Wednesday, April 25, 2020
The Psychopathic Organization
Part 2 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures
A psychopath is a person suffering with a personality disorder resulting in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse. A psychopathic organization is one where aggressive, cruel, dishonest, or twisted behavior is allowed without any concern about the consequences or impact on others. Being psychopathic means, essentially, having no discernible sense of morality or ethics. It’s the most common kind of organizational sickness today.If you encountered a person who displayed overt aggression, treated others with callousness, manipulated them for his or her own profit without any sign of remorse, and practiced daily amounts of dishonesty without any feelings of guilt or anxiety—save for the concern not to be caught—what would you think? Would you praise their behavior as displaying sound values? Would you hold them up as a positive example to others?
I doubt it very much. People like this are typically diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder and treated, sometimes under compulsion. Most mass murderers are psychopaths. They are often charming, cunning, arrogant, manipulative, and extremely hard to catch. Even when apprehended, most show no sign whatsoever of remorse or even recognition that what they have done is wrong.
Sadly, very similar behavior is common in organizations today. Not so extreme, of course. Organizations don’t commit murder (usually). But many do display no discernible sense that manipulating others, exploiting the weak, increasing profits by various forms of unethical behavior, or even some levels of dishonesty (providing you don’t get caught), are wrong in any way. Worse, some of these psychopathic organizations become the darlings of Wall Street and the financial press, simply based on the vast profits that they generate for their shareholders and managers.
How do you recognize a psychopathic organization?
- There is no interest in anything other than making profits and winning out over the competition. Just about anything that achieves this end counts as “fair,” regardless of its effect on others. Anyone who shows scruples is dismissed as “weak” or a “pinko.”
- Cunning, devious, and manipulative behavior is seen as “clever,” so long as it leads to benefits for the organization. Rules are there to be circumvented. Laws are more often evaded than honored. The only “sin” is being caught.
- “Spin” is important; the truth is not. Fine sounding statements are made with a nudge and a wink to insiders. Lying in the “good cause” of corporate profits is treated as normal. There is little or no sense of remorse about virtually any behavior that improves the bottom line, however unpleasant, callous, unethical, or borderline dishonest.
- The organization is run by a clique who play by unwritten rules. Offending against those rules is unacceptable. Making the true motives and methods of the organization public—being a whistle-blower—will get you fired right away.
- The organization protects those who serve it best. You can get away with almost any behavior, just as long as you continue to turn in the results expected. Any investigation of such favored individuals will be suppressed. Those who don’t meet their targets receive no protection or help.
- There is a pervasive atmosphere of “us against the world.” Insiders can earn enormous sums of money. Progress and promotion depends on being seen as “the right sort:” someone who will play the approved games and close ranks against nosey outsiders—especially the authorities or any pressure groups that appear hostile to the organization’s single-minded pursuit of what it sees as its interests.
Can these corporate psychopaths be cured? I think that they can, but only as a result of massive external pressure, and usually only after almost all the existing top management has been replaced. Leadership habits formed in a psychopathic atmosphere can be very hard to shake off, especially since the typical psychopath’s charm and cunning is deployed to make everything seem fine on the outside. Wall Street typically isn’t too particular about how profits are made, so long as no one gets caught out and the money keeps rolling in. That’s why organizations like this survive and seem to prosper.
The Roman emperor Vespasian was the first to raise money by putting a charge on public urinals. When some senators protested, he took a coin and waved it under their noses, saying: “It doesn’t smell, does it?” Today, quite a lot of corporate profit stinks to high heaven—but almost no one is out there sniffing.
Tuesday, April 24, 2020
Organizational pathology: Why does it matter?
Part 1 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures
Most articles produced on the topics of burnout, stress, and overwork approach the problems from the viewpoint of individuals and their choices. There’s often an unspoken assumption that the organizational context is a given: constant pressure to perform, tight deadlines, impossible expectations. From this perspective, the only way to cope lies in changing your day-to-day responses to a crazy world. This series aims to look at stress and overwork from the perspective of the organization and the diseases of its internal operation.Many of us have suffered under bosses who are jerks. Their tantrums, callous disregard for others, pompous self-importance, arrogance, and obsessive ambition were the background to our daily lives—and the immediate source of most of the stress and frustrations of the job. But were they born this way; or did something in the organization itself make them jerks?
In an individual case, either or both of these questions might deserve to be answered “yes”. Many bosses have significant personality flaws that cause them to behave like *ssholes. Others might have been less obnoxious, if only the organizational culture hadn’t encouraged—even forced—them to show the worst side of their characters.
A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it.While dealing with stress and burnout from an individual point of view is both valid and useful, personal lifestyle and behavioral choices are not the only factors involved—nor always the most significant ones. A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it. Unless it is reformed, no amount of personal change will do more than act as a temporary Band-Aid to hold people together and keep them functioning despite the poison all around.
Every organization develops a unique character, based on an institutionalized set of automatic approaches to the world. That is what we usually call the organizational culture. Some are benign, others strongly poisonous, but all serve as the background to people’s working lives. A toxic leader in a basically benign culture can usually be held in check. If he or she acts out such character flaws too often or too much, the organization is likely to move to curb the bad behavior. Only silence on the part of those who suffer will mask the problem, as least for a time.
But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them . . ?A good leader in a toxic organization will also find him or herself rejected. Most will remove themselves well before that happens, since the poisonous culture around them will be more than they can tolerate. But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them, if the culture around them constantly promotes negative, oppressive, Hamburger Management behavior?
I was interested to note on Bob Sutton’s blog that a newspaper article reviewing the French translation of his book, “The No *sshole Rule,” (“Objectif Zéro-Sale-Con” in France) was titled: “L’entreprise, pépinière de cons...” In English, this means something like: “The company, a tree nursery for *ssholes.”
Sadly, this statement is all too true. Many organizations act exactly like garden nurseries where jerks and *ssholes are grown in bulk. These enterprises cling to cultures that force any good managers to leave, allow bad ones to flourish, and shift the great mass of in-betweens slowly and inexorably towards the dark side.
In the next few days, I plan to review some of the most typical categories of toxic organizational cultures, drawing heavily on the work of Manfred Kets de Vries, a Dutchman who is professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD, the premier European business school, as well as my own experience.
Organizations have lives of their own that impact all who come into contact with them. If the culture that develops internally demands results at any cost, it is inevitable that the organization’s leaders will respond by creating the ideal conditions for stress and burnout: irrational demands, overwhelming pressure, casual cruelty, macho posturing, and suffocating conformity. Since these are precisely the conditions that will also nurture the greatest concentration of jerks, the management class of such an organization will rapidly teem with *ssholes of every type.
Organizational problems demand organizational solutions. You cannot expect personal change, however good in itself, to have much impact. That’s why Slow Leadership requires more than individual development. It requires that organizations themselves understand how counter-productive and negative their behavior may have become. They too have to admit to being *ssholes.
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.
Monday, April 09, 2020
Workplace “black holes”
Some workplaces are like black holes, sucking in all the energy around and giving nothing back.
Have you ever walked into a place of work—an office, a laboratory, a school, a retail store—and felt your spirits start to flag the moment you passed the door? Felt a kind of weight settle on you: a sense of dullness, gloom, coldness? Experienced trying to deal with people who seem disinterested, uninvolved, too distracted, or too sluggish to do more than the absolute minimum? If so, you’ve just encountered a workplace “black hole.” A phenomenon that becoming more common than it ought to be.In space, a black hole pulls in all energy, but never lets any back out. However much energy is nearby, it will be pulled into the vortex and then disappear as if it had never existed. A black hole is insatiable. It keeps pulling in more and more energy, absorbing it—then drawing in yet more. In black-hole workplaces, effort, however successful or exceptional, is absorbed as if it had never existed and “rewarded” by demands for still greater effort. Good results are automatically seen as the basis for requiring further and better ones. Achieve your target and it will be instantly increased. Exceed your target, and the bar will be raised still higher Like the real black holes in space, nothing can fill up a black-hole workplace—or even slow down the constant demands for more and more.
All that energy, effort, and hard work goes in, but nothing comes out again. Black holes absorb, they never emit. Black-hole workplaces take all you have to offer—and more—and give little or nothing back. They see payments and benefits as evils to be minimized, training or development as unnecessary costs, and staff numbers as a figure that should always be on the way down. Working there is a grim, draining experience: all work and no play or respite. That’s why staff appear so sluggish and disinterested. They’re too beaten down and exhausted to behave in any other way. In most cases, their every move is watched and their every activity measured against constantly rising targets for individual or team output.
Instead of being respected as a person, you are talked down to, looked down on, distrusted, and treated as a “human resource.”At the root of the workplace black hole phenomenon is a deep disrespect for people. Employees are expected to focus totally on getting their work, with no time for themselves or “slacking off.” Targets are raised and raised until they become impossible—then raised again. Failure to achieve whatever is demanded is punished. Success is not appreciated, since it is seen as no more than doing what you are paid for. Instead of being respected as a person, you are talked down to, looked down on, distrusted, and treated as a “human resource.” Something to be used and exploited: a cost to be minimized or, if possible, removed altogether by mechanization or outsourcing.
Of course, such organizations disrespect their customers just as much as their employees. The customer is there to be fleeced, manipulated, misinformed, and given as little as possible for his or her money. Price gouging, cartels, and profiteering are all the result of this fundamental disrespect of others.
Fortunately, our universe has stars as well as black holes, and the same is true of the business and organizational world. An organization that is a star energizes everyone who comes into contact with it. Instead of absorbing energy, stars create it. They don’t just respect and honor everyone involved, they give back far more that they take. For the people who work there, it’s a marvelous place that allows them to be themselves, express their creativity, build a career that they can be proud of, and—above everything else—have fun. That fundamental trust and respect of employees and customers shines through like light from the brightest star. If you need help, it’s given with pleasure and care. Employees clearly show that it’s a pleasure to work there, and that communicates itself to customers too. Black holes de-energize their whole environment. Stars pour out energy that lights up a wide area around.
is your workplace a star or a black hole? Is it founded on respect and trust—or disrespect, suspicion, and exploitation? The only sensible way to deal with a black hole is to get as far away from it as possible, before it sucks you dry. Whatever lurks, unseen, at the center of its vortex will go on drawing in energy, work, profits, effort—endlessly. An economy based on multiple black holes will suck energy and money from everywhere else and return nothing. A country based on black-hole organizations will try to suck the rest of the world dry.
We’re constantly exhorted to reach for the stars. In the organizational world, that makes excellent sense. There are stars out there. If you can find one to work in, you’ll find that every working day brings you more energy and fun. Why accept anything less?
Just stay away from the black holes.
Friday, April 06, 2020
Jam today . . . or caviar tomorrow?
Business leaders used to be compared to robber barons. Now some of them are more like greedy children or small-time gangsters.
Instant gratification is a hallmark of many of today’s organizations, headed by a slew of people following the shabby tenets of Hamburger Management. Sadly, there’s no sign that these organizations will grow out of their obsession; or that the financial institutions that fund them will encourage them to do so. This type of infantile behavior isn’t seen for what it is—a pathological prolonging of childish attitudes. In fact, people are encouraged to see it as perfectly normal. Why?David Maister raises some interesting questions (“The Long Term”) about people’s inability to get past their urge towards instant gratification to do what is best for their own long-term interest. He writes:
In much of my recent thinking (and writing) I have observed that our biggest barrier, as individuals and as organizations, is the difficulty in doing what is in our long-term best interest, not just what provides immediate gratification . . . it is part of the human condition that we can know what to do, why we should do it, and even how to do things for which we fervently desire the benefits. None of that actually predicts that we actually are going to do what we absolutely know is good for us.To say that this is equally, if not more, true of organizations is to state the obvious. The insane emphasis on quarterly earnings as almost the sole measure of business success is all about instant gratification. What may be in the longer-term interests of shareholders and the organization itself scarcely comes into the picture.
For organizations and individuals, it’s hard to resist the lure of “jam today” in favor of some future benefit that is, probably, far less certain. Taking the longer-term view used to be seen as a mark of maturity. Only children were expected to grab for immediate rewards. Adults saved money for the future, invested in pension plans, and considered short and long-term consequences before committing to some course of action.
What went wrong?
I suspect that much of today’s infantilism stems from a trend towards a consumer-based economy. Marketers and sales people don’t want customers to wait and think about their purchases. They don’t want them to set aside money in savings, when they could be spending it—right now—on buying products. From time to time, governments and financial gurus shake their heads over the problems caused by easy credit, but it’s really all their own doing. In the urge to sell more and more consumer products, credit is essential—and the easier the better. People quickly exhaust their current income (some still has to be spent on food and other necessities). Then they must either wait to save enough to make the next “big box” purchase, or borrow money to do so. Borrowing money not only makes the sale right away; it’s also a further opportunity to profit through the interest charged on the loan.
Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.Yet capitalism itself is all about putting off gratification for the sake of greater long-term profit through investment. Instead of taking all their cash and having a truly memorable blow-out in some exotic location, entrepreneurs and capitalists are expected to invest their money and wait for bigger rewards some time in the future. Instant gratification is also the antithesis of America’s favorite attitude to life: the Puritan Work Ethic. If you truly accepted having it all and having it now as your goal, you would never go to work. Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of a consumer society, it was, of course, inevitable that the attitudes produced should spill over into the rest of life.
Management practices are not immune from this process. Training and developing staff can be a long-term business—far too long-term for your average Hamburger Manager, who demands that everyone should “hit the ground running” or suffer the consequences. Developing sensible organizational strategies takes much more time than putting up a Powerpoint presentation of slogans and platitudes—or, better still, copying what some other, supposedly successful, organization is doing. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker than crafting ideas that exactly fit the needs of your own organization. Raising short-term profits by cutting costs provides almost instant returns, even if the longer-term impact may be dire. Raising them by improving products, service, or competitiveness takes a whole lot more time and effort—never mind that it’s the only way to create a sustainable future.
Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future.Maybe what we are seeing is Darwinian evolution at work. The mass of short-term, grab-and-go organizations and managers won’t have the staying power to survive. Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future. For the rest, extinction will come far sooner than they expect—and much, much sooner that they would wish.
Short-termism is an infectious disease that has been slowly choking the life and creativity out of our organizations. There's only one cure: to slow down, take a careful look at risks and rewards, and stop the slavish addiction to managing by numbers alone. Growing a business is like growing anything else. It takes time, and rushing it is more likely to produce a disaster than something that will go on growing. The attitudes of Hamburger Management have more in common with the methods of gangsters than entrepreneurs: get in quick, grab as much as you can, and get as far away as possible before trouble arrives. Is that what we want to see in boardrooms and executive suites?
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.
Tuesday, April 03, 2020
Hamburger Management and the culture of fear
Dictators always suppress dissent. Corporate ones are no different.
Few things in this life are black-and-white, however much some managers try to make them so. Unquestioning loyalty easily becomes ethical blindness. When it does, it 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. Besides, our freedom to question and to disagree is too important to be sacrificed in the trivial cause of helping to free our organizational masters from the discomforts and challenges of being questioned and held to account.
Is loyalty to the boss and the company always admirable? In today’s business climate, positive rebellion may already be essential if you’re not to lose out in global competition. Too much emphasis on loyalty can stifle creativity and dull people’s willingness to tell the truth about themselves and their work. Competitors ought to love overly loyal organizations, because no one there will be ready to rock the boat by pointing out how fast they’re becoming sluggish and obsolete.
Here’s the problem. Too much disloyalty is disruptive and destroys trust; yet unquestioning loyalty usually means that important issues may be suppressed until it’s too late. Getting the right balance between the loyalty necessary for corporate cohesiveness and the dissent that has to be encouraged to stimulate personal initiative isn’t as simple as it sounds. Tightly-knit teams are good for support, but very bad for encouraging initiative, creativity, and truth-telling. We need those people who are ready to look with different—even potentially disloyal—eyes and bring uncomfortable reality into the open. Without them, corporations and leaders get fat, dumb, and happy—until the dam breaks and disaster is all around them.
If the boss is already harassed and stressed, he or she is likely to be much more intolerant of opposition or questioning.Dictators—political or organizational—are always surrounded by “yes-men” eager to prove their loyalty by saying whatever the person in power will find most acceptable. In such circumstances, the pressure to fit in and suppress unpleasant realities can be overwhelming. Haste and speed also put pressure on dissent of any kind. Instant acceptance is quick and easy. Coping with questions, objections, or alternatives takes time and effort. If the boss is already harassed and stressed, he or she is likely to be much more intolerant of opposition or questioning. And that’s without the added pressure of an organizational culture that is itself hostile to questioning of any kind.
Hamburger Management is obsessed with speed, simplicity, and managerial power. Hamburger Managers typically require unquestioning loyalty, and prize team players far more highly than individualists, whose curiosity and innovative thoughts may force those in charge to defend their decisions. Dissent of any kind is uncomfortable in such a culture. Skeptics who challenge whatever the boss has come to believe is expedient will soon find themselves moving elsewhere. Such irritating people deserve it, in the view of those in charge, because they waste time questioning things that the rest have already decided—or maybe don’t want to look at too closely.
When a culture prizes “loyalty” above all else, fear becomes the dominant emotion. Fear of doing or saying anything that might draw down punishment. Fear of “rocking the boat” or speaking out of turn. It’s too easy to brush objections aside on the spurious grounds that “there isn’t time” to consider anything else. Too easy to suppress individual freedom to think and speak in the cause of quick profits and the minimization of delays and costs. Organizations that have become badly infected with Hamburger Management produce exactly such a culture. No time to think, no time to deal with questions, no wish to consider alternatives, so closed-minded that dissent can no longer be tolerated.
Organizations full of “yes-men,” run by leaders obsessed with personal power and profit, are interested only in the most immediate results and so throw themselves headlong down today’s typically competitive, uncertain business path, beset with problems and difficulties, with their eyes tight shut. Mostly they deal with difficulties by either ignoring them or trying to blast through them by a deadly combination of brute force and willful ignorance. They’re tough guys, aren’t they? They stop for nothing . . . until something stops them—dead.
There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on requiring ethical choices, not unthinking or unquestioning loyalty.Before all the unthinking assumptions built into Hamburger Management cause the organization to buckle, then break, under the combined weight of problems ignored and changes sidestepped, there may still be time to draw back and avert disaster. What it takes is slowing down enough to think. It also needs enough trust and tolerance for eccentricities that people become willing to draw problems to the boss’s attention in time to make a difference. Those “disloyal” whistle-blowers who reveal hidden corruption and deceit are important and valuable folk, often moved by a stronger sense of ethics and duty than the rest of us. they shouldn’t be suppressed or punished. They should be seen as the “canaries in the coal mine:” a vital early-warning system of a build-up of dangerous corporate gases.
There is a way to reconcile loyalty with openness to uncomfortable truth. It’s based on requiring ethical choices, not unthinking or unquestioning loyalty. When people work through the ethics of trust and support for boss and peers, it’s possible to see where the balance lies between being honest (even if that involves dissent) and being truly disloyal.
Loyalty has long been prized by leaders. To be disloyal to one’s superiors is typically seen as offensive and culpable. The more authoritarian and dogmatic the leaders, the more they tend to prize loyalty above other traits in their followers. Hamburger Management often produces a culture where loyalty is so obsessively demanded that it produces a culture of fear: a place where anything other than total, unquestioning obedience to those in charge is seen as intolerable. And that, I believe, is not the least of its many curses.
Thursday, March 29, 2020
By their fruits ye shall know them
Bad decisions reveal bad leaders, whatever the excuses they make
How can you gauge the quality of leadership in an organization? There’s one, simple way: by looking at the decisions they make. When short-term decisions are the norm, greed is everywhere, and ethics are either ignored or seen as something to be “got around” for the sake of profit, you know that the leadership has become so riddled with Hamburger Management that it has reached rock bottom.Two news stories in two days brought home to me just how far down the scale of basic leadership competence organizations can go. One was about a company that allowed secret military information about night-vision equipment to be provided to companies abroad, including some in China. I say “allowed.” That’s too weak a word. According to a spokesperson from the US Justice Department, some of the organization’s executives not only knew that they were breaking the law, they tried to work out the best ways of doing it, so as not to be caught. The United States attorney, John L. Brownlee, said in a statement. “The criminal actions of this corporation have threatened to turn on the lights on the modern battlefield for our enemies and expose American soldiers to great harm.”
Why did they do it? To save money by outsourcing, so inflating profits.
The other story was about Circuit City. It seems they are planning to lay off more than 3000 experienced, higher-paid people and replace them with new recruits at lower wages.
Why? To boost the bottom line.
This time, even some of the financial analysts expressed surprise. The New York Times quoted one as saying:
While we view these cost cuts as clearly good for near-term earnings, they are not necessarily the way to drive longer-term operational success. It stands to reason that firing 3,400 of arguably the most successful sales people in the company could prove terrible for morale.Yet, despite this clear statement that management were making a decision that mortgages the future for short-term gain, the company’s shares rose by more than 2 percent. It seems that Wall Street still can’t manage to raise its eyes beyond the next quarter. Never mind that customers will now, presumably, be served by newer, less qualified and experienced staff when they want to buy an expensive flat-screen TV or some other expensive electronic gizmo. Who cares about providing quality service when there is money to be made?
. . . he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points.Short-termism is the essence of Hamburger Management. Yet how staff behave, especially towards customers, is telling the rest of the world—very clearly and loudly—how good the executives are as leaders. When I see poor staff, I know the leadership is crap. And don’t give me all that rubbish about blaming the quality of the people available. If management employs the cheapest people that they can hire, there’re getting what they deserve and telling potential recruits that they would rather fire you than reward you properly. As a result, good staff soon won’t be seen dead working in their organization. Worst of all, management obviously don’t care. Only the cheapest is right for their customers. Never mind the quality, feel the profits. However they slice it, it’s clear who will be to blame for the long-term decline of the business. There can be no excuses.
What about the ethics of decisions like this? Is it right to break the law and send military secrets to possibly unfriendly countries to make a buck? Is it right to fire good employees, just because you may be able to hire less good ones more cheaply? I listened to a US government official saying that he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points. I want to ask him what world he was living in. There are executives out there who would sell their children into slavery to boost the value of their stock options.
Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed.It’s high time we took a very long, careful, and objective look at the kind of business communities we in the West are allowing to develop. Do we want truly unfettered capitalism, where everything is fair and all that matters is how much profit the company reports each quarter—and how much cash the executives take away as a result? Do we want the pursuit of money and power to become the sole arbiter of what is acceptable? Do we want our business leaders to put personal greed before the public good?
If we don’t, it’s time that we found ways to rein back the less acceptable forms of corporate behavior. Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed. They don’t condone law-breaking in search of better-looking figures. Nor do civilized organizations. I have yet to hear that anyone involved in these dubious decisions has been disciplined, let alone fired.
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” it says in the New Testament. What do these decisions tell you about the businesses involved?
Wednesday, March 14, 2020
What makes a company the best to work for . . . four times in a row?
There’s no problem, it seems, combining a great workplace with great profits
The Times of London announced recently that W. L. Gore, makers of Gore-Tex fabric, has come top in “The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For” survey for the fourth year running [link] . The paper describes this contest as “the UK’s toughest survey to measure staff satisfaction.” The survey, submitted by almost 150,000 employees, covered eight key areas:
- Leadership by the head of the company and senior managers.
- Stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties.
- The immediate boss and other day-to-day managers.
- Immediate colleagues.
- Pay and benefits.
- How much companies are thought to put back into society, and the local community in particular.
- The company itself, as opposed to the people.
- Whether staff feel challenged by their job, their skills are being used, and the scope for advancement.
Here’s what a spokesperson for W. L. Gore said on winning again:
Workplace engagement, we strongly believe, is a competitive advantage. Competitive advantage when used correctly not only creates income and profit, which we are great at doing, but also comes with a responsibility to society as a whole. We are successful because of the ability of our associates to grow, explore and learn in an environment of freedom and trust.It would be hard to find a simpler statement of the principles and benefits of Slow Leadership: a responsible organization that values trust, focuses on its wider role in the community, not just profit, and sees the creativity, growth, and freedom of its people as an important part of its corporate role. Gore remains the best company to work for because it gives its employees better personal growth, a more attractive working culture, and a stronger sense of belonging than any other company in the contest.
Interestingly, overall satisfaction with all of the companies in the survey rose this year. People think that they are well paid and have strong opportunities for personal growth. As usual, small companies do better then large ones, probably reflecting the greater flexibility small employers can offer.
However, there is one dark spot on the horizon. In the category of “employee well-being” (stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties), there was a significant fall in scores, which the survey authors see as “a reflection of the consistently poor scores recorded for workplace stress and feeling exhausted by the end of the day in the bigger companies in particular.”
Surveys like this give the lie to the argument by many macho organizational leaders and politicians that ideas like work/life balance and avoiding excessive stress are merely fancy ideals proposed by liberals and do-gooders. Gore makes high profits and is the leader in its field, yet manages at the same time to provide a civilized and attractive working environment and be a good citizen in its community. If they can do it—and do it better than anyone else in Britain for four years in a row—what is stopping everyone else?
Tuesday, March 13, 2020
If feeling safe is good, does feeling good require feeling safe too?
How circular thinking corrupts management action
Much of management thinking is marred by sweeping generalizations, egregious platitudes, and faulty or non-existent logic. Few aspects are worse than the circular definition, where the converse of some supposedly true statement is also assumed to be true. Until we rid ourselves of such silliness, we will continue to chase mirages and put our trust in falsehoods.Management thinking of the conventional kind is full of circular definitions. They work like this, beginning with a statement that is mostly true, then reversing it and assuming that is also true. For example, getting results quickly is good (a vague, but mostly true generalization), which is then reversed to create the (mostly false) generalization that quick results are a measure of how good something is (getting results quickly is good, therefore good means getting results quickly).
Aside from being non-existent logic, such circular definitions do real harm. Take this pair: successful people are good to have around, therefore to be good to have around you must be successful. Since many of the causes of success (circumstances, luck) are outside people’s control, defining “good” as “successful” actually means basing your definition more on luck than expertise or judgment. Besides, some successful people are not at all good to have around, since their success breeds outsize egos and a prima donna attitude to everyone else.
What about this one: profit is what business is all about, therefore all business is about profit. The first part of the statement is questionable (it ignores the social and technical aspects of business), yet is probably broadly true. Yet the second part is neither true nor follows from the first. Much of business has little to do directly with making a profit, being concerned instead with product development, long-term growth, and the discovery and exploitation of new markets (which may not generate any profit for years).
My final example is this: what you can measure you can control, therefore you cannot control what you cannot measure. This has the distinction of being false in both parts. There are many things we can measure, but not control, such as rainfall, the growth rate of our children, and the buying habits of our customers. And as for not being able to control what we cannot measure, that may be true of leaders unable to control their tempers, their egos, and their greed, but it doesn’t apply to the rest of us.
Beware of circular definitions based on nothing more than platitudes and apparent symmetry. Hard-working people sometimes find success, but it doesn’t follow that success is always due to hard work. Sometimes, it is; quite often it isn’t. Even those who believe money brings happiness don’t usually claim that happiness brings money. So why should they assume that working long hours brings success?
I’ll leave you with this thought: if continually cutting costs boosts the bottom line, does improving the bottom line depend mostly on cutting costs? Many of today’s organizations act as if it does—which is probably why they are on a descending spiral of cutbacks and lay-offs, not an ascending one of greater creativity, expanding markets, and exciting new products. Compare Ford with Toyota and you’ll see at once what I mean.
Thursday, March 08, 2020
When the going gets tough, the tough guys often go too damn fast
Refusing an instant response is often the best way to come out on top.
Today’s macho management conventions often lead people into making mistaken responses to problems and setbacks: responses that may make things far worse. Appearing to yield, or refusing to be tempted into ill-conceived responses, is often the best way to save your strength and choose a more favorable time and place to deal with the issue. Short-term gains are very often the quickest route to long-term losses.
Sometimes, giving in is the best way to cope with life’s pressures and demands. That’s not a fashionable idea. Most gurus and trainers prefer to continue to push the idea that positive action is needed—usually, by pure coincidence, the one that fits what they are trying to sell you. Nevertheless, what I said is, I believe, quite correct.
Any student of martial arts has to learn right away that stiffening up and pushing back against an attacker is the least effective way to deal with an assault. If you first yield, the attacker has nothing to strike or push against. Expecting to come up against solid resistance, he or she is thrown off-balance, leaving them open to a quick counter attack. This holds true in less physical situations as well. I read recently of a case where a bullying boss ranted and raved at an apparently docile employee, completely ignoring the fact that many of today’s computers come equipped with tiny video cameras. Emboldened by encountering no obvious resistance, he displayed ever greater aggression. Only later, when he was fired, did he realize the nature of the counter-attack.
It even works when you have to deal with an “attack” by your own emotions. How often have you said or done something in the heat of the moment that you regretted later? If, under that internal, emotional assault, you had done nothing—had simply allowed the hurt and anger to exhaust itself with no resistance or action—you would have kept the opportunity to think about the situation calmly and judge the correct response. The next time a boss or a colleague gets under your skin, try doing and saying nothing immediately. Note the emotion inside you and let it pass. I’ll guarantee that there will be many occasions you’ll be glad you did.
The temptation is always to stiffen up, resist the assault, and launch an immediate counter action.Events, too, have a nasty way of launching unexpected attacks against your plans, or the steady progress of your work. The temptation is always to stiffen up, resist the assault, and launch an immediate counter action. A normally reliable customer unexpectedly gives the order to a competitor: you grab the phone, move heaven and earth to reach the customer, and start trying to bargain to win the order back. In the meantime, you haven’t stopped to consider why the order was lost—or even whether it is still worth having, if you must bargain away much of the profit to keep it. Huge corporations respond to small percentage losses of market share in the way that a neighborhood bully responds to an imagined insult. Blinded by rage at the loss, they try to buy back the lost share with costly promotions and special offers. A while ago, the US auto manufacturers indulged in an orgy of special deals to prop up their respective market shares. Today, facing huge financial losses, they are closing plants, laying off workers, and trimming model lines. Their cash was spent buying market share, not investing in ways to deal with competition from overseas. Now it is almost gone.
Yielding under pressure at the start buys you time, avoids exhausting your strength, allows you to formulate a better response, and often puts your opponent off-balance. It saves you from expensive or embarrassing mistakes made because of short-term emotions. And it allows you to consider whether you want to fight back, at least on the grounds that the other guy has chosen.
Of course, taking action this way requires a longer-term perspective and a willingness to accept initial setbacks if the final outcome is likely to be in your favor. An obsession with “Hamburger Management” makes this difficult. If every minor skirmish is treated as a climactic battle; if every small setback is punished as if the war is now lost; if every inconsequential, short-term win is hailed as a grand triumph; then there is little option left but to fight to the death on every occasion, even if that bleeds away your resources in conflicts that cannot be won—and were never worth winning.
Short-term, macho managers typically win every fight but the one that really matters—the final one.Those who take time to consider their options carefully and save their resources may be defeated many times, yet still win in the end. Most business “wars” are wars of attrition. There are few opportunities to deliver a single, winning assault. Competition usually goes on for years, even decades, with none of the competitors maintaining a decisive advantage for long. Against this reality, the cult of throwing everything into every short-term engagement makes no sense. It’s time executives realized that the survival of any individual corporation is totally unimportant to Wall Street, where the takeover of a mortally wounded or exhausted business is merely another opportunity for profit.
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.
Friday, February 23, 2020
Stepping through the looking glass
It’s long past time to try something new in management
Management today is mostly based on standard responses to problems. But like Alice, stepping through the looking glass into a wonderland on the other side, it’s always open to us to consider what might happen if we didn’t follow the set path, but broke out into fresh ideas and opportunities.
Suppose that we implemented the opposite of today’s standard management responses? What kind of business world might lie on the other side of the looking glass? Would it be a wonderland of untapped potential, or a wasteland of risk and problems? Let’s take a look.
Gone would be the cramping over-emphasis on instant results and avoidance of risk. No one was ever inspired to great ideas or endeavors by thinking only about immediate or short-term practicality. Only idealism ever inspires. That’s why corporations that favor idealism over pragmatism produce more innovative, more inspiring, and more motivating ideas. Pragmatism is fine for second-rate businesses handling commodity products, but that route will never win long-term market leadership. Visionary companies, and leaders with a fierce resolve to implement those visions, consistently win over the long haul.
If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust.On the other side of the looking glass, organizations would retain key employees with long-term rewards, such as development, security, and opportunities for personal growth; not just short-term ones like bonuses and stock options. Where employees have learned to distrust the long-term security of their employment, they will always demand large rewards now as insurance against future lay-offs. If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust. The corollary of this must be that consistent, long-term performance would be seen as more valuable than quick wins (and long-term losses).
The more the demand grows for quick, measurable results, the more our aims become distorted to give only these—even if it hurts the organization’s interests in the longer term. Creativity and long-term potential is worth so much more than merely current performance. Instead of paying reluctantly to try to deal with any present performance shortfalls, which are only the symptoms of some underlying malaise, through-the-looking-glass organizations would go straight to the fundamental drivers of excellence: being trusted to do your job, set in the right role, given the right support, and allowed the freedom to contribute freely whatever gifts you can bring to your work. A group of free people, having fun and acting together out of choice and shared beliefs, will always outperform pressed labor and those whose loyalty and interest goes no further than the salary check.
Most management is still based on the underlying assumption of a “master” stipulating what the “servants” must do and judging them according to their performance against his or her imperious standards.This is not the way to promote creativity, learning, or fun in the workplace—let alone real productivity. Leadership of this kind is always ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the expert leader instructing the ignorant subordinate and demanding compliance. Yet compliance never produces better than mediocre performance. None of us can do anything well if our hearts are not in it. Real achievement only comes about when people engage in an act of free will—an act with joy and passion—by choosing to thown themselves wholeheartedly into their work and seeking to understand what will improve their output, knowledge, or skill the most. Our public schools should have shown us all that when alienated pupils withdraw their consent to work and learn, no amount of discipline or teaching produces any result at all.
Our organizations and its leaders, like our society, have a long history of trying to deal with problems by coercion of one kind or another—legislating against them, or trying to drive them out of existence, instead of exploring to understand what produced the problems in the first place and continues to sustain them. At best, this drives problems underground; at worst, it gives them something to push against to build up their muscles. We need at long last to understand the total futility of this kind of behavior.
I shall be away until early March, so posting will be more intermittent than usual, as my access to the Internet will be sporadic at best. Please be patient and things will return to normal in about 10 days or so.
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.
Monday, February 19, 2020
Lies, Damned Lies, and Executive Platitudes
Why pretending to value people and acting otherwise is a corporate crime.
That handy platitude about our people being our greatest asset is trotted out in everything from press releases to annual reports to executive speeches. But does it mean anything? Is there ever any real intention to act on it? And if there is not, as so often appears, what are the implications for the businesses and organizations involved?Recently, one of the regular readers of this blog, Dan, mentioned in a comment that the business platitude about our people being our greatest asset didn’t often appear to translate into action. Corporations, and the executives who run them, may claim that “our people are our greatest asset,” but their actions certainly suggest some very different assumptions. Staff are habitually accounted for as a cost, to be limited and minimized wherever possible, along with all other costs. Aside from the obvious ethical implications of such casual dishonesty, what are the true implications for an organization that fails to treat people as an asset at all?
A good place to start is to explore what actions might we expect to see, if this phrase about people being assets (let alone the organization’s greatest asset) was acted on in good faith. Any business’s assets are carefully protected and nurtured&mdashit;’s greatest asset most of all. And that asset would obviously be the central focus of most business strategy. Not only would it be used as carefully and effectively as possible to build and develop the business, it also surely be enhanced and added to whenever circumstances allowed. If someone says that their home, or their 401(K) pension plan, is their greatest asset, you would expect to see them invest time, money, and effort in adding to its value whenever they could.
On this basis, the action that prove something is believed to be a critical asset include:
- Protecting and nurturing it.
- Making its use and development central to any strategy.
- Using it as well and as carefully as possible.
- Making it the central point around which other activities revolve.
- Working to increase its value whenever circumstances allow.
- People are treated as expendable and often subjected to rough and stressful treatment.
- They are rarely seen as central to any kind of business strategy.
- Far from using existing people to generate fresh ideas or come up with new projects, this is increasingly outsourced to consultants -- as if it is automatically assumed that internal resources are inadequate for handling anything other than routine.
- People are expected to fit themselves around financial and technical demands, not the other way around.
- Expenditure on increasing the value of employees (training, development, benefits) is seen as the first and most obvious target for cost reductions.
This type of casual reliance on platitudes that no one intends to take seriously represents a serious ethical lapse: an automatic and institutionalized level of dishonesty.Politicians regularly try to deceive the electorate with “spin” and lies, and more and more business leaders seem to be using similar tactics. In both cases, the result is widespread distrust, anger, and resentment. Taken too far, such actions undermine the basic respect for authority on which all countries and organizations depend for stability.
If business leaders fasten on the use of meaningless platitudes and “spin” as a way to sugar-coat their true intentions, they will wreck such trust as they still enjoy and create instead an atmosphere of continual suspicion. People are not compelled to work for a particular employer. They can refuse to join, leave, or (worst of all) stay to collect a paycheck, but give as little of themselves as possible in return. Destroying trust is both foolish and economically wasteful.
What would an organization look like if its people really were treated as its greatest asset?Maybe it would be something like this:
- Expenditure on people would be classed as a natural and laudable investment, not a cost. It would be among the last things to be cut in bad times.
- Staffing cuts and lay-offs would become so rare that their use would signal the very worst kind of crisis. Instead, an organization’s people would be seen as its most obvious source of ways to survive bad times, and the most value asset available to top executives in fighting off competition.
- Concert for the welfare and development of staff would automatically be number one on every manager’s list of priorities.
- As many staff as practicable would be involved in proposing more effective business practices and helping to develop strategy.
- There would be an automatic zero-tolerance policy for anything that undermined the value of the organization’s principal asset—its people—such as bullying, discrimination, dishonesty, cruelty, imposition of stress and overwork, or simply behaving like a total jerk. Bob Sutton has traced research suggesting that the presence of even a single asshole in a business has grave consequences on overall productivity.
- Each person would be seen as a source of unique value, so it would become mandatory to discover what they do best -- then help them do it.
- Executives would be expected to be leaders and mentors, working for the benefit of all, not autocrats and egotists focused mostly on their own aggrandizement and profit.
To my mind, that is close to being a corporate “crime.” It is certainly a gross dereliction of the duty of any executive to the owners or shareholders. Suppose some executive neglected maintenance and allowed expensive machinery to be ruined. Wouldn’t you expect them to be disciplined, or even fired? So what should happen if a boss treats people in ways that ruin their effectiveness through increased stress, lowered morale, limited creativity, or increased turnover?
Actions, it is said, speak louder than words. In the Christian Bible, it is written that you can know people’s true nature by their “fruits,” meaning the visible results of what they do. If many of today’s organizations were trees, their fruits would range from bitterly unpalatable to downright poisonous. It that any way for a civilized society to organize how it deals with work?
Thursday, February 15, 2020
Do you recognize today’s biggest business killer?
Audit mentality puts efficiency first, but innovation is what sells
Today’s standard responses business issues are limited and uninspiring, even as we stand in serious need of a steady flow of creative ideas and fresh innovations just to keep our high-tech, high-earning, and high-expenditure lifestyles in place—let alone to add still greater prosperity for more people. Cost cutting, increasing working hours, and driving employees harder and harder are all based on doing what you do today more cheaply and efficiently. But what if doing what you’re doing now, only better, isn’t enough? What is you need to offer the world something altogether new? No one ever stimulated creativity by staying longer at the office, cutting benefits, or driving people to the edge of exhaustion and beyond. If the audit mentality takes over, the future will be bleak.
Many of today’s businesses are too focused on the present and the past. Their futures are extremely short-term, usually bounded by the next reporting cycle and Wall Street’s immediate expectations. They talk about change and innovation, yet act almost entirely on making current activities less costly. It’s a kind of corporate schizophrenia: one personality jabbers away about taking on global competition through innovation and new technology; the other—the one actually in charge—assumes that the only way to succeed is by doing what is being done already, only more cheaply.
Today I read that DaimlerChrysler will cut 13,000 jobs in an attempt to return to profitability. Their sales have fallen drastically and they are running out of money. Why has this happened? Because, like the rest of Detroit’s automakers, they bet the farm on huge, gas-guzzling SUVs. Now, like their competitors in that market, the only way out seems to be to cut back hard and hope for the best.
But, wait a moment. Their product line isn’t selling and they are losing market share. How will drastic cutbacks address those issues? It may buy them time before Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the only alternative, but surely what they need most is a new, more attractive, more innovative product line?
If Americans are buying from foreign car manufacturers like never before, especially brands like Toyota, becoming more efficient as manufacturers will only help after you have a product line that more people want to buy.
That’s the wrong way around, it seems to me. Toyota aren’t successful just because they’re more efficient. First and foremost, they have products that people want to buy.That’s the wrong way around, it seems to me. Toyota aren’t successful just because they’re more efficient. First and foremost, they have products that people want to buy. Then—and only then—they work to produce those products as effectively as they can. Can you buy an MP3 player more cheaply than the cost of an iPod? Sure. So why do Apple sell so many iPods?
The audit mentality in many companies is hopelessly inward looking. It sees only costs, efficiencies, and margins. Of course, the consumer has no interest in any of these. Unless you operate in a commodity market where every version of a product is identical, save in price, people don’t buy the cheapest product, whatever economists claim. They certainly don’t buy the one that yields the highest return to its producer. They buy what they like most, what will win them the admiration of their friends, what provides the most features that they want (not the ones the technical geeks get most excited about), and what will make them feel good about their purchase.
People want what they want—and then they want to get it at a good price. Low cost comes after desire, not before. It’s not what drives sales.Efficiency is nowhere on this list. Nor is price. Of course, some people like to boast about getting a bargain, but few, if any, will buy what they don’t want, just because the price is good. They want what they want—and then they want to get it at a good price. Low cost comes after desire, not before. It’s not what drives sales. The corporation that can produce desirable, exciting products first—then do so in a way that prices them competitively and yields a good margin second—is the one that is going to dominate the market.
In any business, you need first of all to have a product or service that people want to buy. Then, and only then, you need to be able to provide it in a way that renders you a good profit. Today’s conventional approaches to management have it the wrong way around. That’s why we see once proud corporations reduced to survival mode: they concentrated on being the “lowest cost producer” and ignored what they were producing.
Creativity needs time, relaxation, the willingness to take risks, and the long-term vision to see something from concept to reality. When corporations truly take risks in the cause of producing ever more innovative and exciting products, no one begrudges them the profits needed to support that endeavor. We all benefit. When those same corporations try to drive up profits by scrimping and cutting back, stifling innovation and damping down every avoidable risk, with the intention primarily of rewarding financial institutions and top executives, almost any profit they make appears self-serving and excessive.
Business is risky. Investment in the future is never certain. The pay-off may take many years. But capitalism, as a system, exists precisely to provide the money businesses need to take those risks, hopefully to increase everyone’s prosperity and the range of goods and services available in the market. It is not there to wring the last few dollars from dying products to enrich a few, while allowing those with more imagination, a longer-term focus, and less obsessive interest in short-term share-price movements to take over the market.
Get together an offering that excites people. Then, when it’s out there and selling, focus just enough on keeping down the costs to maintain a solid margin.Slow down. Take the time needed to be creative. Drive innovation, not still more stress. Get together an offering that excites people. Then, when it’s out there and selling, focus just enough on keeping down the costs to maintain a solid margin. But, whatever you do, never allow concern with efficiency to limit creative thinking about the next new thing.
The past is gone; whatever money you made then cannot be changed. The present is fleeting; it’s usually too late to change what you’re already doing, good or bad. The future is wide open; only there can change alter how things will happen. The audit mentality is a business killer. Have nothing to do with it, or it will slowly choke the life out of whatever future is open to you.
Wednesday, February 14, 2020
Accepting the unacceptable : a thought for Valentine's Day
Here’s my “workplace” version:
Why do we accept this as normal?
I cannot see that any working culture marked primarily by constant haste and distraction, continual pressure, and frustration on a massive scale could possibly be described as either “efficient” or “inevitable.”
Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it.Yes, the business environment is competitive. It always has been. Is it any more competitive than it used to be? I doubt it. The competition is simply different, that’s all. But even if the level of competition has increased, that’s no reason to accept a wretched kind of workday and career experience as normal.
Human beings choose and sustain their working environment the way it is. It isn’t a natural product, like the weather, over which mankind has no control. We chose capitalism over communism and a centrally-planned economy; that wasn’t an “act of God,” it was an act of mankind. We choose to operate within a global economy, because enough people believe that it works for them—at least in the sense of increasing their prosperity and that of their organizations. Boards of directors don’t have a totally free choice over how they structure and run their businesses. They have to comply with the law and various regulations and expectations. Yet, even with all that taken into account, they still have a great deal of freedom in what they choose to do. That’s even more true of private companies, family-owned businesses, and sole proprietors.
Why do so many stick to a business model that creates so much stress and misery? Is it a failure of imagination, a lack of nerve, or a simple ignorance that any alternatives are possible. People like Ricardo Semler have shown that there are other ways—probably many, many of them.
Shouldn’t we be trying a few?
Monday, February 12, 2020
Beware of Management Fashionistas
Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.
Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.
Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]
The rise and fall of management fadsAmbitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.
Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashionSomething sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.
In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.
In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.
Fashion industries breed gurusSuccessful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]
Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).
Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?
Does it matter?Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!
There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.
In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”
Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.
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