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Friday, July 13, 2020

Why fear of failure is the most common blockage to success

A balanced outlook on life is more important than you think.

Consider this: every strength can become a weakness; every talent contains elements that sometimes make it into a handicap. Today, we’re urged constantly to be winners and to achieve high standards. If being a winner is everything, what does that make losing feel like? Attitudes like this can make people so terrified of failure that it blocks them from doing the very things that might help them become what they desire. Put simply, it ruins their lives. Here’s how it happens.
Trial and error are essential to solving life’s problems and building achievement. Yet many people fail to make any trials—to change, try new things, or just to open their minds to fresh options— because they’re so afraid of making an error. They can’t accept the idea of being seen to make a mistake—even if it’s essential to find the correct answer. They draw back from trying anything new in case it might prove they’ve been wrong in the past. Their fear of risk stymies all progress.

Yet each error is the critical feedback that these people will need to start a new trial that will proceed through new errors and new trials to converge on a better solution. Making an error isn’t simply a failure. Every error is a step on the path to a success. No errors usually means no successes either.

So why do they make the mistake of believing that the error is somehow harmful to them, when it’s actually helpful? How have they become so deeply invested in protecting their egos, and in trying to replay past achievements, that they give up opportunities for a better future?

Our superstitious bosses

The answers are depressingly banal:
  • Highly successful people quickly tend to become superstitious. They’ve maybe never really experienced failure, so it holds a terrible fear for them. They’ll do almost anything to keep that fear at bay, from steadfastly ignoring needed change to the silly rituals some sports champions follow to “ensure” another win.

  • For them, change seems to represent only the potential of failure, not the chance of greater success. They attribute their past achievements to specific actions taken then, not to a process of adaptation and improvement. It’s as if they focus so much on the moment of triumph that they forget the way they reached it. They try to freeze that blissful instant in place by repeating past actions again and again.

  • They suffer the secret fear that any change might move the basis for winning into areas where they are not so strong. It’s as if a sports champion faced a change in the rules of the game. Alter those, and his or her long-practiced skills might no longer count for so much. And the very idea of developing new skills, given all the effort it took to develop the original ones, is terrifying.

  • They become so used to focusing on a set path to success that they over-estimate its long-term value and dismiss the potential benefits of change. Whenever a positive value, like achievement, becomes too strong in someone’s life, it’s on the way to becoming a major handicap. It’s as if they try to freeze the current (successful) situation in place to avoid needing to make yet more effort to change with future circumstances.

The curse of unbalanced values

A sense of achievement is an extremely powerful value for most successful people. They’ve built their lives on it. They’ve always achieved at everything they do: school, sports, the arts, hobbies, work. Each fresh achievement adds to the power of the value in their lives.

Gradually, failure becomes unthinkable. They’ve never failed in anything they’ve done, so have no experience of rising above it. It becomes the supreme nightmare: a frightful horror they must avoid at any cost. And the simplest way is never to take a risk by trying any other approach. Stick rigidly to what you know you can do. Protect your butt. Work the longest hours. Double and triple check everything. Be the most conscientious and conservative person in the universe.

And if you have to do anything risky—and constant hard work, diligence, brutal working schedules, and harrying subordinates won’t ward it off—use every possible means to make sure you don’t fail. Lie, cheat, falsify numbers, hide anything negative. The collapse of ethical standards in certain major US corporations has much more to do with fear of failure among long-term high achievers than criminal intent. Many of those guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen and Adelphi were supreme high-fliers, basking in the flattery of the media. Failure became an impossible prospect.

Beware of unbalanced values in your life. Beware when any one value—however benign in itself—becomes too powerful. Over-achievers destroy their lives and the lives of those who work for them. People too attached to “goodness” and morality become self-righteous bigots. Those whose values for building close relationships become unbalanced slide into smothering their friends and family with constant expressions of affection and demands for love in return.

Balance counts for more than you think. Some tartness must season the sweetest dish. A little selfishness is valuable even in the most caring person. And a little failure is essential to preserve everyone’s perspective on success.

So, are you a positive person? Maybe you need to cherish your negative side too.



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Thursday, July 12, 2020

The five least recognized thieves of productive time

How to win back large parts of your day.

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

Holding grudges

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

Scoring petty points

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

Jealousy

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

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

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

The habit of gossiping

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

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

Showing-off

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

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

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

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



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Friday, July 06, 2020

Learning the art of pure selfishness

Why time spent on office politics is time wasted . . . yet often essential for survival.

People are political and emotional creatures. We like to believe we use reason to work out what to do, but this is an illusion. A far more general tendency is to make a decision largely on the basis of politics or emotions, then use reason afterwards to justify what we have already decided. Here’s how it works and why it may increase your stress.
It’s half an hour before official closing time on a Friday, after a hectic week. A customer calls with a complicated, urgent request that will take at least three to four hours to handle. Do you put it off until Monday, even though the customer is desperate for a resolution? Or do you deal with it right away?

Someone who is angry, frustrated, or just feeling low will be most likely to shelve the whole problem until Monday, arguing it is the customer’s fault for waiting until the last minute, or claiming the work will be better when he or she is fresh on Monday. An employee who fears the customer, or the boss’s reaction if the customer complains, will likely deal with the problem right away, but rush through it as fast as possible, even if that means a skimped job. Someone who hopes to make a big new sale to that customer, or is keen to make a good impression on the boss, may stay late to get the job done, or even come in on the weekend to make sure the work is done properly.

In most cases, this kind of decision will be made on a political basis. What will be the political impact of staying late and helping the customer right away? Will it win you “brownie points” in the eyes of some powerful executives (so long as you make absolutely sure they know about it)? Will it be one in the eye for some rival, who has designs on a sale to that customer that you might get instead, if you make the customer happy with you? Can you make it into an obligation the customer will understand they need to repay some time?

Whenever people are faced with a decision without clear guidance, especially in a culture where getting it wrong is likely to lead to nasty personal consequences, they tend to think about what others will make of whatever they decide—powerful others mostly. Will they approve or criticize? Will you trespass on (or be in a position to take over) part of someone else’s turf? How much freedom do you have to make the decision without consultation? Will it be seen as a favor that can be called in later? How else can you use it to your personal, selfish advantage?

All this adds to whatever thinking is needed by the job itself. None of it is going to improve the decision, the way that the job is done, or the result either. It’s a source only of extra, unnecessary concern and worry. It adds to whatever stress comes from the work itself or the deadlines to be met. It even causes additional work. If you decided what to do rationally and simply did it, then moved on to the next task, life would be simpler and less likely to cause you anxiety. But rationality is no protection from office politics, which are neither rational nor concerned with the success of the business. Office politics are about power, pure and simple—and strictly personal power at that.

The basic causes of office politics.

Fear is one of the commonest workplace emotions today. The greater the level of fear in the culture—fear of losing your job, fear of losing your status, fear of being marked down as a troublemaker—the greater the need to worry about the outcome of whatever you do and seek some kind of reassurance or safety. Office politics seems to be able to help. By consulting someone who has influence, seeking protection, or avoiding anything that might upset a powerful person, you can gain a measure of safety and reassurance.

Turn this around, make yourself the person with power instead of the one who’s afraid, and you have another reason to waste time and effort in politicking (In strict efficiency terms, of course, it is clearly wasted). Patronage, the power of advancing friends and protecting them from harm, is the main benefit of becoming politically influential. People who aspire to political power are keen to find ways to use and extend their patronage, usually by offering protection and support to their friends when difficult decisions are to be faced. Conversely, making sure that people are clearly seen to have failed is an obvious way to destroy your rivals and lessen their power.

That’s why office politics play a significant role in many decisions. Each offers scope for extending patronage (adding more grateful people to your circle of dependents), lessening the influence of your competitors, and making you look good in the eyes of people with more power than you have at present.

In none of these cases does the politics assist in productivity, raise profits, add value to the customer, or provide anything else positive. What it does do is help people cope with negative situations due to uncivilized workplaces dominated by macho, power-crazed people. That’s why the most pervasive politics are found in macho corporate cultures, or those where fear has become a way of life.

So long as fear exists, there’s no practical way around this.

All of office politics depends on these three motives: to add to your power of patronage and lessen the standing of your rivals for power; to buy you protection from someone more powerful than you are; or to advance your merit in the eyes of people with greater power. None of these motives is to the benefit of the customer, the organization, or anyone beside yourself. Any loss from a political maneuver is always designed to fall to some real or imagined enemy.

How many talented people are held back, prevented from making a full contribution, or persuaded to leave (or even fired) because of purely political choices by someone? How many wrong decisions are made because they offer personal advantage to powerful people? How much time and money is wasted in activities with no rationale beyond providing an opportunity for playing politics?

All office politics is ultimately stressful and harmful. It is the art of pure selfishness made to look rational. Any organization where it thrives is less a group engaged in a collective enterprise and more a warring, competing, back-stabbing collection of individuals trying to advance themselves at the expense of all the rest. If that’s the culture, standing aside is no real option, since it virtually guarantees that you will be either marginalized, humiliated, or ejected.

That’s the reality of many organizations today, I guess. They complain about shortages of talent, yet frequently act in ways that ensure many of the best people will leave. They cut jobs and slash vital projects to save money, yet allow cultures to grow that waste huge amounts of time and money on political activities. Instead of making sure the best people get to the top, they tolerate systems that reward those who are most politically active and successful, regardless of any other ability.

I am well aware that this is very unlikely to change. Those in power always want to preserve the status quo, since it is their status quo and they are the ones who benefit from it most. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes worth reminding people of what is being tolerated in the name of expediency. A very large proportion of those who leave corporate jobs to set up their own businesses do so to escape the constant politicking. Insofar as that adds to the variety and creativity of the economy, and creates new endeavors, perhaps some benefit is ultimately there after all.



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Thursday, June 28, 2020

Counting the costs of compromise

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

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

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

The new version—the macho manager’s team player

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

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

Why do people put up with it?

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

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

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

Counting the cost of compliance

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

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

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

High-fliers are often hardest hit

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

Facing the future

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

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

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

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

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



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Monday, June 18, 2020

Where does your allegiance lie?

Why do we persist with an approach to organization devised during the Dark Ages?

Variations on the medieval Feudal System have been the basis of virtually all organizations, from nations to corporations and clubs, for the past 1000 years. In all that time, the constant conflicts of allegiance inherent in feudal arrangements have produced countless wars, rebellions, heresies, and conflicts of every kind. Today’s organizations are still suffering the negative effects of an approach that tries to stifle dissent and enforce conformity from top to bottom. Can’t we find a better way?
Wars between corporate barons and ambitious underlings are probably more common today than ever before. It’s inherent in the system we use. As the old saying goes: “Big fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite ’em. And little fleas have smaller fleas—and so ad infinitum.” How do you keep everyone in line? More than a thousand years ago people in Europe created the Feudal System to deal with this problem. It’s still the basis of a great deal of organizational practice today.

Ruling a nation and running an organization are quite similar in some respects. In both cases, those in charge cannot control or supervise everything personally. They have to rely on others to do much of the work of ruling for them.

Under the Feudal System, the king (read CEO) is the ultimate authority. He ruled through a group of top nobles (read Board Members and Division Heads) who owed him their allegiance. That is, they swore to serve him, obey his commands, and be loyal to his position as ultimate ruler. In turn, these nobles worked through lesser nobles (read middle managers) who swore allegiance to them—and so on, down to the lowest of the low at the bottom. Everyone had his or her place, defined by the person to whom they owed their allegiance.

In theory, this produced an orderly society based on a fixed hierarchy—just like today’s organizations. The glue that held it all together was allegiance. That’s why breaking that allegiance was seen as such a terrible crime, usually punished by an especially nasty death.

So far, so good. But allegiance is a tricky thing. It’s claimed by many other sources besides whoever is above you in the hierarchy. In medieval times, for example, the church claimed the allegiance of all believers (which was pretty much everyone), and continually tried to set allegiance to its commands as “higher” than any earthly claims. That caused continual friction between kings and the church (which is why King Henry VIII in England finally broke with the pope and declared himself to be both king and head of the English church).

Then those pesky barons and nobles, just like many executives today, couldn’t see why the king (CEO) was any better than them. Many decided to break their allegiance and rebel—taking along those who swore allegiance to them—and attempt to become kings in their turn. For their followers, the choice was them a hard one: either to stick with the baron (and risk being punished as traitors to the king), or stick with allegiance to the king (and face immediate punishment from the baron). Since the king was usually far away and the baron’s executioners local, most went with avoiding the most local threat. Nothing much has changed there either.

When today’s organizations abandon strict hierarchies, they unwittingly create even more conflicting allegiances. To bypass awkward division heads, some CEOs have created business units or profit centers, whose heads report (give allegiance) directly to them. Then there are distinct professional groups (such as HR, finance, IT) who have patterns of allegiance within their own function, thus provoking still more conflict with the wider allegiances laid down by the overall hierarchy.

To complete this picture of clashing allegiances, we need to add the allegiance to people hold to friends, family, ideals, career aims, and—most subversive to hierarchy of all—allegiance to themselves and their own needs. If the people who see major generational differences in today's workplaces are correct, younger people also have quite different patterns of allegiance than their elders: more personal, less based on convention,duty, or ambition.

Conflicting allegiances are common sources of problems and stress in organizations and they aren’t resolved easily. As I’ve already noted, well-meaning attempts to remove the rigid hierarchical patterns common in the past have created more conflicts, not fewer. All these so-called dotted-line reporting arrangements, the shifting allegiances due to membership of various teams, the personal allegiances, and the inner allegiances to ideas and beliefs produce clashes that no one can reconcile.

It would be easier if everyone shared the same ultimate set of goals. They don’t. Name any size of organizational unit, from a division to an individual, and each one will have at least some goals that differ from those held by the other units.

Maybe the only answer is to let go of the remnants of the Feudal System at last and forget all about allegiances. They aren’t the only possible kind of organizational “glue.” Some fundamentalist religions use strict dogma instead, but I don’t think that is much better. Others, like Buddhism, rely more on a shared set of ideals and values. That seems more promising to me.

How could this work in an organization? You would begin with a clear set of ideals—such as superb quality or outstanding customer service—and make sure that everyone was working towards these goals within their individual jobs. Then you would reward actions that served these ideals well and discourage those that did not. You would not specify exactly how each person should achieve the shared goals. Instead, they would be trusted to find their own way, within the overall demands of their job. Continual improvement would be required of everyone, since the goal would always be to do better, not to follow the boss’s orders or replicate wherever you are today.

I’ve never worked for Toyota, but their approach sounds a lot like this. In contrast, their US and European competitors mostly continue to use variants of the Feudal System, rewarding loyalty and hierarchical allegiances. Might that explain why Toyota has been so successful in such a short time?

History shows us that focusing on allegiances quickly produces an unending stream of conflicts, generates stress, and promotes command-and-control and rule by fear. It also stifles dissent and the emergence of new ways of thinking. Even the control it allows those at the top of the hierarchy isn’t too strong—especially in today’s world of open Internet communications and global mobility.

I think it’s probably time we gave the Feudal System a decent burial and looked for another, better way to organize.



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Friday, June 15, 2020

Too much leadership?

When it comes to the ratio between “do-ers” and “supervisors,” many organizations are hopelessly out of whack.

Would you plan to win a boat race by reducing the number of people rowing the boat and replacing them with extra people steering? I didn’t think so. Yet that is pretty much what many of our corporations have done over the years. And while they’ve been cutting costs by removing rowers, they’ve been ignoring the costs caused by all those highly-paid steerers. In all the hype about a “war for talent,” it’s worth wondering what the impact has been from the massive loss of positions in the lower and middle parts of the organization in recent years.
I was amused by a management fable that popped up recently on a blog called “Cenek Report.” I won’t spoil it by reproducing bits and pieces. You should go read it for yourself *.

It’s kind of parable of competitiveness about two corporations, one Japanese and one American, who have a boat race. Each uses their own approach to organize their racing boat. The Japanese boat has eight rowers and one person steering. The American boat has one rower and eight people steering.

The rest of the parable charts the attempts by the American corporation to win the following year, using all the paraphernalia of “modern” management.

When they lose the next race by an even wider margin, they give up the idea entirely and distribute the money “saved” by abandoning the program as bonuses to their executives.

Sadly, there’s quite a bit of truth lurking behind the farce.

There’s far too much emphasis today on management theory and leadership prescriptions, while commonsense ideas about what produces good service, good operations, and good working conditions are ignored. It’s as if, in the rush to “professionalize” the workplace, everyone shies away from obvious questions, such as
  • Do we have enough people to do the work required?
  • Do they all know, clearly, what they are expected to do?
  • Do they have the time, the tools, and the skills to do it?
  • Are they paid enough to make what they do seem attractive?
  • Do they enjoy what they do and give it their best efforts?
  • Are the working conditions suitable to a civilized community?
There was a time when it was argued that holding costs down meant limiting wages because there were so many workers that even a small increase in each person’s wage would place a huge burden on the organization’s ability to compete. In contrast, executives argued, their salaries—even if they were much, much higher in each individual case—added up to only a small proportion of the total wage and salary budget.

After many years of cost cutting, a lot of companies now resemble the American boat in the parable. There are very few rowers left—most have been removed through downsizing, outsourcing, and cutbacks requiring “voluntary” overtime. The number of those steering the corporate boat hasn’t fallen much at all. People still cling to nonsensical ideas like “span of control” that stipulate a fixed allocation of supervisors to set numbers of employees. And that’s without the vast inflation in “support functions” such as human resources, legal, and finance. We're becoming a nation of more bosses and advisers than people to boss around or advise.

Logically, the best place to look for cost reductions nowadays must be in the executive suite and those support functions. Forget about head count. Lots of low-paid “heads” cost rather little, compared to even a few “heads” taking home multi-million-dollar packages. Unnecessary people? Try any support function you care to nominate.

If we want to have a business community that can be competitive in a global economy, as well as providing enough jobs and enjoyable working lives to enrich our society, we need to get back to commonsense observations. Instead of asking whether an organization “needs” yet another layer of management, or an additional specialist advisory function, how about asking how few leaders and advisers it could manage with? I suspect that the loss of many of these positions would scarcely be noticed—except through the subsequent increase in profits.

More rowers and fewer people steering (or advising from the riverbank) sounds like a sound recipe for better business and lower costs all round.

* The Cenek Report site must be the least readable site I have ever come across. I hesitate to speak of design, since it is minimalist to the point of being almost invisible to tired old eyes like mine. Be warned!



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Thursday, June 14, 2020

When you’re up to your ass in crocodiles, why not get out of the swamp?

Linking modern management and TV reality shows

Have you noticed how narrow the gap is between Hamburger Management and some of the more extreme TV reality shows? Both encourage and reward all-out competition driven by raging self-interest. Both consist of people encouraged to behave in ways that are competitive, underhand, rude, and aggressive in contrived and highly stressful situations. Both see winning as the only acceptable outcome, regardless of what it takes to win. Can you survive competition like this? Is it even sensible to take part?
How and when did it become entertainment to watch a rich guy with a seriously awful hairstyle fire people on camera? Is it just the ultimate fusion between sport and business: corporate life as a spectator event? Do people simply enjoy seeing previously successful people kicked in the teeth? To me, that’s a symptom of an insane society. But while the nice people who write blogs are talking about co-operation, values-based leadership, and lifelong learning, the guys with the money are out there pushing the message that all’s fair in love, war and business.

Thanks to the prevailing cult of macho, “winner takes all” management, only survival matters—with excellence, service, and ethics lost behind or out of sight. Worst of all, colleagues have become simply rivals in the game of who can avoid being thrown off the island by the others. Am I alone in wondering what kind of managers and leaders this is breeding? Do we want to live in a world where the first, and most important, rule of corporate life is always to watch your back?

What can you do to cope with such a situation?
  1. Ability and talent still count. Look at American Idol (okay, I know it’s not a reality show, but it provides the best example of what I’m talking about). It’s not always the winner who has the best subsequent career. Several losers have done as well or better. The one who wins the short-term contest doesn’t always win over the longer haul.

  2. Dealing with others fairly can be more important that it seems. Getting to the top by climbing over the bodies of others makes plenty of enemies. In the competitive game, winners can turn into losers at any time. When they do—and nearly all will at some time or another—it helps not to have too many people around who have been waiting their chance for revenge. The guys you kicked on the way up will probably love to kick you even harder on your way down.

  3. Friends are always good to have. Life is a pretty uncertain business. There are plenty of times when a piece of information, a friendly warning, a helping hand, or just someone to talk to openly can make all the difference. Jerks and assholes don’t have friends, only hangers-on looking for their own chances to claw their way up. If you don’t trust anyone, you won’t find anyone is willing to trust you. That means you’ll have to pay—one way or another—for every piece of information or moment of support. And it will have to be cash on the nail, since everyone will have learned not to trust promises (at least, not twice).

  4. Choose your currency. There are two currencies in business. One is patronage: the ability to do someone a favor, advance their career, or appoint them to a plum job. That’s the currency that comes from having power. The other currency is being liked. It has nothing to do with power and everything to do with the kind of person that you are. The currency of patronage is limited. There’s only so much available, and the guys at the top grab most of it. The currency of being liked is available to everyone. It won’t win you direct power, or even promotion in every case, but it will protect you from many of the crocodiles. You have to be a real bastard to screw over a popular person. And you have to be really lucky to get away with it without others ganging up on you as a result.

  5. Compete only for what is truly worthwhile and lasting. Power, status, riches, fame. All are, I’m sure, great to have. But all of them take some hanging on to. All come with plenty of stress and fear attached. For many people, that blissful moment on the winner’s rostrum—that 15 minutes of fame—is all they will ever receive. It will be followed by years of struggle to get back to that point, coupled with misery, frustration, and anger. But friendship, peace of mind, happiness, and contentment can last for many years—maybe a whole lifetime.
There’s an old proverb (I think it is Spanish) that goes like this: “Take what you want,” says God, “then pay for it.”

Before you start wrestling with the crocodiles, be very sure what it is that you want and are willing to pay for. Coming out on top may cost you more than you bargained for. Managing to wade out of the swamp—even if the cost is giving up your heedless dreams of making it into the big league—could turn out to be a great bargain in the context of your life as a whole.

If you’re offered a place in some reality-show-type competition to rise to the top, remember to count the cost before you start. There may just be a very large and wily crocodile sitting somewhere on the bank, waiting for all the others to wear themselves out fighting, before he or she slides into the water and calmly demolishes the supposed winner. Reality shows may be fun to watch (though it’s hard for me to imagine why), but I doubt that they’re fun to take part in.



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Friday, June 08, 2020

Another kind of inflation threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, June 07, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Monday, June 04, 2020

In the dark? Here’s how to get better information

The basic laws of office communication



What’s most often blamed for organizational problems? You guessed. It’s poor communication. And what probably claims most attention from consultants, writers, gurus and trainers? Same answer. Yet it never appears to improve significantly. Since modern organizations began to emerge, people have been complaining about communication problems. All the training and consulting should have solved the problem long ago, but they haven’t. Why should that be?

The answer lies in human nature: that endless source of difficulties for anyone wanting to make life tidy and predictable. Information in organizations flows upwards, downwards, and sideways according to four natural laws that are caused by some very human responses to the requirement to pass information along. Knowing these laws is essential if you want to save yourself endless trouble and frustration. Using them wisely will make you seem to be a born communicator. It’s the combination of the three laws that decides how much information each person will get and how heavily filtered it will be.

First Law: Upward flows will contain only good news

Bad news doesn’t move upwards in organizations easily. Typically, it doesn’t flow upwards at all. People’s immediate response to bad news is to bury it and hope it’s never found. Bosses encourage this by their tendency to kill the messenger. Being the bearer of bad news to those above you in the hierarchy isn’t good for your career or your job security.

In contrast, good news not only moves upwards easily, it’s often enriched and added to along the way. If there isn’t enough, more can be invented. Telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is commonplace, as is exaggerating every small success and forgetting all failures.

Second Law: Downward flows will be limited unless they are negative

In most organizations, information is only passed down the hierarchy on a “need to know” basis. Since bosses, especially those with large egos (that is most of them—and all Hamburger Managers) and a love of power (ditto), assume their subordinates need to know little, the downward flow of information is niggardly at best. Being “in the know” makes people feel important, so those who get information rarely feel much urge to pass it on.

“Need to know” may be important in communities of spies, but it’s hard to see why it applies so widely in other organizations, apart from the reasons given above. There are likely to be few topics where secrecy is genuinely needed, and a great many where it harms progress. But humans are human and most of them love a good secret.

The exception to the limit on information flowing downwards is blame. Blame flows downwards at great speed, since those above want to make sure none of it stays with them. Indeed, it keeps flowing downward until it reaches those who can’t manage to pass it on fast enough, or have no one to pass it to. There it sticks, even if they had nothing whatever to do with the original issue.

Third Law: Sideways flows will depend on trust and liking

Do people share information with their peers? Only if they like them. That means those closest together, physically and emotionally, share information most readily, but those further away on either count are left out. Where information has to cross departmental boundaries, it rarely makes it. Other departments are demonized, so based on being disliked and distrusted, they get next to nothing. Indeed, there’s often a tacit agreement to block information to them, or even falsify it.

This law works in combination with the other two like this:
  • Bosses who are well-liked get more and better information from their subordinates. It’s less heavily filtered and may even contain some of the bad news.
  • Disliked bosses get only unalloyed good news, much of it fabricated. All negative data is suppressed.
  • Trusted subordinates are told most of what they need to know, and are usually told rather more as well—including what the boss is still thinking about.
  • Disliked and distrusted subordinates are told as little as possible, even if they really need to know. The only exception is anything negative about them, which is relayed promptly and in great detail.

Fourth Law: Bad news travels farther and faster than good

It’s human nature to pass on bad news quickly. You only have to watch the professional news media to realize that. Good news has to be very good to make the headlines. Bad news only has to be intriguing, odd-ball, or sexy.

The effect of this is a continual skewing of data towards the negative, especially over the short term. If a new initiative is launched, the quickest feedback will be the most extreme, whether positive or (especially) negative. That sometimes leads to organizations and people making bad judgments. Ideas are dropped on the basis of quick feedback that suggests problems. The good news takes its time to filter through and by then it’s too late.

If you want to get good information, make yourself liked and trusted, whether you’re in a boss or a subordinate relationship with the person who has the data. That’s why organizations that foster distrust through macho, Hamburger Management, constant cost-cutting, and treating staff like expendable widgets quickly get what they deserve: a virtual information blackout.

If you want the complete and accurate picture, give it time. Don’t get too despondent if the first news looks bleak. Don’t get too excited if the next wave of reports filtering up the hierarchy sound extremely rosy. All news is filtered somehow. Sometimes the only way to get anything like the truth is to go and see for yourself.



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Tuesday, May 29, 2020

What do businesses and Las Vegas have in common?

Both typically produce big winners as a result of one or two lucky bets


Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. People are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for blindly repeating the past. Failures, however, always have a learning message and the potential for growth. Coyote explores why getting the reasons for success wrong dooms people and organizations to long-term mediocrity.

One of the enduring myths about the world of work is that effort is the key to success. Whether that effort comes in the form of long hours, constant endeavor, or sacrifice of much of the rest of what life has to offer, the belief that, somehow, hard work is always going to be rewarded is at the heart of much of the folklore that governs how people behave in the workplace.

This belief endures because it is both comforting and convenient: comforting to the individuals who do the hard work, and can always believe that it will help them win big one day—even if it hasn’t yet; and convenient to employers, who use it as a way to persuade staff to continue to make determined efforts on the basis of vague promises about the future.

But is it true?

Simple observation suggests that it is not—at least in most circumstances.

Of course, some degree of determination and persistence is important. Giving up too easily, or lacking determination enough to make the required effort, will doom almost any hopes of success. But they are rarely the prime reasons for success in themselves; and there are many, many instances where individuals and organizations have exerted themselves to an almost superhuman extent, only to fail. There are also many cases where someone, or some organization, has done very little, only to be “rewarded” with an amazing amount of success.

The decisions that count for most

Most businesses depend on a relatively small number of large, often risky, decisions. The launch of a new product line. Entry to a new market. Purchase of a competitor. Expansion overseas. To see these as “bets” is quite fair, because that’s what they are, however carefully they have been researched and discussed beforehand. An obvious, safe, incremental step isn’t going to produce large rewards, if only because everyone else will know about it too and probably already be doing it. It’s defensive, not a move to extend or enhance. Only decisions that aren’t obvious, carry risk, and take the organization into new territory stand a chance of creating significant profits and stealing a march on competitors.

The same is true for individuals. The solid, hard-working, cautious, risk-averse person who always does the obvious isn’t going to make it to the top—especially in competition with those willing to take bigger risks and flaunt their successes more openly.

These make-or-break decisions are bets on an uncertain future. Get a few right, and you’ll look like a genius—even if what won you that acclaim is almost entirely luck, or other factors outside your control. That’s why you often see high-profile leaders with a track-record of recent success suddenly run out of steam and appear clumsy and incompetent. They haven’t changed. They’ve just run out of their lucky streak, or found themselves in new circumstances unfavorable to their way of thinking or doing things.

Why success doesn’t help you learn

People are very poor at accepting the importance of chance and context in their lives—save when they are looking for an excuse for some bad mistake. We much prefer to believe that our successes are due to our own brilliance, while our failures are caused by bad luck and the mistakes of others.

This would be a harmless, if childish, failing were it not that it stops us from learning how to do better. Focusing on your successes is a recipe for continually repeating the past. There is not much to be learned from them, especially if you mis-attribute the reason for success to some personal action, when it was really the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Failures, however, always have a learning message—often one that is a vital step towards eventual success. But you cannot hear that message if you are always mis-attributing the reasons for your failures to bad luck, the errors of others, or unforeseeable events.

All the rush and haste of Hamburger Management leaves neither time nor inclination to sort out the true reasons for success or failure. Like the gambler in Las Vegas, the Hamburger Manager usually believes that he or she can somehow win over the odds consistently, even if no one else does. The result is the same in both cases: repeating the same behavior that once (supposedly) let you win big, until it causes you to lose even bigger. Organizations fail because they rely more on repeating past successful behavior than risking failure by trying anything new. Individuals do the same. It takes a long-term view to see the truth, but that’s something few people or organizations seem to possess.



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Thursday, May 24, 2020

The great sine wave of life

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


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

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

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

The ups and downs of accountability

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

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

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

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

The madness of macho managers

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

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

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

Nature contains no straight-line graphs, only waves

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

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



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Thursday, May 17, 2020

Let’s make an end of accepting authority uncritically

There’s altogether too much deference to authority practiced today. It’s time to give it up.

It’s so tempting to look for some authority figure to tell you what to do—especially if you’re tired, confused, stressed, or miserable. At times, everyone wants to be able to relax, knowing that someone else is in charge and knows what’s best. Sadly, while there is no shortage of would-be authorities in the world, trusting them to have your best interests at heart is usually a poor idea—especially if they’re eager to convince you that they have. Uncritical acceptance of authority lies behind a great many of today’s problems. It’s always your life. Don’t let others run it for you.

A little while ago, I came across this great article on the temptations of submitting to authority. It’s so easy to do it: it’s socially approved, takes zero effort, promises freedom from the awkward business of making your own decisions, even claims to offer access to the absolute, unchallenged truth. As the article says:
For many reasons, submitting to authority is extremely attractive. It takes the pressure off. We don’t have to think for ourselves. If any problems arise we don’t have to worry about deciding what to do. We can just do what the leader says and be confident that answer is the final truth.
The trouble is . . . this conventional belief in the value and importance of authority is total BS. It really doesn’t matter whether the authority in question appears as the boss, the organization, Wall Street, dogmatic belief systems, political ideology, or anything else. Any system, doctrine, or person that claims to be able to reveal the absolute, unchallenged truth about anything is lying. Any dogma that can’t accept constant dissent, modification, or the high possibility that it’s wrong is tyranny. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. Take any set of authoritarian statements that you like and trace them back over time, and you’ll quickly see that they change and shift—only that fact is never admitted. All our authorities have feet of clay. Some are drenched in blood too.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing” (Socrates)

Take management orthodoxy. How to run a business ought, perhaps, to be a safe candidate for a very high degree of certainty. It’s not too complex, has easily measured outcomes and results, and hundreds of thousands of people do it for most of their working lives—millions even. Surely by now we would know, pretty much with complete certainty, how to do it correctly. The fact that we don’t—that highly-qualified, lavishly-paid executives get it wrong all the time—ought to tell us something about believing that there is one right way and we already know what it is. Many of those authoritative texts you’re made to read in business school, perhaps even most of them, are wrong. Worse, they’re authoritatively wrong.

Do I know the answers? No way! But at least I know that I don’t know. I don’t try to convince myself, or anyone else, that I have an answer to anything. Hell, I don’t even want an answer. Once you have a definite, exact answer, there’s no need to go on looking and exploring. And that’s pretty much death, mentally and spiritually. Which is why boardrooms and executive suites around the world are filled with zombies: the living dead. They know all the answers and stopped looking years ago.

Which is also why so many of them make such a pig-awful job of running their businesses.

Creativity is being different. Mediocrity is being the same.

Deference and obedience to authority is far too highly valued today—even when it’s called “being a good team player,” or “practicality,” or “commitment.” It’s actual value is zero, nil, zilch, nada. It ensures you’ll never learn another thing in life, and all you have to look forward to are years of repetitive, stylized behaviors, like a circus animal pacing endless around its cage. Whatever happens, whatever changes, all you will be able to do is follow the dictates of authority. Welcome to hell.

Hamburger Management, with its obsession with speed, superficial flashiness, limiting costs, avoiding questions that might lead to delay, and being right first time (even if—especially if—you aren’t), produces managers who don’t have the time, the humility, or the ability to reflect or be creative. All they want is answers, the quicker and simpler the better. Since there are none, what they get is BS, humbug, snake oil, and lies, so that’s what they follow.

The essence of creativity is being different in some way, challenging even the most widely-accepted truths, always wanting to know more and to ask why. It’s no surprise that creativity is rarest in organizations that most value fitting in and following the corporate line. To be creative is not just to challenge authority. It goes deeper than that. It is not to pay any heed to authority.

And that, of course, is the most unacceptable sin in the whole canon for those who rely on dogmatic, authoritarian beliefs.

As John Wesley writes in the article that began all this (no, not that John Wesley):
When we submit to authority, we willingly pull the wool over our own eyes, exposing ourselves to manipulation. The greatest catastrophes of human history were caused by submission to authority. The Holocaust was caused by submission to the Nazi authority. September 11th was caused by submission to Bin Laden’s authority. Everyday people are suckered out of hard earned money because they blindly believe in authority. Be distrustful, question what you’re told, and don’t believe that anyone claiming to have all the answers has your best interests at heart.




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Friday, May 04, 2020

Management Cheapskates

What other profession praises those who skimp on resources, compromise quality, and show disrespect for others?

What happens when you try to manage people "on the cheap?" You get shoddy goods, poor customer service, a frustrated workforce, and a recipe for decline and failure. So why is Hamburger Management—the epitome of management on the cheap—so prevalent? Because the culprits are rarely around when the sh*t hits the fan.
Lisa Haneberg's article “Management on the Cheap“ caught my eye earlier in the week. She lists a series of ways in which managers short-change their staff and their consciences, including:
  • Claiming that you value relationships, and then leaving people are out of the decision-making process.

  • Saying you reward for excellence and then avoiding dealing with people who are not making the grade.

  • Telling your employees that ongoing development is important and then failing to ensure that you keep learning and developing.

  • Saying you value managers and then designing their jobs such that no one wants to do that work (or worse, takes the promotion and then checks his/her brain at the door).
I’d like to add some more examples of my own:
  • Hounding people to increase short-term profits by every means available—then paying them as little as possible for their work.

  • Talking about ethics and integrity—then expecting staff to cheat customers to make more money, and lie to cover up the organization’s mistakes.

  • Talking about building value—then expecting people to work far more than their set hours for no extra payment.

  • Demanding commitment and loyalty to the organization—then laying off people if you can find someone elsewhere willing to do the same work for less money.
We all know that doing anything on the cheap is only going to produce low-quality, shoddy work. How do Hamburger Managers get away with it?

The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry.

Few of them expect to be in the same job when the problems that they have caused start to become apparent. The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry. By the time it’s clear what lay behind your “success,” you’ve been promoted or moved on to bigger and better things. If anyone tries to pin the problems on you, you can simply say that your successor was the one who messed up.

In fact, your successor is almost certain to have changed everything anyway, in an attempt to stamp his or her mark on the new job. Nothing is more annoying to a newly-appointed manager than to see success attributed to the previous manager’s decisions. Nothing is more pleasant than to be able to point to that person’s errors and suggest you are exactly the right person to correct them.

By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking.

Why do you get cheapskates in management? Because that is the behavior that most organizations today reward. We’re told that the average tenure for a new CEO is less than two years. Don’t feel sorry for them. For many, that’s already too long. Their mistakes have already started to catch up with them. What they really wanted was to jump out with the golden parachute earlier, so they could keep the undeserved reputation of leadership genius as the basis for getting the next job. But then . . . even failed CEOs seem to find little difficulty in being hired again.

Managers don’t take the long view because they don’t need to. The short-term will see their time out in the job. By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking. By equating managerial performance with short-term results, they have solidified the link. In the end, organizations get what they reward. The people to feel sorry for are those who have to go on working in that kind of culture.



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Thursday, May 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Friday, April 27, 2020

The Obsessive/Compulsive Organization

The final part of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

The obsessive/compulsive organization appears to be highly efficient from the outside, with a clearly-focused strategy and tight internal controls and procedures. However, like individuals who suffer from obsessive/compulsive disorder, all that strict control has gotten out of hand, resulting in a morass of rule-bound bureaucracy. Whenever that happens, an organization becomes incapable of reponding flexibly to the world. Following the rules is everything, even if it results in crippled performance.
Our modern-day fashion for exalting measurement as the pinnacle of management has brought us probably more organizations suffering from an obsessive/compulsive outlook than any of the other disorders of organizational culture. Most of them display some degree of “paralysis by analysis.” Their leaders have big spreadsheets and small hearts—and sometimes small brains too. Instead of management being an art, linked to the ever-changing needs of a community of individuals, it is treated as a pseudo-science of numbers and rules.

Obsessive/compulsive organizations delight in a “command-and-control“ format for leadership. Control matters more than anything else. Ever heard the saying: “What cannot be measured, cannot be controlled?” That was an obsessive/compusive organizational leader speaking. Organizations and leaders of this type seek to control every aspect of their internal and external environments, producing in the process truckloads of rule books, mountains of procedure manuals, forests of printed instructions, acres of complex analyses, Powerpoint presentations without end, and boundless deserts of policy guidelines. Nothing must be left to chance. Every action must be laid down precisely, then checked constantly by measurements or direct observation. Being a boss in an obsessive/compulsive organization is more like being a tax auditor than a business person, a mentor, or a coach.

You can recognize an obsessive/compulsive organization like this:
  • There will be a rigid and closely-defined sets of rules for everything, backed up with elaborate measurements, complex information systems, and exhaustive evaluations.
  • Management will have become ritualized into pre-set actions, based on complicated systems of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly reporting that cover nearly every aspect of the organization’s functioning.
  • Much of what is checked and reported on will appear trivial at best, pointless at worst.
  • Compliance with procedures and guidelines is unquestioned. Non-compliance is a mortal sin.
  • The organization will have a clear, focused strategy, yet will base it on a narrow, single theme, such as cost-cutting or measuring financial ratios—often to the total exclusion of any other factors.
  • “Command-and-control” will be the habitual form of leadership.
  • In an organization like this, your status and power depend on your position in the—complex and rigid —hierarchy. All relationships aree highly formalized and subject to status.
  • Everyone will be permanently anxious, in case they have offended against some unexpected rule or procedure. Since there are so many rules, knowing them all and ensuring total compliance will probably be impossible, but that will not be accepted as an excuse.
  • No one will trust anyone. In place of trust, bosses demand strict compliance with pre-set rules. Then they will check up on every action and measure every outcome, because they don’t trust their people to comply either.
Working in an obsessive/compulsive organization reduces you to being an impersonal cog in a huge, bureaucratic machine. Forget about spontaneity or flexibility. Such a rigid organization will continue to resist change long after it has become clear that it is bleeding money and destined for the scrap heap. Since its managers have never been allowed to exercise personal judgment, the very idea of change or accountability will probably terrify most of them.

The other organizational “personality disorders” in this short series produce leaders who display pathological anger, suspicion, callousness, cruelty, and arrogance. In the obsessive/compulsive organization, leaders are coldly detached, formal, and distant, more interested in tracking their ratios and measurements than in human beings. Only rebellion is treated harshly. For the rest, the boss is likely to be no more than the current person who issues orders. If you comply, all will be well. If you don’t, or your statistical performance measurements are below par, even your discipline and dismissal will be handled through impersonal procedures.

Burnout in obsessive/compulsive organizations is rare. Since there is no scope for initiative, there is little demand (or opportunity) for workaholism. Stress, however, is everywhere, driven by the constant measurements, the suffocating control, and the mindless obsession with following every tiny rule. People in this type of organization usually display an odd mixture of anxiety and passivity: they worry about minutiae, but feel helpless to make any change. When the market shifts significantly, the organization continues on its chosen course, heedless of the change, until, like a tortoise in the middle of the road, it fails to avoid what is coming and is quickly squashed.

If you just want a salary, with no demands on you for anything beyond submission and obedience, an obsessive/compulsive organization offers some attraction. Though the rules lock you in iron bands, they also protect you. Compliance absolves you of all responsibility for the outcome. Strict procedures for managing people make sure that you will not be treated according to the whims of an individual boss. If you do your set work conscientiously, the constant measurement should not be a problem. Just don’t expect to be able to express any creativity or individualism. Nor to be able to change anything.



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Thursday, April 26, 2020

The Narcissistic Organization

Part 3 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

A narcissistic organization suffers from delusions of success and grandeur. From the outside, the organization probably seems to be nothing unusual. From the inside, in its own estimation, it can do nothing wrong. Every problem or setback is attributed to external situations beyond anyone’s control. Its leaders are portrayed as near geniuses and their every action or speech eagerly reported. Employees are expected to become cult-like in their devotion to the enterprise. So distorted does this kind of sick organization’s view of the world become that it eventually loses touch with reality. Many of the strategic mistakes and failures that seem so obvious to outsiders occur in organizations that suffer from narcissism.
Narcissism is especially prevalent in long-established organizations with a past track-record of success. They become so proud of their past, and so complacent about their prestige, that they no longer notice clear signs of pending problems and an obvious need for change. Just as psychotic organizations “breed” psychotic leaders, narcissistic organizations tend to have an unusually high proportion of narcissistic leaders fixated on issues of power, status, prestige, and superiority.

Here is how Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, writing in The European Management Journal (Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 183–200, April 2004), describes the “reactive” (i.e. negative) narcissistic leader:
Reactive narcissistic leaders are not prepared to share power. On the contrary, as leaders they surround themselves with ‘yea-sayers.’ Unwilling to tolerate disagreement and dealing poorly with criticism, such leaders rarely consult with colleagues, preferring to make all decisions on their own. When they do consult with others, such consultation is little more than ritualistic. They use others as a kind of ‘Greek chorus,’ expecting followers to agree to whatever they suggest. Reactive narcissistic leaders learn little from defeat. When setbacks occur, such leaders don’t take any personal responsibility; instead, they scapegoat others in the organization, passing on the blame. Even when things are going well, they can be cruel and verbally abusive to their subordinates, and they are prone to outbursts of rage when things don’t go their way. Likewise, perceiving a personal attack even where none is intended, they may erupt when followers rebel against their distorted view of the world. Such ‘tantrums,’ re-enactments of childhood behavior, originate in earlier feelings of helplessness and humiliation. Given the power that such leaders now hold, the impact of their rage on their immediate environment can be devastating. Furthermore, tantrums intimidate followers, who then themselves regress to more childlike behavior.
How can you spot a narcissistic organization? Here are some clues:
  • The members of the top leadership are revered and accorded almost god-like status.
  • Employees treat the organizationally-approved way of thinking or acting as Holy Writ.
  • No one ever admits to any mistakes. Problems are always blamed on someone else—often people outside the organization.
  • People treat the bombastic, dictatorial behavior of certain bosses as justified by their exceptional status.
  • Questioning any aspect of the organization is strongly discouraged. Objections to policy or procedures from outsiders are met by an amused and superior smile.
  • Obtaining employment within the organization is seen as a life-changing achievement and a gift of immeasurable value, which must be repaid with unquestioning loyalty.
My own experience of narcissistic organizations confirms how easily they become a mutual admiration society, where employees act as if simply being part of the organization confers automatic superiority; and the leaders are more concerned to polish their image than take tough decisions. Such an idealized view of themselves and their organization quickly seduces executives into believing that they are in truth the wonderful managers and flawless business strategists that the organization’s PR has made them out to be.

One of the most negative aspects of working in a narcissistic organization is the way it forces everyone to take sides. Since narcissistic leaders typically show strong hostility to anyone who fails to give them the unquestioning loyalty to which they believe they are entitled, employees are faced with a stark choice: do what the leader wants or suffer nasty career consequences. Worse still, there will be no support from colleagues for any “rebellion.” As organizational “cult members,” people rapidly become like their leaders: deeply hostile to anyone who questions the prevailing organizational culture. Independent thought is squashed. Leaders are deprived of truthful feedback. The self-satisfied blindness that results can lead to catastrophe, as leaders are deprived of sensible reality-testing and followers provide sycophantic praise for personal gain. As Max McKeown wrote recently in Management Issues:
Far too many organizations are stuffed with sycophants prepared to overlook anything shady, illegal, or unethical as long as they are getting to hang around and share some power.
Narcissistic organizations breed arrogant, power-obsessed leaders and sycophantic, manipulative followers. The archetypal “organization man” is a product of a narcissistic organization. So is the status-obsessed CEO who believes that he or she is entitled to use the organization’s resources to demonstrate superior standing. And, since whatever demands the organization sees as “reasonable” must be met, narcissistic organizations quickly produce zombie-like employees who sacrifice any other parts of their life to the organization’s needs. There can be no work/life balance where employment in the organization is seen as such a stupendous gift.

Is that where you want to spend your time? The longer you stay, the less your capacity for independent thought will be, and the more you will come to believe that whatever the organization approves is automatically right. I have known several people who spent most of their careers in an organization of this type. In conversation, their constant praise for the organization quickly became embarrassing. It was also obvious that they formed an elite group, at least in their own estimation. For example, all agreed that in any problem situation, anywhere in the world, their automatic response would be to turn to the local branch of their organization for help and guidance. Not the authorities. Not friends or neighbors or family. Not even their own commonsense or critical thinking ability. If you hadn’t worked in their organization, you were automatically seen as somehow inferior.

Unless this seems an ideal world to you, don’t be tempted to work in such an environment. If you’re in one, and haven’t yet succumbed to group-think, start job hunting right away.



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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.
Spending any time within a psychopathic organization is extremely risky for your ethical and moral well-being. The only safe course of action is to get out as fast as you can. Extreme examples of organizational psychopathic behavior—Enron was the poster-child for this—lead to a very high risk of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion. You definitely don’t want to be around when this happens. But even less extreme versions of corporate psychopathology will put you under to constant pressure to fit in and accept that kind of behavior as normal.

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.



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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.



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Friday, April 20, 2020

The Pyschopathology of Organizations

Some of today’s organizations are psychologically and ethically sick. Maybe that is why the people who work in them begin to act in sick ways too.

Business thinking has fallen into a number of bad habits in the past few decades, but one of the worst is the assumption that bad actions, whether in the general office or the boardroom, are solely due to the personality, character, or ethical problems of individual perpetrators. Firing the people involved, or disciplining them in some other way, is seen as providing a total solution to such issues. The slate is wiped clean. This is not the case, as I will show.
We rightly expect people to be held accountable for their actions—especially those in positions of power and trust. Every action represents some more or less conscious choice, and we all need to acknowledge that our choices have consequences. Yet personal decisions, whether inspired by problems of personality, defective values, or ethical blindness, are far from the only factors at work when things go wrong. Organizations can become damaged, perverted, or just plain sick within themselves, just as much as individuals can. A single, mentally sick individual has pointlessly destroyed more than 30 innocent lives at Virginia Tech. A single ethically and procedurally sick organization can take away thousands of people’s jobs, destroy their pensions, or subject its workers to daily cruelty, humiliation, and exploitation.

Human organizations are hybrid entities: part mechanical systems and constructions; part human communities, with all the emotional and psychological baggage that entails. Probably the best way to see them is as biological entities. We humans, for example, have some largely mechanical parts to our bodies (bones and muscles), which grow and develop over time to provide the necessary framework. What animates and directs that framework is our brain: the thinking, feeling, judging part, with its own complex of automatic systems and conscious choices.

As our bodies may develop handicaps, sicknesses, and diseases, so organizations can become crippled and distorted.

In much the same way, organizations develop frameworks of systems, policies, money flows, and procedures, directed and animated by the human element. As our bodies may develop handicaps, sicknesses, and diseases, so organizations can become crippled and distorted so that their systems work in negative and destructive ways.

When that happens, the organization itself becomes sick and provides an unhealthy, even poisonous, culture and context for work. In time, if the people within it fail to take action to heal the sickness, they too are made sick by the context of negativity and the warped outlook all around them.

Stanford Psychology Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in 1971, using prison inmates, in which he showed how systems, situations, and roles involving power influence human behavior. His book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, isn’t an easy read. The examples are too often of horrific cruelty and abuse and the style is somewhat ponderous and hectoring. But the point remains that there is good evidence, culled from multiple sources, that sick organizational and social contexts quickly make the people within them act in equally sick and perverted ways. It’s just a question of which comes first: whether the apples in the barrel were bad, or (his view) the barrel was bad and infected the apples.

What we see all too often today are organizations rich in spreadsheets, but with withered or distorted hearts.

Within the business world, I suspect that there are both bad apples and bad barrels. We seem to be very aware of the first and somewhat blind to the second. Yet those in charge of organizations surely have the duty to correct or root out their own sick systems and attitudes, just as much as they have a duty to deal with badly behaved individuals. If we, as a society, ought to refuse to tolerate jerks in positions of power—as we certainly ought—we should also refuse to tolerate organizational systems and approaches that create more jerks, more cruelty, and more barbarism in our workplaces.

What we see all too often today are organizations rich in spreadsheets, but with withered or distorted hearts. Places where people are treated as costly but inanimate objects, to be exploited and casually discarded, not as fellow human beings with hopes, dreams, and feelings. Work in an organization like that for too long and you risk seeing that distorted situation as normal. You become infected with the sickness all around you.

Do businesses exist to create profits? Of course. Is it acceptable to create profits in any way that works? Surely not, just as it is unacceptable in a civilized society to extract information by means of torture, even if that method seems to some to be likely to deliver what is wanted.

Business and organizational leaders must be held accountable for more than the financial health of their enterprises. The emotional, ethical, and psychological health of those systems is also their responsibility. They would do well to give that much more thought than they do.



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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.



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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?



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Wednesday, April 04, 2020

The right direction for civilized work

Mutual respect, not macho posturing, is the true basis for business success

Business has no room any more for the kind of short-sighted, closed-minded autocrat who sees people as merely “employment units,” to be bought as cheaply as possible and used with ruthless disregard for their welfare until they are replaced by others, fresher and less wounded. That’s how plantation owners treated their slaves 150 years ago. It was a disreputable way of operating then and nothing has changed to make it any more acceptable. Isn’t it time that we demanded better from our business leaders? Isn’t it time that they stopped destroying wealth by clinging to outdated leadership notions and came into the 21st century?
On Sunday last, Bob Sutton had this to say on his blog:
Today’s New York Times has a glowing review of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George (Former CEO of Medtronic, a Jim Collins “Good to Great” leader, and now a Professor at Harvard Business School teaching leadership), with help from Peter Sims. The book is based on interviews with 125 other leaders and executives like Starbuck’s Howard Schultz and Xerox’s Ann Mulcahy. These cases—in combination with George’s accomplishments—show that leaders who create humane organizations that really care about their people and their customers—and don’t just view them as units that exist for the purposes of extracting “as much economic value as possible” every minute of every day—not only can thrive financially, they do it in such a way that people can travel through their days with dignity [My italics]. And as George shows with his cases of successful leaders, they can also have a life outside of work.
For years, management orthodoxy has been based on the idea that the key to business success lay in controlling costs, especially the costs of employing people. Employ as few people as possible, pay them as little as you can, and work them as hard as you can get away with. And if employment costs and laws in the developed world are becoming an issue, ship the work to somewhere in the Third World, where workers will accept a pittance and there are few, if any, laws to regulate corporate behavior.

This is the orthodoxy that has created Hamburger Management. Bob Sutton, along with Bill George and many other successful leaders, are doing us a marvelous service by pointing out how foolish and short-sighted it is. As a business creed, the “minimizing costs is everything” school leads to management barbarism, contempt for customers (think of most airlines today), and fat-cat executives caught out in dubious schemes and ethical blunders of all kinds. It’s the thinking behind companies firing experienced staff and replacing them with cheap newcomers. And it doesn’t only stink as a way of handling employees, it’s bad for business.

According to Management Issues:
. . . a study by insurance and financial services company MetLife has found that keeping key workers happy, challenged and motivated is becoming more important to U.S businesses than controlling costs. Employee retention was identified as the most important priority by more than half of employers overall polled, with retailers (62 per cent) and the service sector (59 per cent) placing an even greater emphasis on the need to retain people.
The conventional cost-cutting, macho, grab-and-go managers are stuck in the past; in a time when employees were mostly interchangeable, whether they shoveled coal, shuffled paper, or handed out goods in a store. Sure, some did the job better than others, but the differences weren’t too great. The job saw to that, since work was mostly fairly simple, repetitious, and could be learned quite quickly.

There are decreasing numbers of jobs that nearly anyone can do quickly, and rapidly increasing demands for the kind of people who are in shortest supply: the most able, the most highly-skilled, and the most inventive and passionate about what they do.

Nearly all those jobs have already been swept away by machines and computers. Even the job of a foot-soldiers in today's armies takes considerable training. That's why few, if any, generals are in favor of the draft: they have little need for large numbers of untrained, unwilling recruits. By the time draftees were sufficiently trained to be useful, their draft period would be over. Business is no different. There are decreasing numbers of jobs that nearly anyone can do quickly, and rapidly increasing demands for the kind of people who are in shortest supply: the most able, the most highly-skilled, and the most inventive and passionate about what they do.

What’s left is mostly professional work, demanding extensive skills, high intelligence, and (if you are to beat the competition) creativity and ingenuity. To be good, people need considerable training. You can’t lose them and pick someone up on the street tomorrow as a replacement. Professional staff replacement is expensive, chancy, and creates a drag on the business that no one needs. In the same article quoted above, another survey is mentioned, covering 11,852 employees. It found more than 60 percent of employees were planning to look for a new job in the next three months, nearly double the proportion that employers believed were looking.

I’ve been arguing for a while that managers and leaders who engage in Hamburger Management aren’t just jerks; they’re actively harming the businesses that they work for.

There has been a saying around for many years that, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Today, if you treat people like sh*t, they leave; and the only ones you’ll get to replace them will be out of the door too, as soon as they find that the fine words of recruiters aren’t matched by actual experience. Patricia Soldati quotes The Conference Board to assert that:
. . . employee engagement is a very big deal. There is clear and mounting evidence that high levels of employee engagement keenly correlates to individual, group and corporate performance in areas such as retention, turnover, productivity, customer service and loyalty. And this is not just by small margins. While differences varied from study to study, highly engaged employees outperform their disengaged counterparts by a whopping 20 – 28 percentage points!
I’ve been arguing for a while that managers and leaders who engage in Hamburger Management aren’t just jerks; they’re actively harming the businesses that they work for. It’s nice to have some proof from a highly reputable source like The Conference Board.

Uncivilized modes of leadership destroy wealth, as well as destroying the peace of mind of the people subjected to them. It’s high time that business schools stopped teaching old-style management ideas, stemming from Taylor’s “scientific management,” as anything other than a historical curiosity and a dreadful warning; much like you learn in history about the French Revolution and the guillotine. And it’s long past the time when any executive who fails to create a civilized working atmosphere, and high levels of creativity and engagement in his or her team, can be allowed to stay in a responsible position.

If shareholders want to maintain and create real wealth—as opposed to gambling on random stock movements, which is what many of them do—they should seriously consider forcing the necessary changes in the management of the companies whose shares they hold. After all, it’s their money that these macho jerks are wasting.



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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.



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Thursday, March 29, 2020

By their fruits ye shall know them

Bad decisions reveal bad leaders, whatever the excuses they make

How can you gauge the quality of leadership in an organization? There’s one, simple way: by looking at the decisions they make. When short-term decisions are the norm, greed is everywhere, and ethics are either ignored or seen as something to be “got around” for the sake of profit, you know that the leadership has become so riddled with Hamburger Management that it has reached rock bottom.
Two news stories in two days brought home to me just how far down the scale of basic leadership competence organizations can go. One was about a company that allowed secret military information about night-vision equipment to be provided to companies abroad, including some in China. I say “allowed.” That’s too weak a word. According to a spokesperson from the US Justice Department, some of the organization’s executives not only knew that they were breaking the law, they tried to work out the best ways of doing it, so as not to be caught. The United States attorney, John L. Brownlee, said in a statement. “The criminal actions of this corporation have threatened to turn on the lights on the modern battlefield for our enemies and expose American soldiers to great harm.”

Why did they do it? To save money by outsourcing, so inflating profits.

The other story was about Circuit City. It seems they are planning to lay off more than 3000 experienced, higher-paid people and replace them with new recruits at lower wages.

Why? To boost the bottom line.

This time, even some of the financial analysts expressed surprise. The New York Times quoted one as saying:
While we view these cost cuts as clearly good for near-term earnings, they are not necessarily the way to drive longer-term operational success. It stands to reason that firing 3,400 of arguably the most successful sales people in the company could prove terrible for morale.
Yet, despite this clear statement that management were making a decision that mortgages the future for short-term gain, the company’s shares rose by more than 2 percent. It seems that Wall Street still can’t manage to raise its eyes beyond the next quarter. Never mind that customers will now, presumably, be served by newer, less qualified and experienced staff when they want to buy an expensive flat-screen TV or some other expensive electronic gizmo. Who cares about providing quality service when there is money to be made?

. . . he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points.

Short-termism is the essence of Hamburger Management. Yet how staff behave, especially towards customers, is telling the rest of the world—very clearly and loudly—how good the executives are as leaders. When I see poor staff, I know the leadership is crap. And don’t give me all that rubbish about blaming the quality of the people available. If management employs the cheapest people that they can hire, there’re getting what they deserve and telling potential recruits that they would rather fire you than reward you properly. As a result, good staff soon won’t be seen dead working in their organization. Worst of all, management obviously don’t care. Only the cheapest is right for their customers. Never mind the quality, feel the profits. However they slice it, it’s clear who will be to blame for the long-term decline of the business. There can be no excuses.

What about the ethics of decisions like this? Is it right to break the law and send military secrets to possibly unfriendly countries to make a buck? Is it right to fire good employees, just because you may be able to hire less good ones more cheaply? I listened to a US government official saying that he found it incredible that a business would endanger the lives of American soldiers, just to increase their profits by a few percentage points. I want to ask him what world he was living in. There are executives out there who would sell their children into slavery to boost the value of their stock options.

Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed.

It’s high time we took a very long, careful, and objective look at the kind of business communities we in the West are allowing to develop. Do we want truly unfettered capitalism, where everything is fair and all that matters is how much profit the company reports each quarter—and how much cash the executives take away as a result? Do we want the pursuit of money and power to become the sole arbiter of what is acceptable? Do we want our business leaders to put personal greed before the public good?

If we don’t, it’s time that we found ways to rein back the less acceptable forms of corporate behavior. Civilized societies don’t foster unbridled greed. They don’t condone law-breaking in search of better-looking figures. Nor do civilized organizations. I have yet to hear that anyone involved in these dubious decisions has been disciplined, let alone fired.

“By their fruits ye shall know them,” it says in the New Testament. What do these decisions tell you about the businesses involved?



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Wednesday, March 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:
  1. Leadership by the head of the company and senior managers.

  2. Stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties.

  3. The immediate boss and other day-to-day managers.

  4. Immediate colleagues.

  5. Pay and benefits.

  6. How much companies are thought to put back into society, and the local community in particular.

  7. The company itself, as opposed to the people.

  8. 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?



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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.



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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.



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Friday, March 02, 2020

The Perversions of Workplace Power

Today’s top executives have too much power and business is suffering as a result.

Feeling powerless, even over your daily schedule, is a major component of workplace stress. The inequalities of power in today’s organizations are too extreme. It’s time to restore a better balance.
Hierarchies are all about power. Those in the workplace are no different. The people at the top exercise most power; those at the bottom have least—or none at all. I think that this is a simple fact of life. Some idealists may hope for a power-free workplace, but I don’t see that happening. Someone has to accept responsibility for making decisions and issuing instructions for others to carry out, or there is likely to be something close to anarchy.

What causes problems is not so much the unequal distribution of power as the degree of that inequality.

In dictatorships, all the power is held by an individual—like Hitler or Stalin— and everyone else must obey. In oligarchies—like the old Soviet Union after Stalin, or China today—power is concentrated in the hands of a favored elite. In democracies, power is far more widely distributed. An elected few hold some of it, but only subject to legal and political checks. Some is given to middle-ranking officials. And even those at the bottom of the social ladder have a little power, even if they can only express it at voting time.

Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite.

Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite. There is a wide spectrum available: from the kind of quasi-democracy of some small, high-tech organizations to the rigid oligarchies of most old-established corporations—or the quasi-dictatorships run by high-profile, egotistical CEOs in recent years.

Those in power quickly come to resent any checks on their freedom to use it however they like. They try to remove checks on their freedom, and extend their power wherever they can. It’s said that all power corrupts. Maybe that’s true in one sense: it’s frustrating and irksome to have to submit your ideas and wishes to others for approval, especially if you fear they will be rejected or watered down. Top executives have usually spent years fighting for the power that they now exercise. They don’t like to give it up, even a little.

The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.

All the politics that go on in organizations are simply people jockeying for power and influence. It’s often easier to build greater informal power than to try to get the “rules” changed for your benefit. Influence and patronage, for example, are both potent sources of power, though neither appear on the organization chart. In nearly all organizations—especially large and complex ones—there is a constant process of shifting power structures. The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.

The reality is that there is only so much power available. To get more, you have to take it from others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, CEOs worked to take power for themselves and away from boards of directors and shareholders. Of late, shareholders have been trying to take it back. “Rising stars” try to sneak power away from established leaders. Divisions and departments “steal” power from the centre whenever they can. Central functions typically write policies and procedures that deny power to subsidiaries and operating divisions. And everyone in the upper reaches of a hierarchy takes power from the easiest source: those lower down.

When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful.

Powerlessness—real or imagined—is one of the major causes of frustration, stress, and burnout. When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful. In the past, only slaves and servants had no power in this way. To be without power is to be reduced to a paid slave. What we see today is even highly-educated professionals being treated as serfs, to be allocated crippling working hours without the resources or the freedom to decide how to live their own lives.

Disparities of power in the workplace are like wage disparities: everyone accepts that they will happen, but expects them to be held within reasonable limits.

We know that the CEO will earn far more than the lowest-paid worker. We accept that as reasonable. But when it is 400 or 500 times more, that looks very like an abuse. It’s the same with power. No one expects the workplace to be an idealized democracy. But when it becomes a dictatorship or an oligarchy based on a tiny elite, we smell the corrupting effects of an obsession with power.

In a civilized society, all power must be kept under constant scrutiny, and any abuses detected and dealt with before they can turn into abuses. What we have today are corporations with too much power held in the hands of too few people. It’s producing stressful, toxic, and uncivilized working conditions for too many people.

It’s time to slow down, take a hard look at what is happening, and get back to a better balance.



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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.



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Wednesday, February 21, 2020

You Are Not John Wayne

He may have been a great action hero, but Hollywood is still not like the real world.

Today’s media-driven, action-obsessed organizations are losing sight of the reality that sheer effort often goes unrewarded, unless it’s directed by some careful, complex, and time-consuming thought. Busyness and thoughtfulness are poor companions. Until organizations stop assuming greater effort is the simple answer to every problem, people will continue to work harder and harder for the same meager results—or none at all.

We live in a culture where action is highly prized and thought is seen as either pointless or suspicious. I’m not sure why this should be so. Of course, powerful rulers have always been suspicious of those whose motives and actions they can neither quite understand nor easily control. The bluff man of action was relatively easy to deal with. The quiet schemer was always the greatest threat. That’s why it paid to keep the cleverest people where you could see them, and deny education, and the leisure to think, to as many people as possible.

Maybe we also have Hollywood and our media-based beliefs to blame. It’s easy to display action on screen. It’s exciting, full of grand visual effect and opportunities for loud music and terrific over-acting. Displaying thought is tricky. Nothing much appears to happen, and complex thoughts can be hard for an audience to follow. It’s not impossible—William Shakespeare did it pretty well—but few screenwriters manage to reach his standard. Besides, pitting the brave, honest action hero against the skulking, devious, too-clever-by-half villain is such an easy driver of plots that few can resist it.

Whatever the causes, we are left with a culture where action—preferably lots of it and the more assertive the better—is assumed to be the answer to every problem.

Whenever people feel uncertain or doubtful, greater effort—more action—is called for at once. Do next quarter’s, or next year’s business prospects look shaky? Work harder, cut costs, increase everyone’s efforts. Is a project sliding off track? Stay at your desk until 10:00 p.m. every day, then take work home.

Never mind stopping to discover the real reason for the problem. These future sales projections may look bad because the product is falling out of fashion, or an unexpected competitor has brought out a superior alternative. The project that’s causing you to work 16-hour days may be doomed because it was badly conceived from the start. In neither case will extra effort alone make any difference to the outcome. It’s as if people feel that, in a just universe, all that determination and hard work deserves to be successful. The honest, perspiring hero, (or gallant, open-hearted heroine) should prevail, even if she or he hasn’t a clue about the problem or its causes.

That might be the case in a just universe. I wouldn’t know, because neither I nor anyone else has ever inhabited one. In the real world, effort very often goes unrewarded—especially if it, too, is misdirected, poorly conceived, or based on a total misunderstanding of the real nature of the problem.

No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it.

No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it. Hollywood may prefer simple plots that can be easily written and acted, but the universe rarely agrees with the neatness needed to make a one-hour TV show, with 20 minutes of commercial breaks. I recently heard on the radio that military personnel are copying what they see on TV as battle tactics. Rush in, shoot a few villains, and those who survive will immediately tell all they know. Works on TV. Sadly, in the real world, the survivors do inconvenient things such as lying, making up any old story to save their lives, or refusing to talk even under prolonged interrogation.

A corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.

Constant busyness is practically guaranteed to drive any thoughts away, and leave no spaces where they might return. A determined focus on short-term actions destroys all chance of creating long-term advantage. And a corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.

Relying on effort nearly always means doing what you are doing already—only harder. It’s very often taking a doomed idea and continuing to feed it with effort and resources, long after it should have been abandoned in favor of something better. It’s running about in a frenzy of action, when slowing down and giving yourself time to think up an alternative approach is the only likely path to success.

Stop shooting from the hip. John Wayne may have got the bad guy with every draw of his six-shooter, but he had considerable help from special effects, the director, and the script. In a 19th century gunfight in Phoenix, Arizona, two people stood on opposite sides of the street and blasted away at one another until both ran out of bullets. Neither suffered a scratch.

The only things that frantic busyness is guaranteed to produce are exhaustion, stress, and numbed resignation—exactly what many feel in today’s workplaces. Slow down and think instead. Then there’s at least a chance you’ll discover a way to succeed—and probably with about a quarter of the effort.



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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.
Does that sound like the way most businesses treat their people? Not to me. What I see is almost an opposite range of actions:
  • 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.
Does it matter if it appears that in this case, as in so many others, organizations and executives say one thing and do another? I believe that it does.

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.
Imagine the impact a mindset like that could have on a business. I wrote earlier that I thought it really mattered if organizations talked about valuing people, but acted in the opposite way. This is why: they are ignoring or wrecking what could be a genuine asset of huge value to the business, if only they treated it as such.

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?



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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.


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Wednesday, February 14, 2020

Accepting the unacceptable : a thought for Valentine's Day

Here’s a simple yet profound thought from Jessica at indexed about gifts for Valentine's Day. [link]

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?



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Monday, February 12, 2020

Beware of Management Fashionistas

Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.

Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.
Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.

Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]

The rise and fall of management fads

Ambitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.

Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashion

Something sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.

In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.

In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.

Fashion industries breed gurus

Successful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]


Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).

Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?

Does it matter?

Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!

There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.

In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.



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