October 2007

A new study suggests workplace stress may be as hazardous to your heart health as smoking, high cholesterol and other conventional risk factors for cardiovascular disease


Maybe this will finally convince some of the “I can take anything work can throw at me—and so should you” brigade that macho posturing about uncivilized hours and work amounts in the workplace isn’t such a bright idea.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (Job Strain Can Be Risk Factor For Subsequent Heart Attacks), people working in high-stress jobs are just over twice as likely as those in low-stress posts to suffer a heart attack or be hospitalized for angina, which often is a precursor to a heart attack.

“It is a very important effect,” said Michel Vezina, a researcher at Universite Laval in Quebec and a co-author of the study. He deemed it “comparable” to the impact of tobacco smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Prevention efforts should go beyond changing individual living habits to “take into account the work environment,” Dr. Vezina said.

And although senior managers and wannabe high-fliers may believe that they are the only ones who face real job pressure, the heart health may be significantly greater among ordinary people faced with meeting the crazy deadlines and profit targets those same executives impose.

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Despite the constant emphasis on communication, today’s levels of understanding are worse than ever

Listening properly takes time and attention. It means that you have to concentrate on what the other person is saying, not on what is going on inside your head. Sadly, in our rushed, frantic world, with its obsession with quick gains, less and less real listening takes place. Yet to listen to another person fully and patiently is probably one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

You’re buying a car. The sales person asks you what kind of vehicle you have in mind. You start to explain—but how far do you get before he or she says: I’ve got just what you need?” The quicker that point is reached, the less actual listening has taken place. That salesperson isn’t listening to what you want to say. He or she is listening only for what can be used to make a quick sale.

Most people can hear—and more or less understand—words as fast as they’re spoken. They can even make superficial sense of what is being said. What they can’t do at high speed is listen—in the sense of understanding fully what the other person is wanting to communicate and what it means to them.

That takes time. Time to make sure you heard everything and understood their real meaning. Time to weigh all the facts and reach a reasoned conclusion. Time to hear what is not being said and take that into account too. Time to note the emotions behind the words and feel enough empathy with the other person to get on their wavelength. Time to consider the implications of their words and work out a comprehensive response.

When people listen and respond quickly, they can only operate on first impressions and gut responses.

Listening just for for my needs, not for what you want to say

The sales person who talks over your explanation with a pre-digested list of product features is only doing what they’ve been taught: responding to the first buying signals they think they’ve detected with an immediate attempt to close the sale. Their objective is to sell as much as possible as quickly as possible, not to understand what each customer might really want to explain.

In our hurly-burly world, speed has become a god. There’s no time for something as slow as proper listening. All there’s time for is reaching a quick decision on which pigeon-hole to push each event into, so you can get on to the response—the action part—as quickly as possible.

The art of listening

Real communicators differ from the far more common, fake kind because they start from a different set of assumptions

  • They assume that they have no idea what the other person is going to say until after they’ve finished saying it in full.
  • They don’t believe they’ve understood what has been said until they’ve verified it carefully.
  • They assume that much of the real meaning is not in the words. It comes in the tone of voice, the stops and starts, the obvious signs of emotion, the body language. They give their full attention so as not to miss any of these.
  • They have learned that they don’t usually know what the other person really means by what they said. It has to be discovered, if only because many people find it hard to express their thoughts fully without the patience and help of the person listening.
  • They believe that everyone deserves a response based on careful, thorough thought—and that instant answers are an insult when the other person is taking the time and the trouble to try to explain.
  • They know that understanding owes more to empathy than hearing—and that seeing through another’s eyes means no longer focusing on your own concerns, but on theirs.

People like this are, of course, far more successful communicators than those whose mouths typically work twice as hard (and fast) as their ears.

When they respond, what they say is exactly what is needed. When they ask questions, every one is relevant and insightful. When they offer a comment or an idea, it will be right on the button.

They may be slower, but they are orders of magnitude are more effective.

Only fools value speed over effectiveness; and only arrogant fools assume that they know what others are saying without showing them the courtesy of listening with care and close attention.

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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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Thoughts about commemoration and utility


Here in the USA, today, October 8th, is Columbus Day. According to a friend of mine, this commemorates the day that the indigenous people of North America discovered a European sailor wandering around in the Caribbean, hopelessly lost and convinced he had arrived somewhere near India (hence the name West Indies).

Most countries have such commemorative days—sometimes to recall battles or national events, sometimes based on religious festivals.

What is their purpose? Are they simply an excuse for a holiday? Shouldn’t we use them for true recollection, if not of the original battle or person, then for something else?

You can find my answers to these questions in my article today for Lifehack.org (Next Saturday (or maybe the one after that) is “Doing Nothing Day”).

It seems to me that we should have such days whenever we need them—not to remember events long past or religious stories, but to give ourselves time to think about who and what we are and our choices in life—to take pleasure in being alive and contemplate what it might mean to live a life worthy of the miracle of even being here.

This, to me at least, is truly something worth commemorating.

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A sad truth about organizational life

The real question today is why so many large organizations are full of unhappy people, at all levels, who don’t up sticks and go somewhere else. Is this unhappiness because people have to work at jobs they are afraid of losing, even though they hate what they do? Are they forced to stay put working for organizations they fear and distrust?

I’ve been a reader of this blog almost since it started, as well as similar ones which cover the world of work, offer strategies for success and tips for working productively, and describe the mind-numbing idiocies you find in many organizations today. But I have recently started to wonder if one or two important points aren’t being missed.

For a start, most of these blogs are written, and largely read, by skilled and educated people who work in software or computer systems. The advice they give—about how to cope with a bad boss or get more fun from your job—is fair enough for people like them. But most people aren’t like them. “Get a job you love doing” is good advice, but obviously not everyone can follow it.

So why are so many large organizations full of unhappy people at all levels?

For a start, many of them really don’t have the skills or the freedom to go and work somewhere else. Many people do have to work at jobs they hate, but which they are afraid of losing, for organizations they fear and distrust.

But there’s another point being missed as well, I think. Happiness depends not only on the job you do. It also depends, to a large extent, on the kind of organization you work for; what it does, what its values are, and how it functions internally.

Have you got a real job?

The worth of your job, and so your own perception of it; often has less to do with its inherent interest, or whether it’s well-paid and prestigious, than whether it has a useful end-product; whether, in other words, it’s a real job.

You can say that a hospital cleaner has a real job, and so does a farm worker, or somebody selling umbrellas in the street when it’s raining. But an international tax consultant jetting around the world helping companies escape paying tax doesn’t have a real job, even if he or she travels first class and stays in expensive hotels. And a lawyer advising companies on how to get round anti-pollution legislation doesn’t have a real job either, even if she has a lovely house and a wonderful loving family.

Lower down the food-chain, of course, people do even less useful jobs without the compensations even of first-class airline travel. I was shocked, but not really surprised, to read in a review of Michael Moore’s new film that American health insurance companies employ people to covertly investigate claimants to see whether their claims can be turned down on some pretext or other.

How do you live with yourself as a human being in such a job?

“How was your day, darling?”

“Oh, I saved the shareholders a lot of money by pushing a few more families into bankruptcy, what about you?”

You may not personally do these things—any more than you may deceitfully sell mortgages to clients who can’t afford them—but it’s naive to imagine that you can work happily for a company that acts in that way, even if you are a caterer or a personal assistant.

Real jobs can still be lucrative ones

Notice that a worthwhile job doesn’t have to be an altruistic one; it’s perfectly possible to make money, and even become rich, whilst still contributing something to society.

Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, for example, are widely admired, not because they are rich but because they provide goods and services of high quality that people want to buy. So it’s not surprising that when you meet people who work for either of these companies, they tend to be happy in their work, even if what they do is not especially high-profile. And to be fair, I have known happy and fulfilled lawyers and financial advisers, who like to think of themselves as always acting in the best interests of their clients.

We live in a weirdly schizoid society, where we are encouraged to admire people who are rich, irrespective of how they got that way, and to see ruthlessness as praiseworthy and greed (really this time, and not in a film) as good. Yet at the same time—and in spite of what we read in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal—most of us have a good instinctive understanding of whether what we are doing is practically useful, and this affects what we think of our job and the organization we work for, and so how happy we are.

The link with happiness at work

So when we have a job, no matter how well-paid, where we think we aren’t doing something useful, we react by being unhappy. But because we have been taught to identify happiness with money, we assume that we are unhappy because we don’t have enough money, rather than because we have a job of no practical value.

Intelligent and educated people naturally have higher expectations; thus the paradox that the loudest demands for more money come from those who already have too much, who have sacrificed and burnt everything else in their lives to become rich, and now find they are still unhappy. They retaliate, of course, by destroying the happiness of their colleagues and their staff

When I was a child, the male working population (few women worked) overwhelmingly did things with a tangible output. They built cars, dug coal, made steel, worked on farms. In those days, in the working class area of London where I was born, your daddy was a train driver, worked in a factory, dug holes for the Gas Board or worked as a stevedore in the docks.

These days, well, your daddy might have a six-month contract at an outsourced financial services call-centre, where he has to cold call people persuading them to buy special insurance they don’t really need, and he’ll be sacked if he doesn’t meet his target. No wonder people are unhappy.

In the end, all of this comes down to the question asked of sages for thousands of years: “how can I be happy?” The best and simplest reply is the one that sages have always given: “do something useful with your life.”

An Englishman now resident in Europe, John Fletcher has had a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.

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. . . there’s no innovation without risk


The signers of the Declaration of Independence demonstrated tremendous innovation. The reason is because innovation, whether personally, professionally or corporately, requires risk.

Had things turned out differently, our founding fathers would have been hung and their legacy would be as traitors of the crown, not patriots of the United States.

They risked everything they had to create a new nation.

If you need to be more creative, start with being more risky. The Personal Leadership Insight Essential of Innovativeness is defined as creatively pursuing a plan. This starts with determining two things.

  • What are you willing to risk? What ideas, beliefs, products, relationships, systems, processes, etc. are you willing to potentially give up? For most people and organizations, the answer to this question is nothing. Hence the reason why real innovation rarely happens. If you can’t get your mind around losing where you currently are, you will never get to where you need to be.
  • For what are you willing to risk? What is important to you? I mean really important. So important you will stretch yourself, your resources, your pride, your team, or your creative muscles to ensure it is either projected to the world (an idea/product) or is protected from the world (a belief/value).

Many people and organizations claim to have a wide range of interests and priorities. However, if everything is important to you, than essentially nothing is. Figuring out what you are willing to risk for requires discipline in deciding what is really important to you and holding those priorities to a different standard.

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Why trying to win big every time is going to ruin you

One of the problems of today’s obsession with always winning is that it’s impossible. However hard you try, sometimes you are bound to lose. If that causes you stress and frustration, you’re setting yourself up for a good deal of misery. Good enough is often very good indeed, especially if you can steal just a slight advantage towards winning over losing. Here’s how this works.

Do those investors—Warren Buffet, for example—who make huge fortunes get their investment choices right every time? Do people like Steve Jobs of Apple never make any product or marketing mistakes? Of course not. What allows them to amass huge fortunes and a great deal of fame is not being perfect: it’s being right just a little more often than they are wrong.

That’s why an article by Charles Helliwell caught my eye recently. In it, he coined what he calls “51:49 rule.”

His view is that most of us get decision right maybe 51% of the time: just enough of an edge over being wrong to make slow progress.

His comparison is with casinos, where the rules make sure that the House always has a slight, but significant, advantage over the customers when it comes to winning. Enough people win—and sometimes win big—to keep people coming back and wagering more of their money. The fact that, over time, the House always has that small edge over the customers ensures the operation a solid profit. If too few customers win, they will stop playing and go somewhere else. The advantage that the House gives itself has to be small enough to avoid that, but large enough to make sure it always comes out on top.

Taking the long view

Of course, my point is a simple one—but it’s still often missed. If you take a short-term view, any loss seems like a disaster; any gain seems the start of a winning streak. Gamblers who think like this quickly lose their shirts. When they lose, they try to win big enough next time to make up the loss in a single wager. When they win, their believe in their sudden luck encourages them to take bigger risks =—and so lose more.

Only with a longer-term perspective can you see that being right only 51% of the time would still leave you in a winner’s position. Mr. Helliwell says:

Let’s just reflect for a moment, what the 51:49 rule actually implies. It means that everyone’s a winner, because if you’re right 51 per cent of the time, it means that you’re still two points up on the house and that puts you ahead, even though 49 per cent of your choices were poor.

And if you can learn from those mistakes, and push your advantage to, say 55:45, or even 60:40, you’ll eventually come out as far ahead as the casino does—reaping a fat profit despite all the times you still screw up.

If you can see that, you can relax and stop obsessing about your mistakes. Sure, you still try hard to be right, but a few errors aren’t going to change the picture overall. Indeed, their essential to the learning process.

As Mr. Helliwell says:

In our working lives, however, we tend to be rather more conservative when it comes to risk—which means that we often excuse ourselves from the opportunity of learning from our mistakes. This, in turn, loads the dice against us making correct choices in future even as they become more and more critical in our mindset.

Just so long as you maintain that small percentage point advantage over the tendency to screw up, you’re going to end up a significant winner over time. If you learn from your mistakes, you can increase that edge and make your wins enormous.

Just don’t do what the losing gambler does: focus on the big, short-term win and risk everything on a single throw. That’s bound to reduce you to penury. Smart investors aim for consistent, small wins. Dumb ones are suckers for “get rich quick” schemes and quickly lose everything.

We can all learn from that.

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Conventional wisdom too often turns managers into slave drivers

To be accountable means to be liable to give an account of your actions and their results. It should not mean either accepting a duty to deliver those results, come what may; or always carrying the blame if results fall short. We are all accountable for our actions, but not in the way that is often interpreted. Today’s myths of management accountability are destroying careers and making the workplace into a forced-labor camp.

When things go wrong, the first impulse of many people is to look for a scapegoat. “Who is to blame for this?” they yell. “Heads must roll!”

Even a cursory glance at reality will tell you that heads rarely roll amongst those in senior positions. If any must be sacrificed to pay for the shortfall, it will be some hapless middle manager who wasn’t able to shift the blame elsewhere fast enough.

But what benefit arises from such purges? Do they represent anything save public relations: seeming to take resolute action to buy off criticism, while doing nothing to address the basic causes of the problem?

As Peter Cook once said to Dudley Moore in one of their famous TV sketches: “I believe I have learned all there is to learn from my mistakes. Indeed, I can repeat every one perfectly at the drop of a hat.”

What does accountability entail?

We hear a great deal about holding managers accountable. It is, if you like, the serious and acceptable face of the lust for scapegoats. In the Hamburger Management Game Plan that is in use by so many organizations today, there is no room for subtlety or shades of gray. You either deliver the expected results—however ridiculous those expectations are—or you are “held accountable.”

It’s a neat, satisfying doctrine . . . and almost completely false.

Shouldn’t managers be held accountable for what they do? Isn’t that the essence of what it means to accept a managerial position? Managers are charged to get things done as requested, and must suffer the consequences if they fail.

This, of course, assumes that results flow neatly from actions. So any shortfall can fairly be traced back to some managerial blunder.

In reality, chance accounts for results—good or bad—at least as much as anyone’s effort—usually more. Effort is often thwarted by a range of problems from poor strategy to uncooperative colleagues and unexpectedly resourceful competitors. Much genuine hard work goes to waste through chance events and unforeseen changes in circumstances.

True accountability

Accountability did not originally imply either responsibility or blame. It simply meant that the person was liable to give an account of their actions: to explain or defend them in a higher court—whether that meant the top executives, the shareholders, or the court of public opinion.

A game plan that imposes blind demands and punishes people who fail to meet them, for almost any reason, is a tyranny, not a management technique. The steady stream of executives facing charges of insider trading, falsifying accounts, and manipulating returns shows you the levels of desperate action people feel they must use to cope with the demands to be “accountable.”

Accountable managers should be able to give account of their stewardship and be listened to with care. Not only is that a civilized way to behave; it’s the best way to discover the true reasons for events, so that appropriate action can be taken. To be allowed to explain is what you expect for adult professionals. To be blamed without the opportunity to be understood is the kind of punishment inflicted on servants or slaves by tyrannical masters.

Focus on the real cause of your problem

Let’s return to the true meaning of accountability. When things go wrong, make people explain and account for their actions. Give them a chance to defend what they have done, before they are thoughtlessly condemned.

If more organizations were to do that—and do it genuinely, not as a sop to PR, with the verdict already decided—most would discover that the causes for poor results or operational problems have little or nothing to do with the manager in question, or his or her team.

Poor systems, poor strategy, penny pinching, following fads and fashions, inadequate products and—yes—sheer bad luck are the most common causes of what goes wrong in organizations. The punishment of scapegoats simply proves a way to avoid placing the blame where it really lies.

By substituting a set of myths, based on supposed personal accountability for everything, today’s macho management approaches actually prevent organizations from improving what most needs to be improved—their systems and policies.

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My weekly posting on Lifehack.org deals with the feelings some people have that they are dogged in life by bad luck.

Is this truly the cause of their misfortunes? I don’t think so.

Any “luck” has to be random, and the essence of randomness is that it doesn’t conform to any kind of pattern.

Here’s a brief extract from the article:

No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist). When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.


The best way to to improve your fortune is to decide that what happens is nearly always down to you, then focus on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff. Your “fate” depends on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage . . . or just complain about them?

You can read the rest of the article here: Do you suffer from bad luck?

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