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July 2007


However much you try to slow down and avoid activities that consume time and energy to no purpose, there will still be occasions when you are going to be busy and pressured. That’s a simple fact of modern organizational life. So how to deal with it?

Here are some ideas, taken from a wide range of sources (plus my own experience), that should help you to save time and trouble when things get hectic:

  • Always think ahead about the most likely consequences, not just the ones that you want to happen. The idea here is simple: to try to avoid causing yourself more problems and stress through a moment’s thoughtless action. One of the commonest consequences of being under pressure is a failure to look ahead. It seems so important to get a quick result. But cutting corners, taking risks without proper consideration, and rushing into precipitate action can all cost you far more time in cleaning up the mess afterwards than you saved at the time.
  • It’s always worth taking ample time to get a message across to others. It’s the same temptation: to rush through some phone call, message, or conversation because you can’t really spare the time and you have so much still waiting for you to do. Resist it! If people can see that you’re harassed, they’ll often try to be helpful by saying they understand when they don’t. Few situations are more maddening than discovering, too late, that someone you were relying on for a key element in a project misunderstood what you said that you wanted.
  • Consider every request to attend a meeting with the greatest skepticism. Your default position should be to stay away. Avoid any meeting with no clear agenda, no obvious ending time, and no purpose that makes sense to anyone except the organizer. Don’t assume you can go and quietly do work at the back. It’s more discourteous than staying away and it rarely works.
  • Practice at least a dozen firm but polite variations on “no” until you can say them in your sleep. Then use them whenever needed—which will be all the time. The best way to stop yourself becoming overloaded is to refuse to take an anything else. If the person giving you yet more work is your boss, ask for clear priorities, explaining that you need be sure what to drop to make way for the new piece of work. You’ll be surprised how often this will make a boss reconsider.
  • Learn the two key ways of reading: skimming for relevance and filleting for data. When you skim a document, your sole purpose should be to decide whether it contains anything worth reading. Let your gaze run down the page looking for key words and phrases. If you find any, put a small “x” in the margin and move on. Then glance over the number of “x” markings. Less than 5-6 means don’t mess with it further unless one of those is essential. Filleting is going back to the “x” marks and collecting the data you need. The best way is to make your own notes in a small book. Then toss the original.
  • Don’t accept what you’re told on trust, save from proven sources. When you’re rushed, the temptation will be to “save time” by accepting what you’ve been told. Always check. It’s well worth the time. You’ll look an idiot if the information isn’t true, and no one will accept the excuse that you were in a hurry.
  • Become familiar with the notions of estimates and orders of magnitude. You can often spot an error or problem almost instantly, without any calculation, by realizing that it is impossible. That’s especially true with numbers. If you know the answer has to be less than 10, and if what is on the page is 14.7, it has to be wrong. No more analysis is needed than that. One of the most useful skills I ever taught myself was the ability to estimate the order of magnitude of the right answer. I rarely needed to know any more to save myself huge amounts of time on analysis.
  • Know when to stop. The more you’re under pressure, the more you will be tempted to press on working well beyond the point where your attention and effectiveness begin to fail. Don’t do it. It seems as if it will help, but you’ll most likely either have to do all that work again or waste time clearing up the mess you made for yourself. And you’ll have denied yourself the rest needed even to do that properly.

Coping with turbulence

Imagine someone in a kayak, negotiating a river full of rapids. That’s you, facing all the turbulence and unexpected pressures of your work.

An inexperienced and foolish kayaker is totally occupied with trying to deal with every twist and surge of the current. His or her attention is fixed on what is happening right now. The ride is a nightmare of hidden rocks, violent eddies, and constant threats of being overturned and drowned. Time flashes by in a blur of near-panic. Any patches of calm water are used up in exhausted collapse, desperately trying to catch a breath before the next horror.

The more experienced kayaker faces the same perils. But that person has learned to look always a little way ahead, sensing the flow of the river and avoiding some at least of the hidden rocks and shallows. By doing so, he or she has more scope to find areas of slightly calmer water, where rest is possible and there’s a moment to look around and enjoy the view.

Although both kayakers may pass the same time in the rapids, as measured by the clock, the experienced one feels as if he or she has much more time. Time is always as much subjective as objective and when we’re in a turmoil of short-term fire-fighting, it passes with such speed that it causes stress by itself.

If I had to sum all of this up as simply as possible, I would say that the key to coping with stress and pressure is to do just about the opposite of what feels most called for: slow down as much as you can, look ahead as much as possible, drop everything non-essential, and do the rest as carefully and thoughtfully as possible so you only have to do any of it once. And always, always, try to avoid making yet more work for yourself by rushing, cutting corners, and making needless mistakes.

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The secret of staying in charge and relaxed is knowing what is controllable

We live in a world obsessed with control: monitoring, measuring, assessing, rating, every kind of controlling. Whenever something goes wrong, we look for who is to blame; who should have been in control and stopped the problem before it developed—but didn’t. This is wholly unrealistic. It also contributes in a strongly negative way to the anxiety and stress that has become so common.

Trying to control the uncontrollable is a recipe for exhaustion and frustration. To be held responsible for what you cannot control induces anxiety and fear of unjust reprisals if it all goes wrong. The route to a better understanding of control begins with recognizing that there are three distinct facts that apply to whatever you are seeking to control:

  1. Some things cannot be controlled, whatever you do: the weather, other people’s thoughts, the results of most actions, external events.
  2. Some things can always be controlled: what you choose to say or do (with very limited exceptions), how you respond to your emotions and moods, what you believe.
  3. Many things that cannot be controlled directly, but can be influenced to a varying extent: public opinion, consumer behavior, other people’s actions, the effects of your actions.

The first group—the uncontrollable things—covers a great deal of what many of us are told that we must control. That’s why people get so stressed. You cannot, rationally, be held responsible for quarterly results, since they are not directly controllable by you . . . or anyone else. Part of the motivation for the scandals that erupt from time to time is people trying to to control the uncontrollable. If you can’t control results, maybe you can produce them by cheating or falsifying figures. All anyone can reasonably be held responsible for is making rational and sensible efforts to increase the likelihood of the desired results being obtained. Once that is done, the rest lies in the lap of chance.

Oddly, people treat the second group—things that are almost entirely controllable—as if they have little or no ability to control them at all.

They say they couldn’t help losing their temper (of course they could); they couldn’t stop themselves saying something hurtful (all it takes is not saying it); or they couldn’t seem to grasp what they needed to learn (which probably meant they failed to make the effort, or weren’t interested anyway).

None of this is true, yet we persist in excusing ourselves from responsibility in the one area where direct responsibility is possible: our own behavior. “I can’t help it!” people wail, when they certainly can. It may be tough or painful or unpleasant, but you are always responsible for 99% of your own actions. To pretend otherwise is to lie to yourself and to others.

Then there’s the category of what may be influenced, but not controlled. What are you responsible for there? Doing your best to influence things successfully, nothing more. You can influence customers to purchase, but you cannot make them do so by honest means. You can train, coach, support, and otherwise influence subordinates to do good work. You cannot force them to do so.

The limits of personal responsibility

It would greatly reduce stress, overwork, and macho management posturing if people recognized the limits of responsibility more clearly. It’s easy to toss slogans around and claim results are all that count and people must be judged by them. That doesn’t make it true . . . or even sensible.

Equally, to allow the notion that personal behavior is somehow outside people’s control is to open the door to an endless excuse for every kind of wrong-doing and laziness. Take the rubbish spread about motivation. No one needs to be “motivated” to take necessary action. You can do it, motivated or not. Nor can I motivate you or anyone else, since motivation is a feeling and other people’s feelings are firmly in the “uncontrollable” category.

The bad news is that a great deal of current management practice is deeply flawed because it assumes that people can—and must—control what cannot be controlled. You can measure, audit, analyze, rate, and chart it all you like, but you still can’t control outcomes, results, global trends, or market movements.

The good news is that no one needs to make their actions and behavior contingent on feeling inspired, motivated, happy, excited, or any other emotion. If you see a need for action and know what to do, you can simply do it. If speaking out seems right, then speak. If staying silent is correct and helpful, say nothing. It’s always your choice; always under your direct control.

Three steps to civilized attitudes on control

Work would be a far more pleasant and civilized place if we all followed three simple rules:

  1. Everyone must accept responsibility for his or her own speech and actions. No excuses.
  2. No one can be held accountable for results that are outside their control.
  3. Excellence is shown by controlling what can be controlled and skillfully influencing those areas where influence is possible.

That’s it. Follow those three steps and leaders would have to drop the macho nonsense of yelling for results at any price, and concentrate instead on skillful ways to draw the best from whoever works for them. Assholes and jerks would be held totally responsible for their noxious behavior, and no one would be allowed to wriggle out of personal responsibility by claiming that they “couldn’t help themselves”
or “hadn’t been motivated.” Stress would be greatly reduced and no one would fear being criticised for what obviously was not their fault.

Not quite Nirvana, but a good step along the way there.


PLEASE NOTE: from August 1st, this blog will leave the Blogger platform and re-surface on Wordpress. I will leave all posts up to that point on Blogger, at the current URL. New posts will be found from August 1st onwards at http://www.slowleadership.org/blog/


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The manager who makes every little problem a three-alarm fire can burn your business

“Pyros are bosses who compulsively light one fire after another in their organizations. These constant emergencies are highly destructive. They waste time and resources while diverting attention from the important issues facing the business. Employees become too busy to do their regular work, and while the pyromaniac boss focuses on the minutiae, the business may miss the chance to head off more dangerous long-term threats.” [Read more >>] [via]

Stop working longer hours! Start working wiser hours!

“Your ability to time manage can make or break your career! After all, if it doesn’t matter how fabulously talented you are, if you don’t have the time to show off your fabulous talent to others — or — if you’re so overwhelmed by your schedule, that your fab talent gets reduced to low-level, disorganized, shlock work!“ [Read more >>]

Observe your future self

“If you’re a ‘young blade,’ as my Grandma likes to say, you need to take a good look at the veterans of your industry. I suggest:

  • Meet them.
  • Observe them
  • Hang out with them.
  • Ask questions of them.

Then: create a picture of the type of person that someone who does what you do often becomes.” [Read more >>]

Forget the “hols” completely?

“Millions of stressed Brits cannot leave work behind when they go on holiday and spend their break sending emails from the beach, a shocking survey reveals. A whopping two-thirds of workers have had their hols interrupted by bosses and 80 per cent worry about their work while away, according to a poll. A staggering 20 million British employees think they have to take work with them on holiday, the survey suggests. It also revealed how today’s technology means many hard-pressed workers can never escape the boss wherever they are as a third always pack a laptop or Blackberry with their swimming trunks.” [Read more >>]

Why fear rules the workplace

“What is it about the workplace that makes millions of people around the world, regardless of national culture, afraid of their bosses? Fear can be dangerous; it can turn into a mindset in which things aren’t questioned and unthinking obedience to authority is normal. In fact, most of the advice we hear in the workplace with regards to bosses says one thing and one thing only: don’t complain about your boss, however bad.” [Read more >>]

Time for time off

“People in business need to take more of their vacation time. This is important for ongoing work-life balance as well as to allow workers to get recharged for the work ahead. The good news is that businesses tend to be generous in allocating vacation time, with 75 percent of senior executives and managers being entitled to four or more weeks a year. The bad news is that only 39 percent of those people take four or more weeks off, based on our global research.” [Read more >>]

U.S. organizations encourage bullying

“Organizational culture in many American workplaces actively triggers, encourages and even rewards bullying, according to new research, with employees in the U.S. bullied up to 50 percent more often than those in Scandinavia. New research to be published in the September issue of the Journal of Management Studies compared data for the U.S. and Scandinavia and found that what it terms “persistent workplace negativity” is between 20 percent to 50 percent higher for U.S. workers than for their Scandinavian counterparts.” [Read more >>]

Don’t wait until you’re dead to relax

“Tension feels natural to most people because they have been practicing it for most of their lives. It is a little bit like sitting in a good posture; it feels weird if we normally slouch (and yes, I am guilty of that one) because we are asking our body to do something it isn’t used to doing. Of course if we persevere it will start to feel natural and we will get the health benefits. It is exactly the same with relaxation and being relaxed will suddenly feel a lot better than tense all the time.Relaxation helps maintain health, reduce stress and promote good sleep and if that isn’t enough, it can help you look younger too!” [Read more >>]

Do you need to be a competitive jerk to succeed?

“Having an actual opponent sometimes requires a competitive edge. But in most pursuits competition simply isn’t important. Inventing an enemy keeps you from thinking rationally. You will overvalue potential threats and become blinded to opportunities.” [Read more >>]

Employees who are given the flexibility to juggle the needs of their families and careers respond by working harder and longer.

“Ms Bourke, a partner at organizational change consultancy Aequus Partners, will today release a survey of 3400 employees at Insurance Australia Group that she said reveals ‘employees who feel they have job flexibility are the same employees who have more trust in and more commitment to the organization. The old adage give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile isn’t borne out in the research,’ Ms Bourke said. ‘It’s more give them an inch and they’ll give back a mile to the organization.’” [Read more >>]

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Why truth matters more in business life than many currently believe.

Truthfulness is often an early casualty in the path of macho management. Such “soft” virtues as honesty and truthfulness are treated with disdain by hamburger managers, obsessed as they are with getting results and winning by any and all available means. This is a bad mistake, and one that is nearly always punished in due course.

Here’s an interesting piece from yesterday’s Huffington Post on the topic of trust. The starting point is the case of the CEO of Whole Foods and his anonymous blogging that hyped his own business (and even praised his hair style) and knocked the competition.

A few short extracts will give you the flavor:

What signal does Mackey’s behavior send to Whole Foods executives and employees? That deception is practiced by their CEO and therefore an acceptable practice? What signal does this send to Whole Foods suppliers? That representations may not be what they seem?

Stephen M.R. Covey’s important recent book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, reminds us of the business case for being trustworthy and being seen as trustworthy. Character is first among equals in leadership requirements. Reputation takes years to build and seconds to destroy.

And Thomas Friedman’s excellent op-ed piece (“The Whole World Is Watching”) underscores a new fact of life these days: your behavior, words and deeds are part of a permanent record, enabled by the internet.

Hopefully, we are coming to an end of the tolerance given to unethical and unpleasant behavior by leaders, just as long as it “produces results.”

Of course businesses need results: their survival depends on them. But how those results are obtained isn’t irrelevant. Business is part of life and our society. It isn’t some separate sphere with its own rules and standards, independent of the demands of a free and civilized way of living.

People have always held their leaders accountable for their behavior—eventually. It may take a while. There’s often a period when leaders are given the benefit of the doubt; or when the novelty of an approach, or the presence of a fresh face, can obscure what is going on. Yet in the end, even the most ruthless and devious leader will make some error. At that point, all the envy and dislike that has been building up tends to come out and cause a violent delight in hastening their downfall.

Truth is too precious to ignore

Truth is the basis for all civilized societies. Without knowing, truthfully, what is happening, democracy is neither effective nor, ultimately, possible.
No one can be truly free if they are being kept in ignorance at the same time.

Truth is also essential to trust. Despite the faux-sophisticated sneers of macho managers and financial whiz-kids, all business depends utterly on trust. You have to believe that, in the vast majority of instances, people will honor contracts, deliver what they promised, and pay what has been agreed. Where there is no trust, every small thing has to be checked constantly; no one can be allowed to work without constant supervision; no message can be transmitted with being checked and re-checked every step of the way.

No truth = no trust = massive waste of resources

Can you imagine what all this would cost? How much every transaction would be slowed down by all the checking and auditing involved? How much time, energy, and money would go to waste on the conflicts, lawsuits, and bickering that would result? There is enough erosion of trust as it is to suggest just a tiny fraction of what would happen if trust broke down more significantly.

There used to be a time when society forced business leaders to practice greater honesty and trustworthiness. Sayings like “my word is my bond” summed up the prevailing notion that dishonesty and lying were not to be tolerated among those who controlled the business world.

Of course there were rogues too. There always have been. But they weren’t praised and excused in the way that they are today. Making money was more often seen as a slightly distasteful business: an activity that had to be conducted with one hand held over the nose. To be rich through business might well not win you respect in polite society. The only way to avoid the stigma of “trade” was to be known for your absolute probity—even if it cost you some of the potential profits.

This seems quaint today, when being rich can appear to absolve you from every character flaw and sin. In reality, that isn’t true. Lying, cheating, and betraying others to enrich yourself are still, I believe, intensely distasteful to most people. The public may be dazzled for a while by fame and glamor, but it always wears off.

For long-term success, the truth isn’t just something, it’s everything

From time to time, people ask me how they can choose the right path in life; how they can avoid stress and burnout; how they can be happy.

If I knew all those answers, I would be some kind of superman and I’m not. All I know are a few of the most important questions. And I know that telling and facing the truth is such an essential part of any answer to life’s problems that it’s hard to overestimate its importance.

If you don’t tell the truth, especially to yourself, you are living a lie and are so far off any sensible course that disaster seems inevitable. How can you find any answers to the problems of your life if you won’t be truthful about them, even to yourself? How can you get people to help you if you lie to them?

If you won’t face the truth, you’re a fool. You may be able to convince yourself of your deceptions and evasions. You may be able to convince other people too, at least for a time. But you can never, never, deceive reality. Try all you want, reality will proceed on the basis of a strict adherence to the facts. It will treat your fantasies with contempt and you with impersonal accuracy. All you will have done is compound any problems by closing your eyes and letting them come at you out of the dark.

Whether what the CEO of Whole Foods did was malicious or just foolish is almost beside the point. What really matters is that so many leaders believe that deceptive actions and suppression of the truth are acceptable. That’s the thing to worry about.

When our leaders become ethically blind, they ought to forfeit the right to lead. It’s up to all of us to enforce that law, before the universe enforces it for us.

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A potent source of stress is taking everything too personally. It’s easy to see criticism as a personal attack, or a setback as some kind of malice aimed directly at you. Neither viewpoint is going to help solve the problem. Both will send your stress levels soaring. Here’s an alternative.

I’m writing this article with a sense of trepidation. On previous occasions when I’ve turned to this topic, it’s generated quite amazing levels of abuse from a few people. So I’m going to start with an explanation. It seems that some people equate detachment with emotional coldness, standoffishness, and a kind of superior disdain for normal human feelings. That isn’t what detachment means for me. I’m not suggesting people turn off their feelings (it’s impossible anyway) or adopt some sort of lofty disregard for others. To understand detachment properly, you have to understand attachment first.

The common phrase “I’m attached to it/him/her” may imply liking or love, but people don’t become attached to stress, worry, overwork, obsessive competition, or always being first because they love it. Attachment, in the sense I’m dealing with, means being “stuck on” something. You can’t let go of it, however much it’s hurting you. You’re clinging to it because of some kind of habitual or past emotional bond. Usually these aren’t positive emotions either.

Attachment is an obsession. People half kill themselves with overwork and stress because they believe they must, not because they enjoy it. So . . . to be detached means to be able to step back from events and see them in their proper perspective.

The simplest way to define greater detachment is to see it as the freedom not to be “sucked in” every time—whether that’s into feelings that hurt you, actions that make you feel worse, or responses that don’t help.

Why detachment is desirable

There’s something delightful about being able to stand and look at events and remain in control of your feelings and reactions. If you want to, you can jump in. If you choose not to this time, you can stand aside. It’s your choice. You aren’t at the mercy of an internal “reaction reflex” that is just waiting to be set off by the next setback, the next jerk who pisses you off, or the next unreasonable demand from some idiot on high.

You are just you: conscious of what you are choosing and free to act in whatever way seems best to you. You’re in control of yourself and armored against most of the petty irritations that build into a serious stress load.

How to become more detached

Here are some ideas that can help you to become a little more detached; to let your own wishes and thoughts take precedence over the shouts, opinions, and commands from the outside:

  • Know what is most likely to suck you in. Take some time to consider the patterns in your life. What sets you going? What causes you to “lose it” and do things that you regret later? How can you recognize them before they draw you in? Make a list and memorize it. Then work at avoiding whatever’s on the list.
  • Build a habit of pausing and giving yourself time to think. It may take a long time to make this stick, but it will pay huge dividends. Instead of jumping into action, or snapping out a response, say or do something neutral: “I’d like to think about that a moment,” or “Let me get back to you on that one.” Buy yourself time to get past your first response and start considering the options. Try to make more conscious choices whenever you can.
  • Build a new self-image. Instead of being someone who’s quick to react or speak, start seeing yourself as the quiet person who rarely jumps in first, but who everyone listens to when he or she does say something. At first it will seem false and theatrical. But if you stick at it, it will mix with the rest of your personality and produce a new, calmer, more influential, and more popular you.
  • When you feel your emotions on the boil and your hackles rising, ask yourself whether what you believe at that moment is really true. Force yourself to stop and question your beliefs and feelings fully. You’ll be surprised how often you discover that you’re all fired up by something you’re assuming, something you’ve been told (on what authority?), or something that isn’t even real.
  • Watch others. See how simple it is for people to get sucked in—and how easily they’re manipulated as a result. Watch how a simple, trivial situation is turned into a drama, then a Hollywood disaster epic. Consider whether that’s how you want to live.
  • Ask yourself whether what you’re doing right now is your own choice, or the result of being sucked in by something that you’ve got hooked on. Notice how each one feels. Compare stress and frustration levels. Decide whether you want to be swept along or make your own decisions.

The best antidote to getting snagged into negative situations and responses is always to be aware of what’s happening inside and why you’re doing whatever you’re doing.

Being more detached means giving yourself more space and time to be aware. It means freeing yourself from compulsions that don’t serve your best interests. It means being master or mistress of your own mind, controlling your emotions, and choosing your actions with care. And it means only accepting the amount of stress that you are willing to suffer, instead of what events or other people want to unload onto you.

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Despite its popularity, macho management has many severe drawbacks.

If macho management is not a sensible way to operate, it must be possible to show why. Organizations won’t be convinced by saying it’s unpleasant, so long as they believe that it works in their interests. Here’s why it doesn’t.

Macho management has become the norm because organizations have convinced themselves that it works to drive up profits better than the alternatives. They’re also convinced that the downsides are minor compared to the benefits.

I believe that they are mistaken; but the proponents of macho, financially-biased management are so many—and so convinced of the correctness of their position—that it needs to be the opponents of conventional management who must make their case to overturn what has become the norm. That’s what this article tries to do.

Here are what I see as the most obvious drawbacks of macho management. There are probably more, but I have tried to consider my list from the point of view of managers, not ethicists.

  • Pushing too hard. If too little effort is demonstrably bad for results, too much is probably worse. It leads haste and over-extended organizations; to harassment of customers and suppliers, careless mistakes, snap judgments based on inadequate data; to over-eager grasping of ill-understood opportunities and the taking of poorly calculated risks; to the forced suppression of contrary views, to lowered creativity, and to the alienation and loss of talented employees.
  • Arrogance and egotism. Macho kinds of behavior come easiest to egotists. Research has shown that egotistical leaders are more likely to take both high-risk, even rash decisions and decisions based purely on self-interest.
  • Blinkered viewpoints. In the rush and fury of macho culture, a constant is the tendency to see the world in black and white. Decisions are straight up or down. People, ideas, opportunities are good or bad. This departs so far from reality as to be dangerous.
  • All-or-nothing bets. Macho managers aren’t patient enough for slow, incremental wins. They want massive, public success and will often take risks on a similar scale. All-or-nothing easily turns out to be the latter.
  • Riding roughshod over others. Lots of macho managers have very short fuses—many are even proud of the fact. Their response to anything short of total agreement is to throw a tantrum. Intimidation is a way of life. All this produces is resentment and a desire to get even.
  • Domineering attitudes. Command-and-control is the hallmark of every macho culture. Those at the top have to be in charge of everything. Lower manages are subservient upwards and tyrannical to everyone else. This is a great breeding ground for lawsuits, labor disputes, excessive turnover, poor morale, sabotage, and low quality work.
  • Love of a good fight. The macho manager only shines during conflict. If there isn’t any, he or she is very likely to generate some. Conflict also wastes money, lowers productivity, promotes discord, and destroys creativity. Go figure.
  • Fear-based decisions. Macho cultures are saturated with fear at every level. Fear of those with more power, fear of being stabbed in the back, fear of losing out, fear of failure and disgrace. People compete all the time—not so much to win as to avoid losing. The results include lying, cheating, trying to harm competitors, concealing errors, manipulating figures, and putting personal survival above everything else.
  • Rampant office politics. In macho cultures, politics are everywhere. Where you stand in the political pecking-order is almost all that counts. Employees, customers, business ethics, rules, laws, and just about anything else become tools in various political fights between opposing barons.
  • Inability to cooperate or share. Macho managers only share with their toadies, and then as little as possible. No real cooperation is possible. You can’t assist a potential rival—and no one who isn’t a rival is worth notice. Besides, all those barons have to maintain their status and influence against real or assumed rivals. In a macho culture, there is usually more strife internally than with external competitors.
  • Constant turf wars. Not only are macho cultures extremely territorial, everyone constantly tries to steal territory from everyone else. Like bull seals competing for beach space and females, macho managers spend most of their time posturing, roaring, bickering, and trying to grab bits of territory. How this helps the organization is beyond me.

Given so many and such obvious drawbacks, it seems odd that macho management has so many followers. I think the answers are both simple and depressing:

  1. Once you have macho managers in place, everyone with a different outlook leaves or is forced out. The macho guys despise them. Macho management is the ultimate self-perpetuating system.
  2. In macho cultures, money is viewed as almost the sole measurement of results. That’s why you typically find macho people in charge and hordes of accountants keeping the score. It’s hard to imagine a more soul-destroying environment—or one more likely to ignore everything that does not come with a price or a score attached.
  3. Changing a macho culture almost never happens peacefully from within. The status quo is strong precisely because it suits those in charge. It’s their status quo. It made them the people they are and guarantees their survival. That’s why they will try to squash anything that threatens it. And, being aggressive and action-oriented, macho managers are some of the world’s best enforcers.

All that anyone can do is to keep pointing out the drawbacks and handicaps of macho cultures. In the end, they tend to destroy themselves, but the process is lengthy and painful. Far better to heed reason long before then and do all that we can to stop the spread of such a debilitating organizational disease.

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Guidelines for making sure that the place where you work is a place you will go on wanting to be.

Spotting the signs of undue pressure and macho management is useful, but, if you’re considering a job change or just starting out on a career, seeing when a job will be civilized is just as important. You need to know what to seek out, not just what to avoid once you’ve found it.

What are the signs of civilized work? If you want to choose an employer, a job, and a career wisely, these are the things to look for:

  • Work with a manageable workload that allows enough time over for pursuing new ideas and making a personal contribution. Everyone needs the opportunity to put more of themselves into their work than just the labor of completing scheduled tasks. Overwork doesn’t just ruin work/life balance, in the sense of time available for non-work activities. It also stops work itself being satisfying. There’s never any time to step outside the strict confines of the daily grind to explore new ideas or approaches. The to-do list becomes a prison that blocks out everything else.
  • Clear evidence that others will value and respect what you do. It’s hard to take a pride in your work if no one cares how you do what you do, just so long as you meet some specific targets. It’s far more satisfying to feel that you can win respect for a job well done than simply reach some goal by any available means. Hitting that target comes only occasionally (and you know it will be followed by a new, higher one). Knowing that you’re doing a fine job, and that people recognize you for that, can be a daily source of pleasure in your work.
  • A chance to work with people whom you respect and whose opinions you value. No amount of money will ever make up for working for a boss whom you think is an idiot and an asshole; or with people whom you neither like nor respect. Work is a social environment. Unless that environment suits you and gives you pleasure from being there, each day is going to be eight or more hours of misery. That’s why corporate culture matters so much. Trying to live and work in a toxic culture is like trying to exist in a cloud of poisonous gases.
  • A reasonable degree of control over what you do and any decisions that affect your job. Anything else is slavery. You shouldn’t accept it for an hour, regardless of how much you’re being paid.
  • Work that means something to you and matches your values. Doing meaningless work is soul-destroying drudgery. Doing work that you don’t value will leave you feeling empty and dissatisfied at the end of every day. The only way to feel good about what you do is to do something that makes you feel good in itself. If, for example, you try to shut your mind to a toxic culture and management style that makes you feel bad every time you think about it, how are you going to feel after a month, six months, a year? You’ll have to abandon your own values and conscience to survive. But whatever you do, somewhere deep inside you’ll know you’re behaving like a coward and spitting on things that you hold dear. That knowledge will eat away at you until it destroys all your peace of mind.
  • A culture that values fairness, justice, and an ethical approach to business. Too many organizations today act as if the ends justify the means, and honesty and ethical values are indulgences that they can’t afford. You can sense it like a bad smell in the background. Ignore all the flashiness and forced good comradeship. If something in the air that you can’t quite pin down makes you feel sick, take good heed. Compromising with nastiness and dishonesty will rub off on you like a disfiguring skin disease. Besides, if the culture allows dishonesty, subterfuge, unethical practices, and unfair treatment in the cause of profit, that’s how it will treat you.
  • A willingness from those in senior positions to listen. Few things are so frustrating as a management culture based on closed minds and open mouths. Nothing leads more quickly to failure, despotism, and the punishment of the innocent. Be warned!
  • An organization that values honest feedback and takes notice when staff aren’t happy. Any organization that punishes people for rocking the boat, demonizes whistle-blowers, and rewards yes-men should be seen for what it is: a gang of mindless thugs. Get away as fast as you can run.
  • A sensible attitude from the organization and the bosses to the position of work in each person’s life. It’s quite reasonable for the organization to expect loyalty, commitment, solid effort, and an appropriate input related to level and salary. It is wholly unreasonable to expect anyone to sell their life and soul to their employer in return for cash. Anyone who does that is far more shameless than any prostitute. Prostitutes only sell their bodies. An organization who demands that you sell your heart and soul as well is many times worse than any pimp.
  • The willingness to continue to change as circumstances change. A rigid organization—especially one that works on the basis of “our way or the highway”—is both arrogant and stupid. Why would you even consider becoming part of that?

If I had to sum all this advice up in a single rule it would be this: look around carefully and sniff out the ratio of assholes to others. The more assholes, the less you should even consider working there. And if the assholes are rewarded for their noxious behavior, so long as they hit the targets, run as fast as you can.

Happiness and satisfaction at work is always a choice. You can (and should) choose what you believe will work for you and give you the kind of life you want to have. Never choose just what will offer the most cash and power in the shortest time, regardless of anything else. You’ll regret it in very short order.

The choice won’t always be an easy one; it may cost you effort, determination, and forgoing some amount of money and what it can buy to choose happiness. Nor will it always be black versus white. But the more often you can choose wisely from among the available alternatives, the more often, I believe, you will find work that enhances your life, instead of diminishing it.

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Why future generations will smile at our foolishness.

Each generation sees the myths and beliefs of earlier generations as comic and childish. Today, we can’t see how the Ancient Greeks ever believed in such obviously human-like gods as Zeus or Apollo, with their feuds, love affairs, and petty jealousies. The beliefs of medieval alchemists seem amazingly silly. Victorian assumptions of the white man’s inherent superiority would be totally laughable, were it not for the sinister use made of them later—and the fact that some misguided people still hold to such nonsense even today.

What are today’s mythologies: the ones that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will smile over and dismiss as too laughable and primitive to be worth more than historical notice?

One that I would put into that category is our cult of the successful (or successfully self-promoting) business leader: the belief that those in charge of successful businesses are somehow endowed with rare wisdom and insight, far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

Isn’t it odd that, when things are going well, such people happily accept as much of the credit as possible; but when problems arise, they claim that it all happened without their knowledge?

How is it that organizations can spend millions on salary and share-options packages to attract and retain star executives; yet later accept their assurances that any scandals and ethical lapses were outside their control? Which position is correct: the leader as hero, single-handedly reversing the fortunes of some ailing business; or the leader as frail human being, doing his or her best in situations too complex for any one person to correct?

Let’s all agree that the hero leader is a myth, like tales of Sir Galahad or Robin Hood. Given the size of today’s large organizations, no single person can control more than a tiny fraction of their functioning, however long the hours that they work. It’s impossible for top executives even to know much of what is happening all the time, let alone control it.

Are CEOs mostly actors?

The majority of leaders spend more time in posturing, playing politics, and polishing their public images than in affecting the actual course of the business, which runs along quite smoothly without their input. Most of the time they are actors, speaking lines put into their mouths by speech-writers and PR people; putting their names to reports and documents that others have prepared for them; acting as the pubic face of whatever ruling clique is currently in charge of the running of the business.

Only occasionally are they called upon to make a real decision. That’s how it seems, but even then, most of the decisions that bear their name are agreed quietly beforehand by those who are really in charge. That isn’t to say that the request made to a CEO—or even to the Board—doesn’t look like a decision. There are many techniques for presenting things in such a way that the decision you want is the only possible one for a committee, or an individual, to make. Indeed, no wise manager ever allows a matter to reach decision stage without being 100% certain that it will go the way he wants: the way he or she has slanted the presentation, adjusted the data, manipulated the figures, and chosen the “rival” options. The executives at the top can be relied upon to be so busy, so remote from any of the detail, and so eager to show their decisiveness that few, if any, ever question the information placed before them in any more than a superficial way.

Why the leadership cult?

Why do we have this cult of leadership? Why are scores of books published each year, thousands of training courses and seminars attended, and reams of newsprint devoted to this skill, this vague concept, this largely mythological entity known as leadership?

In part, I believe, because we all recognize, deep down, that we cannot control our organizations or our working lives. It’s this lack of real control that makes us so desperate to find something or someone that we just hope might improve our ability to influence events. We want to be in control; we think we ought to be in control—or we believe someone should be—and so we place that duty on someone and hope it might be true.

There’s also the human tendency to want a scapegoat when things go wrong. Whom can I blame? Whom, in the USA especially, can I sue? If someone is to be blamed, that person must have been in control—or ought to have been, if they were not. Look at how regularly CEOs are removed when things go wrong, even though they probably had little to do with it.

Our mythology of the hero-leader, working 70 hour weeks with his or her hands on all the levers of the organizational machine, is so much fanciful nonsense. Trying to achieve such a picture is killing people—quite literally. It’s all for nothing too.

So what should leaders do?

Truly successful leaders don’t even try to control events. They recognize that the only way to direct a large group of people is through some ruling idea. That’s what they supply: a vision to believe in; a set of ideas to guide the thousands of individual decisions being made every day without any direct input from them.

“Without a vision, the people perish.” These biblical words sum it up. What we should be doing is seeking out leaders with imagination: people who can think and produce fresh visions for others to follow. Naturally, such people will need time and space to do their thinking. You can’t expect anyone to come up with strong strategic viewpoints if their days are filled with pointless meetings and administrative trivia. Nor if they’re exhausted by crippling work schedules and constant traveling.

Choosing leaders from those who get to the top by competitive guile and ruthlessness won’t work . That’s responsible for today’s cadre of self-promoting windbags in corporate boardrooms. Nor will the myth of leader as “man of action” serve our needs. Thought without action has long been the stock-in-trade of academic ivory towers, but action without thought—the hallmark of the current crop of macho managers—is far worse. Plenty of people can take action, but it requires someone (or some team) with real wisdom and insight to guide that action wisely.

Let’s drop the mythology, forget the Hollywood version of corporate leadership, and start allowing people of wisdom and understanding to fill top positions. Then give them the time to do what they are there for—think.

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Putting the ‘work’ into work/life balance

Here’s something that might amuse you, taken from a British magazine. Try this excerpt: “FROM THE HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT: Effective Immediately… SICK DAYS: We will no longer accept a doctor’s statement as proof of sickness. If you are able to go to the doctor, you are able to come to work. … SURGERY: Operations are now banned. As long as you are an employee here, you need all your organs. You should not consider removing anything. We hired you intact. To have something removed constitutes a breach of employment. . . “ [Read more >>]

Anti-anxiety strategies

“Promising to do this and do that can take a toll on you. Practicing anti-anxiety techniques involve letting go of the need to say “yes” to every request someone asks of you. People often experience extreme stress because they allow their commitments to take over their life. You do not have to go through this type of misdirected motivation. One way to measure if you are over committed would be to cancel an appointment you have scheduled. How would you feel if that were to happen? Would you feel a sense of guilt? Over committed persons feel guilty if they tell someone “no” because they are tired.” [Read more >>]

Canadians among the worst at taking vacations

“A study by online travel company Orbitz has found a noticeable drop in the length of time North Americans are booking for vacations. [ . . . ] Many workers, now seeing themselves as “indispensable”—a quality often supported by management—feel guilty about booking more than a week at a time. Others are worried they’ll miss something. It appears there’s a growing trend where employees don’t see the value in vacations, and find taking them more hassle than they’re worth. Preparing to leave, finding others to cover for them and the fear of falling hopelessly behind make vacations, especially expensive ones, less and less attractive. [ . . . ] “ [Read more >>]

Finding the source of work/life balance

“I’m always skeptical when I hear a company preach balance because they can’t possibly know what “balance” means for every single employee. It’s an HR buzzword. I used to believe it was the job or company that dictated how much balance, if any, existed. If I could just find the right position or the right company, magically everything would come into focus and my family would be given the same priority as my work required. I was dead wrong. It’s not the company. It’s not the position. It’s me. It’s how I manage the job, not how the job manages me. . .” [Read more >>]

What’s all this about learning?

“Organizations have little, if any, intrinsic interest in providing learning for their employees. They can’t measure or evaluate learning against their bottom line commitments. Learning doesn’t necessarily make a worker any better at the task they are being paid to do—indeed, some would argue that the provision of learning actually inhibits productivity, providing as it does, choices which an individual may not currently be aware of. [ . . . ] So, why have organizations begun to present themselves as the vanguard advocates of learning and development? Simple. The new breed of corporate cannon-fodder just doesn’t buy the same old arguments that worked so well on us and our forefathers.” [Read more >>]

Are leaders really leading actors?

“. . . it may be quite important for leaders to perpetuate the myth of having significant control over performance. As employees, we expect it of our leaders. In our behavior, we defer to leaders. And that reinforces their tendency to act like what we expect of leaders. According to this line of thinking, it may require that a leader act out the role, concealing real feelings in the process. In short, it suggests that some part of leadership is theater that perpetuates the half-truth that leaders are indeed in control.” [Read more >>]

Making a drama out of a crisis

“Managers are supposed to be able to glide effortlessly through the crises each day throws their way. In reality most end up dropping something else equally important, going all uncommunicative, working late or tearing about in a stress-induced panic. More than half of managers say that the only way they can handle crises is by getting stressed and burning the candles at both ends.” [Read more >>]

Bullies blight U.S. workplaces

“Bullying continues to cast a shadow of American workplaces, with three out of 10 HR executives admitting that they have seen an employee quit because of the way they have been treated. A survey of 100 HR professionals by Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas also revealed that a third of executives have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying.” [Read more >>]

BlackBerrys and PDAs bad for work/life balance

“BlackBerrys and smart phones may have had a huge impact on executive and employee productivity but they also have a negative impact on work/life balance by making it more difficult to switch off from the office. A recent survey by RIM found an average BlackBerry user converts one hour of downtime to productive time each day and ups their overall team efficiency by 38 per cent. All of silicon.com’s 12-strong CIO Jury IT user panel agreed BlackBerrys and smart phones have improved their productivity but warned it can have a negative impact on work/life balance without judicious use of the off-switch.” [Read more >>]

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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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