Corporate culture

Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable?

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 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.

Loyalty has long been highly valued by leaders. The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leader, the more they prize loyalty in their followers. Dictators—political and organizational— usually surround themselves with “yes-men” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the people in power will find most acceptable.

That kind of loyalty stifles creativity and discourages people’s willingness to speak the truth about their leaders, themselves, or their work. The pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. The result is a culture of fear: fear of even appearing “disloyal” by questioning anything the organization or the boss says or does—even if (especially if?) it’s foolish or likely to result in some embarrassing mistake.

To be loyal . . or to speak out?

Getting the right balance between loyalty and initiative isn’t as simple as it sounds. 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.

Ought loyalty to be prized more than curiosity and independent thought? Curiosity is certainly uncomfortable. Skeptics make you mad when they challenge what you’ve come to believe and automatically rely on—especially in areas you maybe don’t want looked at too closely.

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.

In any culture—organizational or societal—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 to be seeking to produce exactly such a culture around us today. Dissent is dissent, not disloyalty—which is why, in the British House of Commons, the opposition is known as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. You can oppose those in charge—even vehemently—and still be a loyal corporate citizen or patriot. Never allow extremists to brand opposition to their views as disloyal or unpatriotic. The next step from there is recreating the Gestapo.

What is true loyalty?

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?

There will be times when true loyalty is best expressed by speaking out. and uncovering or challenging a mistake before real harm is done. That’s the trouble with simplistic attitudes towards complex human issues. Is it more loyal to keep you mouth and eyes shut—and allow the boss or the organization to foul up—or to openly express your concerns and doubts while there is still time to change course?

But will the boss understand? What happens if, loyally, someone points out an embarrassing issue—only to be instantly squashed and humiliated as a result? 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?

An unthinking reverence for loyalty as either silence on difficult issues or unquestioning support quickly produces that culture of fear: the culture in which staying silent is the only safe option—since you can always pretend ignorance and claim you were taken by surprise when things went wrong; the culture in which loyalty is so highly valued that people stick together, like lemmings, and loyally jump off the cliff. Competitors ought to cherish such excessively loyal organizations, where no one is ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming obsolete. It will make their job of taking over the market laughably easy.

A matter of balance

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

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 on 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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Western capitalism is fighting a form of business cancer. And the most virulent form of it is short-termism.


In physical cancer, some cells go haywire and turn viciously against the body. This is also what happens when certain core beliefs are perverted or taken to extremes.

Some examples—the beliefs that:

  • greed is good (Hollywood simplification).
  • individual pursuit of selfish aims yields public good (mis-translated Adam Smith).
  • pursuit of short-term corporate goals ends in long-term social success (what’s good for General Motors hasn’t been good for America for some time now).

Those and other beliefs have resulted in rampant short-termism.

A few examples, “ripped from the headlines:”

  • The trend in private equity toward front-end deal fees. Gretchen Morgensen’s NYTimes article quotes Michael Jensen, emeritus of Harvard Business School and the “father of private equity:”
    “…these fees are going to end up reducing the productivity of the model . . . People are doing this out of some short-run focus on increasing revenues.”

    In other words, private equity is good when it subjects bureaucratic managers to the pressure of markets, with say a 3-5 year timeframe. But when the privateers themselves succumb to the lure of instant front-end fees, the greed snake is eating its own tail.

  • The trend in the mortgage industry to convert relationships to transactions—from integrated loan-making and loan-holding, to separating the entire process into various stakeholders—most of whom get their money up front, now. Short term.
  • The IBGYBG mentality in investment banking during several market crashes detailed by Richard Bookstaber in his book A Demon of Our Own Design, that resulted in people making fast deals that would explode on investors down the road, but that paid off nicely up front for the dealmakers, who said not to worry, because—”I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” it’ll be someone else’s problem then.
  • Young financiers opting out of an MBA because the opportunity exists to make so much more money in the short term: “With the growth of hedge funds, you’re getting a lot of really smart people who are getting paid a lot very young,” says Arjuna Rajasingham, 29, an analyst and a trader at a hedge fund in London. “I know it’s a bit of a short-term view, but it’s hard to walk away from something that’s going really well.” Yup on both counts.
  • The current residential real estate recession, driven heavily by speculative buyers betting well beyond their means on continued high prices—“I’ll pay off the loan when I flip it.”
  • The longer term trend in business toward “alignment” of processes—which often assumes the only way to long-term profit is to ensure that every short-term measure is itself profitable.
  • Quarterly earnings pressure, which was one of the original drivers of private equity, back when PE was doing some good.
  • Private equity firms selling equity to the public: “a non sequitur in both language and economics,” according to Gretchen Morgensen’s paraphrase of Michael Jensen. The private equity movement initially shook up stodgy companies that were permanently-funded by stock, where inefficient managers could hang out draining away value for decades. Private equity would buy them and insist on returns in 3-5 years; it left managers no place to hide, and produced real value returns. But when the 3-5 year people themselves start selling permanent stock to investors, they have become what they started out to fight. Which means they’re either stupid or venal. And while I usually opt for stupidity in explaining conspiracy cases, in this one I’d put money on venal.

Is there any relief? Or is this just another case of cheap hustlers exploiting weak human nature that goes with every business cycle?

Three antidotes can work against short-termism. One is pain. Suffering may not be a sufficient condition for social change, but it’s usually a necessary one.

Second is education. Awareness creation can help.

The third is leading thinkers, and there are some hopeful signs. Martha Rogers has begun talking about a lifetime financial perspective on customers:

“Creating maximum value from your customers involves optimization — balancing current-period profits against decreases or increases in customer lifetime values, to maximize your “Return on Customer.”

This isn’t new in finance, accustomed to present-value thinking in pricing financial assets. But it’s new to management thinking, accustomed to quarterly EPS. Robbing future customers robs enterprise value, says Martha. And she’s right.

The aforementioned Michael Jensen announced last month a paper he wrote with Werner Erhard = (the controversial founding father of EST training, and more recently of Landmark Forum) on the subject of—get—integrity.

Here’s a tasty quote from the abstract:

We demonstrate that the application of cost-benefit analysis to one’s integrity guarantees you will not be a trustworthy person (thereby reducing the workability of relationships), and with the exception of some minor qualifications ensures also that you will not be a person of integrity (thereby reducing the workability of your life). Therefore your performance will suffer. The virtually automatic application of cost-benefit analysis to honoring one’s word (an inherent tendency in most of us) lies at the heart of much out-of-integrity and untrustworthy behavior in modern life.

They are right too. You can’t fake trust; trust is a paradox; motives matter. The act of justifying trust by its economic value destroys not only trust, but its economic value. The best economic results come as byproducts, not goals.

Can clearer business thinking beat short-termism? It can’t hurt.

Charles H. Green, author of Trust-based Selling and co-author of The Trusted Advisor (with Maister and Galford), is a speaker and trainer on the subject of trust-based relationships in business. Charlie spent 20 years in management consulting, with The MAC Group and Gemini Consulting. His firm is Trusted Advisor Associates, and he writes the blog Trust Matters.

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Adding all the pluses and minuses honestly might produce a different picture

The almost universal assumption that “the bottom line” in business equals the net amount of profit is not correct. That’s merely the accounting version—and generally accepted standards of accounting omit a great many elements of a business that carry significant weight in real terms. If you want to understand the true corporate “bottom line,” you must take account of all those intangible and non-financial items that affect an organization’s growth and progress. It’s the same in your own life: the bottom line needs to be calculated using all the data, not just the parts that are easily turned into numbers. The only version of the “bottom line” that really counts is the one that measures whether you are acting in a way that enhances life . . . or diminishes it.

For decades, businesses have used accounting conventions to provide a picture of their status and progress. If they are being honest, everyone knows that these are inadequate. They omit huge areas of importance, such as the power of a brand, the impact of customer attitudes to the business, and the impact of fashion and the changing nature of society.

There have been some attempts to put a numerical value on a brand, and “goodwill” is used as a financial proxy for the intangibles of customer loyalty and appreciation, but such intangible items play a minor role in reaching a calculation of “the bottom line.” And that is without all the growth in “off balance sheet” items that has been so characteristic of certain corporations—especially those that have later fallen foul of the law.

Corporate intangibles

Organizational types are always attracted to things they can measure numerically. It gives them a feeling of being “scientific.” It makes it easy to produce comparisons and benchmarks. It looks objective.

But what is easy is not always correct, and reaching a “bottom line” figure on purely numerical and financial data tends to distort reality.

What is the true position of an organization that is currently making substantial profits, but alienating its customers by the methods it has chosen to do so? What about one that is maximizing short-term gains by mortgaging—or compromising—long-term growth necessities? As the world finally wakes up to the size of the problem of the human impact on the environment, what is the “bottom line” for an organization that relies on old, polluting technologies to make its profits?

The rash of Chinese imports to the USA that break US standards of product safety shouldn’t surprise anyone. All these Chinese companies are doing is copying their Western models by finding ways to maximize short-term profits at the expense of quality and safety standards. The main difference is that they aren’t nearly as practiced at doing it, so they are caught out more easily. Western companies have been sacrificing ethical and environmental standards for over a hundred years in their belief that immedaite financial profitability is the only “bottom line” that matters.

Personal calculations

For individuals too, those “bottom line” calculations are far trickier than they look.

The writers of the Christian Bible were aware of this thousands of years ago. “What shall it profit a man,” they asked, “if he gain the whole world yet lose his own soul?”

That question is just as relevant today as then. Is it a fair calculation of your personal “bottom line” to look only at getting and spending? Is it enough to make as much personal profit as possible, if the cost includes wrecking relationships, threatening your own health, and reaching the end of your life rich, alone, and despised? What if your personal profit comes mostly by exploiting others or pillaging the environment? Is that acceptable, merely because it makes sense in financial terms? What value do you put on a clear conscience and a civilized world?

A fresh calculation

The assumption that profit and financial success are the only “bottom line” calculations that matter, even to corporations, seems to me to be hopelessly superficial and naive. The rise of Hamburger Management, with its mindless mantra of “faster and cheaper,” has merely made matters worse.

The most effective corporations have never subscribed to a view that short-term profitability is all that matters. Costco, for example, provides employee wages and benefits well in excess of what proponents of financial-bottom-line-only thinking believe is correct; and still makes substantial profits. Before it lost its way and gave in to the supposed financial gurus (and not incidentally nearly went bust by doing so), Marks & Spencer in Britain was noted for putting product quality and high ethical standards at the top of its list of priorities. So long as it did so, it appeared impregnable to competition. When it dropped such “antiquated” notions in favor of fashion and profit, it soon lost its premier place.

What about your “bottom line?” How are you calculating it?

Is your personal “bottom line” calculation based on nothing but the size of your bank balance, the number of expensive toys you own, or your prospects of promotion? Where do peace of mind, sound relationships, trust, ethical standards, and good health rate? You cannot put a monetary value on them, but many people have found after a while that they would give all the money they have to bring back these intangibles of a civilized life . . . if only they could.

The true “bottom line” is the value your life has. Does your presence on this earth enhance it or harm it? Are others glad that you are alive, or do they blame you for diminishing their lives?

Until you make that calculation—and make it honestly—you are nowhere near the real “bottom line” of existence.

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The wrong doctrine—or one that is outmoded and ill-suited to circumstances—can cause disaster

All organizations have a “doctrine” for doing things, whether it is clearly stated or left implied by custom and tradition. Doctrine is that set of guiding principles that can be summed up by the phrase: “That’s how we do things in this organization.” But doctrines can become dangerously outdated, unless they are consciously taken out and examined for relevance from time to time.

In military circles, doctrine can be roughly summarized as: “the way we fight wars.” It’s a simple set of guiding principles that is drummed into every soldier, sailor, or airman—and every general at staff college. Here, as an example, is Admiral Lord Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero, explaining his doctrine in typically forthright terms.

“Whenever the Enemy can be discovered they are to be closed with and attacked with all the Vigor which is possible . . . Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight . . . but, in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.”

Ships of that time fought by firing broadsides at each other at close range, then moving together so that a boarding party could cross to the enemy ship and attempt to capture it by hand-to-hand combat. Nelson’s doctrine was one of all-out attack.

When changing conditions out-pace doctrine

The armies in the American Civil War fought according to an outdated doctrine of formal battles, where opposing forces drew up in line opposite one another, then charged together for a show-down. Weaponry had made this approach obsolete, but the generals on both sides were so habituated to the same doctrine (after all, they had been in the same army before war broke out) that it was continued for the bulk of the fighting. America lost more men killed in that conflict than in all other conflicts before or since.

In the First World War, the British and French armies were committed to a doctrine of offense. They attacked, often with suicidal bravery. A measure of how suicidal can be seen by the casualties. The British army lost 60,000 men killed in one day at the start of the Battle of the Somme. That’s all the inhabitants of a medium-sized township killed in under 12 hours.

The point of these historical examples is to show how doctrine can become so embedded in the mind as to allow truly terrible mistakes to be made, on the basis that there is no acceptable alternative.

Doctrines at work

Everyone who works follows some doctrine of work. No one may have taught it to them deliberately, but it will be there just the same: an approach to work that is seen as more or less inevitable and obvious.

You have one. If you aren’t sure what it is (it’s often so unconscious we’re no longer really aware of it), try completing this sentence, based on Lord Nelson’s words above, with the first works that come to you; “At work, you can’t go far wrong if . . . ” Typical responses might be:
“ . . . you always do your best and work hard.”
“ . . . you’re always a good team-player.”
“ . . . you keep your nose clean and don’t rock any boats.”
“ . . . you’re the first there in the morning and the last to leave at night.”
“ . . . you don’t make mistakes.”
“ . . . you keep a close eye on the pennies.”
“ . . . you keep the customer happy.”

But does it still work?

I’m always surprised how powerful and long-lasting these semi-conscious doctrines are. Like the old generals who sacrificed tens of thousands of soldiers in frontal assaults across open ground against machine guns, people go on hurling themselves, over and over again, against the obstacles in their lives, never stopping to ask whether such displays of determination are likely to succeed. Action is what counts. And when you want to know what action to take, that automatic doctrine pops up with the answer.

Today, tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of people are committed to all-out, frontal assaults on the competition, using a tired old combination of excessive work and continual cutting of costs. As in past wars, there are thousands of casualties as a result, but the leaders persist in the doctrine drummed into them since their very earliest days as managers.

Instead of looking for less costly alternatives, they follow the same doctrine they learned so long ago: action matters, cut costs, cut more, work longer hours, make greater sacrifices!

One of the main reasons for slowing down is to allow time to think and ask such vital questions as: Is this doctrine still right for the world as it is today? Will it still work? Can I bear the cost?

Try in your own life. You may be surprised both to discover what a simplistic doctrine you’ve been following—and horrified to realize what it has been costing you.

Doctrine ought to be flexible, constantly renewed, and a matter of careful choice. That it often isn’t is due to people’s tendency to turn some pattern learned in the past into a rigid set of habits that they are afraid to break.

Then the cost in overwork, frustration, stress, and disappointment can rival, in a smaller, more personal way, those piles of bodies on the fields of France in 1915.

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The perils of seeking success “on the cheap”

Whether it’s financial returns, business profits, or personal achievement, doing it on the cheap is packed with risks. In the last few days, there have been multiple instances of what happens when people try to get what they want on the cheap. Sadly, there’s little sign that anyone is learning from what has been going on. The temptations will always be there, but wiser heads know that what seems too good to be true nearly always is exactly that.

Hedge funds and investment banks had a bonanza in recent years, fueled by cheap credit and the kind of belief in personal invulnerability usually associated with hot-headed teenagers. They not only ignored the risks of what they were doing, they came to believe in some strange way that the risks weren’t even there. You could make vast sums of money by borrowing other peoples’ cash and speculating with it. It was the primrose path: financial success on the cheap.

One of the nation’s largest toy-makers also appears to have believed that they could make big profits without it costing them anything like what it should have done, by outsourcing all the production to China, doubtless driving a hard bargain even there. Now they have discovered lead in the paint and other hazards, and the withdrawals will cost them millions and a large slice of their reputation. There’s nothing inherently wrong in buying products from overseas, but did it never occur to them to spend a little more money on constant testing and quality control? I guess not, given the number of toys being recalled.

We seem to be suffering a whole business culture constructed on the notion that you can produce constantly escalating profits and build mighty organizations on the cheap. All that matters is the bottom line. Never mind paying ordinary people good salaries; just reward the few at the top. Forget about providing a route to adequate pensions or health care; that costs too much. Forget about giving consumers quality or a pleasant buying experience; pile it higher and higher and sell it cheaper than the next guy. But don’t cut your profits. Keep them high by cutting everything else: staffing, quality, systems, standards. Business on the cheap.

What’s the deal?

An article by Charles H. Green in The Huffington Post caught my eye. It’s called We’ve All Caught the Detroit Disease and refers specifically to the woes of the US automakers, but sums up the attitudes of management on the cheap perfectly:

The truth is, Detroit had and still has an American disease. It has a few key symptoms:
  • Belief that we are the biggest, standalone market, immune from global competition, and that the Big 3 [General Motors, Ford, Chrysler] had dominant market share.
  • Belief that GDP growth drives auto sales, that growth means growth in market share, and that buyers are price-driven.
  • Belief that, in the immortal words of Lee Iacocca, brought back a few years ago from the taxidermist to re-appear on TV, “the most important thing is the deal!”

That last point is crucial: belief in “the deal” as the basis of everything.

If everything comes down to “the deal,” there is no place for humanity, ethics, foresight, or even commonsense. Life and work are reduced to simple financial transactions, with an underlying assumption that the best deal is the one that gives you the most in return for the least: the foundation stone of Hamburger Management in all its current manifestations. Never mind the quality, or the value. Look how cheap it is.

In a society based on “the deal,” every transaction becomes competitive, since the deal is there to keep the score. If people complain that politics has become polarized, you can see why. Who wins in “the deal” that has to be made to get any legislation passed? Who comes out best in terms of spending allocated to pet projects?

In business, relationships also become deals: an exchange of favors and influence, with the winner being the one who gets most and gives away least in return. Buying and selling are deals too: how little can I, the seller, give you for your money; how little can you, the buyer, pay to get what you want. Even consumers caught the disease, leading to the spectacualr growth of discount, big-box stores. Low prices are everything, we are told. All consumers are fundamentally price-driven. Utter drivel!

As a result, in life and at work, many people want to do deals with reality, trying to get as much as they can with the least input. Never mind what career might be best suited to your talents; go for the work that will allow you to earn most fastest. Don’t wait for anything; buy now, borrow the money, and worry about paying it back sometime—maybe never, if you can go on borrowing and borrowing. When the loans run out, as they are doing now, life suddenly turns very bad for the most vulnerable and those who made a fortune lending to them.

Undoing the mess

Charles Green sums up the effect that the cult of “the deal” has had on the automakers like this:

The Japanese in particular always believed it was a global market, far bigger than the US, and that they, including Toyota, were small players on a global stage. For them it was always about growth, not share. And for them, price was not something you jacked up with leader models and white-walls and radios, it was something you set low, for growth, and built in all the quality you could, until you earned the right to sell at higher price points. It was not “the deal” — it was, profoundly, the relationship. They were—oh, what’s the word?—right.

What has being constructed in recent decades is a culture based on the belief that whatever you want can be had at half of yesterday’s price (and one third of its quality) so you can get still more things to replace those that have already failed or proved worthless. Quantity rules. Quality is old-hat. Life success is measured in dollars and shoes, not in happiness or satisfaction or the value you have brought to this life on earth.

Stop the world. Some of us want to get off here.

How can we undo the mess? First we have to reverse the attitude that you can get a good life on the cheap: that it’s laudable to cut corners, live off credit with no chance of repaying it, walk away from obligations when they have served your purpose, and treat relationships with others as “deals” you can “win” by short-changing them. “No money down” isn’t free. The bill will turn up sooner or later—often at the time when it’s least possible for you to meet it.

Live now and pay tomorrow still means paying. Short-termism is what the word says: looking at the short-term and ignoring the longer-term consequences until they come crashing down on you. Just ask those poor folk, persuaded by wonderful “deals” to take out mortgages they couldn’t afford; the ones who are now facing foreclosure and loss of everything. Were the short-term benefits worth the pain they’re facing today and will continue to face into the future?

Reality doesn’t do deals with you or me or anyone else. It is what it is, and real, lasting success takes what it takes. No discounts. No easy credit terms. And reality’s bills always, always have to be paid in full. You can’t declare bankruptcy and walk away from what you owe it.

We would all do well to remember that.

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Use of euphemisms—or a ton of BS—should alert you to areas where actions are shameful

It’s commonplace for people and organizations to use euphemisms and polite circumlocutions to try to hide dirty deeds. That’s why you should be on the alert whenever you hear one—or use one yourself.

When someone wants to mention an action they feel shame about, they nearly always resort to a vague form of words that sanitizes their meaning without actually naming the deed openly.

Our society has many taboos. Sex is one of them, so descriptions of sexual acts are hidden behind jokey circumlocutions or disarmed by ponderous, scientific wording. Death is another unmentionable. Listen to the TV or radio and you’ll discover that almost nobody today ever dies. They “pass” or “pass over.”

The world of work is riddled with similar ways of referring to actions that those in charge feel sufficiently uneasy about. People are rarely fired by the organization to cut costs and boost profits. The business is “downsized” or “right-sized”, which sound more like objective activities that only accidentally result in people losing their jobs.

Top executives naturally, are never fired at all. They “leave to pursue other interests” or to “spend more time with their family” which seems a rather sudden change of heart, since many of them spent almost no time anywhere save at their executive desks or in swanky hotels while they still had their jobs.

A wave of passivity

The other common verbal trick is to express all doubtful actions in the past and with the passive voice.

Not only does this have the advantage of making it sound as if it’s all over and done—so opponents can be accused of raking up up old, long-dead issues—it avoids attaching any name to the action which might point the blame where it rightly belongs.

Business leaders solemnly admit that “mistakes were made” and never explain by whom. They are willing to agree that “certain decisions proved to be less than optimal” (whatever that means), but carefully avoid saying whose decisions those might have been. Thus they tacitly acknowledge the mess, even as they neatly side-step any responsibility for it.

Steaming mounds of BS

If all else fails, there are always the trusty tools of jargon and BS.

Either of these manglings of the language effectively robs whatever words are used of any force or meaning. Together, they produce an effect on the understanding like a thick fog: clinging, wet, and impossible to see any light through.

An organization committed to “optimizing stock holder returns in the face of the increasing pressures due to globalization” is probably saying that it intends to increase the share price and boost profits by outsourcing all production to Outer Mongolia—but it’s quite hard to be sure.

One that is “seeking to attract the highest calibre of executive leadership by reviewing the available incentives to persons of outstanding talent and innovative ability to make their careers with this organization in the light of the global nature of current talent management” is really saying that it intends to pay favored executives more than anyone else in the world.

All this would be an irritating, if largely harmless, exercise in “double-speak” were it not for the way each euphemism or case of BS points clearly to an area that people are too ashamed of to express openly.

A lurking sense of shame

Do macho organizations and leaders have a conscience? Are they ever ashamed of what they do?

On the surface, the answer appears to be “no”, but underneath that feeling of unease is still there. Whether it’s called “using spin” or “being alert to the PR implications”, the words leaders use constantly give them away.

The more opaque the language, the less pride or confidence those using it have in whatever they are describing.

For the rest of us, such words should be an immediate warning that something is happening that we should be concerned about. No one uses euphemisms, jargon, or BS to describe what they are proud of. “I won”, they say; not “in a competitive circumstance, based on the presence of a number of persons or organizations, each seeking to optimize the eventual result in their favor, success was achieved on our part such as to result in the most favorable outcome possible.”

Coming closer to home

How often are you also responsible for using euphemisms or jargon to describe actions that you would rather nobody else noticed?

If you hear yourself using weasel words or polite circumlocutions; if you notice that the passive voice has become your natural way of speaking or writing, stop and take note.

You can run from the rest of the world behind a cloud of BS, but you can’t hide from your own consciousness. What you won’t describe openly, you shouldn’t be doing. Never mind the polite words. A jerk is still a jerk, whatever other names he or she hides behind.

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Without sufficient time to think, people react by re-hashing the story of some past event.

Those who are too busy, too stressed, or too eager to jump into action are condemned to repeat the past with minor variations. Reaction replaces thought. That’s why so many needless mistakes are made and so many organizations today find themselves stuck in outdated patterns based on remembered glories.

What happens when you’re forced to make a decision almost in an instant? There’s obviously no time to weigh the options, consider fresh possibilities, or even analyze the circumstances in any depth. All that’s available are “gut feel” or memory. Both are based on “stories” you tell yourself about what to do.

These stories have become the automatic response of choice for tens of thousands of harried people every moment of every day: folk stories of management, tales of how others say that they coped, or the fading recollection of how they once coped themselves, sometime in the past.

It’s as if you were unexpectedly invited to tea at Buckingham Palace and based your behavior either on what your grandmother’s friend used to say about good manners; your recollection of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in “Alice in Wonderland” (last read when you were six); or a particularly tense meal with an elderly relative that took place six years ago in Wisconsin. All of them probably make great stories—certainly “Alice in Wonderland” does—yet none is really a substitute for thought, research, or seeking advice on the topic of taking tea with the Queen of England.

I know this is an exaggerated example, but it’s here to make an important point. No matter how recent your past experience, or how seemingly useful some informative story you once heard or read, they cannot provide more than a general approximation to what might be needed in this situation, right now.

Principles versus rules

When you’re under pressure, your mind wants a quick answer. The greater the pressure, the more appealing an instant solution appears. Besides, there’s no time to trawl through a long list of half-recalled events or past topics. Instead, you jump for the first, most vivid tale that seems to fit.

What stories are best at doing is conveying general principles in a vivid way. A good story has power to communicate an idea far more effectively than a dry, analytical exposition. Events stick in your mind when they’re noteworthy or unusual. What is commonplace is quickly forgotten. What stories are not includes many things: a detailed explanation, a set of instructions, an analytical exploration of options, a careful review of the available evidence. For our purposes, the two most important are these: stories are not instructions and they are not rules.

Chained to the past

Sadly, that’s exactly how folk-stories, experience-stories, or example-stories are most often used: as a firm set of instructions on what to do when you’re faced with a decision and are too busy, too stressed, too exhausted, too confused, or too damn eager to take time to think carefully. Shooting from the hip has become the automatic choice for all too many leaders, especially in the USA; which is probably why they so often shoot themselves in the foot.

The past may, sometimes, offer guidance on how to deal with the future, but it’s never a foolproof guide. Something in the current situation is always unique. Some elements have changed since the last time. Parts will never have occurred before. Each repetition of past actions will be a little more “off” and liable to error, even if that story that you’re telling yourself ever really provided as good a solution as you think it did. There’s no good substitute for effective thought. It’s what distinguishes the human race from other creatures on this earth. Many animals have highly-tuned instincts, the ability to learn from experience, and senses that are far superior to ours. Yet only humans, so far as we now, can think in the way that we do.

Why throw that away to please those who treat you only as a means of getting the greatest number of tasks done, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time? You can be sure that any mistakes made will be counted against you; and all excuses will be summarily dismissed.

Instinctual reactions and experience-based ideas are extremely useful—but not in the way most people use them: as a quick solution to deal with an overloaded schedule. What they do best is help point your thinking in useful directions.

Self appointed experts know all the answers. True experts just know all the best questions.

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One of the less-noticed problems with today’s cult of speed is that it promotes superficial thinking and mental laziness.

If you feel you have no time available, the temptation to cut mental corners and jump to some well-known, supposedly tested solution can be overwhelming; even if you feel, deep down, that it’s not really the right solution to your problem. There’s no time allowed for anything else. But cheap, superficial thinking is like cheap, shoddy manufacture: it won’t stand up long to the normal wear and tear of life.

I’ve often written about Hamburger Management because the comparison with fast food is so close. People in a constant rush delight in fast food because it’s . . . well, fast. You can make your choice, get your order, and gulp it down in a few minutes. It’s easy, convenient, and—above all—quick. Fast food is also designed to deliver a swift burst of flavor, via high sodium, high sugar, and high fat. We all know it isn’t healthy, but, hell, it’s quick, cheap, takes no real thought to order, and it tastes kinda good at the time.

Hamburger management is exactly like that. It uses whatever approach is quickest, cheapest, takes least thought, and delivers an immediate burst of feel-good results. And, just as a diet of fast food takes time to produce obesity, diabetes, and a myriad other ills, the problems only show up later.

The more organizations put pressure on managers to handle impossible workloads and provide instant, infallible answers, the more they force them into macho, quick-fix styles of operation. Speed becomes almost the only criterion for choosing how to manage. Leaders become obsessed with pre-packaged answers, with following “industry best practice,” with copying the latest fashion trend in business. All because they can no longer allow themselves the patience, the time, or the energy, to think for themselves. In time, they forget how to do. Many even teach those following them that independent thinking is an impractical idea.

“Management by in-flight magazine”

Many organizations run on what many have termed “management by in-flight magazine.” That’s making choices based on the kind of 300-word lists of “The 10 all-time best management/marketing/leadership/business tips” you find in in-flight magazines. Why pick on those publications? Because many of these managers are almost constantly in transit and being on a plane provides one of the few times they ever have free for reading.

When you’re drowning in data and wordy, jargon-laden reports, brief tips are like a life-belt. They’re easy to grasp, quickly absorbed, and simple to digest. For the Hamburger Manager, anything that can’t be taken in and applied within a few minutes at most is dismissed as “impractical.”

There goes just about all theory, all discussion, all exploration, and all careful consideration: dismissed as “impractical” on no better basis than that he or she hasn’t the time to read it, let alone think about it. No wonder we live in times when superficial articles written by journalists (also on crippling deadlines), and simplistic books by self-appointed gurus, have far greater impact than careful works of scholarly analysis and critical appreciation.

Slow down . . . for your mind’s sake too

Slowing down isn’t only good for your physical health. It’s vital for your mental abilities and intellectual development too. The world cannot be expressed only in neat, 10-item lists and questions with multiple-choice answers, however convenient and time-saving that might be. It isn’t possible to swallow true understanding in bite-sized, batter-coated nuggets. Seeing the right way to proceed takes time and effort. If you aren’t willing, or able, to make that effort, you shouldn’t be in a leadership position.

To be successful in the long-term, you must think for yourself. You must be able to distinguish between superficially attractive, jargon-laden platitudes and genuine insights. You must be able to ignore snake-oil sellers in favor of genuine thinkers, even if the mental food those thinkers offer takes a great deal of careful chewing.

Investors quickly learn that if something appears too good to be true, that’s what it is. Sadly, many managers have still to learn this simple fact. Instead, rushed, harried, and confused, they rely on mass-produced cliches and patented nostrums to solve their problems. They’ve become physically hyper-active and mental coach potatoes at the same time. And at a time when organizations in developing countries are catching up fast, the organizations that promote such managerial styles in cause of quick profits are risking their futures to innovations discovered elsewhere.

The empire of Rome collapsed when the Romans relied on paying outsiders to do their fighting for them. I wonder what will happen if today‚Äôs major corporations go on relying on superficiality, while paying consultants (who aren’t much better) to do their thinking for them?

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Why time spent on office politics is time wasted . . . yet often essential for survival.

People are political and emotional creatures. We like to believe we use reason to work out what to do, but this is an illusion. A far more general tendency is to make a decision largely on the basis of politics or emotions, then use reason afterwards to justify what we have already decided. Here’s how it works and why it may increase your stress.

It’s half an hour before official closing time on a Friday, after a hectic week. A customer calls with a complicated, urgent request that will take at least three to four hours to handle. Do you put it off until Monday, even though the customer is desperate for a resolution? Or do you deal with it right away?

Someone who is angry, frustrated, or just feeling low will be most likely to shelve the whole problem until Monday, arguing it is the customer’s fault for waiting until the last minute, or claiming the work will be better when he or she is fresh on Monday. An employee who fears the customer, or the boss’s reaction if the customer complains, will likely deal with the problem right away, but rush through it as fast as possible, even if that means a skimped job. Someone who hopes to make a big new sale to that customer, or is keen to make a good impression on the boss, may stay late to get the job done, or even come in on the weekend to make sure the work is done properly.

In most cases, this kind of decision will be made on a political basis. What will be the political impact of staying late and helping the customer right away? Will it win you “brownie points” in the eyes of some powerful executives (so long as you make absolutely sure they know about it)? Will it be one in the eye for some rival, who has designs on a sale to that customer that you might get instead, if you make the customer happy with you? Can you make it into an obligation the customer will understand they need to repay some time?

Whenever people are faced with a decision without clear guidance, especially in a culture where getting it wrong is likely to lead to nasty personal consequences, they tend to think about what others will make of whatever they decide—powerful others mostly. Will they approve or criticize? Will you trespass on (or be in a position to take over) part of someone else’s turf? How much freedom do you have to make the decision without consultation? Will it be seen as a favor that can be called in later? How else can you use it to your personal, selfish advantage?

All this adds to whatever thinking is needed by the job itself. None of it is going to improve the decision, the way that the job is done, or the result either. It’s a source only of extra, unnecessary concern and worry. It adds to whatever stress comes from the work itself or the deadlines to be met. It even causes additional work. If you decided what to do rationally and simply did it, then moved on to the next task, life would be simpler and less likely to cause you anxiety. But rationality is no protection from office politics, which are neither rational nor concerned with the success of the business. Office politics are about power, pure and simple—and strictly personal power at that.

The basic causes of office politics.

Fear is one of the commonest workplace emotions today. The greater the level of fear in the culture—fear of losing your job, fear of losing your status, fear of being marked down as a troublemaker—the greater the need to worry about the outcome of whatever you do and seek some kind of reassurance or safety. Office politics seems to be able to help. By consulting someone who has influence, seeking protection, or avoiding anything that might upset a powerful person, you can gain a measure of safety and reassurance.

Turn this around, make yourself the person with power instead of the one who’s afraid, and you have another reason to waste time and effort in politicking (In strict efficiency terms, of course, it is clearly wasted). Patronage, the power of advancing friends and protecting them from harm, is the main benefit of becoming politically influential. People who aspire to political power are keen to find ways to use and extend their patronage, usually by offering protection and support to their friends when difficult decisions are to be faced. Conversely, making sure that people are clearly seen to have failed is an obvious way to destroy your rivals and lessen their power.

That’s why office politics play a significant role in many decisions. Each offers scope for extending patronage (adding more grateful people to your circle of dependents), lessening the influence of your competitors, and making you look good in the eyes of people with more power than you have at present.

In none of these cases does the politics assist in productivity, raise profits, add value to the customer, or provide anything else positive. What it does do is help people cope with negative situations due to uncivilized workplaces dominated by macho, power-crazed people. That’s why the most pervasive politics are found in macho corporate cultures, or those where fear has become a way of life.

So long as fear exists, there’s no practical way around this.

All of office politics depends on these three motives: to add to your power of patronage and lessen the standing of your rivals for power; to buy you protection from someone more powerful than you are; or to advance your merit in the eyes of people with greater power. None of these motives is to the benefit of the customer, the organization, or anyone beside yourself. Any loss from a political maneuver is always designed to fall to some real or imagined enemy.

How many talented people are held back, prevented from making a full contribution, or persuaded to leave (or even fired) because of purely political choices by someone? How many wrong decisions are made because they offer personal advantage to powerful people? How much time and money is wasted in activities with no rationale beyond providing an opportunity for playing politics?

All office politics is ultimately stressful and harmful. It is the art of pure selfishness made to look rational. Any organization where it thrives is less a group engaged in a collective enterprise and more a warring, competing, back-stabbing collection of individuals trying to advance themselves at the expense of all the rest. If that’s the culture, standing aside is no real option, since it virtually guarantees that you will be either marginalized, humiliated, or ejected.

That’s the reality of many organizations today, I guess. They complain about shortages of talent, yet frequently act in ways that ensure many of the best people will leave. They cut jobs and slash vital projects to save money, yet allow cultures to grow that waste huge amounts of time and money on political activities. Instead of making sure the best people get to the top, they tolerate systems that reward those who are most politically active and successful, regardless of any other ability.

I am well aware that this is very unlikely to change. Those in power always want to preserve the status quo, since it is their status quo and they are the ones who benefit from it most. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes worth reminding people of what is being tolerated in the name of expediency. A very large proportion of those who leave corporate jobs to set up their own businesses do so to escape the constant politicking. Insofar as that adds to the variety and creativity of the economy, and creates new endeavors, perhaps some benefit is ultimately there after all.

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