dick Richard's article.

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This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.