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Tuesday, July 24, 2020

How to find and recognize a civilized job

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

Spotting the signs of undue pressure and macho management is useful, but, if you’re considering a job change or just starting out on a career, seeing when a job will be civilized is just as important. You need to know what to seek out, not just what to avoid once you’ve found it.
What are the signs of civilized work? If you want to choose an employer, a job, and a career wisely, these are the things to look for:

  • Work with a manageable workload that allows enough time over for pursuing new ideas and making a personal contribution. Everyone needs the opportunity to put more of themselves into their work than just the labor of completing scheduled tasks. Overwork doesn’t just ruin work/life balance, in the sense of time available for non-work activities. It also stops work itself being satisfying. There’s never any time to step outside the strict confines of the daily grind to explore new ideas or approaches. The to-do list becomes a prison that blocks out everything else.

  • Clear evidence that others will value and respect what you do. It’s hard to take a pride in your work if no one cares how you do what you do, just so long as you meet some specific targets. It’s far more satisfying to feel that you can win respect for a job well done than simply reach some goal by any available means. Hitting that target comes only occasionally (and you know it will be followed by a new, higher one). Knowing that you’re doing a fine job, and that people recognize you for that, can be a daily source of pleasure in your work.

  • A chance to work with people whom you respect and whose opinions you value. No amount of money will ever make up for working for a boss whom you think is an idiot and an asshole; or with people whom you neither like nor respect. Work is a social environment. Unless that environment suits you and gives you pleasure from being there, each day is going to be eight or more hours of misery. That’s why corporate culture matters so much. Trying to live and work in a toxic culture is like trying to exist in a cloud of poisonous gases.

  • A reasonable degree of control over what you do and any decisions that affect your job. Anything else is slavery. You shouldn’t accept it for an hour, regardless of how much you’re being paid.

  • Work that means something to you and matches your values. Doing meaningless work is soul-destroying drudgery. Doing work that you don’t value will leave you feeling empty and dissatisfied at the end of every day. The only way to feel good about what you do is to do something that makes you feel good in itself. If, for example, you try to shut your mind to a toxic culture and management style that makes you feel bad every time you think about it, how are you going to feel after a month, six months, a year? You’ll have to abandon your own values and conscience to survive. But whatever you do, somewhere deep inside you’ll know you’re behaving like a coward and spitting on things that you hold dear. That knowledge will eat away at you until it destroys all your peace of mind.

  • A culture that values fairness, justice, and an ethical approach to business. Too many organizations today act as if the ends justify the means, and honesty and ethical values are indulgences that they can’t afford. You can sense it like a bad smell in the background. Ignore all the flashiness and forced good comradeship. If something in the air that you can’t quite pin down makes you feel sick, take good heed. Compromising with nastiness and dishonesty will rub off on you like a disfiguring skin disease. Besides, if the culture allows dishonesty, subterfuge, unethical practices, and unfair treatment in the cause of profit, that’s how it will treat you.

  • A willingness from those in senior positions to listen. Few things are so frustrating as a management culture based on closed minds and open mouths. Nothing leads more quickly to failure, despotism, and the punishment of the innocent. Be warned!

  • An organization that values honest feedback and takes notice when staff aren’t happy. Any organization that punishes people for rocking the boat, demonizes whistle-blowers, and rewards yes-men should be seen for what it is: a gang of mindless thugs. Get away as fast as you can run.

  • A sensible attitude from the organization and the bosses to the position of work in each person’s life. It’s quite reasonable for the organization to expect loyalty, commitment, solid effort, and an appropriate input related to level and salary. It is wholly unreasonable to expect anyone to sell their life and soul to their employer in return for cash. Anyone who does that is far more shameless than any prostitute. Prostitutes only sell their bodies. An organization who demands that you sell your heart and soul as well is many times worse than any pimp.

  • The willingness to continue to change as circumstances change. A rigid organization—especially one that works on the basis of “our way or the highway”—is both arrogant and stupid. Why would you even consider becoming part of that?
If I had to sum all this advice up in a single rule it would be this: look around carefully and sniff out the ratio of assholes to others. The more assholes, the less you should even consider working there. And if the assholes are rewarded for their noxious behavior, so long as they hit the targets, run as fast as you can.

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

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



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Wednesday, July 18, 2020

Chickens, eggs, and happiness

Do you need to be successful first to be happy, or does happiness produce success?

It’s an important question, because making happiness conditional on success is the usual path; and it doesn’t seem to be working for many people. They endure considerable amounts of unhappiness, often for many years, in the belief that when success comes they will finally be happy. What if it isn’t true? That’s surely worth thinking about carefully.
When I started working, I bought into all the conventional ideas about what made for a happy and successful life. A good career, a good income, a good position, a good pension to round it all off. Get those first, and happiness will surely follow.

Well, I got most of them and I found that happiness somehow hadn’t seen the need to fulfill its part of the bargain. Oh, I was happy sometimes—maybe quite often. But it wasn’t due to any of those. Earning a high salary brought stress and ethical compromises I wasn’t happy about. A top position in the hierarchy brought yet more pressures, along with jealousy and politically-inspired dirty tricks. Inflation ate into my salary and pension fund and employers went back on their promises.

What really brought me happiness rarely had anything to do with conventional ideas of success. Mostly, it was due to things totally unconnected with my work. Of course, I was sometimes happy at work too. When I was busy doing something that I enjoyed and made me happy, I was often amazingly successful. When I tried to be successful, and accepted temporary unhappiness and boredom as its price, I rarely managed to reach my goals. If I accepted short-term unhappiness as the price of long-term success—and I very often did—what I got in return was the opposite: short-term success paid for with long-term unhappiness.

Hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of people spend their lives doing work they hate, and enduring pressures that ruin their health and cripple their relationships, with the sole purpose of being successful; which usually means gaining money, position, or fame, or all three. They tell themselves that once they’ve got what they want they’ll be happy. It rarely happens. What they gain has far less real value than all they have sacrificed to get it.

Weighing the evidence

Research has shown that, far from leading to happiness, success is more often dependent on being happy first. Happy people do better work, forge stronger relationships, are more likeable, learn more, take more productive risks, have better health, and live longer. How is this not success? How is a life doing things that you dislike and don’t make you feel happy—and that cause you stress, pain, and frustration—going to lead to enormous happiness sometime in the future; aside, that is, from the pure joy you would get by ceasing to do it at all?

Do you need wealth to be happy? If that is the case, most captains of industry should be delirious with joy all the time. I must say it doesn’t show. Mostly they’re rather grimly set on making yet more wealth for themselves. Perhaps even they don’t have enough money and success to produce the promised happiness? If so, that final state is so far beyond the reach of all ordinary people as to be worthless as an objective.

Some of you may object that lack of money produces misery. Sure enough. But since even extreme wealth seems to do little better in the happiness-producing line, the only logical conclusion must be that neither wealth, nor poverty, in themselves have much of a link with happiness. It’s more likely that what you do with however much, or little, wealth you possess is going to have a far greater impact on how you feel about your life and whether it brings you happiness.

Fame is the same. Are all famous people amazingly happy? I can’t see it, can you? We assume that they ought to be, but many are clearly not. If that’s the case, then fame has nothing much to do with happiness either. The same is true for status and position. All are neutral in terms of producing happiness. For some who possess them, they help. For others, they produce only misery. Isn’t it more likely that happy people stay happy if they become rich, successful, or famous, and use their wealth in happy ways; and miserable people do exactly the opposite, however successful they are?

So what is success?

We need a new definition of life success, I think; one that isn’t based solely on material possessions or hierarchical outcomes. Rather than equate success with wealth, power, or fame—or even achievements—and tell ourselves that happiness will follow, it would be more sensible to equate success in life with happiness, then look for whatever furthered that happiness.

We’ve been told that money equals happiness. It doesn’t. That work, hard work, is good for you and leads to success and happiness. No, that doesn’t follow either. How about saying that what makes you happy produces happiness, whether that’s work, pleasure, relationships, or just the love of a good cat?

When it comes down to it, being happy is what nearly everyone wants, so why not take it wherever it comes from? And if, as the researchers suggest, being happy is the best route to being successful as well, what alternative is likely to be any better?

So take note. Stress, overwork, long hours, constant striving, and ruthless political manoevering may well produce money, power, and fame, but they won’t deliver on the promise of happiness.

Besides, while you’re grimly clawing your way towards the top and suffering as a result, won’t it be truly maddening if some happy person sails past you, enjoying every moment of life, and sweeps ahead on a wave of sheer pleasure in what they are doing?

You pays your money, as the saying goes, and you takes your choice. Just make sure that the choice you make is really worth what you will need to pay for it. Conventional pictures of success are frightful price gougers, all of them.



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Tuesday, July 17, 2020

Stress-busters: The one-day “retreat”

Religious people have long used retreats—time totally away from the world and its distractions—as a way to deepen their understanding and refresh their spirits. Those are goals that can benefit anyone. You don’t need to be religious to use the idea yourself to ward off stress.
The religious retreat is a specific period completely away from the world and worldly things: a time set aside for religious practice and that calm and quiet that many people feel that they need to get their view of life back into perspective. Many Jewish people, for example, keep the sabbath as one day each week free from work of any kind; a time for family-based rituals and a reminder of their cultural origins. Indeed, their ancestors so revered this time set aside from the world that they believed it to be both a commandment and a blessing from their god.

Such a good idea need not belong only to the realm of formal religious activities. Most of us would benefit from regular breaks away from all the pressures and distractions of our lives; taking time to refresh ourselves, enjoying peace and quiet, thinking and renewing our perspective on life, or just catching up with sleep, family, and friends. Best of all, it could be time devoted mostly to resting and letting our minds wander into paths far away from the daily stresses and pressures of work.

I think we would all do well to take such regular one-day “retreats” in this way; preferably every week, but at least as often as we are able to do so. You could, of course, combine it with religious practices of any kind, if you wish. But that isn’t the essence of the idea. The purpose that I have in mind is a specific period of rest and relaxation to help deal with stress and the many ways that it distorts our thinking and undermines our health and peace of mind.

Here’s how a purely secular and non-religious version might work.
  • You set aside a clear period of 24 hours for your retreat. That time is sacrosanct. Nothing must disturb it short of a national or personal emergency.

  • You remove all possible distractions. No telephone calls. No e-mail. No use of computers, not even to surf the Net. No TV, radio or newspapers.

  • You must not do anything connected with your work. Nothing, however small or seemingly insignificant. And that includes golf with potential customers, “talking shop” with friends, reading anything work-related, or simply thinking about work problems. You can make physical effort (playing sport, walking, gardening, painting the house), or mental effort (spending time at some hobby, playing or listening to music, reading some challenging book, writing on non-work subjects, watching serious programming on TV), but none of it must be related in anyway to your job.

  • There’s no need to be serious or “worthy” in what you do. Probably the best way to spend the time is playing, relaxing, and generally having fun. My only suggestion would be not to “veg out” and waste the whole time on the couch in front of some mindless TV program.

  • If you have visitors or go out to visit friends, try very hard to make sure that they aren’t directly connected with your work or you’ll be tempted back into talking shop. If you do have some work contact with them, gently ask them to stay away from conversations about work topics while they’re with you. If they can’t, invite them on another occasion instead.

  • At least 8 full hours must be set aside for sleep. No excuses.

  • All meals must be leisurely and relaxed. If you enjoy cooking, cook. If you don’t, eat out.

  • At least half the non-sleeping time ought perhaps to be devoted to being with family or friends. This isn’t a rule, just a suggestion. Some people enjoy social time. Others find greater refreshment in time alone. It’s your choice.

  • Try to get plenty of fresh air. Nowadays, most of us spend far too much of our time indoors. Walking or cycling is good.

  • If work-related matters (or people) try to intrude, they really must be ignored. If you aren’t strict about this, your attempt at a retreat is doomed. Nothing must be allowed to spoil it. No exceptions. Allow just one in and all the rest will push through the crack you opened. It’s only 24 hours. Almost nothing is truly so urgent that it cannot wait that long.

  • It’s best to hold retreats like this regularly, on set days. That way, everyone else gets used to your schedule and knows that it’s pointless trying to interrupt.
The benefits are, I think, obvious. Aside from the rest, refreshment, and re-establishment of perspective, just the self-discipline involved is likely to be extremely beneficial. So is the process of reminding yourself—regularly—that it’s your life and you should be able to set aside some part of it for yourself.

So consider this: if you can’t do this, how are you different from a slave who lives continually at the whim of someone else’s agenda?



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Monday, July 16, 2020

A nation of fast food, with leaders to match

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

If you feel you have no time available, the temptation to cut mental corners and jump to some well-known, supposedly tested solution can be overwhelming; even if you feel, deep down, that it’s not really the right solution to your problem. There’s no time allowed for anything else. But cheap, superficial thinking is like cheap, shoddy manufacture: it won’t stand up long to the normal wear and tear of life.
I’ve often written about Hamburger Management because the comparison with fast food is so close. People in a constant rush delight in fast food because it’s . . . well, fast. You can make your choice, get your order, and gulp it down in a few minutes. It’s easy, convenient, and—above all—quick. Fast food is also designed to deliver a swift burst of flavor, via high sodium, high sugar, and high fat. We all know it isn’t healthy, but, hell, it’s quick, cheap, takes no real thought to order, and it tastes kinda good at the time.

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

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

“Management by in-flight magazine"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, July 12, 2020

The five least recognized thieves of productive time

How to win back large parts of your day.

When people write about time management, they usually focus on impersonal matters: prioritization, organization, various forms of distraction and loss of focus. All sound topics, and all safely open to being dealt with by training or some teachable techniques. But when I look back on my own career, I can see that these safe topics miss at least five of the most common—and most greedy—thieves of productive time. These are the five.
Not only do these five behaviors waste time on a grand scale, they’re all notable stress producers as well. You can’t deal with them by techniques, fancy software, or skill training. The behaviors I’m thinking of are too personal for that. The only way to deal with them is to bring them into the open and see them for what they are: brazen thieves of time, attention, and—most pernicious of all—peace of mind. Then determine to wage all-out war on them to break yourself of the hold they have on you.

Holding grudges

Like a corpse rising from its grave, putrid and stinking of decay, the habit of holding grudges digs around in what’s dead and gone and drags it out to corrupt the present. How many actions are taken in the workplace with the express intention of paying off old scores? How many projects are derailed, how much information withheld, how much time and money wasted, just so that one person can take pleasure in making sure another’s plans fail or career is harmed?

Scoring petty points

The second habit consumes significant amounts of time and effort to no purpose, and is almost as shameful as the first. Meetings are often riddled with items there for the express purpose of scoring points. The sole purpose of this tawdry activity—the cause of hours wasted on needless reporting, worthless presentations, and sham questions—is to score some insignificant victory against a rival. Do these activities produce anything beneficial? Nothing whatsoever. Do they waste time, increase stress, and send people away angry and humiliated? I think the answer is obvious.

Jealousy

Jealousy defiles too many choices and actions: jealousy of another’s achievements, career progress, popularity, or even looks. If holding grudges is like a science-fiction corpse climbing from its grave, jealousy reminds me of vampire stories; of some smooth and cloying creature that sucks the blood out of living people to sustain its own existence. I have seen fine creative ideas shelved, product improvements reversed, customers deliberately lost, and false accusations raised, with the sole purpose of feeding someone’s jealousy.

Anyone who steals from their employer is rightly labeled a thief. Someone who wastes resources through lack of ability is likely to be fired for incompetence. But the jealous ones—the ones who often destroy far more value and throw away resources on a larger scale to feed their obsession—all too often get away with it.

I began deliberately with the most obnoxious and serious habits. My last two are, in many ways, ridiculous and childish. Yet they still consume huge amounts of time that might otherwise be put to good use; and they probably cause at least as much stress and pain as any of the other three.

The habit of gossiping

That’s certainly true of gossiping. How many hours are wasted in idle, often malicious tittle-tattle? How many e-mails, instant messages, and phone calls are sent with no other purpose than to spread tales, or delight in cruel or salacious rumors? And don’t waste time pointing out to me that various media publications consist of nothing else. People make money out of peddling drugs, but that isn’t seen as a reason for encouraging the trade. Gossip is a total waste of time at best, and usually considerably worse: mean-minded, self-righteous, bigoted, and petty.

Countless people suffer stress and pain because others gossip about them, knowing full well the hurt they will cause. Time and resources are wasted, communication systems abused, and reputations undermined for the same reason. Saying that it’s common doesn’t excuse it.

Showing-off

The final item on my list is showing-off. How many presentations have you sat through that were put together for that purpose? How many pointless meetings are organized so that someone can indulge in a public display of their importance? How many useless reports have been generated in pursuit of personal aggrandizement, or fatuous requests made for unnecessary data? The pompous jerks who inflate themselves at every opportunity may be ridiculous—even comic—but they still waste massive amounts of time and cause extra work for everyone around them.

Any organization—or any leader, come to that—that truly wishes to cut costs and eliminate waste could do no better than start by declaring total war on these five habits, personally and organizationally. And any individual—yes, maybe even you—who wants to cut their stress levels and increase their peace of mind should look deeply into their mind and actions and tear out all traces of these miserable habits.

They are worthless, they are poisonous, and they are hateful. Treat them like the malignant diseases they are. Don’t tolerate them for another day in yourself, and do all that you can to discourage them in others.

It’s my guess that you will be amazed at the time—and cost reductions—that will follow; to say nothing of the massive improvement in the working atmosphere.



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Wednesday, July 04, 2020

Doing without home runs

Real change is usually built on a series of small steps made regularly

People’s wish for better personal development has produced a publishing bonanza. Go to your neighborhood bookstore. Look along the shelves of self-help and self-improvement books. What do most of them have in common? A tendency to focus on people who have made spectacular changes to their lives, often based on an instantaneous “conversion” to some point of view. It’s the personal development equivalent of being “born again.” Does it work? It certainly does for the writers. However, relying on a series of “big hits” is a poor strategy for making change itself.

Writers and journalists have to sell their work. Both groups know that something surprising or shocking sells better than a story that’s more mundane. They know that instant answers sell better than instructions to persevere, and simple prescriptions do better than complex ones. Self-help writers also prefer emphasizing the positive, so their version of the blockbuster scoop links instant, radical transformation with a climactic event like walking across hot coals or attending a seminar by some motivational guru. “This book changes lives” is standard back-cover copy—even if the only life changed was the author’s when the royalty check arrived.

I’m not denying that sudden, dramatic breakthroughs can happen. What I’m suggesting is they’re no more common than any other “once in a lifetime” event—which means very uncommon indeed. Certainly not something you should take as the norm, or something you should set your sights on when you decide to make some significant change in your own life.

Games of baseball—or cricket, since I’m English—are typically won by the slow and steady accumulation of singles, not the spectacular hits to the boundary for four or six, or home runs in baseball. It’s exciting to watch the batter produce a huge hit right out of the park, but depending on big hits alone is not a reliable strategy for winning games.

Slow and steady wins

Successful personal growth too is best achieved by a consistent, long-term series of baby steps. This approach isn’t spectacular—certainly not the stuff of best-selling self-improvement books—but it works. All the small gains gradually amount to something big, sometimes faster than you imagine. It’s like the laws of compound interest in investing. If you invest $1000 each year for 25 years and earn only 5% interest, you’ll have $53,499.81 at the end. And that’s certain. You could “invest” $1000 per year in a lottery, or some other speculative venture, and win a huge amount. More likely, at the end of the 25 years you’d have nothing— not even the $25,000 it cost you. Waiting and hoping for the big one is a poor investment strategy with money or development. A consistent series of actions to enhance your career, develop your skills, and broaden your mind, even if each one is quite small, is a far better choice. Each builds on the last. Each one sticks because it’s a pace of change you can cope with.

Don’t focus your personal development on home runs. It may work for some, but that’s mostly luck. Sure, someone wins the big lottery prize, but you have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning or run down by someone distracted by yammering on their cell phone. Besides, just as many lottery winners are broke again in a few years. There’s no guarantee that a sudden, dramatic personal breakthrough will stick. “Easy come, easy go” applies to more than money.

If you want to slow down and live life more deliberately—and you should, there’s little doubt of that, unless you’re chronically idle—start small, then keep it going. Stop one task you don’t need to do. Take one extra hour a week for thinking time. That should be possible for everyone. And when you’ve done it, do it again: another pointless task dropped, another useless meeting canceled, another hour added to thinking time.

Keep going like that and you truly will revolutionize your life. Today, July 4th, celebrates a climactic event in the United states, the Declaration of Independence. Was that it? Did the colonists simply announce their freedom and go back to living their lives? Of course not. The declaration was just the start of length battles and struggles to make it stick. What won the war was a series of victories, plus some defeats, mostly small and relatively insignificant in themselves. Only taken all together did they change the world.



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Thursday, June 28, 2020

Counting the costs of compromise

What happens when you abandon your beliefs and dreams for the sake of fitting in and getting on?

Conventional management thinking places a large premium on being a “good team player.” That sounds harmless enough—even beneficial—but it’s worth considering more carefully what it means in practice, especially in workplace cultures based on macho styles of leadership.
To be a good team player ought to imply nothing more than acting in ways that don’t cause needless problems for other people. Perhaps it might also suggest friendliness and co-operation. After all, someone who acts totally selfishly, always demanding that their needs are put first, is neither pleasant to be around nor a useful colleague.

This is the commonsense or natural picture of a good team player: friendly, co-operative, willing, when needed, to take a back seat for the sake of helping the team. Not too selfish, not too demanding, not too solitary or withdrawn to make a satisfactory colleague.

The new version—the macho manager’s team player

But that’s not what today’s macho leaders have in mind when they use the phrase. To them, a “good team player” is totally compliant at all times; never even thinks of rocking the boat; never questions long hours or causes problems by wanting to take vacation when it’s not convenient (which is almost always). When he or she is away from the workplace, supposedly relaxing on some beach or enjoying a break, the good team player is still 100% available: checking in constantly with those still at work, answering e-mails, talking on the telephone, dealing with problems.

This kind of good team player isn’t purely the result of massive staff layoffs that have reduced manning to the level where anyone’s absence causes major problems. This kind of team player is also a large part of the cause. Organizations know that they can strip staffing to the bone, and beyond, precisely because those who are left will still cope—regardless of the crushing hours, the stress of being continually on-call, and the havoc it makes in the rest of their lives.

Why do people put up with it?

In large part, of course, organizations rely on people's feelings of loyalty. Not loyalty to the business, mostly, but loyalty to colleagues, who will be forced to take up any slack if someone refuses to give up vacation time or work a 60 or 70-hour week.

Fear of being thought disloyal, however misplaced, does at least provide an explanation that shows most people in a good light. The other reasons behind people’s willingness to play the “good team player” are not so pleasant: greed, cowardice and ambition.

Compromising with unreasonable organizational demands to earn lots of cash, snag that promotion, or through fear of being excluded from the ranks of high-fliers and corporate favorites, suggests base and selfish motives: the complete opposite of the public persona of the good team player. Yet these reasons behind playing the “good team player” role are probably as common as the others. No one is truly coerced into staying compliant. It always takes some measure of personal acceptance. In some people, that acceptance is downright eager . . . provided the price is right.

Counting the cost of compliance

Here’s what happens as a result. The organization goes on reducing staffing and piling on fresh demands, since it has now created a culture in which anyone who refuses the extra, unpaid hours is marked down and ostracized. Managers continue to rely on a compliant workforce, who will do as they are told and even come to pat themselves on the back for being so loyal and helpful—ignoring the proofs, in the form of yet more pink slips or even higher demands, that this loyalty is a one-way street.

Those with the most courage, the highest levels of self-confidence, the greatest commitment to ethical principles, and the strongest personal values leave. If they are replaced at all, their successors will be chosen to be less “difficult” (and will almost certainly earn less money too). Although this represents a shocking loss of talent, many organizations ignore that because the process gets rid of “troublemakers” and people who don’t match their twisted definition of the good team player.

The ones who stick it out are faced with an ongoing choice between fitting in or risking trouble by trying to achieve some kind of work/life balance. Every concession to the organization, however small, eats away at their ability to resist future expectations. What began as a willingness to do some extra work to see things through a bad patch becomes the norm.

High-fliers are often hardest hit

One of the differences between high levels of stress and actual burnout is the presence of depression. Someone suffering burnout has given up. He or she no longer has the power to fight, nor the self-esteem to put the blame on the organization, where it belongs. The burnout victim was, typically, an ambitious high-flier, a good team player who gave and gave until there was nothing left to give. Being a high-flier doesn’t buy you a free pass. Going along with crazy demands through ambition or greed can lead you beyond the point where it’s still possible to back out without harm.

Facing the future

There should be no call to sacrifice the rest of life to work demands. Work is part of life, not the other way around. Civilized countries rightly outlawed once-common labor practices like employing children, paying in tokens that had to be redeemed at a company store, sweat-shop conditions, harassment, and sacking people without paying their outstanding wages. Did the leaders of the organizations of those times welcome such laws? Of course they didn't, since such practices benefited their profits. I don't say these are bad people (mostly). What they are is myopically focused on making money and able to convince themselves that the ends justify the means. Besides, the argument goes, it's a free society and plenty of workers are happy to accept the conditions offered.

Is this so? In a way, it is. In the past, people were forced to accept wretched working conditions or starve. What is amazing today is that so many of their descendants embrace them willingly. Organizations long ago learned that coercion was far less effective than creating a widespread belief that working your butt off is somehow meritorious—the sign of respectability, social status, virtue, and the much-hyped “good team player.” We live with a generation in charge of the world—my own—who have mostly swallowed wholesale the idea of the value of a strong work ethic.

Instead of attributing our unprecedented increase in wealth over the last fifty years to the right reason—technology-created productivity—many people still go with the idea that it’s due mostly to individual hard work; the way that hard work always made you better off in the good old pre-technological past (only it didn’t, outside of fairy tales). We prefer to believe in the sunny myths of the Great American Dream than recognize the realities of the world we actually live in. Even in the past, the majority of poor immigrants didn’t make a wonderful life, however hard they worked. A very few did, and they became the stuff of stories. The rest stayed poor and made out the best that they could. Nothing much has changed.

The cost of compromising with macho leadership can be extremely high, even for those few who claw their way into the ruling elite. A hundred years ago and more, the ultra-rich were characterized by a lifestyle that generally avoided work altogether, in favor of lavish parties and a cadre of henchmen who dealt with the tedious business of making yet more money. Today, even the ultra-rich have bought into the belief that work is somehow a good thing in itself. And since the rich and powerful always want the largest share of whatever is seen as most valuable at the time, today those ultra-rich executives are likely to spend the most time at work of anyone—and have the most hectic and stressful lifestyles. Maybe that is their punishment. In creating a culture that puts a totally irrational premium on long hours and hard work for their own sake, they have become victims of the monster that they unleashed.

I can only hope that the new generations entering the workplace have better sense than to compress their lives and dreams to fit into a broken system of deeply-flawed values. It's time to take back our time and our lives; time to find new ways to organize how people work together that don't threaten to destroy us.



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Wednesday, June 27, 2020

Keeping your sanity and your cool

In today’s manic workplaces, personal boundaries require constant attention.

Boundaries are essential to effective organizational functioning. They’re just as important to individual functioning too, especially in the workplace. It’s dreadfully easy to allow organizational needs to swamp your personal space, reducing you to an automaton whose only direction is the one currently set by organizational policies and goals. Here’s how to stop that happening.
Everyone knows the old saying that good fences make good neighbors. Nowhere is it more true than in the workplace, especially when it points to the need to establish and maintain personal boundaries in the face of continual pressures to lose your identity in the group.

Good fences make good neighbors because each side knows where the limits lie. This side is mine, where I can choose freely; that side is yours, where I can enter only with your permission. You don’t trespass on my side and I don’t try to eat into yours.

Where boundaries are poorly marked or uncertain, there will be a constant tendency to disputes, land grabs, turf wars, and the consequent resentments—even violence. No one is quite clear about their limits. Those who are—or feel themselves to be—stronger are tempted to encroach. Bullies can grab bits of someone else’s territory and hope to conceal their aggression behind a smokescreen of uncertainty. Such boundaries as remain are under continual threat.

Keeping your space clear

That’s not an uncommon situation in many organizations. The powerful (bosses, top executives, ambitious colleagues) stand on one side of each individual’s boundaries. On the other side are that person’s private needs, personal life, family obligations, career hopes, and health requirements. If the boundaries are unclear, weakly laid down, or easily breached, the strong will be tempted to encroach, nibbling away until little is left that is not under their direct control.

Without good personal fences, your time, your energy, your achievements, and your dreams are more or less up for grabs. Those bullies, domineering bosses, uncaring executives, and even so-called friends out for a free ride can just walk in and take more or less whatever they want: your time, your energy, your self-esteem, your confidence. The result is wage slavery.

Here are some ways to establish sound personal boundaries without alienating the guys on the other side.
  1. Start as you mean to go on. Setting and maintaining good “fences” from the outset will always be easier and less contentious than trying to establish them when others have become used to walking all over your patch.

  2. Be firm. Your boundaries are going to be tested. Others will try to take more time, energy, and personal space than you are willing to give. It’s tempting to give in a little, if only for the sake of seeming flexible. Don’t do it. It will always be harder to eject a squatter than stop them entering in the first place.

  3. Be crystal clear where your boundaries are. You can’t really blame the organization or the boss for trespassing on your private time, or requiring unreasonable work out of working hours, if you haven’t made it clear what you will do willingly, what you will do only in a true emergency, and what is going too far at any time.

  4. Defend against incursions. However clearly you lay down your barriers, there will be times when others cross them. If you don’t defend yourself, they’ll assume the boundaries weren’t meant seriously.

  5. Set your boundaries carefully. It’s well worth taking the time to be absolutely certain of where your boundaries should lie. If you aren’t sure, how can anyone else be? Constantly shifting them won’t work either. It will tempt others to assume that your decisions on boundaries are weak and easily changed.

  6. Negotiate when there is no dispute. The worst time of all to try to resolve any boundary problems is when they are in dispute. Don’t wait until the boss expects something you aren’t prepared to give to talk about the whole issue. By then, emotions are aroused and firm positions taken. If you have the good sense to discuss boundaries when everyone is relaxed and can see one another’s needs rationally, it will give you a handsome pay-off. Later, all it will usually take is a polite reminder of what was agreed to get everyone back on their own side of the line.

  7. Don’t violate others’ boundaries yourself. You’ll be in a weak position to defend your own, if it’s known that you’re quite ready to step over the line with others whenever it suits you.

  8. Don’t be a sucker for hard-luck stories. Not every attempt to snatch something inside your boundaries will arrive as an obvious incursion. You’ll face a good many pleas and much wheedling based on claims that it will only happen just this once. Any time you give in sets a precedent and the next incursion will be harder to resist.

  9. Don’t be greedy. Other people also have legitimate claims. Colleagues may reasonably expect a helping hand in a crisis. The organization that pays you has a sound claim for value for its money. The boss can reasonably expect respect basic loyalty. If you push your boundaries out too far, they’ll never be respected, whatever you do.
Establishing and maintaining good personal boundaries works because prevention of abuse is always better than cure. As a human being, you have a moral right to a private life, with time and energy enough to enjoy it. It’s also necessary for physical and mental health. By setting firm boundaries, you’re helping to create a balance between what others may reasonably expect and what you are prepared to give. And by staying firmly in charge of your boundaries, you can relax them if it seems appropriate, and reestablish them afterwards without weakening your position.

Work and the rest of your life are neighbors. As with all neighbors, life is calmest and most pleasant if they co-exist with a minimum of friction. That’s why good fences—and open communication about mutual boundaries—are so important.



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Tuesday, June 26, 2020

The 7 worst habits of Hamburger Management

  1. Always taking the easy way out. Lots of people want simple answers to all of life’s problems, but Hamburger Management makes this into an art form. Because they’re always in a mad rush, rarely bothering to “waste” time in thinking or reflecting, these macho managers depend on a few simple and conventional ways for doing everything. They don’t want to hear about problems; all they want are quick and easy solutions, preferably ones that won’t increase costs or take any real effort to implement. Instead of using information to help them explore and understand, they pick on one or two “key ratios” and use them as mechanical ways to tell them what to do.

    Running things in this way produces rigid, simplistic styles of management. The focus on simple outcomes, like quarterly profits, obscures the reality that events don’t fit into neat categories in that way. Short-term, quick “wins” easily turn into longer-term slow losses. The constant haste and pressure to deliver on rigid goals makes it impossible to stand back and see how superficial and limited this approach soon becomes.

  2. Acting first and thinking afterwards. I’m tempted to say never thinking, but that is probably too harsh. The cult of “getting things done” and “delivering results” has been twisted into an obsession with instant action and constant busyness, regardless of whether or not such action has a sound sense of direction. Anyone can run around being busy all the time. That doesn’t make you effective, it just makes you tired and stressed.

    Sitting and thinking is not doing nothing; it’s one of the most important activities of management: working out what to do next for the best results. Just because you cannot see mental activity doesn’t meant that it isn’t there. Some prior thought can help you avoid problems, save time and cost, and retain flexibility. Jumping into ill-considered action, just to show how busy you are, makes no sense at all.

  3. Always being right. Hamburger Management is based on a combative, militaristic picture of the organization: business as warfare against competitive forces and a wide range of “enemies” from environmentalists and unions to tax authorities. This produces a macho image of the leader, free from weakness of purpose or too many scruples about how to achieve it.

    If being wrong is seen as a weakness, there’s no space for humility. Nor is it possible to acknowledge mistakes or change course. All that is left is to show boundless determination to push ahead on the original track, regardless of problems or evidence that it isn’t gong to work. There’s a long history of organizations and executives persisting with projects long after everyone else could see that success was hopeless. Nobody is always right. In reality, some of the weakest people are the most stubborn, since their fragile self-esteem cannot cope with admitting that they have made mistakes.

  4. Talking when they should be listening. This is another aspect of the macho style: a command-and-control approach that is big on issuing orders and shouting down the doubters. Many macho managers have inflated egos. They focus so much on their personal agendas that they have no time or attention for anything else. They confuse being domineering and autocratic with being decisive.

    When you don’t listen, you deprive yourself of the life-blood of effective leadership: good, up-to-date information about what is going on, so that you can respond accordingly. You also stifle creativity and suppress problems until they become crises. One of the main reasons why macho managers are always up to their butts in crocodiles is that they never get any information about what’s going on in the swamp. Their mouths are wide open and their ears are tight shut. Spending more time listening would help them head off more problems, instead of having to deal with them after they’ve grown to a dangerous size.

  5. Not knowing when to give up and do something else. Hamburger Management has created a cult of dogged determination. The macho manager’s self-image is something like John Wayne, pistol in hand, facing down overwhelming odds. There’s nothing wrong with being determined—it can be essential to achieve results—but when it is taken to excess it becomes pig-headedness.

    There’s an old saying that, if the only tool that you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If all you have to offer is being a tough guy, every goal will demand grim determination; every plan will call for overcoming problems by sheer force. You’ll distrust cleverness, since that threatens to make your bull-headed style look useless.

  6. Believing that might makes right. Tough guys value being tough. Those who believe that their success depends on hard fighting to overcome the other guy value fighting ability. Domineering people value being number one. Management gun slingers value being quick on the draw. None of them can admit to any doubt about the excellence of their chosen approach.

    The court cases of recent years involving top executives have shown the prevalence of the belief that might makes right: that winning is everything, pretty much regardless of how you do it. The history of civilization is the story of people doing away with the automatic assumption that the biggest bully should rule over everyone else. Sadly, that idea is alive and well in organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management. Whether it’s beating competitors with various dirty tricks, crushing internal dissent, or using shameless lobbying to prevent lawmakers from curbing your activities, might is the answer to every issue.

  7. Focusing on the negative. Hamburger managers are constantly stressed. Partly as the natural result of all the haste, harassment, and obsessive activity they load into their lives; partly due to their constant focus on the negative. Whatever results they achieve, they are never enough. There’s always a gap between what has been gained and what can still be imagined. The performance of subordinates is never good enough. They can always find “gaps” between performance and some theoretical ideal. The continual emphasis on “more, more, more” makes everything done so far appear inadequate.

    It’s one thing to have strong aspirations; quite another to be obsessed with the gaps between what you can imagine and what can be achieved in this imperfect universe. It’s said that the optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist as half empty, and the realist points out that the glass is twice the size it ought to be. The macho manager imagines an even bigger glass, dreams of the glory he or she would reap if it was filled, and announces that they will make sure it is done by the end of the next quarter. With no real idea how to make this happen, he or she hands this crazy goal to the team, who are told to do it—or else. If results fall short, they are the ones to blame. Never mind that the goal was ill thought out and quixotic, designed purely to glorify the manager. Do this a few times and everyone will become thoroughly demoralized.




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Monday, June 25, 2020

How to work less and accomplish more

A simple way to increase your productivity without spending another minute working

There’s an easy way to get more done in the same total time. It doesn’t require fancy software, special organizational tools, or even understanding anything new. All it takes is to slow down and understand the realities of how you spend your time; then apply what you will learn.
Let’s begin with a simple picture of spending 20 minutes working on a single task. It will take you a little while to get into the work, say 5 minutes. That’s for getting things together, settling down, and starting your mind working in the right direction. Before you leave the task, you’ll need maybe another 5 minutes to wind down, put things away, tidy up, and shift your thoughts to what you’ll need to be doing next.

Simple arithmetic shows that, of the 20 minutes total time elapsed, 10 minutes in total was available for productive work, with two sets of 5 minutes allowed for starting up and winding down. That gives a productivity ratio (productive to non-productive time) of exactly 50%. It look like this:


However, if you increase the total period of uninterrupted, focused time on that task to 30 minutes, your productivity ratio immediately increases to 67%, since it takes no more time to start up and wind down. You now have 20 minutes of fully productive time out of 30 minutes total time elapsed, like this:


If you can increase the uninterrupted time to 40 minutes (and the task will take at least that long to complete), your productivity ratio will rise to 75%. With one hour spent like this, productivity rises to 83%. And if you could set aside two hours free from interruption, your productivity ratio would be 92%.

Now see what happens if you have uninterrupted time, as before, but decide to multi-task: that curse of much management thinking. We’ll go back to a period of 30 minutes in total, since that makes a chart that will fit on this page, and assume only two tasks for the sake of simplicity.

Because research has shown that it takes time to swap between tasks—the human brain can’t just jump fully-effective from one to the other—and you still have to allow start up time and wind down at the end, your total effective working time is sharply reduced. You still spent exactly 30 minutes, split between the two tasks, but your productivity ratio has fallen to 33% from the 50% in the first case in this article.


Being interrupted is the very worst thief of productivity, as this chart shows. With no multi-tasking and only two interruptions, 40 minutes being “busy” gives only 10 minutes of truly productive time: a productivity ratio of only 25%. Imagine how low that ratio will fall with more interruptions and a vain attempt at multi=tasking as well. Is it any wonder that people reach the end of a hectic day and cannot see any results for all that effort?


The lesson is simply this. To get the most done in the least time, focus on only one task, remove all possible interruptions, and never multi-task. And try to allocate as long a period to the task as you can, before you have to stop or change to something else. The longer the focused period, the higher the productive ratio of useful time to time spent in starting up, winding down, and the like. That’s why “chunking” time, thought much better than multi-tasking, still isn’t much of a help unless the “chunks” are good, big ones.



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Friday, June 08, 2020

Another kind of inflation threat

We seem to be turning into a society based on narcissism and egotism, if recent survey results are correct.

Narcissism—defined as a positive and inflated view of the self—is on the increase, especially amongst people born after 1982. That’s the conclusion of a recent survey. And narcissism and egotism aren’t just a problem for individuals. These mental states fuel greater selfishness, materialism, lack of concern for others, and, it is claimed, violence and substance abuse. In the workplace, the effects of increasing egotism and narcissism are plain to see in bullying bosses and arrogant executives. Narcissism is also a major supporter of Hamburger Management, that cheap and shoddy imitation of leadership that defiles so many corporations today. It’s time to call a halt.
The current (July/August 2007) edition of The Atlantic magazine reports a survey of more than 16,000 students pointing to a continuing rise in narcissism since 1982. I posted an article (Who is the highest flier of them all?) a little while ago on the negative impact of individual narcissism amongst managers, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the problems it causes, even to whole organizations (The Narcissistic Organization).
Sadly, narcissism isn’t only found in a few people at the top of organizations. It is an affliction of many bosses. When it strikes, it causes them to claim ideas their subordinates dreamed up, belittle other people’s achievements, and demand unquestioning “loyalty” and adulation from all around them.
That’s why I couldn’t resist sharing a few quotes from this post on Flying Solo, an Australian site. The article is called “Is your ego taking over?,” It fits so well with the post I put up here yesterday (Beware! Ever more egotists are at large . . . and they're dangerous). Here is just a flavor of an interesting article that you should read in full:
Sure, it’s perfectly natural to feel somewhat disappointed when such situations [ . . . feelings of inadequacy when you’re being challenged or when a client or colleague has rejected an idea you’ve proposed. . . ] arise. But what if you’re feeling this way the majority of the time? What if the feelings derived from such situations consume your thoughts to the point where you feel deflated, vulnerable or even depressed?

Now, be honest with me here: does it feel like your ego is taking a constant beating?

If yes is your honest answer, it just might be likely that you possess an inflated ego. Unlike being naturally confident and believing in yourself, an inflated ego is over-believing in yourself to the point where it can actually hold you back.
Check out their list of signs that egotism may be creeping up on you. These particular ones seem to me to be classic symptoms of macho, Hamburger Management:
  • You consider being “right” as the most important thing. Hamburger Managers can’t admit to being wrong, since that would involve both slowing down for long enough to find what they should have done instead, and listening to others. Besides, denting their own self-image isn’t part of the deal. Image is extremely important to such people—mostly because they haven’t got too much else going for them. Billions of dollars of corporate cash is expended (and lost) every year by executives determined to prove that they are right and all the rest of the world is out of step.
  • You feel the world owes you something. Another typical Hamburger Manager thought. Always being quickest, easiest, and above all cheapest ought to count for something, right?
  • You honestly believe you’re above everyone else. Why do Hamburger Managers believe this? Because their bosses are always telling them it’s true. How else can they be kept at full stretch all the time, working obscene hours and forcing everyone underneath them to do the same? But do those same bosses believe it? Of course not. They’re the truly superior ones, obviously. Those so-called high-fliers underneath them are mostly being duped with empty promises.
  • You often walk around feeling very proud. Pride isn’t always so bad in itself. Like ambition, it can be a powerful driver towards some very worthwhile achievements. What matters is the subject: what you are feeling proud of. If it’s cutting corners, driving costs down regardless of the effect on others, finding ways to con people into doing extra work for no reward, getting rid of “awkward” people who ask too many questions, or screwing your customers to inflate your profits, you aren’t just an egotist and a Hamburger Manager. You’re a Certified Asshole too.
  • You are never a beginner at anything! Of course, most Hamburger Managers believe this because it’s nearly true. They’re never beginners because they never begin anything new. All their actions, thoughts, and attitudes are copied from the standard play-book of conventional management myths and reach-me-down answers.
  • You justify and defend absolutely everything. Macho types can never accept any changes from what they have decreed. That would be to admit to weaknesses. Nor can they recognize personal mistakes—particularly those produced by their constant, habit of making “intuitive” (read “instant and ill-considered”) decisions. Everyone else’s carefully prepared arguments are ignored, because their personal gut-feel is infallible. Everyone else has to compromise or step down, so they never have to lose a point.
Narcissism, egotism, and Hamburger Management are bad for everyone in the workplace. For the employees, who are continually harassed, manipulated, stressed out, and bullied. For the shareholders or owners, whose cash is used to further inflate the already monstrous egos of the ruling executive elite, and who have to pick up the bill for all of management’s mistakes (including the hidden ones). The customers, who are routinely ripped off to generate the endlessly growing profits necessary to sustain management’s self-image. The state, whose tax income is minimized by all kinds of trickery, some of it close to, or past the borders of, illegality. And the public at large, who see more and more of the nation’s wealth being tied up in the hands of a very few people. And who find that the public interest is no match for the desires of well-funded pressure groups and lobbyists.

Only today’s habitual emphasis on short-termism and hype over substance keeps the whole sorry mess alive. When you bring it into the open, there’s no justification for continuing to pander to so many hyper-inflated egos.

It’s past time to call a halt and get back to something like sanity. Freedom doesn’t mean allowing anyone and everyone to do whatever they like. That’s anarchy, and it’s what we have more and more of in upper reaches of the corporate world today. Of course business dislikes rules and regulations. That doesn’t mean some aren’t needed to cool an over-heated corporate world. Being civilized means restraining those urges that are not consistent with an ethical and compassionate way of living. Unbridled freedom soon becomes no freedom at all. Unrestrained corporate activity is already well along the way to producing an uncivilized workplace culture for all save a very few.

Why not slow down and think carefully, before it’s too late?



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Thursday, June 07, 2020

Beware! Ever more egotists are at large . . . and they're dangerous

Egotism has always been common amongst leaders. Now, thanks largely to growing acceptance, it’s becoming an epidemic.

One of the the more malign impacts of today’s macho, fast-paced leadership style is the spread of unchecked egotism. Thanks to the media, with their sanctification of people such as Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, egotism is in danger of becoming not just acceptable but even “cool.” Does that matter? Yes, it does, because being involved with others, and interested in their welfare as well as your own, is the basis for both an ethical outlook and a commitment to honesty. More egotists mean less concern for anyone else, and that makes exploitation, dishonesty, and callousness more common.
Macho types have no time to get involved with people, save as useful “networking contacts,” to be exploited for their own benefit. Exploiting others to serve their own advancement seems quite logical and is done with no sense of shame. Indeed, like all egotists, they have no real interest in dealing with most other people at all, beyond the minimum needed to get the job done. They aren’t interested in anyone else’s problems, because they aren’t involved. Nothing is important, save what relates to them personally, and the people they want to impress or use in some way.

Of course, we are all guilty of egotism at times. It’s natural to be more interested in your own needs than the needs of others, at least for some of the time. What becomes unnatural—even dangerous—is the viewpoint that dismisses anything and anyone as important only insofar as it conveys some direct benefit to you.

How do many of today’s executives sleep easy, having deprived others of their jobs to boost short-term profits (and their own stock options)? How do they find it so easy to justify cost-cutting decisions that have no other purpose than to please Wall Street? They are mostly dedicated egotists, and as such they aren’t much involved in anyone else’s world. So it’s easy to minimize or disregard those consequences of their actions that fall on others. They don’t feel for the people whom they use or misuse, because they’ve forgotten that they’re dealing with fellow human beings. In the rush and hurry to satisfy their own needs and ambitions, other people seem more like machines or objects—sometimes useful, more often an irritant or a distraction.

Speed, macho beliefs, and egotism are incompatible with empathy. Egotists have no time or interest in recalling what it feels like to have someone dump their frustration and annoyance on you, just because you didn’t do exactly what they wanted when and how they wanted it. No time to remember that the other guy wants a stable job and a good income, just as they do. The higher and faster the high-fliers go, the more the world gets split into them (the important part, with so many things to do) and others (the unimportant elements that get in the way and have to be pushed, cajoled, or coerced into doing whatever they want for as little outlay of time, money, or attention as possible). As a non-participant in anything but their own concerns, these Hamburger Managers have no need for courtesy, politeness, ethics, or patience—and no time for anyone save themselves.

Human life—real, valuable, joyful human life—is all about participation. We are all part of the same world, intimately connected, however much some people want to keep others out. If you have no time to participate in this shared world, you have no time to live. If you cannot spare the time to help or empathize with others, why should they give you support and understanding when you need it most? You’re the person who ruined their day with your imperious demands, or walked right past them with your mind fixed on the next item on your agenda, or sent them the pink slip.

All our joys and triumphs are greater when shared. Our griefs are lessened by others’ sympathy and understanding. We cannot opt out of links with others and remain fully human. Those who do, even just mentally, lose their humanity and become capable of every kind of cruelty and dishonesty. Look at just about any dictator you care to mention, past or present.

Without any sense of obligation to our fellows, there’s no basis for behaving ethically or honestly. Sure, you might get caught, but it’s easy to ignore that possibility when the rewards of screwing over everyone else for your own ends are so obvious. When you divide other people into two simple classes, those who matter because they can help you advance, and all the rest, you will have no shortage of supposedly unimportant people whom you can cheat, exploit, harass, or bully at will. If the behavior of some bosses is little short of disgusting, it’s mostly because they feel neither shame nor concern at what they do—and nor, it seems, do many of their superiors.

Do we want to live in a world where politeness, gratitude, understanding, honesty, ethical dealing, and patience have become extinct? Where everyone is locked into their own bubble of petty concerns and nobody cares about anything else? Where rising to the top in career and financial terms means opting out of involvement in “unproductive” activities like friendship, helping others, and just taking time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the world itself?

Slow Leadership isn’t just about creating civilized workplaces. It’s part of a wider need to create a more civilized world for everyone, free from the jerks and assholes whose egos are bigger than their brains.

Recommended reading: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, by Bob Sutton.



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Monday, May 28, 2020

Bad workmen or bad tools?

Handling today’s communications technology wisely


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


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

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

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

Control-freaks and gossips

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

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

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

Interruptive power

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

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

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



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Friday, May 25, 2020

Keeping Hamburger Management alive

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

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

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

It’s imitation.

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

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

Daily “learning”

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

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

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

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

Be very careful what you choose to copy

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

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



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Thursday, May 24, 2020

The great sine wave of life

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


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

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

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

The ups and downs of accountability

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

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

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

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

The madness of macho managers

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

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

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

Nature contains no straight-line graphs, only waves

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

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



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Wednesday, May 23, 2020

Who is the highest flier of them all?

Is egotism necessary to achieving leadership?


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Monday, May 21, 2020

Loyalty and a culture of fear

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

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

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

Principles of a civilized working life

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

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

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

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

Getting the balance right

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

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

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

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

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



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Tuesday, May 08, 2020

Should business priorities dictate so much else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?



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Friday, May 04, 2020

Slow Leadership in practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, May 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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.



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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.



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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).
If your meetings contain time wasted on any of the above, either drop the meeting altogether (if at all possible) or severely limit the time allocated.

There are only two genuine reasons for holding a meeting:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.
Meetings held for any other reason are a waste of time and are likely to be due to a slide towards Hamburger Management.

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.



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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.



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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.



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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.



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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.



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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?



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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?



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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.



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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.



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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.
From time to time, we all need the courage and the wisdom to let go and face the reality that what we once found indispensable is no longer useful. Continually putting off that time is a true sign of cowardice. Until you admit the truth, you cannot learn new ways to replace what now needs to be laid to rest.

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.



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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.
We recognize expertise in large part by the way the expert makes extremely difficult actions seem effortless. Where we would huff and puff, and grit our teeth, and produce a pitiful result, the expert smiles and brings off a brilliant outcome without visible effort. All that skill and expertise is revealed by the ease with which the action is done.

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.



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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.”
I want to add a fourth: “I really meant to do it, but I didn’t have the time.”

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?



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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.



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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.



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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.



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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.

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.
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.

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.



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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.



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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.



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Friday, February 16, 2020

Workplace Karma

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.
What will likely come back to you as a result?
  • 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.
What the universe will give you back from giving out Hamburger Management is all the worst, most stressful, and least fulfilling aspects of the business environment. And if that tempts you to respond with even more rigorous Hamburger Management thinking, you’ll get still more of the same. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you lead like an idiot, you’ll be surrounded by idiocy. If you act like a bullying, aggressive bastard, you’ll be amazed at how many other nasty, callous bastards you will encounter every day; and how keen they will be to screw you over on every possible occasion.

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.



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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 fads

Ambitious 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 fashion

Something 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 gurus

Successful 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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