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Wednesday, July 25, 2020

Listing the sins of macho management

Despite its popularity, macho management has many severe drawbacks.

If macho management is not a sensible way to operate, it must be possible to show why. Organizations won’t be convinced by saying it’s unpleasant, so long as they believe that it works in their interests. Here’s why it doesn’t.
Macho management has become the norm because organizations have convinced themselves that it works to drive up profits better than the alternatives. They’re also convinced that the down-sides are minor compared to the benefits.

I believe that they are mistaken; but the proponents of macho, financially-biased management are so many—and so convinced of the correctness of their position—that it needs to be the opponents of conventional management who must make their case to overturn what has become the norm. That’s what this article tries to do.

Here are what I see as the most obvious drawbacks of macho management. There are probably more, but I have tried to consider my list from the point of view of managers, not ethicists.
  • Pushing too hard. If too little effort is demonstrably bad for results, too much is probably worse. It leads haste and over-extended organizations; to harassment of customers and suppliers, careless mistakes, snap judgments based on inadequate data; to over-eager grasping of ill-understood opportunities and the taking of poorly calculated risks; to the forced suppression of contrary views, to lowered creativity, and to the alienation and loss of talented employees.

  • Arrogance and egotism. Macho kinds of behavior come easiest to egotists. Research has shown that egotistical leaders are more likely to take both high-risk, even rash decisions and decisions based purely on self-interest.

  • Blinkered viewpoints. In the rush and fury of macho culture, a constant is the tendency to see the world in black and white. Decisions are straight up or down. People, ideas, opportunities are good or bad. This departs so far from reality as to be dangerous.

  • All-or-nothing bets. Macho managers aren’t patient enough for slow, incremental wins. They want massive, public success and will often take risks on a similar scale. All-or-nothing easily turns out to be the latter.

  • Riding roughshod over others. Lots of macho managers have very short fuses—many are even proud of the fact. Their response to anything short of total agreement is to throw a tantrum. Intimidation is a way of life. All this produces is resentment and a desire to get even.

  • Domineering attitudes. Command-and-control is the hallmark of every macho culture. Those at the top have to be in charge of everything. Lower manages are subservient upwards and tyrannical to everyone else. This is a great breeding ground for lawsuits, labor disputes, excessive turnover, poor morale, sabotage, and low quality work.

  • Love of a good fight. The macho manager only shines during conflict. If there isn’t any, he or she is very likely to generate some. Conflict also wastes money, lowers productivity, promotes discord, and destroys creativity. Go figure.

  • Fear-based decisions. Macho cultures are saturated with fear at every level. Fear of those with more power, fear of being stabbed in the back, fear of losing out, fear of failure and disgrace. People compete all the time—not so much to win as to avoid losing. The results include lying, cheating, trying to harm competitors, concealing errors, manipulating figures, and putting personal survival above everything else.

  • Rampant office politics. In macho cultures, politics are everywhere. Where you stand in the political pecking-order is almost all that counts. Employees, customers, business ethics, rules, laws, and just about anything else become tools in various political fights between opposing barons.

  • Inability to cooperate or share. Macho managers only share with their toadies, and then as little as possible. No real cooperation is possible. You can’t assist a potential rival—and no one who isn’t a rival is worth notice. Besides, all those barons have to maintain their status and influence against real or assumed rivals. In a macho culture, there is usually more strife internally than with external competitors.

  • Constant turf wars. Not only are macho cultures extremely territorial, everyone constantly tries to steal territory from everyone else. Like bull seals competing for beach space and females, macho managers spend most of their time posturing, roaring, bickering, and trying to grab bits of territory. How this helps the organization is beyond me.

Given so many and such obvious drawbacks, it seems odd that macho management has so many followers. I think the answers are both simple and depressing:
  1. Once you have macho managers in place, everyone with a different outlook leaves or is forced out. The macho guys despise them. Macho management is the ultimate self-perpetuating system.

  2. In macho cultures, money is viewed as almost the sole measurement of results. That's why you typically find macho people in charge and hordes of accountants keeping the score. It’s hard to imagine a more soul-destroying environment—or one more likely to ignore everything that does not come with a price or a score attached.

  3. Changing a macho culture almost never happens peacefully from within. The status quo is strong precisely because it suits those in charge. It’s their status quo. It made them the people they are and guarantees their survival. That’s why they will try to squash anything that threatens it. And, being aggressive and action-oriented, macho managers are some of the world’s best enforcers.
All that anyone can do is to keep pointing out the drawbacks and handicaps of macho cultures. In the end, they tend to destroy themselves, but the process is lengthy and painful. Far better to heed reason long before then and do all that we can to stop the spread of such a debilitating organizational disease.




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Friday, July 20, 2020

Making decisions . . . or telling stories?

Without sufficient time to think, people react by re-hashing the story of some past event.

Those who are too busy, too stressed, or too eager to jump into action are condemned to repeat the past with minor variations. Reaction replaces thought. That’s why so many needless mistakes are made and so many organizations today find themselves stuck in outdated patterns based on remembered glories.
What happens when you’re forced to make a decision almost in an instant? There’s obviously no time to weigh the options, consider fresh possibilities, or even analyze the circumstances in any depth. All that’s available are “gut feel” or memory. Both are based on “stories” you tell yourself about what to do.

These stories have become the automatic response of choice for tens of thousands of harried people every moment of every day: folk stories of management, tales of how others say that they coped, or the fading recollection of how they once coped themselves, sometime in the past.

It’s as if you were unexpectedly invited to tea at Buckingham Palace and based your behavior either on what your grandmother's friend used to say about good manners; your recollection of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in “Alice in Wonderland” (last read when you were six); or a particularly tense meal with an elderly relative that took place six years ago in Wisconsin. All of them probably make great stories—certainly “Alice in Wonderland” does—yet none is really a substitute for thought, research, or seeking advice on the topic of taking tea with the Queen of England.

I know this is an exaggerated example, but it’s here to make an important point. No matter how recent your past experience, or how seemingly useful some informative story you once heard or read, they cannot provide more than a general approximation to what might be needed in this situation, right now.

Principles versus rules

When you’re under pressure, your mind wants a quick answer. The greater the pressure, the more appealing an instant solution appears. Besides, there’s no time to trawl through a long list of half-recalled events or past topics. Instead, you jump for the first, most vivid tale that seems to fit.

What stories are best at doing is conveying general principles in a vivid way. A good story has power to communicate an idea far more effectively than a dry, analytical exposition. Events stick in your mind when they’re noteworthy or unusual. What is commonplace is quickly forgotten. What stories are not includes many things: a detailed explanation, a set of instructions, an analytical exploration of options, a careful review of the available evidence. For our purposes, the two most important are these: stories are not instructions and they are not rules.

Chained to the past

Sadly, that’s exactly how folk-stories, experience-stories, or example-stories are most often used: as a firm set of instructions on what to do when you’re faced with a decision and are too busy, too stressed, too exhausted, too confused, or too damn eager to take time to think carefully. Shooting from the hip has become the automatic choice for all too many leaders, especially in the USA; which is probably why they so often shoot themselves in the foot.

The past may, sometimes, offer guidance on how to deal with the future, but it’s never a foolproof guide. Something in the current situation is always unique. Some elements have changed since the last time. Parts will never have occurred before. Each repetition of past actions will be a little more “off” and liable to error, even if that story that you’re telling yourself ever really provided as good a solution as you think it did. There’s no good substitute for effective thought. It’s what distinguishes the human race from other creatures on this earth. Many animals have highly-tuned instincts, the ability to learn from experience, and senses that are far superior to ours. Yet only humans, so far as we now, can think in the way that we do.

Why throw that away to please those who treat you only as a means of getting the greatest number of tasks done, at the lowest possible cost, in the shortest possible time? You can be sure that any mistakes made will be counted against you; and all excuses will be summarily dismissed.

Instinctual reactions and experience-based ideas are extremely useful—but not in the way most people use them: as a quick solution to deal with an overloaded schedule. What they do best is help point your thinking in useful directions.

Self appointed experts know all the answers. True experts just know all the best questions.



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Monday, July 16, 2020

A nation of fast food, with leaders to match

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

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

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

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

“Management by in-flight magazine"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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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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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Monday, July 02, 2020

Why getting away from work regularly is the best way to work better

Relax! Get away from work! You can do it.

Constant, unremitting hard work is a terrible way to solve problems, spark creative ideas, or maintain high morale. Many organizations demand these crazy work patterns only because their ideas on management are stuck at a point many decades in the past. It’s time to come up to date and recognize that rest and relaxation are as much essential management tools as motivation or planning.

cartoon strip
Everyone has been in the situation where you just can’t recall something that you know perfectly well: a phone number, a name, a piece of information. You know that it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it simply won’t come to you. And the harder that you try to remember, the most frustrating it becomes. Do what you may, you cannot recall it. Then, hours later, when you’re thinking of something completely different, what you wanted pops into your mind as neatly as you like. It’s infuriating.

The same thing happens when you have a difficult problem to solve in the workplace. Trying, again and again, to find a solution is very often the worst possible way to go about it. Like that name or telephone number, the answer just won’t come, whatever you do.

It would be far better to let go and allow your mind to work on something totally unrelated for a while.

That’s what vacations and time spent relaxing and day-dreaming are for: to let your mind refresh itself on a regular basis and clear away the blockages caused by too much effort. The answer that you want is probably right there, only you can’t see it for looking. When you get away from the frustration and irritation—right away for long enough to allow your mental muscles to unclench—the chances are that you’ll notice the very solution that has been eluding you.

Creative people have always found that their best ideas occur to them at seemingly random moments: in bed, just before falling asleep; in the shower; walking in the park. Sitting and trying to force the mind to produce creative ideas seems to stop up the flow totally.

Antiquated management is everywhere

It’s hard to understand why so many organizations and their leaders cling to the crazy notion that you can somehow force the best out of people by working them as hard as possible for as long as possible. That might have worked (not too well, but perhaps well enough) in the days when all employees were required to do was either manual labor or repetitive clerical work. Neither require significant mental input. You can happily dig a hole and think about something completely unrelated at the same time. Writing figures into a ledger needs attention, but neither creativity nor any kind of problem-solving ability.

Nearly all of today’s work needs people who spend their time solving problems, coming up with fresh ideas, and using their minds far more than their muscles or their ability to cope with repetitive details. It should be blindingly obvious that long hours of hard labor are not going to deliver the goods. The fact that organizations and their managers miss this simple fact shows clearly how outdated much of conventional management has become—and how far it has strayed from what will work best in the current context.

Managers obsessed with control, extracting maximum hours, and demanding constant, unremitting effort are shooting themselves in both feet at once. What they get is an exhausted and demoralized workforce, whose brains are so numbed with continual toil that they are no longer able to produce creative ideas—or even recognize and recall the ideas they already have. It’s already known that those who pay peanuts get monkeys. If you bludgeon people around the head all the time, you get zombies.

Many organizations afflicted with advanced Hamburger Management get plenty of both—plus a good few zombie monkeys as well!



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Friday, June 29, 2020

What are you busy doing?

It’s not a trick question. Workplaces everywhere are full of people busy doing next to nothing . . . only they don’t realize it.

It’s one of the most prevalent, but least remarked upon, problems of our information-rich age. Today’s technology and management cultures allow anyone to work away busily with every appearance of being productive—even creative—when all they are really doing is treading water. Here’s how it works.
What these people are doing is mostly shifting information around. They spend large parts of their days responding to e-mail and voice mail; they attend meeting after meeting after meeting; they watch scores of presentations and prepare still more. It all appears extremely important and productive, but when you look at it closely, what you see is an organization that spends nearly all its time swapping information from person to person, without having the time to consider fully what it contains, let alone act on it.

What is in all those e-mails, instant messages, and voice mails? Typically, requests for information or responses to such requests. You might have 100 e-mails in your in-box, of which roughly one quarter are requests to you for information, one quarter contain information that you have requested, while the remaining half contains copies of e-mails swapping information between other members of the organization.

Let’s start with the half that are cc’ed; you didn’t ask for those and probably don’t want them, but you still have to spend enough time reading them to be sure that there isn’t anything important hidden in them somewhere. They keep you busy for some time—genuinely busy—but none of that time is productive. The quarter that contain requests to you for information is going to take up another large chunk of time: getting the information, setting down in the right way, and passing it to the person who requested it.

Is that time productive? Generally speaking, you can’t know, because that will depend on what the person receiving the information does with it. In many cases, they spend time collating and combining it with information from other people, then passing the whole lot on to someone else. How useful is that? You have no idea; most organizations have computer discs and filing cabinets full of such collated data that no one has ever read or ever will read.

Surely the data that you asked for is going to allow you to do some productive work? Well, maybe. You may have asked for it because you have to produce a report, complete with tables of collated data, for your own boss. What will he or she do with that report? My guess is skim over it, pick out one or two bits of information, and add those to another report that he or she is doing for someone higher up the hierarchy.

Strangled by data?

The curse of information technology is that it is so very, very powerful. It can collect, collate, and analyze data on a scale people fifty years ago would have thought impossible. It can pull data from all around the world, seeking out sources that would have been totally invisible to people back then. It’s a wonderful tool, with almost limitless possibilities. The problem comes, not from the technology itself, but from the use people make of it.

They overwhelm themselves in more data that their brains can handle, afraid that some missed or omitted piece might be the one that proves to be vital. They commission reports inches thick (far too much ever to read in the time left over from shuffling all that other data around), then base their choices on summaries of summaries of summaries: the one page of information that would have been all that their grandparents would have had available; all that the human mind can process in the five minutes or so allocated to making the decision.

And all those meetings? They mostly consist of people “sharing” information that they have spent hours collecting and preparing precisely to share in that meeting. Whom do they share it with? Those who will either ignore it as irrelevant, question it if it doesn’t show what they want, or use it to produce still more presentations for future meetings.

That’s how people can end up extremely busy, yet doing nothing more than moving information around for the sake of generating more information and more demands to move it somewhere else.

No time left for what really matters

I’m not saying information can’t be vital, but in this welter of data it’s hard to see that anyone is allowed the time to do the most important task of all: to sit and think carefully and deeply about what even a tiny fraction of all this data is revealing. We’re placing such demands on our brains that stress and mental are causing mental overload. We have all this wonderful data; but we are so confused, tired, and distracted that what we do with it is crippled.

Today, everyone is running around, working their tails off, shifting information like never before, and imagining that they’re being productive. They’re really not. They’re busy, sure, but they no longer have time to be thoughtful or genuinely creative. They have become slaves to the information mill, grinding out more and more data to increase this overload and generate still more data requests.

Just because you can do something, it isn’t always something that you should do. We are all at the mercy of the limits of the human brain to absorb information and process it in useful ways.

Even the smallest of today’s personal computers can process more data in a few moments than most people can process mentally in a lifetime. For example, you can send a file containing the equivalent of all the words in the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare and War and Peace to someone anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse.

So what? It’s technologically marvelous, but is it really useful?

That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves. If a normal human being can’t use the data to produce some sensible outcome, why waste the time collecting, analyzing, summarizing, and sending it? It will make many people very busy, but it’s hardly the stuff of useful work.



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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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Tuesday, June 26, 2020

The 7 worst habits of Hamburger Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Monday, June 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 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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Wednesday, June 06, 2020

Making it past the “Law of Small Numbers”

Why haste impairs your judgment . . . and what to do about it.

The Law of Small Numbers is at work everywhere in business today. Put simply, it’s the tendency to jump to important conclusions on the basis of very small samples: letting a very little data drive some very big decisions. Why is it so prevalent? Haste, mostly. No one is willing to wait long enough to see whether the immediate outcome is confirmed by long-term results. But you don’t have to be one of them.

Any limited sample of data can be misleading. The smaller the sample, the more the effects of pure chance can skew the results. A few good results, one or two spectacular-seeming successes, can lead to the idea that they represent the basic truth on a project or a person’s ability. It’s the same with setbacks and errors. If things don’t go well immediately, people assume that they never will. So they cut their losses and bail out—perhaps right before the point when those chance-caused setbacks were about to end and the good times start.

Another common outcome of the Law of Small Numbers is a tendency to see patterns where none really exist. What may seem to be an obvious pattern can disappear entirely when a larger sample of data becomes available.

Suppose that you watched someone toss a coin 10 times and it came up heads every time. How sure could you be that he or she had a double-headed coin? Well, not very sure. It seems like a highly significant pattern, but it could quite easily arise by chance. There’s a 50:50 chance of heads coming up on every toss. That chance isn’t affected at all by previous tosses. The probability of getting heads on the next toss is exactly 50%, regardless of whether heads has come up once, ten, or a hundred times in a row.

Most people grossly underestimated how great a part luck, context, and specific circumstances play in our lives. They attribute a series of outcomes to a stable pattern after only a few examples. I’m not saying that everything is down to chance. That’s clearly not the case. Some choices and actions have a greater likelihood of success than others. But which ones? To decide which actions do indeed have the better track-record takes time and large samples of data. Only when you have tracked results for a significant period can you be fairly certain that the effects of chance can be isolated and removed from your judgment.

The more people work under pressure—the more that they feel they are judged purely by short-term outcomes—the harder it becomes to sort out what is truly beneficial or harmful from what merely seems so for a short time.

Many executives today stay in their jobs for less than two years. That might be enough time to discover whether someone in a job requiring limited skills is competent, but it’s not nearly long enough to see whether significant department- or corporation-wide decisions are soundly based. Worse, it encourages the executives to focus purely on “quick wins,” since they know that anything long-term won’t yield results until after they have departed for greener fields elsewhere; and very few people are willing to work hard to chalk up an achievement for their successor.

Life is not a short-term gamble

You may not be able to change the corporate culture right away (that takes time too!), nor affect how long you are kept in the same role, but you can surely avoid taking short-term, overly-risky gambles on inadequate data in your own life and work choices.

The key is always allowing enough time, and collecting enough data, to allow for the ever-present element of chance. It’s possible to develop a wonderful reputation for ability on the basis of a single result, much of which was due to luck. If that happens—and you gratefully accept it and join in the assumption that you are, indeed, brilliant—you’re creating a set of expectations that you may come to regret. Living up to a result that wasn’t really down to you is a recipe for extreme stress.

Bear this truth in mind too when you’re called upon to make judgments on others. The myth that anyone can make some kind of near-infallible judgment of character and ability on the basis of a single meeting is just that—a myth. Prejudice can definitely be near-instant. Just don’t kid yourself that some kind of magical intuition operates on first meeting.

And if you claim to have proof of the power of instant judgments based on intuition from instances in your own life, remember the ten coins that came up heads in a row. Chance demands that there will be some occasions when a snap judgment turns out to be correct. A bet on odds of many millions to one against will turn out positive sometimes (like winning the lottery). You could buy a lottery ticket tomorrow—just one—and win the jackpot. But that has no effect on the odds for the millions of people who spend tens of dollars on lottery tickets every week, often for decades, and never win a bean. How many successful instances of your intuition are needed to establish that it should be trusted? Many hundreds probably. How many can you recall? How many unsuccessful intuitions have you forgotten?

The less time that you give to any decision, the more of the outcome that you are leaving to chance. Slowing down is the best way to lower the risks in your life; hurrying the best way to increase them.

If you're really in a rush, you could always flip a coin.



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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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Wednesday, May 16, 2020

The plain truth on the multitasking myth

Isn’t it time everyone dropped the multi-tasking idea for good?

Whatever amazing multi-tasking powers you believe you have, the facts are plain and irrefutable. Your brain isn’t able to switch back and forth between even moderately complex or demanding tasks without a major loss in speed, accuracy, and quality of processing. You may think otherwise, but it’s a myth. With complicated tasks, no one is able to overcome the inherent limitations of the human brain for processing large amounts of information simultaneously—i.e. multitasking. It just can’t be done, any more than a human being is ever going to be able to fly by flapping his or her arms. We aren’t built that way.
There’s abundant hard evidence that multitasking is a poor strategy. Dan Bobinski, writing a while ago in Management Issues, quoted Robert Croker, Ed.D., chair of the Human Resource Training and Development Department at Idaho State University, in support of the view that the human brain simply isn’t designed for multi-tasking.
It’s a common misconception is that a brain is like a computer. A computer is designed to multi-task. A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multi-task environment.
Researchers Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, proved the simple process of switching focus from one task to another ties up a considerable amount of mental processing power. Pointing to the “executive control” processes the brain uses to establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them, the researchers found:
. . . executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that“) and rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
When a person continually switches between tasks, the brain wastes a great deal of time and energy clearing out the processing rules for the previous task and orienting itself to the new one—only to go through the whole cycle again when the first task is back in focus. Activating and completing these procedures wastes copious amounts of time. The research indicates continually switching between tasks can make completion take four times longer, due to the time needed to keep switching mental gears.

David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, says:
The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large—amazingly so.
The quality of your work is severely diminished when trying to do even two tasks simultaneously. The more the tasks differ from one another in complexity and familiarity, the greater the effect on time and quality. According to Time Magazine, quoting Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, automatic actions, or what the researchers call “highly practiced skills” like walking or chopping an onion, can be done while thinking about other things. But any kind of action planning or decision making requires full attention.

So if you’re sitting at your desk doing nothing more demanding than moving papers from one pile to another, your brain is free to think about most anything else. But if the boss calls and asks you what you plan to do about the mess you made of last month’s sales return, you’d better give that your full attention. That’s what catches out the moronic people who drive while yakking on their cellphones. On a straight piece of road with few other vehicles, it seems easy. But let something unexpected arise that requires a choice of actions and they can’t drag their minds back to the job in hand fast enough to avoid an accident.

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do. It increases your likelihood of mistakes, physical or verbal. Used habitually, it gradually prevents you from concentrating effectively even if you want to. It’s a very poor strategy for anyone trying to cope with demanding work.

So why do organizations encourage it? Or even tolerate it?

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do.

Organizations believe that multi-tasking benefits them due to the conventional view that the way to a successful business is primarily based on cutting costs—especially the costs of employing people. To reduce head count, without reducing the amount of work done, demands that all those left work harder and cover more tasks. Multi-tasking looks like the answer. Halve the workforce and make everyone do two jobs at the same time. Simple!

Hence the emphasis on multi-tasking. In the short-term, the organization appears to benefit by a cost reduction (caused by employing fewer people for the same amount of work). In the longer term, reduced productivity and enhanced stress negate that benefit and impose a penalty instead. In fact, continual cost-cutting produces only a short-term benefit, often at the expense of longer-term results. But, since the typical executive rarely considers the longer-term (many don’t last that long in their jobs), they see the short-term gain and miss (or ignore) the long-term loss.

When mistakes multiply, as they will, and quality falls, the link between multi-tasking and an increase in errors is ignored. It has to be, since to do otherwise is to admit that the cost-cutting was an error. That’s quite out of the question, especially since it would invalidate “accepted wisdom” on the necessity of continually cutting costs. It’s usually easier—and far more common—to blame the individual for any mistakes, even if the organization is the real culprit.

Multi-tasking is a failed attempt by people to display super-human powers. Even wearing your underwear on the outside and a tunic with a large S on it won’t change that.



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Tuesday, May 01, 2020

Some plain truth about control freaks


A posting by Dick Richards, entitled “Arguing with Reality,“ set me thinking.

So many macho managers spend their time either trying to control what is uncontrollable, or trying to force events back onto the track they wanted them to take, when it’s already too late. Much of the stress they suffer themselves—and cause in others—comes from doing this. Yet it’s not just tolerated. Such behavior is often seen as a mark of valuable determination and commitment.

Arguing with reality is illogical, pointless, and a total waste of energy and resources. That is the plain truth. Trying to control the uncontrollable is foolish, at best, and sometimes close to insanity. Control freaks are neither effective managers nor any kind of organizational asset. Mostly their irrational behavior is the cause of a great deal of upset, waste, and unhappiness.

It’s high time that people looked at conventional management attitudes and saw many of them for what they are: pointless, wasteful, and useless. Control freaks are sick. Arguing with reality is insane. Trying to control the future is impossible.

Let’s slow down, take a good, hard look at what people are doing in the name of management, and try to do better. Macho posturing is no course for any leader to take, whatever others do.

And don't miss reading Dick Richard's article.



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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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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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Thursday, April 19, 2020

Getting it wrong to get it right

Organizations (and people) who are afraid to make mistakes can neither live nor learn effectively.

Yesterday, I wrote about Professor Russell Ackoff’s interview with Peter Day, reported here on the BBC web site. In the second part of that interview, the topic shifts away from business schools towards another key question: how can you be successful if you ignore, or hide, or deny your mistakes? Aren’t mistakes the basis of virtually all learning? If you don’t learn from them, who or what will be able to teach you anything?
It sometimes seems that our society is obsessed with prying into the mistakes of others, but that isn’t really true. The media have a prurient fascination with the mistakes of the rich and famous—especially any that involve sex—and there are many who take an equally perverse joy in proving to themselves that those whom they secretly envy are, in reality, no better then they are. Yet the greatest effort goes into hiding mistakes, or denying their very existence, as if making a mistake were the most shameful of social diseases. Politicians, business leaders, the rich and famous, all spend lavishly on covering up their mistakes.

Our society's petty and mean-minded ways of dealing with mistakes, focused as they are on pointing to others’ misdemeanors, while carefully concealing or ignoring your own, are so common that we scarcely notice any more. Sadly, this is also the way that mistakes are treated in most organizations: as something to be ashamed of, to punish, and to conceal or deny whenever possible. Listen to Professor Ackoff:
You never learn by doing something right, because you already know how to do it. The only opportunity for learning is to identify mistakes and correct them. If you are in an organization which says that mistakes are a bad thing, learning is suppressed. So you either try to avoid mistakes, or if you make them, you shift blame to someone else.
The simplest way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing; or at least to do nothing new or different from the conventional. If you resolutely stick to whatever is the most obvious, the most orthodox, and the most common, you at least have the chance of deflecting criticism by the time-worn practice of pointing to everyone else and saying that they did the same. As Ackoff points out, organizations have elaborate measurement and recording systems to note even the slightest sins of commission—doing what you ought not to have done—and none at all to deal with the worst kind of mistakes in business: not doing what you should have.
The worst kind of mistake is not being wrong, but something you did not do that you should have done. Errors of omission are responsible for failures and bankruptcy.
I think that he is right about that. Following the herd and sticking to the conventional and orthodox makes you mediocre and pedestrian, but it takes a long time to bring your business to its knees. Missing opportunities, ignoring mistakes, staying complacent in the face of change, and suppressing new ideas will all ruin you faster and much more effectively.

Yet that is what so many organizations are doing. They’re so hell-bent on imitating others and avoiding risks that they take the biggest risk of all: ignoring reality.

Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other.

Deciding not to do something is just as much a decision as its opposite. Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other. In reality, both represent an equally significant response to events. If one is punishable, so should the other be. Of course, honest mistakes—those made despite every effort to get it right—are no more worthy of being punished than getting wet when it rains. Life is unpredictable and often cruel. Only the dead are free from further errors.

To learn fully from your own mistakes, you should make as careful a note of when you decided not to act as when you did. Refusing to act is still your choice, and you should trace its consequences carefully. If you don't, at least half the lessons life can teach you will never be recognized. Sometimes the greatest gamble of all is to refuse to throw the dice.

In my own experience, as you get older, you spend far more time aware of all the opportunities that you didn’t take, and the things that you didn’t do—and now wish that you had—than regretting the mistaken actions or choices that you did go through with. Though you know that many of those missed opportunities would not have worked out—that you would have suffered hurts you avoided and much pain and embarrassment—you become aware of what you have missed that was far more valuable: experiences that would have taught you lessons that now you can never learn.

Getting it right, in work or life, nearly always involves a great deal of getting it wrong as well. Success depends critically on how you face up to failure, take the lesson it offers, and start again. Opportunities missed are usually gone for ever. The road not taken never shows up on the map again.

That’s why rushing through life, obsessed with conventional success and fixated purely on material gain, may produce riches and fame, but very often misses out on happiness and contentment. The New Testament of Christians asks: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?” You only have one trip around the sun. Use it well, or lose the chance of living and learning forever.



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Tuesday, April 17, 2020

Antidotes to Hamburger Management

How to rid yourself and your organization of poisonous management.

Hamburger Management is management based on always doing whatever is quickest, simplest, and (above all) cheapest. Hamburger Managers provide the kind of leadership that is best described as: “Never mind the quality, look how fast it goes, and how cheap it is.” Sadly, this approach is being forced on a great many otherwise perfectly reasonable and responsible people by the continual demands of those at the top to meet inflated expectations of short-term profit. If you have been forced in the past into Hamburger Management approaches, can you find a way out? Are there antidotes to purge you of the poison? There are. Here are some of the best.
Is there hope for Hamburger Managers? Can they go to re-hab, like politicians and media stars, to be returned to society as reformed characters? Is there a de-toxification program? Indeed there is, and it doesn’t need you to stay in some remote resort or engage the services of a shrink. Let us reveal all.

One of the best antidotes to Hamburger Management is kindness in leadership and business dealings. That was the basis of my article: Is the Worm Turning? Macho, grab-and-go management styles, like Hamburger Management, are universally callous towards anyone who gets in the way of creating maximum (personal) profit in minimum time. In a civilized society, that really ought to be intolerable. If your words and actions are always marked by kindness, you cannot fall into Hamburger Management ways. It’s not possible. Be kind, always, and you’ll be free of the poison at once.

Check your ego at the door when you arrive each morning. I’ve long held the belief that the best way to “inspire” bosses to act in civilized ways would be to make any other behavior socially unacceptable. Nothing would change hearts and minds quicker that the prospect of being ostracized at the golf club; or no longer being invited to dinner by the “right kind of people” in the locality. Egotism is an intrinsic part of Hamburger Management. These macho management styles are sold to people on the basis that getting things done, even when it all seems impossible given the limited time and resources, will make you look good. And egotism is all about me, isn’t it? My career, my targets, my job security. If, instead, what you experienced was being shunned by all reasonable people, no one would stick with Hamburger Management for a week.

In a past posting called Take Any Two From Four . . ., I explained that work can be quick, cheap, innovative or good—but you can only have two of those qualities at any one time. Good, innovative work isn’t going to be cheap or quick, because it takes time and resources to break away from the dead hand of conformity. Quick, cheap ways of doing business (the hallmark of Hamburger Management) more or less ensure that the work done won’t be good (too expensive) or innovative (too slow and risky). That’s how good businesses go downhill, by focusing on short-term profits instead of lasting value. To remove the poison of Hamburger Management from your systems, as well as your own approach to leadership, make sure that you concentrate on long-term approaches whenever you can. Sort-term actions should flow from long-term strategies, not the other way around.

Hamburger Management cannot exist in the presence of genuine respect for others. The surest way to alienate and demotivate others is to deny them respect. Macho, grab-and-go management does this all the time. People are treated as “human resources:” depersonalized objects that are simply costs, tolerated only as long as there is no cheaper alternative. If you can do without them, fine. If you can’t, but can outsource the work somewhere where people will work for much lower pay, also fine—even if those people are little better than slaves in some Third-World sweatshop. The minute you feel that you can find a cheaper way, forget any soft ideas about loyalty to your workers. As Circuit City showed recently, with a Hamburger Management approach you shouldn't waste time considering the possibility that what you’re doing is barbaric and marks you and your business out as *ssholes on a massive scale.

Nothing slows business down more than time spent in pointless meetings, but it’s not the kind of slowing down we advocate at Slow Leadership. Too many meetings have absolutely nothing to do with communicating information—and still less with listening to other peoples’ thoughts and ideas. Here’s a very quick list of the most common—but almost never acknowledged—reasons for holding meetings:
  • Demonstrating your power and authority by proving that you can call people together, regardless of how busy they are—just because you want to.

  • Giving yourself a platform for pontificating and polishing your ego.

  • Playing office politics. Meetings are a great forum for practicing one-upmanship and humiliating political opponents.

  • Holding fake consultations so that you can claim others were party to some decision. A great way to cover your butt if things go wrong.

  • Demonstrating how busy and important you are (because you have to attend so many meetings).
If your meetings contain time wasted on any of the above, either drop the meeting altogether (if at all possible) or severely limit the time allocated.

There are only two genuine reasons for holding a meeting:
  1. Sharing information when you are willing—and able—to answer any questions immediately; and when the subject matter is such that large groups of people need to get identical information at the same time.

  2. Situations when you are willing to seek genuine ideas, thoughts, and feedback from the participants and listen to what is said honestly and with an open mind.
Meetings held for any other reason are a waste of time and are likely to be due to a slide towards Hamburger Management.

Instead of cluttering up people’s time with silly meetings, constant phone calls to “check progress,” foolish demands for progress reports, and other childish activities based on your own suspicions and fears, why not try trusting your subordinates to do their jobs? Give them the space, time, trust, and support to make it happen. If more corporations tried that approach, I believe they would discover they have plenty of time to get everything done, without all the stress and long hours. All they need to do is to free themselves from pointless reporting, useless meetings, the collection of meaningless statistics, petty rules, the preparing of endless PowerPoint presentations with justifications for any and every minor action, and all the other common means of covering those so-delicate executive butts.

Good business is not about being quick, simple, or cheap. It’s about being better at what you do than anyone else. And that includes service, quality, and innovation too. That’s why Hamburger Management is ultimately self-defeating. Rushing, cutting corners, compromising quality and innovation to get quick profits, sacrificing long-term success for short-term gratification, strutting around like an oversized rooster, feeding your already-inflated ego, and pretending that you are John Wayne are the marks of an immature mind and a crippled personality.

That’s not business, it’s personal display, like a stag at the rutting ground. Save it for trying to impress other gullible idiots. The rest of us already think you’re a total jerk.



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Friday, April 13, 2020

Whose fault is it anyway?

Making yourself responsible for what you cannot control makes for a miserable life.

Are you accountable for your actions—or responsible for the results? Can you be held responsible for making something happen—or only for the way that you try? Get the answer wrong and you’re setting yourself up for a good deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Sadly, Hamburger Managers habitually confuse accountability with responsibility, especially when it comes to pressuring their people to serve up unrealistic targets. It sounds tough and practical to say that winning is all that matters, but it’s still nonsense. No one can control events or outcomes, not even today’s ultra-macho managers. Yet many are half-killing themselves by trying.
Yesterday, I wrote about the negative role played by an overdeveloped ego. Now I want to consider a related issue. Many organizations and executives treat accountability and responsibility as the same. More demand specific results and state that someone or other is being held responsible for getting them. By doing so, they’re causing stress and confusion on a large scale. Keeping the meaning of these common terms clear is essential for proper leadership; as is understanding what someone should rationally be held accountable for and what they certainly should not.

If you’re accountable for something, it means that you are the person who is liable to be called to account for progress, success, or failure: to “give an account” explaining what happened, what you did in response, and why. It doesn’t mean that you need to do everything associated with that project yourself. Nor that success or failure ultimately depends on your actions. Most of what happens in the world does so by chance, or due to such a complex tangle of causes and related effects that it is impossible to determine the exact reason (if there was one). To be accountable means that you have to answer for your actions (or lack of them). It does not mean that you should be blamed for every failure or congratulated for every success. Most have nothing to do with you. Whatever you did had no effect on them.

This is tough for many people to accept. As a species, humans like simple, clear causes that produce obvious effects. Our brains are programmed to try to find them. The human sub-species that works in the media is especially prone to inventing simple reasons for every event. You need only listen to the pundits discussing the day’s trading on Wall Street to hear an impossibly complex set of global financial interactions reduced to some bland statement that trading was up or down due to something simple, like a speech, one set of figures, or “nervous investors.”

To be responsible for something is generally understood to imply that you—and whatever you did or left undone—were the direct cause of whatever happened. It’s all down to you to control people and events to bring about the desired result.

Thinking like this is giving yourself ludicrous airs, but the ego loves it. It puts you right at the center of events. It makes you important, critical, essential to success. Egotistical Hamburger Managers typically make this kind of claim, pointing to positive outcomes and saying: “I did that.” But if you’re the cause of the good things, you have to be the cause of the bad ones too. Now that’s not so nice. Of course, people are quick to attribute failures and messes to others, to unexpected events, and to simple chance. All true. But if the failures are down to chance most of the time, won’t the successes be due to the same random combination of events?

Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.

Treating other people as responsible is also tempting because it sounds tough and makes life simple. If Smith is responsible for sales and sales fall, fire Smith. It’s his or her fault. There’s no wasting time trying to find out what went wrong. No potentially embarrassing inquiry that might suggest others above Smith had some part to play in the failure. Smith is responsible. Blame Smith. Quick, clean, simple. And wrong, in the vast majority of cases.

You can see this attitude all around us. The corporation is in trouble? Fire the CEO (with an enormous golden parachute) and hire a new, higher profile one (with a huge signing-on bonus.) And if things get no better afterwards? Fire the new CEO—then repeat as required.

Does anyone ever reckon up the cost of these repeated restructurings? Or ask why so few of them appear to work? These people may have been accountable for some or all of the business, but they are rarely (if ever) personally responsible for what happened. Firing them is a purely emotional response: a wish to see someone suffer (though the golden parachutes make it the kind of suffering most of us would love to volunteer for!). It has no logic to it. What’s needed is to take the time to find out, if possible, what the real problems are and correct those.

If this was only about fat cat executives, most of us would find it tough to care. Sadly, it applies at all levels. Bosses hold subordinates responsible (not just accountable) for all kinds of events outside anyone’s capacity to influence. Worse still, people hold themselves responsible: accepting the blame for past failures and tormenting themselves with guilt and regrets.

I wince when I read nonsense like the idea that each of us is somehow responsible for what happens in our lives, probably through some magical psychic transference. It’s total rubbish. We are accountable for our actions—always—but we cannot affect large parts of what happens in our lives and careers in any way. All we can do is react to events as sensibly as we can.

It’s time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic.

It’s time to drop the silly, Hamburger Management nonsense that claims people must take responsibility for events that are wholly, or even partly, outside their control; time to leave behind this childish, simplistic view of cause and effect that owes more to superstition, revenge, and primitive religiosity than any logic. Superstition believes that unrelated events effect one another (the stars and events on earth). Lynching someone because bad things happened is the response of a primitive society. And there’s no evidence to suggest that the gods, let alone a supposedly loving God, spend their time messing up peoples’ lives as punishment for various sins.

By all means let us hold those in positions of power accountable for what they do—sensible, stupid, or corrupt—but forget feeding their egos (and our desire to hit back) by pretending that they are personally responsible for every outcome. Luck plays a huge part in the career of every successful person. Few executives, even CEOs, have much personal power to do more that torment their subordinates.

Stand back, slow down, and accept that most of life’s problems will take careful exploration to understand properly. Action without understanding is foolish. But then, Hamburger Management is the most foolish approach of all.



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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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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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Tuesday, March 27, 2020

Management today is becoming a fantasy game

He (or she) that expecteth too much often receiveth nothing at all.

When it comes to key decisions in the business world, expectations seem to outweigh reality on just about every occasion. The results include endless gyrations in financial markets, increasing levels of stress and anxiety, and the needless loss of excellent staff. It’s time to get our feet back on the ground.
Have you noticed how much the world we live in today is driven by expectation, especially the world of work? Expectation trumps reality on just about every occasion, from the stockmarket to the boardroom and the office cubicle.

Let’s suppose that Acme Corporation reports a profit of $200 million for the quarter. That’s a tidy amount of money. Last quarter, they made $195 million, so they are consistently in the black by a substantial margin. Yet their share price falls on the news, perhaps by a significant amount. Why?

Expectations. The gurus of the stockmarket expected a higher profit, so Acme Corporation’s performance is judged to be below standard. But while this seems logical at first, it takes no account of whether those expectations were reasonable—or even had any rational or objective basis at all.

Reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.

A great many expectations in the financial markets and the media have neither factual basis or logical support. They are created from rumors, hopes, fears, and fantasy. In our imaginary example, Acme Corporation is returning a steady and substantial profit. But that reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.

We can see the same process working at the individual level in many organizations. Sara Smith has a good performance record. She works hard, has good skills and a sharp mind, and maintains a clear focus on what needs to be done. Her boss has high hopes for her. Suddenly, things seem to go awry for Sara. She gets a performance rating of “adequate” and a long lecture from the boss on “letting the team down.” She’s urged to work harder. Hints are even dropped that her career prospects are on the line. Whatever happened?

Nothing. Sara has been doing what she has been praised for doing in the past. But her boss’s expectations have soared into the stratosphere. Without any reference to Sara, he has created a dream of constantly-accelerating results, all based on his imagined view of Sara as a whizz-kid. As her manager, he is already enjoying (in his head only, alas) the praise and rewards showered on him from the top brass. All it needs is for Sara to comply.

But Sara has a life outside of work. She is a good employee and well aware of the need to give a fair day’s work in return for her salary. But, when that is done, it’s time to go home and enjoy the rest of her world. She is not aware of her boss’s glorious dreams for her, and would not go along with them if she was. So she keeps right on doing what she has always done—only suddenly it’s no longer enough.

In this tragi-comedy of errors and misunderstandings, the boss feels fully justified in re-classifying Sara’s performance downwards, based on his expectations of what (in his mind alone) it ought to be. Not surprisingly, Sara is hurt and confused. She cannot see where she has failed. In her bewilderment, she starts to lose confidence in herself and the others around her. Her performance really does falter.

When the boss once again expresses disappointment and anger, Sara decides enough is enough. She looks for another job. When she leaves, her boss sees a team member who never really had the “right stuff.” Sara sees a boss, and an organization, that has no clear standards and arbitrary ideas about what is required.

It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.

The reality is that they are both wrong. The organization has lost an excellent employee, and must now incur extra cost to replace her. The boss allowed unsupported expectations to become his reality, ignoring what was really going on. He has failed as a leader and cost the business a great deal of money as a result. Sara has lost a job that she enjoyed—and probably taken away a severely lowered sense of self-confidence that may indeed impact her subsequent career. It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.

Reality is what counts. Expectations are insubstantial thoughts—mere dreams and hopes—often based on little or nothing at all. To allow expectations to guide actions is like driving along with your eyes shut, following an imaginary road map inside your head. Is it any wonder if disaster lurks at every corner?

In a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines whereas facts produce only dull text.

We have lost sight of the difference between legitimate hopes and goals and the reality that follows. There is nothing wrong in setting goals for yourself—or others—so long as everyone is able to probe and question how reasonable those goals are before accepting them. The notion that, merely by setting a “big, hairy, audacious goal,” you will galvanize peak performance is total fantasy. I can set myself the goal of earning $10 million next year, but such a goal has not the slightest contact with reality—nor can I justify it by enthusiastic wishing. So why do we do it? Mostly, expectations are more exciting than reality. And in a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines where facts produce only dull text.

Leaders and managers need to have the best possible grip on reality, however disappointing that reality may be. Nothing is to be gained by indulging in fantasies, even if they are well meant. Leave exaggerated expectations and imaginary scenarios to media hacks and political lobbyists. To succeed in life and work, every decision and choice has to be made on reality as it stands—never allowing your dreams for something very different to be confused with what is happening in the real world.



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Monday, March 26, 2020

What a difference a word makes!

Why “improving motivation” is rarely, if ever, the answer.

Current ideas about motivation are a prime example of management theory and jargon twisted into the service of Hamburger Management. “Improving motivation” has become a group of impersonal techniques, to be applied to people in the way that you might apply a technique to herding cattle. What if we changed the words? What if we dropped all the talk about motivation used the word “encouragement” instead?
Motivation is all the rage. It’s often seen as a universal requirement for everyone, whether they are expected to motivate themselves (as many self-help gurus proclaim), or to motivate those that they supervise (as legions of consultants and corporate trainers advocate). But what is motivation? Can it live up to the exaggerated claims now being made for its almost panacea effect?

At its simplest, motivation simply means “moving.” From there, it has come to mean moving towards some goal or end point. Self-motivation (as in: “Fred is able, but lacks self-motivation) is moving yourself in some definite direction. Elsewhere, it means little more than displaying energy and enthusiasm: a willingness to take positive action and utilize skills and abilities in the required direction. And in much official and business communication, the complex and abstract phrase “lacks motivation” is preferred—as more politically correct—to the simpler English “lazy” or “indolent.”

Motivation is also used in the sense of “making others motivated.” The verb “to motivate” is a staple in management jargon. Leaders are required to motivate their people—which means to cause them to do what the leader (and their organization) wants. How is this done? Typically, by application of the age-old process of “carrot and stick.” To get the donkey (or employee) to move where you want, you must either dangle a carrot in front of its nose (an incentive, bonus, or reward desirable enough to cause forward movement in that direction); or apply a stick to the other end of the poor beast’s anatomy (disciplinary action, punishment, withdrawal of privileges) to urge it forward in that way.

I am far from the first to wonder whether any leader can actually motivate another person in the way motivation is usually seen. Incentives (actually bribes) work for a time, but are subject to rapid inflation. Today’s incentive is tomorrow’s expectation. Punishments may produce movement, but they are hardly likely to produce enthusiasm. As has been found with the use of torture (or “strong interrogation methods,” if you prefer), people will say or do many things to stop the pain, but rarely mean any of them (or offer the truth, if something else will do just as well).

There is a fundamental problem with all the talk of motivation: it ignores or glosses over a search for the real causes of poor progress. Like so many other “techniques” that have become part of Hamburger Management, it’s a flashy, superficial, supposedly simple answer to an enormous range of largely unknown problems. What if we changed the word? What if leaders were expected not to motivate their people, but to encourage them?

Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic.

Encouragement (literally, filling someone with courage) has little to do with either the stick or the carrot (save when it is used as a euphemism). To encourage someone, you must get to know them, find out their strengths, help them overcome their fears and the obstacles that hold them back, praise their achievements and support them through bad times. Encouragement is a warm, natural, human activity; motivation is cool, detached, mechanistic. Self-motivation could be replaced by self-encouragement: the process of helping yourself by building greater self-confidence and recognizing when your fears are the real obstacles to progress.

When someone fails to make progress, or appears indolent and disinterested, there has to be a reason. It could be something in that person’s character. It could be that he or she is in the wrong job, or having personal problems, or feeling unwell, or missing some essential skill or experience, or is fearful of making a mistake, or lacks the confidence even to try. The list could go on and on.

Sadly, the typical Hamburger Manager has neither the patience nor the inclination to discover the truth. So a panacea—a catch-all solution—is quickly applied: motivation. First the carrot, then the stick. Then, if that fails (because willingness to move was never the problem), the person is labeled “unmotivated” and swiftly removed in some convenient way. It’s as if you got into your car, found that it would not go faster than 20 miles per hour, and either filled the tank with the highest octane fuel that you could find or kicked the bodywork hard as a solution to the problem. When both failed, you would next abandon the vehicle on the side of the highway and go buy another.

Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems. Instead of joining in the frenzy, they step aside and do what great leaders, great teachers, and great mentors have done since humankind began. They take time with each person and encourage them to clarify, then solve, whatever it is that is holding them back from what they can and should become. They don’t do anything to the other person. They don’t apply a technique. They neither run ahead of the other, waving a carrot, nor press on them from behind, wielding a big stick. They walk beside them, seeing what they see and helping them to understand it in ways that shift a negative and frightening prospect into something positive and inviting.

Wise managers see improving motivation for what it is: a simplistic group of quick-and-easy “answers” to difficult problems.

Don’t try to motivate people. Encourage them. Don’t worry whether or not you feel motivated, Recognize what needs to be done and do it, trusting that you will find the stimulus that you need from the courage and confidence that will build within you as a result. Life is always movement. Trust it.



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Tuesday, March 20, 2020

Myths of management

Is competition always so beneficial?

Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.

Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass—and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball back again?

The assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise), but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you? If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose…well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.

There’s the problem. For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience? Or do many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t it also cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and violence?

Before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience?

Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. But if winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with little or no effort. But who would go to watch? And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why the organizers try so hard to produce matches which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.

Business isn’t—yet—a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seems to be trying to make it one), so ease of winning ought not to be a problem. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you. And that’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way—because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.

There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing.

Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top. Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .

Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to cheat. So who rises to the top? The able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell—until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?

Myths are not lies. They contain an element of truth, somewhere. They only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident. Competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.



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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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Wednesday, March 07, 2020

Fishing for SCATE

A mythical creature still holds an irresistible lure for managers

A skate is a kind of bottom-dwelling, carnivorous fish, specifically belonging to the family Rajidae. A SCATE is something many managers seek—and periodically believe they have found: a Simple Complete Answer To Everything. Sadly, it is an illusion that creates havoc and leaves them struggling to recover from the effects of chasing after it.
T here’s something irresistible about a Big Idea: one that promises to provide endlessly useful and yet simple answers to the most complex problems that people face. Most religions are based on one, and it provides the central core of faith that they demand. Politicians are suckers for Big Ideas, because they can be waved like banners to attract votes and are set down in simple, emotionally-powerful sound bites, instead of the complex trains of reasoning that politicians fear. Business leaders too love Big Ideas—not the sloganeering kind, but those of the type that I call a SCATE: a Simple Complete Answer To Everything.

A SCATE promises to provide all the answers in a deceptively simple way. In the 1980s, “business synergy” and “economies of scale” were the favored SCATEs. They fueled an orgy of mergers and take-overs, often creating companies that had to be expensively dismantled within only a few years, so badly-matched were the elements that had been used to construct them. In the 1990s, the Internet provided a SCATE of heroic proportions. Not only was it believed, with little or no evidence beyond wishful thinking, that the Internet was about the change the business world and global economics completely and for ever; any organization with “dot com” at the end was guaranteed to make money, however incomprehensible its business strategy.

The Questing BeastAfter the crash that followed, you might have expected greater caution, but the SCATE is a resourceful creature. Like the Questing Beast of Arthurian legend, it is made up of very odd parts (the Questing Beast had the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion, and the feet of a hart (deer). In T.H. White’s modern re-telling of the story of King Arthur (The Once and Future King), the Questing Beast lived only to be chased. When King Pellinore was persuaded to stop chasing after it, it pined and almost died.

In recent times, there have been several new versions of the SCATE, each one holding certain managers in thrall like love-sick teenagers: “business re-engineering” was one, then “downsizing,” and now “outsourcing”. Like the SCATEs of the past, they are flaunted as the obvious answer to just about every problem of business success, especially by consultants (who breed them specially, it seems, since they provide the easiest path to new consulting assignments).

Reality is complex, messy and uncertain. It takes time to understand, if it ever can be fully grasped, and still more time to deal with. There are no easy answers, though rationality goes a long way towards providing at least some useful options. Dealing with it is unspectacular and often tedious. Explaining what may work is also demanding and usually complex, requiring careful thought and listening to follow the logic.

Contrast this with the SCATE: simple to describe, often highly colored, offering endless promises with little or no effort required. Its adherents swiftly become disciples and treat any who are not true believers in their particular brand of revealed truth as enemies and heretics, to be drowned out with cheers or removed by force. Where reality must be described in lengthy and complex ways, the true SCATE is completely displayed through crude, often emotional appeals to “get on board” and “join the party” before the opportunity is lost.

Skates, the fish, devour what they can catch. SCATEs do the same, gobbling up managers and organizations as their food, swelling on the rich diet—until they explode, to cover everyone around in the mess left by their sudden extinction.

Don’t fall for them. Take your time and stick with reality. Remember, they exist only to be chased by those whose belief in their personal heroic status exceeds the capacity of their intellect. Better to be laughed at as an unbeliever than become a sudden ex-hero, lost, bemused . . . and covered with SCATE-sh*t.



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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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Friday, February 16, 2020

Workplace Karma

Do unto others, and they will make sure they do unto you



A thought floated across my mind recently, when I was reading something about the ideas of “karmic law.” I’m not an expert in Buddhist or Eastern thought, but what I understand of the idea of karma is that it’s a refined version of cause and effect: what you do affects what happens to you, or “what you give out is what you get back.”

It seems to me that you don’t need to have any kind of belief in either the supernatural or Eastern religion to see that “what you give out is what you get back” represents simple realism.

Suppose that you’re a typical “Hamburger Manager.” You’re tough, assertive, macho, obsessed with short-term results, and tireless in your pursuit of your own ambition. What you “put out” in terms of behaviors will likely include:
  • Constantly talking tough—then complaining that no one likes you, though you’re really a nice person.

  • Hounding subordinates to do more and more with less and less—until everyone is so tired that they produce less and less, however hard they work.

  • Demanding longer and longer hours of unpaid overtime—and expecting bigger bonuses for yourself as a result.

  • Claiming that money is the only incentive—while cutting back wherever you can on salary payments.

  • Refusing to consider anything other than “meeting the numbers”—even if those numbers are based only on wishful thinking.

  • Accepting bad behavior from anyone who “brings home the bacon”—and sneering at the “impractical idealism” of those who suggest that this is unacceptable.

  • Thoughtlessly copying the cult of disdain for anything “soft,” “liberal,” or “impractical”—which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit with the opinions of your bosses.

  • Maintining rigidity of outlook—because true believers never even consider the tiniest doubt about orthodoxy.
What will likely come back to you as a result?
  • Tough talk and macho behavior provokes the same kind of response. Aggression breeds aggression in return, so life becomes a constant battle of wills. All the aggression that you encounter will then likely make you more aggressive, and so on, round and round, in a never-ending process of escalation.

  • Hounding subordinates and forcing them into longer and longer working days will produce stress, tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Hourly productivity and creativity will fall—so the only way to catch up on targets will be still to demand still longer hours and exert yet more pressure. You’ll constantly have to do more and more hounding. It won’t end until there’s some kind of collapse.

  • Whenever money is used as the sole incentive, people quickly discover that any amount that you give soon becomes accepted as the “going rate” and loses its incentive effect. If you raise pay to bring back an incentive, you need to make still more profit to cover the extra cost. It turns into a continual, fruitless game of “catch up.” If you hold out and refuse to drive up salary costs, you have no further incentive availave—and you incur higher costs elsewhere as you are forced to replace those who leave. This is (politely) known as a lose:lose strategy.

  • Accepting any kind of behavior from jerks and bullies, so long as they meet the numbers and get results, creates an atmosphere so toxic that few people will stay in it for long—especially anyone with talent and intelligence. You’ll get the staff that you deserve—along with the high turnover, constant hassles, and looming law suits. Besides, anyone who tolerates jerks is, by definition, a jerk themselves. He or she who tolerates most jerks is the jerk-in-chief.

  • A rigid, numbers-based, macho outlook is a great way to destroy any sparks of creativity in yourself and others. Your competitors will have the ideas, and you will be driven back to competing on low costs and desperately trying to mimic what others have produced before you.
What the universe will give you back from giving out Hamburger Management is all the worst, most stressful, and least fulfilling aspects of the business environment. And if that tempts you to respond with even more rigorous Hamburger Management thinking, you’ll get still more of the same. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. If you lead like an idiot, you’ll be surrounded by idiocy. If you act like a bullying, aggressive bastard, you’ll be amazed at how many other nasty, callous bastards you will encounter every day; and how keen they will be to screw you over on every possible occasion.

The other reality of this faux-karmic law is that it multiplies. There’s one of you (one manager, one organization), but thousands upon thousands of other people to return what you send out. Act aggressively and thoughtlessly and all these thousands will return the same behavior, often with interest. So, if you act like a jerk, what you’ll get back is the same behavior, multiplied by the number of people who suffer from what you do.

There it is: behave like the stereotypical, bullying manager and that’s exactly what you’ll encounter in return. Do it consistently, and your return will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Give out honesty, trust, creativity, and sensitivity to others and that’s what the universe will most likely play back to you, also enhanced and extended.

It’s your choice. If your daily experience at work is that the world is full of people throwing sh*t around, the chances are extremely high that you are a major contributor to the process that put all that brown stuff there for them to throw back at you. Maybe, if you stop dishing it out, you’ll begin to find that less comes back. If everyone did that, very soon there would be none to throw around any more. Think about it.



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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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