Tuesday, May 08, 2020
Should business priorities dictate so much else?
Pressure from the “money men” is often blamed for increasing stress on managers and, through them, on the organization as a whole. Why should this be?Wall Street, like all stock markets, began as a way to raise money from people who wanted to take a share in the profits of the businesses that they invested in. Now it seems to drive everything else. At least when sharing in the profits is your goal, your interest is in a steady flow of good dividends. That’s a medium-term objective—maybe sometimes a long-term one too. So how did the modern craze for instant gratification arise?
Nowadays, most of the people on Wall Street are traders. They make their money by buying and selling shares, or gambling on share movements via so-called “financial derivatives.” Dividends are of little interest. Many businesses no longer pay any. Long-term success is also a minor concern, since few traders hold shares for the longer term. They want profits, and they want them now, so they can use them to trade some more.
The result is rampant short-termism. Buying and selling (trading) is essentially a short-term business. Besides, the traders have little or no interest in what they are trading, just as long as they can sell for more than they paid—hopefully in the shortest possible time—and move on. Hence the emphasis on quarterly figures as almost the sole criterion of success.
We also live in a time when it has become fashionable to believe that the ideas and practices of capitalist business apply to many other walks of life. Government departments, health care facilities, charitable organizations, even the arts all try to organize themselves based on the business world.
Capitalism may well be the best way that people have yet found for dealing with business and creating wealth, but it’s arguable whether its priorities should be the ones that determine so much of our lives. As a purely financial outlook, it has difficulty in dealing with “soft” human issues like compassion, altruism, and care. It cannot easily recognize value that can’t be counted or measured.
It would make more sense for us to accept that capitalism is the best we’ve done so far in one aspect of life, but keep it in its place. For the rest of our choices, other approaches need to be found. And even in the business world, I can see no reason why modern capitalist consumerism should be taken to be the last word. It may be as good as it gets at present, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using our creativity and brainpower to find even better, more civilized, ways of organizing wealth creation in the future.
What do you think?
Friday, May 04, 2020
Slow Leadership in practice
Based on both a New York Times piece, and his own personal experience, Bob will introduce you to what has been described as “The Coolest Small Company in America.”
Look at this:
But neither the festivities nor the variety would have been possible if Zingerman’s co-founder, Paul Saginaw, had not dragged his business partner, Ari Weinzweig, to a bench in front of the deli about 15 years ago and demanded that they start thinking about where they wanted their business to wind up. Mr. Weinzweig was reluctant to break away from his routine of running the deli, then generating about $6 million a year in sales, to brainstorm. But Mr. Saginaw insisted. Two years later, the result was a vision for what they hoped to achieve by 2009 — well beyond the 5-year or even 10-year plans that most businesses scope out for themselves.Is that taking the long-term view or what?
How about this attitude to business? The deli’s prices approach New York levels and yet Zingerman’s profit margins are extremely thin. Why is that? Because of the company’s total commitment to high-quality products.
The price difference between regular turkey and free range isn’t just 20 percent higher, it’s three times as much,” Grace Singleton, who manages the deli, said. “Could we do something different? Sure. Would it be authentic and feel as great? No.”Zingerman’s shares its financial picture with its employees, pays good salaries and wages, gives generous vacation time (as much as six weeks after 20 years), plus health and dental care and food discounts. Full-time employees also receive “gain sharing,” if their part of the company exceeds its annual business plan. Could the owners increase their profits and make that bottom line look better if they took the Circuit City approach and paid as little as possible? Sure. Would that be “authentic and feel as great,” if they did? No way. Would they stay a great business and “The Coolest Small Company in America?” What do you think?
Here’s what the owners say about today’s business shibboleth, profit:
The structure also helps explain why margins remain low even as revenue has risen. To pay employees, support local producers and contribute to the community, “a big piece of it is charging enough money,” Mr. Weinzweig said. But Mr. Saginaw said profit, in itself, was not Zingerman’s motivation. “We’ve had dozens and dozens of opportunities to franchise, sell the name, take the check and walk away,” Mr. Saginaw said. Instead, Mr. Weinzweig said, the idea was to create a special experience. “Our goal in 2020 is to leave our world better than it was when we came here,” he said.If every business took that viewpoint, our world would be transformed. There would be just as much prosperity and economic growth, but all would share in it, instead of some getting all the gourmet meals and others having to make do with water and dry bread.
If a company takes the long-term view, stays committed to quality and honesty, and treats its employees in a civilized way, what more can anyone ask of it?
As Bob says in his article:
After living in Silicon Valley so long, where there is so much greed, and just about everyone seems focused on squeezing every cent [out] of everyone around them -- employees, customers, suppliers -- Zingerman’s is a refreshing reminder that financial greed isn’t always the first priority for every owner and manager.Long may Zingerman’s prosper!
Thursday, May 03, 2020
Remember mercy? Boosting forgiveness can be more useful than you think
You’ll get more productivity, fewer relationship problems, more creativity too
Pointing out other people's mistakes, fretting over our own (and working to cover them up), and plotting ways to get even are all common activities that waste time at work. being willing to forgive and forget would save this time. Better still, it would help people take the risks needed to be more creative.Alexander Kjerulf has an interesting posting on the subject of forgiveness, based on a survey by Sarah Warner, a recent graduate student of Luther College, who presented some of her research at the first Applied Positive Psychology Conference at the University of Warwick, UK.
Sarah found that workplaces with a culture of forgiveness had lower levels of interpersonal conflict and stress and higher levels of productivity. She didn’t mention creativity, but I would guess that a culture of forgiveness is good for that too. After all, creativity is mostly about trying new things, many of which are not going to work first time. If the organization will not to forgive you for these mistakes, the chances are that you will take fewer creative risks in the future.
Of course, in the macho world of Hamburger Management, forgiveness is always seen as weakness. All mistakes are punishable. Only constant “winners” are approved.
Sadly, there are no such animals. As Steve Roesler at All Things Workplace points out, if you have a Powerpoint slide with a graph whose curve always points upwards, you’re lying. I would add that if you have someone in the organization who never fails, you have a fraud, a liar, a cheat, or a cunning manipulator whom you should seriously consider firing. Everyone fails sometimes. The only way that you can produce and maintain an appearance of constant success is by lying and cheating to cover up your true blemishes.
Management staples such as performance appraisal and constant measurement of individual outputs leave little room for mercy. With every tiny blemish recored in detail, then saved to be brought up at the next appraisal, is it any wonder that people take such care to cover up errors? This may help them, but it’s a real problem for the organization. When mistakes, embarrassments, and poor results are covered up, management is denied the opportunity to put things right. Mistakes and misjudgments fester until disaster strikes, the truth can no longer be concealed, and there is panic. No one can lead an organization effectively if they are denied access to correct information, or given lies and half-truths as a means of hiding the bad news.
We all need forgiveness—very, very frequently—and we should therefore be equally ready to extend that forgiveness to other people. There are rather few mistakes in the business world that are truly unforgivable. Perhaps if we spent less time nursing our resentment, plotting to get even, and trying to point out others’ failings, we might find that we had a great deal more time to get on and do our own work better.
Monday, April 23, 2020
The problem of ambition
Is being strongly ambitious a benefit? Is searching for excellence always worth it? Whatever happened to “good enough?”
The Ancient Greeks had a word for the behavior shown by over-ambitious people who went too far in striving for excellence. The word was hubris. Not in our modern use of the word as meaning little more than being somewhat too big for your boots, but in its original sense of causing your own destruction by drawing down the wrath of the gods. The writers of Greek tragedies focused on showing the effects of hubris on previously successful people: men like Oediipus the king, who blinded himself, and King Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. In our modern world, we have forgotten that the pursuit of excellence can sometimes go too far: that crossing certain boundaries turns success into a nightmare of deceit, stress, and guilt. Maybe we ought to recover this idea, for the sake of our sanity.This is something that it’s worth thinking about; a saying I came across somewhere (I can’t recall quite where), but which has stuck with me because it seems to express something profound about the way that most of us live our lives:
80 percent of the problems in your life come from wanting what you don’t have. The other 20 percent come from getting it.Our consumer society cannot exist without a large majority of people constantly wanting what they don’t (yet) have. Advertisers and marketers spend their lives promoting craving in potential customers: not just a craving for particular products, but a generalized sense that you are never complete. There is always something new to long for—and seek to find some way of possessing. Always something more to pull you on into greater and greater hubris.
People in the past shared the belief that mankind began in an ideal state (the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden) and, since then, has descended in a more and more debased and troubled existence. Nearly everyone nowadays believes the exact opposite. Our superficial assumption of progress convinces us that each year will be better, more prosperous, more plentiful than the last. Success can never be too great. Like the profits in commercial endeavors, the only acceptable direction is upwards—and the faster the better. But is it true?
Our belief in unending progress is just as much a cultural myth as those ancient beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a subsequent fall from grace. Before we dismiss these stories as simple pessimism, consider this: they actually offer us a clear-sighted view that going too far typically extracts a terrible price in mental health; one that quickly destroys all the success that went before. With constant ambition and desire for more comes constant anxiety. What if your progress falters? What if others do better than you? What if you suffer some significant failure that thrusts you backwards? What if the only way to go on winning seems to be to lie, cheat, and use any means to destroy rivals? What if failure, however small, flips you into depression, or even a psychotic episode?
It’s no coincidence that the highest achievers are typically the most anxious and stressed. Those who have gained most have most to lose. Stress hits hardest at those who are most productive and successful. They live with a constant sense of fear. They worry whether their progress is good enough. Whatever they earn, whatever level in the hierarchy they reach, however many goods they buy, there is always more, just out of reach. They cannot relax because they never reach the point where they feel relaxation can be justified. They have lost the notion of “good enough;” of reaching a state where what they have is sufficient, so that they can now spend time enjoying it. They never recognize the point when productivity becomes less important than pleasure.
To find pleasure in your life, you first need to come to terms with the fact that constant economic striving and enjoying yourself are rarely fully compatible. Making time and space for pleasure usually demands stepping back from all that striving to be the leading rat in the race. “Good enough” can be better than excellence, if the price of achieving excellence is continual overwork with a thick topping of anxiety and guilt.
Even for businesses, the cost of being the market leader can become too high to tolerate. A good business that provides sufficient wealth for those whom it employs, some reasonable stability for the future, and a lifestyle that has a good balance of pleasure as well as productivity, used to be the ideal. Only in recent times has that image been replaced with that of an organization that is never satisfied with anything; and which automatically responds to meeting any goal by setting another, more demanding than before.
We need to see this for what it is: not some profound and inescapable truth, but just another cultural norm that will, one day in the future, seem just as strange as the wearing of powdered wigs and knee-breeches seems to us today. For most of us, “good enough” is in truth very good indeed. Pushing too far beyond it often produces more stress than is compatible with a good life. The problem of ambition has always been the same: knowing when to stop.
Friday, April 20, 2020
The Pyschopathology of Organizations
Some of today’s organizations are psychologically and ethically sick. Maybe that is why the people who work in them begin to act in sick ways too.
Business thinking has fallen into a number of bad habits in the past few decades, but one of the worst is the assumption that bad actions, whether in the general office or the boardroom, are solely due to the personality, character, or ethical problems of individual perpetrators. Firing the people involved, or disciplining them in some other way, is seen as providing a total solution to such issues. The slate is wiped clean. This is not the case, as I will show.We rightly expect people to be held accountable for their actions—especially those in positions of power and trust. Every action represents some more or less conscious choice, and we all need to acknowledge that our choices have consequences. Yet personal decisions, whether inspired by problems of personality, defective values, or ethical blindness, are far from the only factors at work when things go wrong. Organizations can become damaged, perverted, or just plain sick within themselves, just as much as individuals can. A single, mentally sick individual has pointlessly destroyed more than 30 innocent lives at Virginia Tech. A single ethically and procedurally sick organization can take away thousands of people’s jobs, destroy their pensions, or subject its workers to daily cruelty, humiliation, and exploitation.
Human organizations are hybrid entities: part mechanical systems and constructions; part human communities, with all the emotional and psychological baggage that entails. Probably the best way to see them is as biological entities. We humans, for example, have some largely mechanical parts to our bodies (bones and muscles), which grow and develop over time to provide the necessary framework. What animates and directs that framework is our brain: the thinking, feeling, judging part, with its own complex of automatic systems and conscious choices.
As our bodies may develop handicaps, sicknesses, and diseases, so organizations can become crippled and distorted.In much the same way, organizations develop frameworks of systems, policies, money flows, and procedures, directed and animated by the human element. As our bodies may develop handicaps, sicknesses, and diseases, so organizations can become crippled and distorted so that their systems work in negative and destructive ways.
When that happens, the organization itself becomes sick and provides an unhealthy, even poisonous, culture and context for work. In time, if the people within it fail to take action to heal the sickness, they too are made sick by the context of negativity and the warped outlook all around them.
Stanford Psychology Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in 1971, using prison inmates, in which he showed how systems, situations, and roles involving power influence human behavior. His book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, isn’t an easy read. The examples are too often of horrific cruelty and abuse and the style is somewhat ponderous and hectoring. But the point remains that there is good evidence, culled from multiple sources, that sick organizational and social contexts quickly make the people within them act in equally sick and perverted ways. It’s just a question of which comes first: whether the apples in the barrel were bad, or (his view) the barrel was bad and infected the apples.
What we see all too often today are organizations rich in spreadsheets, but with withered or distorted hearts.Within the business world, I suspect that there are both bad apples and bad barrels. We seem to be very aware of the first and somewhat blind to the second. Yet those in charge of organizations surely have the duty to correct or root out their own sick systems and attitudes, just as much as they have a duty to deal with badly behaved individuals. If we, as a society, ought to refuse to tolerate jerks in positions of power—as we certainly ought—we should also refuse to tolerate organizational systems and approaches that create more jerks, more cruelty, and more barbarism in our workplaces.
What we see all too often today are organizations rich in spreadsheets, but with withered or distorted hearts. Places where people are treated as costly but inanimate objects, to be exploited and casually discarded, not as fellow human beings with hopes, dreams, and feelings. Work in an organization like that for too long and you risk seeing that distorted situation as normal. You become infected with the sickness all around you.
Do businesses exist to create profits? Of course. Is it acceptable to create profits in any way that works? Surely not, just as it is unacceptable in a civilized society to extract information by means of torture, even if that method seems to some to be likely to deliver what is wanted.
Business and organizational leaders must be held accountable for more than the financial health of their enterprises. The emotional, ethical, and psychological health of those systems is also their responsibility. They would do well to give that much more thought than they do.
Tuesday, April 17, 2020
Antidotes to Hamburger Management
How to rid yourself and your organization of poisonous management.
Hamburger Management is management based on always doing whatever is quickest, simplest, and (above all) cheapest. Hamburger Managers provide the kind of leadership that is best described as: “Never mind the quality, look how fast it goes, and how cheap it is.” Sadly, this approach is being forced on a great many otherwise perfectly reasonable and responsible people by the continual demands of those at the top to meet inflated expectations of short-term profit. If you have been forced in the past into Hamburger Management approaches, can you find a way out? Are there antidotes to purge you of the poison? There are. Here are some of the best.Is there hope for Hamburger Managers? Can they go to re-hab, like politicians and media stars, to be returned to society as reformed characters? Is there a de-toxification program? Indeed there is, and it doesn’t need you to stay in some remote resort or engage the services of a shrink. Let us reveal all.
One of the best antidotes to Hamburger Management is kindness in leadership and business dealings. That was the basis of my article: Is the Worm Turning? Macho, grab-and-go management styles, like Hamburger Management, are universally callous towards anyone who gets in the way of creating maximum (personal) profit in minimum time. In a civilized society, that really ought to be intolerable. If your words and actions are always marked by kindness, you cannot fall into Hamburger Management ways. It’s not possible. Be kind, always, and you’ll be free of the poison at once.
Check your ego at the door when you arrive each morning. I’ve long held the belief that the best way to “inspire” bosses to act in civilized ways would be to make any other behavior socially unacceptable. Nothing would change hearts and minds quicker that the prospect of being ostracized at the golf club; or no longer being invited to dinner by the “right kind of people” in the locality. Egotism is an intrinsic part of Hamburger Management. These macho management styles are sold to people on the basis that getting things done, even when it all seems impossible given the limited time and resources, will make you look good. And egotism is all about me, isn’t it? My career, my targets, my job security. If, instead, what you experienced was being shunned by all reasonable people, no one would stick with Hamburger Management for a week.
In a past posting called Take Any Two From Four . . ., I explained that work can be quick, cheap, innovative or good—but you can only have two of those qualities at any one time. Good, innovative work isn’t going to be cheap or quick, because it takes time and resources to break away from the dead hand of conformity. Quick, cheap ways of doing business (the hallmark of Hamburger Management) more or less ensure that the work done won’t be good (too expensive) or innovative (too slow and risky). That’s how good businesses go downhill, by focusing on short-term profits instead of lasting value. To remove the poison of Hamburger Management from your systems, as well as your own approach to leadership, make sure that you concentrate on long-term approaches whenever you can. Sort-term actions should flow from long-term strategies, not the other way around.
Hamburger Management cannot exist in the presence of genuine respect for others. The surest way to alienate and demotivate others is to deny them respect. Macho, grab-and-go management does this all the time. People are treated as “human resources:” depersonalized objects that are simply costs, tolerated only as long as there is no cheaper alternative. If you can do without them, fine. If you can’t, but can outsource the work somewhere where people will work for much lower pay, also fine—even if those people are little better than slaves in some Third-World sweatshop. The minute you feel that you can find a cheaper way, forget any soft ideas about loyalty to your workers. As Circuit City showed recently, with a Hamburger Management approach you shouldn't waste time considering the possibility that what you’re doing is barbaric and marks you and your business out as *ssholes on a massive scale.
Nothing slows business down more than time spent in pointless meetings, but it’s not the kind of slowing down we advocate at Slow Leadership. Too many meetings have absolutely nothing to do with communicating information—and still less with listening to other peoples’ thoughts and ideas. Here’s a very quick list of the most common—but almost never acknowledged—reasons for holding meetings:
- Demonstrating your power and authority by proving that you can call people together, regardless of how busy they are—just because you want to.
- Giving yourself a platform for pontificating and polishing your ego.
- Playing office politics. Meetings are a great forum for practicing one-upmanship and humiliating political opponents.
- Holding fake consultations so that you can claim others were party to some decision. A great way to cover your butt if things go wrong.
- Demonstrating how busy and important you are (because you have to attend so many meetings).
There are only two genuine reasons for holding a meeting:
- Sharing information when you are willing—and able—to answer any questions immediately; and when the subject matter is such that large groups of people need to get identical information at the same time.
- Situations when you are willing to seek genuine ideas, thoughts, and feedback from the participants and listen to what is said honestly and with an open mind.
Instead of cluttering up people’s time with silly meetings, constant phone calls to “check progress,” foolish demands for progress reports, and other childish activities based on your own suspicions and fears, why not try trusting your subordinates to do their jobs? Give them the space, time, trust, and support to make it happen. If more corporations tried that approach, I believe they would discover they have plenty of time to get everything done, without all the stress and long hours. All they need to do is to free themselves from pointless reporting, useless meetings, the collection of meaningless statistics, petty rules, the preparing of endless PowerPoint presentations with justifications for any and every minor action, and all the other common means of covering those so-delicate executive butts.
Good business is not about being quick, simple, or cheap. It’s about being better at what you do than anyone else. And that includes service, quality, and innovation too. That’s why Hamburger Management is ultimately self-defeating. Rushing, cutting corners, compromising quality and innovation to get quick profits, sacrificing long-term success for short-term gratification, strutting around like an oversized rooster, feeding your already-inflated ego, and pretending that you are John Wayne are the marks of an immature mind and a crippled personality.
That’s not business, it’s personal display, like a stag at the rutting ground. Save it for trying to impress other gullible idiots. The rest of us already think you’re a total jerk.
Friday, April 13, 2020
Whose fault is it anyway?
Making yourself responsible for what you cannot control makes for a miserable life.
Are you accountable for your actions—or responsible for the results? Can you be held responsible for making something happen—or only for the way that you try? Get the answer wrong and you’re setting yourself up for a good deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Sadly, Hamburger Managers habitually confuse accountability with responsibility, especially when it comes to pressuring their people to serve up unrealistic targets. It sounds tough and practical to say that winning is all that matters, but it’s still nonsense. No one can control events or outcomes, not even today’s ultra-macho managers. Yet many are half-killing themselves by trying.Yesterday, I wrote about the negative role played by an overdeveloped ego. Now I want to consider a related issue. Many organizations and executives treat accountability and responsibility as the same. More demand specific results and state that someone or other is being held responsible for getting them. By doing so, they’re causing stress and confusion on a large scale. Keeping the meaning of these common terms clear is essential for proper leadership; as is understanding what someone should rationally be held accountable for and what they certainly should not.
If you’re accountable for something, it means that you are the person who is liable to be called to account for progress, success, or failure: to “give an account” explaining what happened, what you did in response, and why. It doesn’t mean that you need to do everything associated with that project yourself. Nor that success or failure ultimately depends on your actions. Most of what happens in the world does so by chance, or due to such a complex tangle of causes and related effects that it is impossible to determine the exact reason (if there was one). To be accountable means that you have to answer for your actions (or lack of them). It does not mean that you should be blamed for every failure or congratulated for every success. Most have nothing to do with you. Whatever you did had no effect on them.
This is tough for many people to accept. As a species, humans like simple, clear causes that produce obvious effects. Our brains are programmed to try to find them. The human sub-species that works in the media is especially prone to inventing simple reasons for every event. You need only listen to the pundits discussing the day’s trading on Wall Street to hear an impossibly complex set of global financial interactions reduced to some bland statement that trading was up or down due to something simple, like a speech, one set of figures, or “nervous investors.”
To be responsible for something is generally understood to imply that you—and whatever you did or left undone—were the direct cause of whatever happened. It’s all down to you to control people and events to bring about the desired result.
Thinking like this is giving yourself ludicrous airs, but the ego loves it. It puts you right at the center of events. It makes you important, critical, essential to success. Egotistical Hamburger Managers typically make this kind of claim, pointing to positive outcomes and saying: “I did that.” But if you’re the cause of the good things, you have to be the cause of the bad ones too. Now that’s not so nice. Of course, people are quick to attribute failures and messes to others, to unexpected events, and to simple chance. All true. But if the failures are down to chance most of the time, won’t the successes be due to the same random combination of events?
Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.Treating other people as responsible is also tempting because it sounds tough and makes life simple. If Smith is responsible for sales and sales fall, fire Smith. It’s his or her fault. There’s no wasting time trying to find out what went wrong. No potentially embarrassing inquiry that might suggest others above Smith had some part to play in the failure. Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.
You can see this attitude all around us. The corporation is in trouble? Fire the CEO (with an enormous golden parachute) and hire a new, higher profile one (with a huge signing-on bonus.) And if things get no better afterwards? Fire the new CEO—then repeat as required.
Does anyone ever reckon up the cost of these repeated restructurings? Or ask why so few of them appear to work? These people may have been accountable for some or all of the business, but they are rarely (if ever) personally responsible for what happened. Firing them is a purely emotional response: a wish to see someone suffer (though the golden parachutes make it the kind of suffering most of us would love to volunteer for!). It has no logic to it. What’s needed is to take the time to find out, if possible, what the real problems are and correct those.
If this was only about fat cat executives, most of us would find it tough to care. Sadly, it applies at all levels. Bosses hold subordinates responsible (not just accountable) for all kinds of events outside anyone’s capacity to influence. Worse still, people hold themselves responsible: accepting the blame for past failures and tormenting themselves with guilt and regrets.
I wince when I read nonsense like the idea that each of us is somehow responsible for what happens in our lives, probably through some magical psychic transference. It’s total rubbish. We are accountable for our actions—always—but we cannot affect large parts of what happens in our lives and careers in any way. All we can do is react to events as sensibly as we can.
It’s time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic.It’s time to drop the silly, Hamburger Management nonsense that claims people must take responsibility for events that are wholly, or even partly, outside their control; time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic. Superstition believes that unrelated events effect one another (the stars and events on earth). Lynching someone because bad things happened is the response of a primitive society. And there’s no evidence to suggest that the gods, let alone a supposedly loving God, spend their time messing up peoples’ lives as punishment for various sins.
By all means let us hold those in positions of power accountable for what they do—sensible, stupid, or corrupt—but forget feeding their egos (and our desire to hit back) by pretending that they are personally responsible for every outcome. Luck plays a huge part in the career of every successful person. Few executives, even CEOs, have much personal power to do more that torment their subordinates.
Stand back, slow down, and accept that most of life’s problems will take careful exploration to understand properly. Action without understanding is foolish. But then, Hamburger Management is the most foolish approach of all.
Thursday, April 12, 2020
Of Expansive Egos and Hamburger Managers
Can organizations afford what corporate egos are costing them?
"To have without possessing,
do without claiming,
lead without controlling;
this is mysterious power."
Tao Te Ching, Lau Tzu (tr. Ursula K. Le Guin)
Ego and egotism are endemic to Hamburger Management, but fatal to good leadership. Egotism causes over-optimism, over-confidence, and arrogance. Big egos inflate people into domineering monsters focused on petty personal victories, who wreck relationships and rush to take on too much, in the erroneous belief that they’re the only people sufficiently capable. Then such people demand too much from their teams to sustain their crazy, inflated Superman or Wonder Woman images. Giving up that ego would cut everyone’s stress—and transform their leadership too.Buddhists have long claimed a false belief in the ego is a principle cause of human suffering. I’m inclined to agree with this. In the Buddhist view, there is no ego. It’s a mental concept without true substance, generated by incorrect thinking and a poor grasp of reality. Because it isn’t something that can exist on its own, it must be constantly fed with the three elements in the quotation at the head of this posting: possession, claims of personal “ownership” of events and outcomes, and delusions of control. Exactly the same behavior characterizes most Hamburger Managers.
What happens when a leader can’t have without possessing? Everything becomes his. It’s his team, his authority, his areas of responsibility and command, his decisions alone. No one must be allowed to share his power—or his rewards—so no one can share the burdens either. Any questioning of his decisions becomes a personal attack and proof of disloyalty. To take anything of his away threatens his very existence.
This is a quick route to paranoia and dictatorship. The leader who can’t let go of his ego-driven urge to possess everything can’t accept colleagues, only subordinates. He can’t allow others to do whatever they can do as well—or better—than him, in case that makes him look insufficient. No one can help him, no one can truly support him, because he cannot share anything. In his crazed urge to possess it all, he sets himself up to lose it all instead.
Similarly, the leader who claims every success, every gain, every useful action as hers frustrates all those around her. She cannot do without claiming. It’s all hers—except the failures, of course. She won the order (though she never met the customer); she had that great new idea (after someone else explained it to her); she’s the one solely responsible for exceeding the budget and cutting costs (though her team created the plan, implemented it, and bore the burdens of overwork and long hours).
In reality, all that she’s responsible for (but never claims) is alienating her people, irritating her colleagues, and becoming so filled with inflated ideas of her own importance that she’s a universal pain in the butt. Why is there any need to claim anything? If it’s done—and done well—what more is required? If someone else did it, give them the praise they’re due. Only peoples’ needy, insecure egos demand constant reassurance it’s all down to them.
Good leaders don’t need to exercise control as they lead. People follow them because they want to; because they like, respect, admire, emulate, and even love the leader. There’s no call for rules, enforcement, punishment, and informers: all the paraphernalia of the typical command-and-control, macho culture of many organizations. They have to operate like police states because the leaders’ egos crave the false reassurance that they’re in control. The more any leader resorts to commands and enforcement, the less he or she leads. The ego is calling all the shots.
I’ve drawn these pictures in harsh outlines, but we’ve all suffered under leaders who show some—sometimes most—of these destructive behaviors, at least in less extreme forms. Egotism is a pervasive curse. The claim that all power corrupts is a direct consequence of the malignant ability of an inflated ego to turn a previously pleasant, competent manager into a leadership monster.
True leadership sometimes seems to be a mysterious power—but only because the leader doesn’t appear to do anything except be herself. It looks effortless, yet it’s powerful beyond expectation. She gives away authority, power, position, and recognition as if she has no interest in such possessions—which is true. She also hands out rewards, praise, respect, and support to all who merit them; then receives more in return than she gave away. She has everything, yet claims nothing for herself. She gets everything done, yet points to others as the ones who did it. Ask them and they’ll tell you she was the one responsible. They did it for her, under her oversight, to meet her specifications. She never appears to control anything. There’s no need. Everyone rushes to what what she asks. Better still, they strain to anticipate her wishes before she ever articulates them. They love working for her and they love her. Why? Because she makes them feel wanted, needed, and valued.
Let go of your ego. It’s a burden that you don’t need. Besides, it doesn’t really exist—unless you act as if it does. To achieve the power that enables, not corrupts, stop possessing, claiming, and controlling . . . and try caring and leading instead.
Tuesday, April 10, 2020
Umm . . . Which way now?
Taking time to get the message straight isn’t an indulgence. It’s essential.
General, later President, Ulysses S. Grant was a fine soldier. He was also a precise and lucid communicator. People said that when Grant issued orders, nobody could have the slightest doubt of exactly what he wanted them to do. Sadly, many leaders lack Grant’s clarity in explanation. Throughout Corporate America, people struggle with ambiguous roles, clashing areas of responsibility, muddled instructions, and bosses whose words don’t match their intentions, and whose actions don’t seem to match either. The result is confusion, frustration, and a tremendous waste of time, money, and organizational resources.
Appointing someone to a job is, at its simplest, giving them the instruction to carry out certain tasks and fulfill the associated responsibilities. If this role isn’t clearly described—or if the organization’s understanding and expectations differ from what the role holder understands (let alone from what has been stated openly—it will be impossible for that person to carry out their job correctly. The same goes for objectives and targets. If these aren’t clearly described and understood, the chances of meeting them will be poor. When managers are stressed and harried, their typical response is to give hurried instructions and get on to the next task. And since coming back to clarify or get further informations is often treated as a sign of weakness, stupidity, or plain incompetence, it’s no surprise that many people prefer to do the best they can with whatever faulty or incomplete data is available to them.
The language that many of today’s managers (especially Hamburger Managers, obsessed with speed, cutting corners, and showing off at the same time) use to explain what they want is very often ambiguous, incomplete, and cluttered with jargon. Maybe they don’t know clearly themselves. Maybe they are in too much of a hurry to take the time to work it out, or make sure the other person understands. Maybe they share the foolish assumption that anyone who is competent will be able to work it out for him or herself. Maybe it simply sounds tougher (and is, in reality, so much less demanding) to rap out an instruction and get away before anyone starts asking awkward questions—or suggesting that the target being set is impossible anyway.
People are given instructions and targets that they don’t fully understand, don’t believe are attainable, or interpret in ways that the boss never expected.A team I knew once attended a workshop where the organization’s senior managers exhorted them to “delight the customer.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But what does it mean? The easiest way to delight customers is to give them valuable goods and services for little or nothing in terms of payment. Is that what the top brass intended?
Probably not, but that’s more or less how one or two team members understood what they’d been told. Add all kinds of value and charge nothing for it. The customers loved it—until angry bosses demanded to know why these managers were giving the company’s profits away. Most of those present interpreted it in the light of the old adage: “The customer is always right.” They therefore happily agreed to customer requests and timescales that they knew could not be met, producing angry responses when what they’d promised in the name of “delighting the customer” turned out to disappoint them instead.
These are simple examples, but the problem is widespread. People are given instructions and targets that they don’t fully understand, don’t believe are attainable, or interpret in ways that the boss never expected.
Anyone can set a wildly challenging set of objectives.What’s needed is for all leaders to take the time to make sure everyone understands what is needed and interprets their tasks in the same way. It’s vital that the boss makes his or her expectations clear and unambiguous; and that those who must fulfill them agree that they are feasible within the time-scales set and the resources available. Anyone can set a wildly challenging set of objectives. But if the people who must fulfill them don’t believe they are possible, they won’t try very hard to make them work.
What would have happened if, instead of being told to “delight the customer,” those team members had been given some practical examples, then asked to come up with their own ideas on the best ways to build strong customer relationships and add value to the company’s products and service?
Instead of a vague exhortation, open to endless interpretation, they would have been given a clear objective; one that was both feasible and likely to be interesting to work on. They would also have been given the message that the organization respected and valued their ideas, experience, and intelligence. Would they know what to do? Certainly. Would they have been interested and confident enough to do it? I believe that they would. Just about everyone values being respected and taken seriously. And if some lacked the knowledge or skills to produce useful ideas, the gap would be clear right away.
People who experience no respect from those above them give none in return.Every piece of communication in a hierarchy conveys multiple messages. Not just what to do, what’s expected, or who’s responsible. How much time and care is spent on making sure the message is correctly understood also gives a powerful signal of how much respect the organization has for the person receiving it. Research has shown many times that the quickest way to induce stress is to put people in a pressure situation and deny them any control over their responses and action. People who experience no respect from those above them give none in return. Those who have no input to the way their work is organized, allocated, and assessed experience growing tfrustration and alienation.
No general can be successful if his orders aren’t clearly understood by those who have to carry them out. No leader can produce results with a team that’s confused about what she wants them to do. And no organization can operate efficiently if roles are ambiguous, targets are impossible, and the words of the people in charge shrouded in platitudes and jargon.
Clear, respectful communication is a necessity, not an option. Taking the time to get it right is more important to corporate success than almost any other action. Those macho, empty-headed leaders who neglect this part of their job in favor of posturing, kissing up to those above, playing office politics, and blaming their staff for every mistake are incompetent jerks who should be fired. They’re the type who use catch-phrases like: “We have no room for passengers.” That’s true . . . only they are the most useless passengers of all.
Wednesday, April 04, 2020
The right direction for civilized work
Mutual respect, not macho posturing, is the true basis for business success
Business has no room any more for the kind of short-sighted, closed-minded autocrat who sees people as merely “employment units,” to be bought as cheaply as possible and used with ruthless disregard for their welfare until they are replaced by others, fresher and less wounded. That’s how plantation owners treated their slaves 150 years ago. It was a disreputable way of operating then and nothing has changed to make it any more acceptable. Isn’t it time that we demanded better from our business leaders? Isn’t it time that they stopped destroying wealth by clinging to outdated leadership notions and came into the 21st century?On Sunday last, Bob Sutton had this to say on his blog:
Today’s New York Times has a glowing review of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George (Former CEO of Medtronic, a Jim Collins “Good to Great” leader, and now a Professor at Harvard Business School teaching leadership), with help from Peter Sims. The book is based on interviews with 125 other leaders and executives like Starbuck’s Howard Schultz and Xerox’s Ann Mulcahy. These cases—in combination with George’s accomplishments—show that leaders who create humane organizations that really care about their people and their customers—and don’t just view them as units that exist for the purposes of extracting “as much economic value as possible” every minute of every day—not only can thrive financially, they do it in such a way that people can travel through their days with dignity [My italics]. And as George shows with his cases of successful leaders, they can also have a life outside of work.For years, management orthodoxy has been based on the idea that the key to business success lay in controlling costs, especially the costs of employing people. Employ as few people as possible, pay them as little as you can, and work them as hard as you can get away with. And if employment costs and laws in the developed world are becoming an issue, ship the work to somewhere in the Third World, where workers will accept a pittance and there are few, if any, laws to regulate corporate behavior.
This is the orthodoxy that has created Hamburger Management. Bob Sutton, along with Bill George and many other successful leaders, are doing us a marvelous service by pointing out how foolish and short-sighted it is. As a business creed, the “minimizing costs is everything” school leads to management barbarism, contempt for customers (think of most airlines today), and fat-cat executives caught out in dubious schemes and ethical blunders of all kinds. It’s the thinking behind companies firing experienced staff and replacing them with cheap newcomers. And it doesn’t only stink as a way of handling employees, it’s bad for business.
According to Management Issues:
. . . a study by insurance and financial services company MetLife has found that keeping key workers happy, challenged and motivated is becoming more important to U.S businesses than controlling costs. Employee retention was identified as the most important priority by more than half of employers overall polled, with retailers (62 per cent) and the service sector (59 per cent) placing an even greater emphasis on the need to retain people.The conventional cost-cutting, macho, grab-and-go managers are stuck in the past; in a time when employees were mostly interchangeable, whether they shoveled coal, shuffled paper, or handed out goods in a store. Sure, some did the job better than others, but the differences weren’t too great. The job saw to that, since work was mostly fairly simple, repetitious, and could be learned quite quickly.
There are decreasing numbers of jobs that nearly anyone can do quickly, and rapidly increasing demands for the kind of people who are in shortest supply: the most able, the most highly-skilled, and the most inventive and passionate about what they do.Nearly all those jobs have already been swept away by machines and computers. Even the job of a foot-soldiers in today's armies takes considerable training. That's why few, if any, generals are in favor of the draft: they have little need for large numbers of untrained, unwilling recruits. By the time draftees were sufficiently trained to be useful, their draft period would be over. Business is no different. There are decreasing numbers of jobs that nearly anyone can do quickly, and rapidly increasing demands for the kind of people who are in shortest supply: the most able, the most highly-skilled, and the most inventive and passionate about what they do.
What’s left is mostly professional work, demanding extensive skills, high intelligence, and (if you are to beat the competition) creativity and ingenuity. To be good, people need considerable training. You can’t lose them and pick someone up on the street tomorrow as a replacement. Professional staff replacement is expensive, chancy, and creates a drag on the business that no one needs. In the same article quoted above, another survey is mentioned, covering 11,852 employees. It found more than 60 percent of employees were planning to look for a new job in the next three months, nearly double the proportion that employers believed were looking.
I’ve been arguing for a while that managers and leaders who engage in Hamburger Management aren’t just jerks; they’re actively harming the businesses that they work for.There has been a saying around for many years that, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Today, if you treat people like sh*t, they leave; and the only ones you’ll get to replace them will be out of the door too, as soon as they find that the fine words of recruiters aren’t matched by actual experience. Patricia Soldati quotes The Conference Board to assert that:
. . . employee engagement is a very big deal. There is clear and mounting evidence that high levels of employee engagement keenly correlates to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty. And this is not just by small margins. While differences varied from study to study, highly engaged employees outperform their disengaged counterparts by a whopping 20 – 28 percentage points!I’ve been arguing for a while that managers and leaders who engage in Hamburger Management aren’t just jerks; they’re actively harming the businesses that they work for. It’s nice to have some proof from a highly reputable source like The Conference Board.
Uncivilized modes of leadership destroy wealth, as well as destroying the peace of mind of the people subjected to them. It’s high time that business schools stopped teaching old-style management ideas, stemming from Taylor’s “scientific management,” as anything other than a historical curiosity and a dreadful warning; much like you learn in history about the French Revolution and the guillotine. And it’s long past the time when any executive who fails to create a civilized working atmosphere, and high levels of creativity and engagement in his or her team, can be allowed to stay in a responsible position.
If shareholders want to maintain and create real wealth—as opposed to gambling on random stock movements, which is what many of them do—they should seriously consider forcing the necessary changes in the management of the companies whose shares they hold. After all, it’s their money that these macho jerks are wasting.
Friday, March 30, 2020
Taking the time for complexity
Over-simplification and management by slogans threatens to drag us all into mediocrity
Hamburger Management is big on simplicity—and speed. It tries to find quick and simple answers to everything, since there’s no time available to develop a proper understanding of often complex situations. True experts in a topic can often make something extremely complex seem understandable by anyone, but that comes only as a result of decades of deep thought and experience. What Hamburger Management offers is simply the Disneyfication of leadership.
We live in a complex world. We’re complex creatures, full of complex thoughts and emotions. Nothing about us is straightforward, from the trillions of trillions of connections our brains can make to the way we’ve taken something as necessary as the continuance of our species and turned it into a maze of hopes, desires, fears and opportunities for righteous condemnation. Many of today’s organizations are massive—financially, geographically, and in terms of products handled and people employed. It’s probably fair to say that much of modern life, but especially business life, has never been more complex, interconnected, and far-reaching in its effects.
And still, despite all of this, managers and business leaders remain hooked on the notion that there’s a simple, quick answer to everything.
The myth that life is simple undermines comprehension, decision-making, learning, and even happiness.We’re urged to “keep it simple, stupid.” Complex projects, requiring decisions that may result in investments of millions of dollars, must be reduced to an “elevator speech” of thirty seconds or less. Opinions on matters so difficult and involved they almost defy comprehension are delivered in fifteen-second sound-bites. The Powerpoint presentation—that modern obsession designed to reduce every communication to a list of bullet points—has replaced any kind of reasoned argument, or careful explanation of options, evidence, and risks. Executives rush from meeting to meeting, rarely allowing themselves the time either to consider what they are about to decide, or reflect on what they have just accepted or turned down.
In an atmosphere like this, it become impossible to learn anything. The very best that can be done is to apply simplistic rules of thumb and take mostly emotionally-based decisions. Thoughts and the weighing of evidence take time. Emotional responses are virtually instant; plus they come with an impressive feeling of certainty, even if that feeling is based on almost nothing tangible. Is it any wonder that, in an age of news broadcasts reduced to slogans and sound bites sandwiched between far more extensive advertising, discussion programs aimed at producing confrontation rather than insight, and the written word reduced to books hyping “The Secret” and other panaceas for every known situation, few people even grasp the pressing need to slow down and allow yourself time to sort out fact from fiction and carefully-constructed spin?
The myth that life is simple undermines comprehension, decision-making, learning, and even happiness. Wishing doesn’t make the wish come true. Panaceas rise and fall with monotonous regularity, each one making a fortune for its proponents, then sinking almost without trace—only to be reborn a few years later in a fresh format. There is no credible evidence that the universe responds automatically to our thoughts and wishes, let alone the business world. Intention may help focus your thinking, but it provides no guarantee of success. Simple answers are simple for a very good reason: most of them have sacrificed understanding and reality in favor of sounding good.
Facts will stand up to any scrutiny. Hype and spin cannot stand up to a single, well-chosen question.It’s a sad failing of the human race that we nearly all want something for nothing—to be able to enjoy the fruits of success without the effort (and the time) that it always takes. Since civilization began, there have been glib snake-oil salesmen peddling easy, no-fail answers to life’s problems; just as there have been gurus of every kind assuring their followers that all it takes to win happiness and salvation is obedience to their every word and a few simple “spiritual”or mental exercises—known, of course, only to them.
Embrace life’s complexity. Don’t fall prey to the naive illusion that there is a simple, easy answer to every problem. Go beneath the spin, the presentation, the marketing, to the meaning below. Demand to see the evidence. Then demand the time to test and check that evidence fully. Facts and sound logic will stand up to any scrutiny. Hype and spin cannot stand up to a single, well-chosen question. Don't be hurried. Speed is usually a principal factor in disasters of every kind. The person in a rush is the one who misses all the warning signs, cuts all the corners, and jumps to conclusions without any real evidence to back them up.
Hamburger Management urges us to operate in a multiple-choice manner in a business world full of long, complex essay questions. To be genuinely simple takes long periods of time and enormous effort devoted to understanding issues in their full complexity—plus outstanding intelligence. To be simplistic takes neither effort nor thought nor time to consider and reflect. Slow Leadership isn’t slow for no reason. It’s slow because it takes time to get complex things right. Anyone can make a mistake in a heartbeat.
There’s power and interest and potential in complexity. Why throw it away to accept today’s shoddy, simplistic alternatives? Why take the risk of getting things badly wrong, just to save time in the short-term? Won’t those hurried mistakes mean that you’ll have to spend even more time later to try to put them right?
Thursday, March 29, 2020
By their fruits ye shall know them
Bad decisions reveal bad leaders, whatever the excuses they make
How can you gauge the quality of leadership in an organization? There’s one, simple way: by looking at the decisions they make. When short-term decisions are the norm, greed is everywhere, and ethics are either ignored or seen as something to be “got around” for the sake of profit, you know that the leadership has become so riddled with Hamburger Management that it has reached rock bottom.Two news stories in two days brought home to me just how far down the scale of basic leadership competence organizations can go. One was about a company that allowed secret military information about night-vision equipment to be provided to companies abroad, including some in China. I say “allowed.” That’s too weak a word. According to a spokesperson from the US Justice Department, some of the organization’s executives not only knew that they were breaking the law, they tried to work out the best ways of doing it, so as not to be caught. The United States attorney, John L. Brownlee, said in a statement. “The criminal actions of this corporation have threatened to turn on the lights on the modern battlefield for our enemies and expose American soldiers to great harm.”
Why did they do it? To save money by outsourcing, so inflating profits.
The other story was about Circuit City. It seems they are planning to lay off more than 3000 experienced, higher-paid people and replace them with new recruits at lower wages.
Why? To boost the bottom line.
This time, even some of the financial analysts expressed surprise. The New York Times quoted one as saying:
While we view these cost cuts as clearly good for near-term earnings, they are not necessarily the way to drive longer-term operational success. It stands to reason that firing 3,400 of arguably the most successful sales people in the company could prove terrible for morale.Yet, despite this clear statement that management were making a decision that mortgages the future for short-term gain, the company’s shares rose by more than 2 percent. It seems that Wall Street still can’t manage to raise its eyes beyond the next quarter. Never mind that customers will now, presumably, be served by newer, less qualified and experienced staff when they want to buy an expensive flat-screen TV or some other expensive electronic gizmo. Who cares about providing quality service when there is money to be made?
. . . he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points.Short-termism is the essence of Hamburger Management. Yet how staff behave, especially towards customers, is telling the rest of the world—very clearly and loudly—how good the executives are as leaders. When I see poor staff, I know the leadership is crap. And don’t give me all that rubbish about blaming the quality of the people available. If management employs the cheapest people that they can hire, there’re getting what they deserve and telling potential recruits that they would rather fire you than reward you properly. As a result, good staff soon won’t be seen dead working in their organization. Worst of all, management obviously don’t care. Only the cheapest is right for their customers. Never mind the quality, feel the profits. However they slice it, it’s clear who will be to blame for the long-term decline of the business. There can be no excuses.
What about the ethics of decisions like this? Is it right to break the law and send military secrets to possibly unfriendly countries to make a buck? Is it right to fire good employees, just because you may be able to hire less good ones more cheaply? I listened to a US government official saying that he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points. I want to ask him what world he was living in. There are executives out there who would sell their children into slavery to boost the value of their stock options.
Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed.It’s high time we took a very long, careful, and objective look at the kind of business communities we in the West are allowing to develop. Do we want truly unfettered capitalism, where everything is fair and all that matters is how much profit the company reports each quarter—and how much cash the executives take away as a result? Do we want the pursuit of money and power to become the sole arbiter of what is acceptable? Do we want our business leaders to put personal greed before the public good?
If we don’t, it’s time that we found ways to rein back the less acceptable forms of corporate behavior. Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed. They don’t condone law-breaking in search of better-looking figures. Nor do civilized organizations. I have yet to hear that anyone involved in these dubious decisions has been disciplined, let alone fired.
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” it says in the New Testament. What do these decisions tell you about the businesses involved?
Wednesday, March 28, 2020
Accept it: you can’t concentrate on two things at once
Multi-tasking isn’t a solution to soaring workloads. It’s a huge part of the problem.
There are some topics that it’s worth returning to periodically; some myths that are so deeply-rooted in our culture that eradicating them is like getting rid of couch grass—you know that it will take many, many applications of weedkiller to do the job. One of these topics is multi-tasking. The more stressed people become, the more they attempt to do several jobs simultaneously. Yet research (and commonsense) strongly suggests that the human mind simply isn’t designed to work that way. Here’s another dose of anti-multitasking “weedkiller.”What is multi-tasking? It’s a process of mental juggling with tasks or thoughts: trying to handle two or more tasks simultaneously, switching constantly between tasks, or jumping through several in rapid succession. It’s become a staple of macho styles of management, especially Hamburger Management. So much so that people don’t just rely on this supposed ability to handle their crushing workloads; they boast about how many disparate jobs they can handle at the same time. It’s another case of: “I’m better than you are, because mine (my mutli-tasking) is bigger than yours.” The kind of infantile boasting that we fondly think is confined to adolescent boys, but turns out to be just as prevalent in middle-aged ones, especially after several drinks.
Of course, organizations have come to rely on this supposed multi-tasking ability to allow deeper and deeper cuts in staffing to save cost and boost short-term profits. So people pile on the work, constantly switching between tasks, while being distracted by all the e-mails, phone calls, BlackBerry messages and the like that they imagine they have to handle to prove their management and professional ability. Since there’s no time left in normal office hours for real work, what with all the pointless meetings as well, they take work home every evening and weekend, telling themselves that they’ll be able to do it then in peace and quiet.
That doesn’t work either, of course. There are domestic and family matters to attend to. Perhaps the television is on in the same room, or nearby. Other people interrupt with questions, comments, or futile requests for attention. After a day spent juggling half a dozen tasks and distractions at once, the evening or weekend is devoted, in large part, to the same thing. Stress is piled on stress. People lose sleep to work; and when they do get to bed, their brains are on hyperdrive, so sleep is patchy and interrupted.
Multi-tasking isn’t a solution. It’s a vast and growing part of the problem.Research shows convincingly that doing more than one task at a time, or jumping between tasks, especially complex ones, takes a heavy toll on productivity. This macho approach to handling greater workloads turns out to make the people who use it less productive, not more.
The truth about multi-tasking is simple. You can never have more than 100 percent of your attention available. Split it across two tasks and nothing changes. Still 100 percent. Only now each task has 50 percent—or one has 70 percent and the other 30 percent, however you choose to share out your attention. Even if you “oscillate” between the tasks, each gets only 100 percent for a limited time, before you switch back to the other one. Maybe not even that, since it is known that it can take the mind up to 15 minutes or more to get back to full attention on the task that you previously dropped. Take the average attention devoted over any period and it must be less than 100 percent (remember all the gaps with zero, plus the “warm up” periods?). Now suppose you’re multi-tasking between three or four tasks. How much of your attention will each one get? You do the math. Of course, this assumes you are ever able to put 100 percent of your attention on any task. In most organizations, that’s rarely possible, what with meetings, phone calls, e-mails, and all the other distractions.
People who believe they can multi-task effectively share a dangerous delusion: that paying attention to several things simultaneously actually increases their available attention above 100 percent, so they can still focus fully on every task. This is logical nonsense. It’s like saying you can spend your total income on food and housing and have the same amount available to spend on an expensive vacation. Of course, some people even believe that. It’s called “getting hopelessly over your head in debt.” But there are no banks or credit-card companies available to lend you more attention, even at racketeering levels of interest. However you divide up your attention, you’re stuck with the same overall amount. Just 100 percent, never more.
If you still don’t believe me, look at this research published in the extremely prestigious scientific journal “Nature.” Putting attention on something necessarily means taking it away from something else. Every distraction consumes attention. Every extra task takes attention away from all the others.
A study of brain activity in subjects performing a task in which they were asked to ‘hold in mind’ some of the objects and to ignore other objects has revealed significant variation between individuals in their ability to keep the irrelevant items out of awareness. This shows that our awareness is not determined only by what we can keep ‘in mind’ but also by how good we are at keeping irrelevant things ‘out of mind’. This also implies that an individual’s effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk. It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity.Or how about this article in the New York Times [via] ? Or this one in TIME magazine?
Our total awareness is limited to only three or four objects at any given time. We can concentrate fully on only one.Because of this “extreme limitation,” people need to control what reaches their awareness, so only the most relevant information in the environment consumes their limited mental resources. Try to fill your mind up with too many things (e.g. by multitasking) and your “limited mental resources” will be as surely overwhelmed as they would be by all those irrelevances. It will be like the party where you’re holding a glass in one hand and a full plate in the other when the Chairman comes along to shake your hand. You just know something is going to drop!
How long will it take to convince everyone, including the grab-and-go organizations and macho Hamburger Managers out there, that true multi-tasking isn’t possible? That what they are doing is lowering productivity, raising stress levels, and turning creative, productive people into semi-idiots?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it won’t be a quick fix. In the meantime, for the sake of your own sanity and health, refuse to join in the whole multi-tasking nonsense. Slow down. Only check e-mails at set times. Turn off your cellphone whenever you can. Don’t attend pointless meetings. Keep right away from inane activities like Instant Messaging people all the time. And if your boss asks you to take on still more work, ask him or her which existing items you should drop to make room.
But above all, never, never, join in all the silly boasting about how much work you can handle and how well you can multi-task. Killing yourself for your career means you won’t be around to enjoy your success, while your organization will. Remember the Latin phrase, much beloved by mystery writers, cui bono? (who benefits). Organizations benefit from multi-tasking and Hamburger Management, not employees. Why should you go along with that? Besides, as the research proves, multi-tasking makes you less effective and productive. If you’re under pressure, multi-tasking is trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Monday, March 26, 2020
What a difference a word makes!
Why “improving motivation” is rarely, if ever, the answer.
Current ideas about motivation are a prime example of management theory and jargon twisted into the service of Hamburger Management. “Improving motivation” has become a group of impersonal techniques, to be applied to people in the way that you might apply a technique to herding cattle. What if we changed the words? What if we dropped all the talk about motivation used the word “encouragement” instead?Motivation is all the rage. It’s often seen as a universal requirement for everyone, whether they are expected to motivate themselves (as many self-help gurus proclaim), or to motivate those that they supervise (as legions of consultants and corporate trainers advocate). But what is motivation? Can it live up to the exaggerated claims now being made for its almost panacea effect?
At its simplest, motivation simply means “moving.” From there, it has come to mean moving towards some goal or end point. Self-motivation (as in: “Fred is able, but lacks self-motivation) is moving yourself in some definite direction. Elsewhere, it means little more than displaying energy and enthusiasm: a willingness to take positive action and utilize skills and abilities in the required direction. And in much official and business communication, the complex and abstract phrase “lacks motivation” is preferred—as more politically correct—to the simpler English “lazy” or “indolent.”
Motivation is also used in the sense of “making others motivated.” The verb “to motivate” is a staple in management jargon. Leaders are required to motivate their people—which means to cause them to do what the leader (and their organization) wants. How is this done? Typically, by application of the age-old process of “carrot and stick.” To get the donkey (or employee) to move where you want, you must either dangle a carrot in front of its nose (an incentive, bonus, or reward desirable enough to cause forward movement in that direction); or apply a stick to the other end of the poor beast’s anatomy (disciplinary action, punishment, withdrawal of privileges) to urge it forward in that way.
I am far from the first to wonder whether any leader can actually motivate another person in the way motivation is usually seen. Incentives (actually bribes) work for a time, but are subject to rapid inflation. Today’s incentive is tomorrow’s expectation. Punishments may produce movement, but they are hardly likely to produce enthusiasm. As has been found with the use of torture (or “strong interrogation methods,” if you prefer), people will say or do many things to stop the pain, but rarely mean any of them (or offer the truth, if something else will do just as well).
There is a fundamental problem with all the talk of motivation: it ignores or glosses over a search for the real causes of poor progress. Like so many other “techniques” that have become part of Hamburger Management, it’s a flashy, superficial, supposedly simple answer to an enormous range of largely unknown problems. What if we changed the word? What if leaders were expected not to motivate their people, but to encourage them?
Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic.Encouragement (literally, filling someone with courage) has little to do with either the stick or the carrot (save when it is used as a euphemism). To encourage someone, you must get to know them, find out their strengths, help them overcome their fears and the obstacles that hold them back, praise their achievements and support them through bad times. Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic. Self-motivation could be replaced by self-encouragement: the process of helping yourself by building greater self-confidence and recognizing when your fears are the real obstacles to progress.
When someone fails to make progress, or appears indolent and disinterested, there has to be a reason. It could be something in that person’s character. It could be that he or she is in the wrong job, or having personal problems, or feeling unwell, or missing some essential skill or experience, or is fearful of making a mistake, or lacks the confidence even to try. The list could go on and on.
Sadly, the typical Hamburger Manager has neither the patience nor the inclination to discover the truth. So a panacea—a catch-all solution—is quickly applied: motivation. First the carrot, then the stick. Then, if that fails (because willingness to move was never the problem), the person is labeled “unmotivated” and swiftly removed in some convenient way. It’s as if you got into your car, found that it would not go faster than 20 miles per hour, and either filled the tank with the highest octane fuel that you could find or kicked the bodywork hard as a solution to the problem. When both failed, you would next abandon the vehicle on the side of the highway and go buy another.
Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems. Instead of joining in the frenzy, they step aside and do what great leaders, great teachers, and great mentors have done since humankind began. They take time with each person and encourage them to clarify, then solve, whatever it is that is holding them back from what they can and should become. They don’t do anything to the other person. They don’t apply a technique. They neither run ahead of the other, waving a carrot, nor press on them from behind, wielding a big stick. They walk beside them, seeing what they see and helping them to understand it in ways that shift a negative and frightening prospect into something positive and inviting.
Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems.Don’t try to motivate people. Encourage them. Don’t worry whether or not you feel motivated, Recognize what needs to be done and do it, trusting that you will find the stimulus that you need from the courage and confidence that will build within you as a result. Life is always movement. Trust it.
Friday, March 23, 2020
Real courage is knowing when to let go
Why “hanging tough” is typically a sign of leadership cowardice.
Letting go of the past—even the most successful and joyful parts—is an essential discipline for everyone. Too many of us cling to burdens that no longer fulfill any useful purpose, lacking the courage to face reality and give lost hopes and failed ideas a decent burial. Stress, pain, and frustration are all we get in exchange for such misplaced loyalty. Buddhists believe that most of the troubles people face are caused by “attachment”—by our habit of clinging to ideas and situations that are long past their “use by” date. I believe there is a good deal of truth in this viewpoint, especially in the workplace.Many organizations, and their leaders, cling to products that should have been replaced, working practices that no longer work, management techniques that are long past whatever usefulness they ever had, and projects that should have been abandoned as unworkable months or years ago. People are loathe to give up what’s familiar, even when it causes them more problems than profit. They also invest so much of their self-esteem and credibility in some of these outdated activities that giving them up feels like having a limb amputated.
And while we all know that those in positions of authority—and that includes ourselves—tell lies when it seems useful to do so, the lies and half-truths that we tell ourselves always result in the most pain and frustration. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that it will all come right, if only we persist just a little longer, when the reality is that all chance of success disappeared long ago.
In today’s macho cultures—especially Hamburger Management—being a “quitter” is almost the ultimate term of abuse. It isn’t only in the political arena that the “tough guys” constantly claim that their critics are going to “cut and run.” For macho management types, almost any kind of desperate clinging to failing ideas can be supported for years by claiming that the alternative involves weakness and cowardice.
In reality, of course, letting go of something often demands extraordinary courage, especially if it was once a much-loved and extremely successful operation. Sadly, nothing in this world lasts for ever and even the most successful ideas eventually run out of steam. That’s why we all need to take time out on a regular basis to question our preconceptions and review our lives for the sins of clinging to something we ought to let pass.
When is it time to summon the courage to let go?
- When something that used to be important or successful is showing signs that its power is waning. The technique you mastered way back then that has served you so well, but now seems to have lost its edge. The approach on which you built your reputation, but which is being replaced by fresh ideas or new technologies. The beliefs that have sustained you, but whose truth you are now unsure about.
- When a hope, a dream, or an expectation isn’t going to happen. We all suffer from selective vision, clinging to our dreams and hopes long after it’s become plain that they aren’t going to come to fruition. Few things cause more frustration, misery, and stress to ourselves and those around us than hanging on to some increasingly forlorn belief. It’s like carrying a corpse around, pretending life will somehow return.
- When a plan or a project has clearly failed. Giving up is an extremely tough thing to do, especially when you know that some of your credibility is going to be lost, along with time, cash, and the organization’s expectations. It takes real courage to face reality and admit to being mistaken. Yet the alternative—to hang on until your rigid fingers are pried away from the levels of command—is still worse. Everyone else knows it has failed. Would you rather have their forgiveness for making a mistake; or their pity for being too stubborn and blind to admit to it?
- When enough is enough. Clinging to what is no longer useful causes pain to others as well as to you. You may be silly enough to accept that pain, but that does not give you the right to continue inflicting pain on others: you subordinates, your colleagues, your friends, or your family. Making others hurt to avoid admitting to your own folly is the ultimate in selfishness.
Old, outworn ideas; past achievements not firmly past; old grudges and half-forgotten wrongs; failed policies and projects that never quite made it; let them all go. Lighten your burden in this world. It’s tough enough going without weighing yourself down with all manner of useless baggage from the past.
Thursday, March 22, 2020
Does it have to taste bad to do you good?
Many of the choices people make about work are based on that set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I have explained before that I believe this group of beliefs is outmoded and counterproductive. Yet, even if you accept the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities, especially the idea that effort confers value by itself.
According to popular belief, derived from the Puritan Work Ethic, a major part of the value of any action comes from the effort it takes to achieve. Something that demands a long period of extreme effort and determination will be worth more than whatever comes to you easily.
This may—possibly—have contained some small truth when applied to activities that required either the skill that comes from years and years of experience or manual dexterity. However, it makes little sense when you apply it to knowledge work.
If knowledge-work activity takes great effort and determination, that must mean one or more of these descriptions apply:
- It’s something you have never done before, you are not competent in doing it, or you lack the know-how and training required. Basically, you are out of your depth.
- It’s something you haven’t done for a long time, so you are extremely rusty. Once again, this means you are not competent.
- You hate doing whatever it is, you have no interest or aptitude for it, and you are only involved because you have no choice. As a result, you are likely to be unmotivated as well as incompetent.
The major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it.Part of the nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that to be good for you “medicine” must taste bad. You can almost hear the worried parent saying: “I know that it tastes awful, but it’ll do you good, I promise.” But the major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it. Many worthwhile things take a good deal of effort to learn, but that doesn’t mean they should also be very laborious to do once you have learned how to do them.
It’s worth the effort to learn something well precisely because it makes doing it easy, once you have learned enough. If you follow the reasoning of the Puritan Work Ethic, learning to do something easily devalues it. To stay with high-value work, you would always need to be doing whatever you do with least ease: things you are poor at and do badly.
Part of the perverted thinking behind the Puritan Work Ethic is the idea that “mortifying the flesh” is a good thing: that the joys and pleasures of this world are temptations that take your mind away from heavenly things. If you think this way, you almost have to see ease and pleasure as somehow evil. I believe that very few people truly believe that this is the case, but some of this thinking still hangs around in the opposite belief that what costs you pain is somehow better. Americans, in particular, suffer from a residue of puritanical values from their past, which is probably why they see Europeans as likely to be lazy and prone to a lack of serious morals.
What is work? Surely it’s mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work. Work that hurts is in no way better than work that is fun. The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In the sense of gainful employment, there’s every reason to aim for a state where work contains little or no “work” (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.
Don’t fall for the nonsense of the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. If something is hard work for you, even after you’ve spent time practicing and learning how to do it properly, give it up. Focus on doing what comes easily. You’ll get better results and have a happier life.
Wednesday, March 21, 2020
What do you have time for?
What you make room for in your schedule reflects your true values
There’s a joke that goes like this: “Which three statements are never true?” The answer is:
- “My check is in the post.”
- “Of course I’m not just interested in persuading you to have sex with me.”
- “I’m from Head Office and I’m here to help you.”
What this statement actually means is either “I didn’t want to,“ or “I didn’t know how to,“ or “I spent the time doing something else more important to me.“
Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless—a helpless victim of stress, overwork, and external circumstances. Of course, you may object that you truly do have far too much to do and something had to be left out. But who decided what you did in the time available? Either you set those priorities yourself, or you’re the helpless slave of some all-consuming power that decides how you spend every moment of your time.
I’m much less interested in what people don’t have time for than what they do.
Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless.When someone says they don’t have time for family, or friends, or hobbies, or recreation, because they have so much work, what I hear is someone telling me that work is the most important aspect of their life. It comes first. Let’s be honest, it must do, or they wouldn’t accept living the way they do. If they choose to be at their desk by 5:00 a.m. and stay until 9:00 p.m., they are making success at work the only true goal of their life.
Just about everyone goes to great lengths to make time for whatever they believe is most important. We all have the same amount of time available to us, so how we use it nearly always shows what we value most. Of course we face decisions about what to do first. Of course we have to choose between competing claims on our time. Of course we probably have more demands on us than we have time to meet them. Nevertheless, we can nearly always manage to find time for what we cannot imagine doing without.
I imagine cavemen were little different. They had to choose whether to hunt, or make pots, or paint pictures on the cave walls, or help with the children and tidy up the cave. And I expect some of them grumbled that they fully intended to make a new carrying board for the baby, but the hunting took so long, and the clan chief was such a bastard about demanding help to make a new headdress, and the dog needed more training before the next hunt. and so on and so on.
When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for. Whatever you say to the contrary, that’s where your priorities lie at present.
When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for.So if you’re continually telling people that you’d like to relax more, achieve a better work/life balance, improve your education, plan to set up your own business, spend more time with your family, or generally sort out your life, but you don’t have time, you’re not telling the truth. Those things are lower down your list of priorities than whatever it is that you’re spending all that time on. So be honest with yourself. Admit who’s choosing to spend his or her time that way. And if you still want to do what you claim you want, push something else out of the way and make the time.
If you don’t have time for building the life that you say you want to live, what do you have time for?
Tuesday, March 20, 2020
Myths of management
Is competition always so beneficial?
Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.
Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass—and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball back again?
The assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise), but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.
Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you? If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose…well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.
There’s the problem. For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience? Or do many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t it also cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and violence?
Before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience?Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. But if winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with little or no effort. But who would go to watch? And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why the organizers try so hard to produce matches which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.
Business isn’t—yet—a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seems to be trying to make it one), so ease of winning ought not to be a problem. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you. And that’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way—because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.
There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing.Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top. Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .
Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to cheat. So who rises to the top? The able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell—until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?
Myths are not lies. They contain an element of truth, somewhere. They only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident. Competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.
Monday, March 19, 2020
What causes stress?
It’s not always what you that think it is
It’s very easy to concentrate only on the visible and external causes of stress: things like long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines. Are these causes of stress? Yes, indeed. Do they lead to serious problems? Yes again . . . but not in every case. One of the criticisms thrown against the whole “work/life balance” movement is that it over-dramatizes these aspects of life, sees universal problems where none exist, and ignores people who handle such stressors with ease. The critics have a point, but not the whole point. Maybe the answer to what really causes stress lies within us.
According to the critics of those who draw attention to stress at work, hard work never killed (or significantly harmed) anyone. Long hours are simply a fact of modern life, like idiot TV programs and fast food. Just as eating fast food on occasion does no harm, so working long hours isn’t harmful either, unless taken to excess (I wonder what would count as “excessive” long hours. Maybe 20 hours per day, 7 days a week?). All these causes of workplace stress—long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines —are dismissed either as problems capable of an easy solution or the whining of the chronically lazy.
I’ve deliberately stated these objections in extreme terms, since that is how they are often delivered. But when you cut out the inflated rhetoric, it must be admitted that the critics have a point. Most of us know of people who work very long hours, do so quite voluntarily, and thrive on it. There are folk for whom a terrifying deadline is a source of motivation, rather than dread. And there are assuredly people who set themselves seemingly impossible goals and expectations, yet still meet them—and experience excitement and joy as result, not exhaustion.
Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe.You cannot simply dismiss the evidence that there are more than a few people who see hard work as pleasant, and not at all stressful. Is this just another case of: “different strokes for different folks?” Is it simply a reflection of the difference—as so often claimed—between those who are doing what they love, and the rest of us who do what we must? Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe. But my own experience suggests that only a small proportion of people even know what work thay might they truly love doing; and an even smaller proportion find themselves able to make this a source of sufficient income to serve as their sole, or even primary, employment.
Maybe the problem is that we so often take a rather simplified view of the phenomenon of workplace stress.
There are, it’s quite clear, externally-applied stressors: compulsory long hours, insufficient resources, fear of job loss. These do cause stress in the majority of people, though a minority find them acceptable, or even stimulating. This parallels human activities like climbing mountains or parachuting. the majority of people find the very idea of frightening or negative, but a dedicated few enjoy them thoroughly. Still, I know of no organization that makes jumping out of an airplane and dangling on a piece of nylon fabric compulsory for everyone, not even the parachute corps. So pointing out that some people seem to enjoy what others find stressful is no argument in favor of imposing it on everyone.
There’s also good evidence to suggest that most stress is produced in the mind, both by our reactions to events and by our attitudes and thoughts. I happen to be afraid of heights. I know my response is illogical, but I cannot stop myself from becoming physically sick and terrified if I stand near the edge of a precipice. The stress that I suffer is caused by my mind. I know this, because people standing around me are quite at ease, and even lean over the edge to get a better view.
Still, even this understanding is of little use if it merely applies to certain individuals. Are there general mental causes of stress: ones that apply to the majority of people? I believe that there are, and that they contribute at least as much to today’s epidemic of workplace stress as the far more often blamed working conditions and crass bosses.
Here are some that I think are common enough to qualify as typical:
- The obsession with being in control. I’ve noted several times in these postings that belief in your ability to control anything absolutely is a dangerous and stressful illusion. Yet many go much further. They seek to control almost every aspect of their work, even their life: future results, the actions of those around them, external events, even the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of customers and clients. Such folly is doomed to constant failure. That would be stressful enough. But what makes it still worse is that such people—and not a few organizations—don’t just believe this kind of direct control is possible; they demand it. For them, it is the mark of success, as compulsory as turning up to work, or following legitimate orders from the hierarchy. It’s bad enough to fail all the time. How much more stressful is it to feel that succeeding in this obsessive control is both possible and required? This production of permanent failure, frustration, and guilt is a major cause of stress, especially in otherwise successful people.
- Linking satisfaction to specific, external circumstances. This is so common that most people don’t even recognize it as abnormal. It expresses itself in statements like: “I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve [fill in the blank].” Or “My goal is to have [this status, these possessions, this level of income, this lifestyle]. Then I will be happy.” Aside from the fact that no one can control the future, so even the hardest work may fail to produce the desired “goodies” due to events completely outside your control, most people have no proof at all that what they claim they are working for will make them happy, even if they get it. Most of these desires aren’t even based on thorough, personal consideration of the likely costs, benefits, and alternatives. They’re picked up from the media, friends, the fashion of the moment, and the continual activities of marketers and advertisers, whose job depends on maintaining everyone in a constant state of unfulfilled desire for still more things, however much they've alreadty got.
- The illusion of continual growth. Very few things grow without limits. Nature doesn’t contain any creatures that live for ever, grow to infinite size, continually learn to run faster the longer they live, or possess abilities that have no limits. Even the human capacity to learn, while “infinite” in most individual cases only because we typically use so little of it, has limits somewhere. Nevertheless, many people act on the assumption that as soon as you have something (wealth, power, status, possessions), the only natural course is to seek still more. Once again, marketing and advertising encourage this idiocy. If they didn’t, they would have to face the reality that even people with three cars cannot drive more than one at a time, and someone with a lust for buying shoes equal to Imelda Marcos's still has only two feet. Never being satisfied is bound to produce stress over time, since you will be so tormented by the imagination of all that you still don’t possess that you will never enjoy what you have.
- Egotism, pure and simple. Very small children are supreme egotists. As their brains develop enough to form a conception of themselves as separate from others, they become obsessed with being the center of attention at all times. Happily, for most this is simply a phase of development, like sucking their thumb or repeating the same nonsense syllables for hours with no sign of being tired of them. It seems, though, that some people never grow out of the egotistical phase. Even as adults, they behave as if the whole universe revolves around them. Many of them become senior executives.
We are back to the stressful effects of seeking the impossible. The more egotistical your thoughts, the more every setback, problem, difficulty, harsh word, or simple piece of bad luck will feel as if it is personally directed at you. Where others may shrug and accept that things just didn’t turn out as they hoped, you will be driven to seek out why you were treated so badly by events, or by others. Simple upset becomes translated into personal insult. A moment’s frustration becomes hours of churning anger at the “unfairness” of it all.
Stress has many causes and demands an equal number of solutions. We should try to create more civilized workplaces and limit the external causes of stress wherever we can. But this will never be sufficient on its own. The internal causes of stress—obsession with control, seeking satisfaction in externals, the illusion of “necessary” growth, and personal egotism—must also be conquered before stress at work can become limited to obviously pathological cases.
Stress soars like a multi-stage rocket, with each stage (working conditions, bullying bosses, greedy organizations, and personal obsessions) driving it higher and higher. Until all the stages have been tackled, you will never be able to keep it down to earth.
Friday, March 16, 2020
The stories we tell ourselves
Stories about events are often more powerful than the reality they replace
Recently, I was in our local Barnes & Noble bookstore and idly picked up a book of Victorian photographs of Tombstone. In this part of Arizona, Tombstone’s the nearest thing we have to Disneyland. They reenact “The Gunfight at the OK Corral” every day, sometimes more than once. The book had contemporary photographs of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Both looked like local preachers or small-town bank managers. Neat suits, white shirts, carefully knotted ties. The Clanton gang they gunned down looked much the same. You could change the captions to read “Respectable Inhabitants of 1880s Tombstone.”
That’s why stories are often more powerful than the reality they’re based on (or replace); and why many of our firmest beliefs come from such stories. Reality is so darned dull.
Good stories—the right words put together in the right way—have the power to inspire us, terrify us, or shape our view of the world for years ahead. Do you enjoy a good story? Of course. Have you ever embellished the way you recounted events to make a better story? You’d be an unusual person if you said you had not.
I had a friend who worked in air accident investigation. He told me the only truly reliable witnesses to air accidents were small children. They told what they saw. Adults told stories based on what they thought they ought to see, then embellished them to make the stories more vivid and interesting.
Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.
People constantly tell one another stories, at a bar, in the office, at home around the dining table. Marketers tell stories about products. Newscasters add human interest stories to enhance dull, factual news. Hollywood and television entertainment are nothing but stories. Of course, we tell ourselves stories too—about what things mean, what other people must be thinking, about why we did, or said, things that worked out or failed us. Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.
Our heads are full of creative fiction, loosely based on real events.
Most of these stories aren’t true. Some never were; some have embellished and changed real events out of all recognition. The human mind is excellent at creating its own version of how things must have been. That’s especially true when it comes to the parts that other people played in our lives. We assume that we understand their feelings, their motives, and their hidden agendas. In our stories, all their plots and secret endeavors are plain to see.
Much of the stress that we feel is caused by the power of our imaginations to turn dull events into powerful, stomach-churning tales of people’s ambition, jealousy, spite, and perfidy. Much of it—probably nearly all of it—is little more than fiction. But that doesn’t alter the effect it has on our own feelings. Imaginary hurts are just as cutting as real ones. An act of treachery by a friend, or a piece of gratuitous cruelty by a boss, that we have produced mostly in our own imagination is no less painful than the real thing. Do we know this is what happened? Almost certainly no. But we assume it is true, and feel and act accordingly. And that’s without the added pain caused by other people who tell us tales about people and events that they have embellished with their own fears, worries, and biases.
Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten.
Are others plotting to harm you? Possibly, but probably not with any real energy. Was this or that statement or event aimed at you? Maybe, but probably it was simply chance that you got in the way. The dull reality is that most of us are far too wrapped up in our own concerns, hopes, fears, and desires, to spend more than a tiny fraction of our attention on anyone else. We are opportunists, seizing any chance to advance our own agenda, and mostly ignoring the effect this has on anyone else. We aren’t even positively nasty. Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten. We did what we did because it suited us at the time, and had no more thought of anyone else than a cat has for the feelings of the mouse it happens upon and thinks would make a nice snack.
This is good and bad. Bad, of course, because we are typically so careless of the feelings and concerns of others. Good, because, once you recognize it as the truth, it frees you from the majority of worries about what other people are thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you at all. They’re engrossed in the marvelous story that’s running through their head; the one where they have the starring role, and everyone else is looking at them.
What about the stories you tell yourself? What are they like? Are they inspiring or depressing? Do they make you feel ready to create a better future, or ready to give up now?
Be careful of such stories, because you’ll believe them. Repeat them often enough and they’ll become reality. Maybe the phrase about the power of positive thinking ought to be rewritten as “the likely results of telling yourself more positive stories.”
But then,”the power of positive thinking” sounds like the start of a better story.
Thursday, March 15, 2020
Maybe size DOES matter?
Are today’s huge corporations handicapped by sheer size in becoming civilized workplaces?
I am always delighted to receive comments on postings and they are almost always interesting, insightful, and even profound. What’s more, they frequently provoke me into thinking more about some issue that I foolishly imagine that I have exhausted.
A comment on yesterday’s posting about W. L. Gore’s achievement in being voted—for the fourth year in a row —the best company in Great Britain to work for made me think more about the possibility that their excellence is due in part to their size. Gore is quite a small company (about 450 people). Maybe size is a key element in making a workplace that is civilized and fun? Maybe large organizations cannot produce the kind of workplace that would win competitions of this kind?
Here’s what I wrote in my response to that helpful comment:
. . . the key point, for me, is that they [Gore] dare to be different, stick to their way of doing things, and don’t accept all the conventional crap about not being able to combine a profitable business model with a culture that people truly enjoy being part of.As I see it, there is a handicap affecting large corporation: it’s the fear of taking a risk. Most lack the courage to act in ways that are different from the norm. But the reason isn’t solely their fault. Gore is a private company; they have no external shareholders—no mutual funds, financial institutions, or hedge funds—breathing down their neck, demanding profits at the expense of everything else.
I am convinced that it’s quite possible for businesses of any size to make huge improvements in their corporate cultures, and still be successful in financial terms. In fact, the happier their people are, the lower the turnover, and the more relaxed and creative the minds behind business decisions, large and small, the greater that success is likely to be.
All it takes is three things that are, sadly, in very short supply in most top management ranks: the courage to be different, the imagination to see fresh possibilities, and the fortitude to ignore the inevitable carping and stick to what you believe is right.
Shareholders bear a very heavy responsibility for the pressure they put on corporations to avoid risk, maximize short-term profits, and generally toe the conventional, macho line on employment.Shareholders bear a very heavy responsibility for the pressure they put on corporations to avoid risk, maximize short-term profits, and generally toe the conventional, macho line on employment. I’m not saying that executives and directors are innocent parties, pressured by evil shareholders. Far from it. They join in happily enough, looking to approval from these same shareholders to justify the vast rewards they vote for themselves.
It’s a symbiotic relationship: shareholders see corporations merely as sources of profits from dividends and capital gains (the bigger the better). They have no interest in how such profits are made, so long as executive action doesn’t become so gross as to jeopardize future gains. And the executives then see the shareholders as their “bosses,” the ones who can increase their rewards . . . or take them away. Neither side wants to even considered putting this happy flow of money at risk by trying anything new.
Most executives seemed to me to be very ordinary people, lucky to have made it to extraordinary positions, and more than a little bewildered at what to do next.Courage, imagination, and fortitude: all are qualities most top leaders would instantly claim for their own. Sadly, their actions all to often prove that none of these fine attributes apply to them. They cravenly cling to convention, terrified of shareholder disapproval.
I’ve met many top executives. If I’m being honest, very few of them impressed me. Most executives seemed to me to be very ordinary people, lucky to have made it to extraordinary positions, and more than a little bewildered at what to do next. They lack the imagination to educate their own shareholders in the benefits they could provide by doing things differently. And they lack the fortitude to support those who do try something different, the minute that any criticism arises from the conservative-minded.
Can they change? We can all change. All it takes is realizing the need and making the effort.
Friday, March 02, 2020
The Perversions of Workplace Power
Today’s top executives have too much power and business is suffering as a result.
Feeling powerless, even over your daily schedule, is a major component of workplace stress. The inequalities of power in today’s organizations are too extreme. It’s time to restore a better balance.Hierarchies are all about power. Those in the workplace are no different. The people at the top exercise most power; those at the bottom have least—or none at all. I think that this is a simple fact of life. Some idealists may hope for a power-free workplace, but I don’t see that happening. Someone has to accept responsibility for making decisions and issuing instructions for others to carry out, or there is likely to be something close to anarchy.
What causes problems is not so much the unequal distribution of power as the degree of that inequality.
In dictatorships, all the power is held by an individual—like Hitler or Stalin— and everyone else must obey. In oligarchies—like the old Soviet Union after Stalin, or China today—power is concentrated in the hands of a favored elite. In democracies, power is far more widely distributed. An elected few hold some of it, but only subject to legal and political checks. Some is given to middle-ranking officials. And even those at the bottom of the social ladder have a little power, even if they can only express it at voting time.
Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite.Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite. There is a wide spectrum available: from the kind of quasi-democracy of some small, high-tech organizations to the rigid oligarchies of most old-established corporations—or the quasi-dictatorships run by high-profile, egotistical CEOs in recent years.
Those in power quickly come to resent any checks on their freedom to use it however they like. They try to remove checks on their freedom, and extend their power wherever they can. It’s said that all power corrupts. Maybe that’s true in one sense: it’s frustrating and irksome to have to submit your ideas and wishes to others for approval, especially if you fear they will be rejected or watered down. Top executives have usually spent years fighting for the power that they now exercise. They don’t like to give it up, even a little.
The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.All the politics that go on in organizations are simply people jockeying for power and influence. It’s often easier to build greater informal power than to try to get the “rules” changed for your benefit. Influence and patronage, for example, are both potent sources of power, though neither appear on the organization chart. In nearly all organizations—especially large and complex ones—there is a constant process of shifting power structures. The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.
The reality is that there is only so much power available. To get more, you have to take it from others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, CEOs worked to take power for themselves and away from boards of directors and shareholders. Of late, shareholders have been trying to take it back. “Rising stars” try to sneak power away from established leaders. Divisions and departments “steal” power from the centre whenever they can. Central functions typically write policies and procedures that deny power to subsidiaries and operating divisions. And everyone in the upper reaches of a hierarchy takes power from the easiest source: those lower down.
When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful.Powerlessness—real or imagined—is one of the major causes of frustration, stress, and burnout. When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful. In the past, only slaves and servants had no power in this way. To be without power is to be reduced to a paid slave. What we see today is even highly-educated professionals being treated as serfs, to be allocated crippling working hours without the resources or the freedom to decide how to live their own lives.
Disparities of power in the workplace are like wage disparities: everyone accepts that they will happen, but expects them to be held within reasonable limits.We know that the CEO will earn far more than the lowest-paid worker. We accept that as reasonable. But when it is 400 or 500 times more, that looks very like an abuse. It’s the same with power. No one expects the workplace to be an idealized democracy. But when it becomes a dictatorship or an oligarchy based on a tiny elite, we smell the corrupting effects of an obsession with power.
In a civilized society, all power must be kept under constant scrutiny, and any abuses detected and dealt with before they can turn into abuses. What we have today are corporations with too much power held in the hands of too few people. It’s producing stressful, toxic, and uncivilized working conditions for too many people.
It’s time to slow down, take a hard look at what is happening, and get back to a better balance.
Wednesday, February 21, 2020
You Are Not John Wayne
He may have been a great action hero, but Hollywood is still not like the real world.
Today’s media-driven, action-obsessed organizations are losing sight of the reality that sheer effort often goes unrewarded, unless it’s directed by some careful, complex, and time-consuming thought. Busyness and thoughtfulness are poor companions. Until organizations stop assuming greater effort is the simple answer to every problem, people will continue to work harder and harder for the same meager results—or none at all.
We live in a culture where action is highly prized and thought is seen as either pointless or suspicious. I’m not sure why this should be so. Of course, powerful rulers have always been suspicious of those whose motives and actions they can neither quite understand nor easily control. The bluff man of action was relatively easy to deal with. The quiet schemer was always the greatest threat. That’s why it paid to keep the cleverest people where you could see them, and deny education, and the leisure to think, to as many people as possible.
Maybe we also have Hollywood and our media-based beliefs to blame. It’s easy to display action on screen. It’s exciting, full of grand visual effect and opportunities for loud music and terrific over-acting. Displaying thought is tricky. Nothing much appears to happen, and complex thoughts can be hard for an audience to follow. It’s not impossible—William Shakespeare did it pretty well—but few screenwriters manage to reach his standard. Besides, pitting the brave, honest action hero against the skulking, devious, too-clever-by-half villain is such an easy driver of plots that few can resist it.
Whatever the causes, we are left with a culture where action—preferably lots of it and the more assertive the better—is assumed to be the answer to every problem.Whenever people feel uncertain or doubtful, greater effort—more action—is called for at once. Do next quarter’s, or next year’s business prospects look shaky? Work harder, cut costs, increase everyone’s efforts. Is a project sliding off track? Stay at your desk until 10:00 p.m. every day, then take work home.
Never mind stopping to discover the real reason for the problem. These future sales projections may look bad because the product is falling out of fashion, or an unexpected competitor has brought out a superior alternative. The project that’s causing you to work 16-hour days may be doomed because it was badly conceived from the start. In neither case will extra effort alone make any difference to the outcome. It’s as if people feel that, in a just universe, all that determination and hard work deserves to be successful. The honest, perspiring hero, (or gallant, open-hearted heroine) should prevail, even if she or he hasn’t a clue about the problem or its causes.
That might be the case in a just universe. I wouldn’t know, because neither I nor anyone else has ever inhabited one. In the real world, effort very often goes unrewarded—especially if it, too, is misdirected, poorly conceived, or based on a total misunderstanding of the real nature of the problem.
No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it.No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it. Hollywood may prefer simple plots that can be easily written and acted, but the universe rarely agrees with the neatness needed to make a one-hour TV show, with 20 minutes of commercial breaks. I recently heard on the radio that military personnel are copying what they see on TV as battle tactics. Rush in, shoot a few villains, and those who survive will immediately tell all they know. Works on TV. Sadly, in the real world, the survivors do inconvenient things such as lying, making up any old story to save their lives, or refusing to talk even under prolonged interrogation.
A corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.Constant busyness is practically guaranteed to drive any thoughts away, and leave no spaces where they might return. A determined focus on short-term actions destroys all chance of creating long-term advantage. And a corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.
Relying on effort nearly always means doing what you are doing already—only harder. It’s very often taking a doomed idea and continuing to feed it with effort and resources, long after it should have been abandoned in favor of something better. It’s running about in a frenzy of action, when slowing down and giving yourself time to think up an alternative approach is the only likely path to success.
Stop shooting from the hip. John Wayne may have got the bad guy with every draw of his six-shooter, but he had considerable help from special effects, the director, and the script. In a 19th century gunfight in Phoenix, Arizona, two people stood on opposite sides of the street and blasted away at one another until both ran out of bullets. Neither suffered a scratch.
The only things that frantic busyness is guaranteed to produce are exhaustion, stress, and numbed resignation—exactly what many feel in today’s workplaces. Slow down and think instead. Then there’s at least a chance you’ll discover a way to succeed—and probably with about a quarter of the effort.
Friday, February 16, 2020
Do unto others, and they will make sure they do unto you
A thought floated across my mind recently, when I was reading something about the ideas of “karmic law.” I’m not an expert in Buddhist or Eastern thought, but what I understand of the idea of karma is that it’s a refined version of cause and effect: what you do affects what happens to you, or “what you give out is what you get back.”
It seems to me that you don’t need to have any kind of belief in either the supernatural or Eastern religion to see that “what you give out is what you get back” represents simple realism.
Suppose that you’re a typical “Hamburger Manager.” You’re tough, assertive, macho, obsessed with short-term results, and tireless in your pursuit of your own ambition. What you “put out” in terms of behaviors will likely include:
- Constantly talking tough—then complaining that no one likes you, though you’re really a nice person.
- Hounding subordinates to do more and more with less and less—until everyone is so tired that they produce less and less, however hard they work.
- Demanding longer and longer hours of unpaid overtime—and expecting bigger bonuses for yourself as a result.
- Claiming that money is the only incentive—while cutting back wherever you can on salary payments.
- Refusing to consider anything other than “meeting the numbers”—even if those numbers are based only on wishful thinking.
- Accepting bad behavior from anyone who “brings home the bacon”—and sneering at the “impractical idealism” of those who suggest that this is unacceptable.
- Thoughtlessly copying the cult of disdain for anything “soft,” “liberal,” or “impractical”—which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit with the opinions of your bosses.
- Maintining rigidity of outlook—because true believers never even consider the tiniest doubt about orthodoxy.
- Tough talk and macho behavior provokes the same kind of response. Aggression breeds aggression in return, so life becomes a constant battle of wills. All the aggression that you encounter will then likely make you more aggressive, and so on, round and round, in a never-ending process of escalation.
- Hounding subordinates and forcing them into longer and longer working days will produce stress, tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Hourly productivity and creativity will fall—so the only way to catch up on targets will be still to demand still longer hours and exert yet more pressure. You’ll constantly have to do more and more hounding. It won’t end until there’s some kind of collapse.
- Whenever money is used as the sole incentive, people quickly discover that any amount that you give soon becomes accepted as the “going rate” and loses its incentive effect. If you raise pay to bring back an incentive, you need to make still more profit to cover the extra cost. It turns into a continual, fruitless game of “catch up.” If you hold out and refuse to drive up salary costs, you have no further incentive availave—and you incur higher costs elsewhere as you are forced to replace those who leave. This is (politely) known as a lose:lose strategy.
- Accepting any kind of behavior from jerks and bullies, so long as they meet the numbers and get results, creates an atmosphere so toxic that few people will stay in it for long—especially anyone with talent and intelligence. You’ll get the staff that you deserve—along with the high turnover, constant hassles, and looming law suits. Besides, anyone who tolerates jerks is, by definition, a jerk themselves. He or she who tolerates most jerks is the jerk-in-chief.
- A rigid, numbers-based, macho outlook is a great way to destroy any sparks of creativity in yourself and others. Your competitors will have the ideas, and you will be driven back to competing on low costs and desperately trying to mimic what others have produced before you.
The other reality of this faux-karmic law is that it multiplies. There’s one of you (one manager, one organization), but thousands upon thousands of other people to return what you send out. Act aggressively and thoughtlessly and all these thousands will return the same behavior, often with interest. So, if you act like a jerk, what you’ll get back is the same behavior, multiplied by the number of people who suffer from what you do.
There it is: behave like the stereotypical, bullying manager and that’s exactly what you’ll encounter in return. Do it consistently, and your return will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Give out honesty, trust, creativity, and sensitivity to others and that’s what the universe will most likely play back to you, also enhanced and extended.
It’s your choice. If your daily experience at work is that the world is full of people throwing sh*t around, the chances are extremely high that you are a major contributor to the process that put all that brown stuff there for them to throw back at you. Maybe, if you stop dishing it out, you’ll begin to find that less comes back. If everyone did that, very soon there would be none to throw around any more. Think about it.
Monday, February 12, 2020
Beware of Management Fashionistas
Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.
Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.
Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]
The rise and fall of management fadsAmbitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.
Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashionSomething sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.
In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.
In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.
Fashion industries breed gurusSuccessful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]
Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).
Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?
Does it matter?Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!
There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.
In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”
Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.
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