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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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Monday, July 23, 2020

Debunking today’s mythology of leadership

Why future generations will smile at our foolishness.

Each generation sees the myths and beliefs of earlier generations as comic and childish. Today, we can’t see how the Ancient Greeks ever believed in such obviously human-like gods as Zeus or Apollo, with their feuds, love affairs, and petty jealousies. The beliefs of medieval alchemists seem amazingly silly. Victorian assumptions of the white man’s inherent superiority would be totally laughable, were it not for the sinister use made of them later—and the fact that some misguided people still hold to such nonsense even today.
What are today’s mythologies: the ones that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will smile over and dismiss as too laughable and primitive to be worth more than historical notice?

One that I would put into that category is our cult of the successful (or successfully self-promoting) business leader: the belief that those in charge of successful businesses are somehow endowed with rare wisdom and insight, far beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

Isn’t it odd that, when things are going well, such people happily accept as much of the credit as possible; but when problems arise, they claim that it all happened without their knowledge?

How is it that organizations can spend millions on salary and share-options packages to attract and retain star executives; yet later accept their assurances that any scandals and ethical lapses were outside their control? Which position is correct: the leader as hero, single-handedly reversing the fortunes of some ailing business; or the leader as frail human being, doing his or her best in situations too complex for any one person to correct?

Let’s all agree that the hero leader is a myth, like tales of Sir Galahad or Robin Hood. Given the size of today’s large organizations, no single person can control more than a tiny fraction of their functioning, however long the hours that they work. It’s impossible for top executives even to know much of what is happening all the time, let alone control it.

Are CEOs mostly actors?

The majority of leaders spend more time in posturing, playing politics, and polishing their public images than in affecting the actual course of the business, which runs along quite smoothly without their input. Most of the time they are actors, speaking lines put into their mouths by speech-writers and PR people; putting their names to reports and documents that others have prepared for them; acting as the pubic face of whatever ruling clique is currently in charge of the running of the business.

Only occasionally are they called upon to make a real decision. That's how it seems, but even then, most of the decisions that bear their name are agreed quietly beforehand by those who are really in charge. That isn’t to say that the request made to a CEO—or even to the Board—doesn’t look like a decision. There are many techniques for presenting things in such a way that the decision you want is the only possible one for a committee, or an individual, to make. Indeed, no wise manager ever allows a matter to reach decision stage without being 100% certain that it will go the way he wants: the way he or she has slanted the presentation, adjusted the data, manipulated the figures, and chosen the “rival” options. The executives at the top can be relied upon to be so busy, so remote from any of the detail, and so eager to show their decisiveness that few, if any, ever question the information placed before them in any more than a superficial way.

Why the leadership cult?

Why do we have this cult of leadership? Why are scores of books published each year, thousands of training courses and seminars attended, and reams of newsprint devoted to this skill, this vague concept, this largely mythological entity known as leadership?

In part, I believe, because we all recognize, deep down, that we cannot control our organizations or our working lives. It’s this lack of real control that makes us so desperate to find something or someone that we just hope might improve our ability to influence events. We want to be in control; we think we ought to be in control—or we believe someone should be—and so we place that duty on someone and hope it might be true.

There’s also the human tendency to want a scapegoat when things go wrong. Whom can I blame? Whom, in the USA especially, can I sue? If someone is to be blamed, that person must have been in control—or ought to have been, if they were not. Look at how regularly CEOs are removed when things go wrong, even though they probably had little to do with it.

Our mythology of the hero-leader, working 70 hour weeks with his or her hands on all the levers of the organizational machine, is so much fanciful nonsense. Trying to achieve such a picture is killing people—quite literally. It’s all for nothing too.

So what should leaders do?

Truly successful leaders don't even try to control events. They recognize that the only way to direct a large group of people is through some ruling idea. That’s what they supply: a vision to believe in; a set of ideas to guide the thousands of individual decisions being made every day without any direct input from them.

“Without a vision, the people perish.” These biblical words sum it up. What we should be doing is seeking out leaders with imagination: people who can think and produce fresh visions for others to follow. Naturally, such people will need time and space to do their thinking. You can’t expect anyone to come up with strong strategic viewpoints if their days are filled with pointless meetings and administrative trivia. Nor if they’re exhausted by crippling work schedules and constant traveling.

Choosing leaders from those who get to the top by competitive guile and ruthlessness won’t work . That’s responsible for today’s cadre of self-promoting windbags in corporate boardrooms. Nor will the myth of leader as “man of action” serve our needs. Thought without action has long been the stock-in-trade of academic ivory towers, but action without thought—the hallmark of the current crop of macho managers—is far worse. Plenty of people can take action, but it requires someone (or some team) with real wisdom and insight to guide that action wisely.

Let’s drop the mythology, forget the Hollywood version of corporate leadership, and start allowing people of wisdom and understanding to fill top positions. Then give them the time to do what they are there for—think.



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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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Wednesday, July 18, 2020

Chickens, eggs, and happiness

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

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

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

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

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

Weighing the evidence

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

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

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

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

So what is success?

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

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

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

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

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

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



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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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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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Friday, June 15, 2020

Too much leadership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, June 14, 2020

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

Linking modern management and TV reality shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Monday, June 11, 2020

Leaders all the way down

Why imitation may be flattery, but isn’t a good path to leadership.

When you look around at many organizational leaders today, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that they aren’t truly being leaders—they’re just acting. They’re doing what it is they think leaders do. So how did the the leaders they so busily copy choose their actions? The same way. There’s an endless cycle of imitation going on. And, when you think about it, leadership that imitates what others do is no leadership at all.
Most people have heard the old story about the guru who explains that the earth travels through space supported on the back of four gigantic elephants. One of his pupils, trying to be cute, asks what could possibly be holding the elephants up.

“A gigantic turtle,” replies the guru.

The pupil can’t wait to ask the next question.

“So what is holding up the turtle, Master?”

“Another turtle,” the guru replies.

“And what holds that turtle up?” the pupil asks.

The guru regards his pupil wearily and holds up a hand. “Before you ask,” he says, “It’s turtles all the way down.”

Leadership can be like that. Every week, scores of people take up leadership positions for the first time. Not being sure what to do, they look around at the leaders who have gone before them and copy what they do. If they look for books to help them, they find that most of those books are filled with stories about the exploits of famous leaders of the past. Their message too is that to be a leader you have only to copy what these former paragons of leadership did. Even the hundreds of leadership training events each week are mostly taken up with recycling ideas from the past.

Is it any wonder, then, that most organizations are filled with people walking around acting the part of a leader—doing all the things that they’ve been told leaders should do—while almost no one is actually attempting to be a leader?

Acting the part

If you look up the word “leader” in a dictionary, you’ll find a range of definitions. Those that seem most relevant to organizations include “being the person in charge of a group or organization,” “being the person that others follow,” and “being the most successful or advanced person in some defined field.” Only two of these definitions of a leader, it seems to me, can be filled by someone whose way of being a leader is to act in a “leaderly” way by following what past leaders have done.

You can certainly be the person in charge of a group or organization if you’re only acting the part. You can fill such a role even if you’re incompetent, confused, or plain terrified—all states that are far more common amongst actual leaders than you might believe. Being in charge is a purely hierarchical statement. It says nothing about the quality or usefulness of what you do as a result of being in a leadership position.

You can also be the person that others follow, even if you’re merely acting a part. Indeed that’s pretty much the current state of affairs. The joke about the turtles that go all the way down hinges on what’s called an infinite regression: a question answered by the same statement every time, no matter how often you ask it. Management today is mostly based on a similar infinite regression. People learn to be leaders by acting the part, based on repeating what they see existing leaders doing. How did those leaders choose what to do? By imitating the leaders before them. And so it goes, in a potentially infinite series, with everyone acting a part based on imitating those before them.

That’s why many myths about leadership and management are so resistant to change. The actions that they produce aren’t there because they make sense or because people have though about them long and carefully. They remain because each generation of new leaders simply copies them from the generation before. (Generations of leaders come around much more often than generations of people, since leaders are appointed, not born to the role. Each time a leader moves on, or a new leadership role is created, a new generation is produced somewhere.)

True leadership

Only my last definition of a leader, “being the most successful or advanced person in some defined field,” defies production by imitation. Unfortunately for all those who still cling to the hope that leadership can be taught by means of principles derived from the actions of past leaders, this is the only definition that really makes a difference.

You can fill a hierarchical position labeled “leader” regardless of your competence or ability, as is proved every week. Other people will follow you if you look the part, but heaven knows where you will lead them. But being the most advanced and successful person in your field—however large or small that field may be—will not happen as a result of imitation. Only those who grapple with problems anew and find fresh answers, relevant to current circumstances, can meet that definition.

Many of our problems today are caused directly by so-called leaders acting the part and repeating the past, instead of making the time and effort needed to think through problems afresh, maybe finding better ones in the process—or at least ones that are better suited to today’s particular circumstances. Faux-leadership is little more than following a script written by someone else. Often that’s someone who has never been the leader of anything at all, but merely writes about it on a theoretical basis.

If you must copy, never copy what someone else does. Look for someone who has found their own answers to leadership’s challenges and copy how they found them: by continually thinking, exploring, testing, and revising. That’s the only way you’ll ever become a true leader—at least according to the only definition that matters.



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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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Friday, May 25, 2020

Keeping Hamburger Management alive

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

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

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

It’s imitation.

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

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

Daily “learning”

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

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

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

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

Be very careful what you choose to copy

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

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



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Monday, May 21, 2020

Loyalty and a culture of fear

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

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

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

Principles of a civilized working life

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

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

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

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

Getting the balance right

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, May 17, 2020

Let’s make an end of accepting authority uncritically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity is being different. Mediocrity is being the same.

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

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

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

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

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




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Tuesday, May 08, 2020

Should business priorities dictate so much else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?



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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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Wednesday, April 18, 2020

A failing grade for the world’s business schools?

Are they a route towards a solution to today’s workplace issues; or a major part of the problem?

A little while ago, I posted an article about Professor Russell Ackoff’s “Management f-Laws.” Professor Ackoff, now 88 years old, has a mind as sharp as a razor and a subversive wit to match. These laws cleverly expose many of today’s conventional management ideas and assumptions as flaws in the process of running a business, not well-established steps to success as is usually believed. Here’s Ackoff’s take on business schools.
Recently, Professor Ackoff was in London to promote his book. He was interviewed by Peter Day, the dean of British business correspondents, and the interviews are posted on the BBC’s web site. In this two-part article. I want to draw your attention to Professor Ackoff’s thinking about two issues critical to leadership and management: the role of business schools, and the impact of our modern culture of suppressing or denying many of our mistakes.

Here are some choice extracts from what Professor Ackoff had to say about business schools:
Business schools are way back. They’re behind even corporate practice. They are a major obstruction.

Information is more valuable than data, and knowledge more valuable than information, and understanding more valuable than knowledge. We devote all of our time and energy to information and a little bit to knowledge. None to understanding and still less to wisdom.
Heady stuff, but not, I suspect, that far from the truth in many cases. Hamburger Management has infiltrated business schools in a big way, causing them to turn out mostly people polished in applying today’s orthodox style of macho, finance-obsessed, short-term management, not knowledgeable, thinking professionals equipped to make up their own minds and challenge sloppy thinking.

Peter Day summarizes Ackoff’s observations on business schools like this:
When he retired from the Wharton School in 1986, Professor Ackoff wickedly identified three contributions of a business school education:
  • It gives students a vocabulary that enables them to speak with authority on things they do not understand.
  • It gives them a set of operating principles that enable them to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence.
  • It gives them a ticket to a job where they can learn something about management.
Let’s consider each of these points from a Slow Leadership perspective.

Does an MBA help people to speak with authority on things that they don’t understand? I suspect it does, at least in this sense. To understand something fully takes time and experience, plus a willingness to reflect deeply on what you have observed over many different situations. It used to be that expertise went with age; mostly because age allowed for enough time to have passed, not because older people are automatically wiser. Now bright, young MBAs are assumed to know more than managers twice their age.

Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth?

Does time at a business school count for so much more than experience doing a management job? Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth? No, just another one of those conventional cultural myths that bedevil all societies, like wearing top hats or growing luxuriant whiskers marked out Victorian times. There are older people who refuse to stay current, but I strongly suspect that they were just as reactionary when they were 20 as today, when they are 60 or older. There are many young people who care nothing about new ideas, preferring to rely on mindless slogans and whatever is the currently fashionable clap-trap. Getting an MBA gives you access to today’s fashionable buzzwords, that’s for sure. I’m not convinced it always offers much else. Maybe that’s why so many businesses suffer from jargon-monoxide poisoning and creeping consultantitis.

In place of experience, we tend to rely on qualifications. Fine, if it’s also proof of some level of knowledge and hands-on training, as in the case of doctors. Not so good, if all it means is that you were able to absorb theoretical information and write term papers, as in the case of many MBAs.

What about the idea that business school student absorb a set of principles that are proof against all subsequent evidence that they are wrong?

. . . a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

Also true. When I worked in management and executive posts, I came across hundreds of managers who had shown neither the inclination, nor the wit, to keep their knowledge up to date. Most relied entirely on a few basic principles they had learned maybe 25 years ago. They didn’t question them, because they had nothing to put in their place. Besides, questioning them would have taken time and thought, and they never slowed down enough to apply either. Since they were surrounded by others behaving in exactly similar ways, they appeared to fit in perfectly: a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

The last of Peter Day’s points does at least offer hope. The best way to learn about management and business is by doing it. You’ll get ample experience and have the chance to test your ideas in realistic situations. So far so good.

There’s one catch. You have to be willing both to make mistakes and reflect on them honestly afterwards. Pushing them aside, or hiding them from everyone (including yourself), renders this chance for learning null and void. And it’s not just mistakes arising from what you did that count. More problems are caused by mistakes based on not doing what you ought to have done.

But that’s the topic of part two of this article.



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Friday, April 06, 2020

Jam today . . . or caviar tomorrow?

Business leaders used to be compared to robber barons. Now some of them are more like greedy children or small-time gangsters.

Instant gratification is a hallmark of many of today’s organizations, headed by a slew of people following the shabby tenets of Hamburger Management. Sadly, there’s no sign that these organizations will grow out of their obsession; or that the financial institutions that fund them will encourage them to do so. This type of infantile behavior isn’t seen for what it is—a pathological prolonging of childish attitudes. In fact, people are encouraged to see it as perfectly normal. Why?
David Maister raises some interesting questions (“The Long Term”) about people’s inability to get past their urge towards instant gratification to do what is best for their own long-term interest. He writes:
In much of my recent thinking (and writing) I have observed that our biggest barrier, as individuals and as organizations, is the difficulty in doing what is in our long-term best interest, not just what provides immediate gratification . . . it is part of the human condition that we can know what to do, why we should do it, and even how to do things for which we fervently desire the benefits. None of that actually predicts that we actually are going to do what we absolutely know is good for us.
To say that this is equally, if not more, true of organizations is to state the obvious. The insane emphasis on quarterly earnings as almost the sole measure of business success is all about instant gratification. What may be in the longer-term interests of shareholders and the organization itself scarcely comes into the picture.

For organizations and individuals, it’s hard to resist the lure of “jam today” in favor of some future benefit that is, probably, far less certain. Taking the longer-term view used to be seen as a mark of maturity. Only children were expected to grab for immediate rewards. Adults saved money for the future, invested in pension plans, and considered short and long-term consequences before committing to some course of action.

What went wrong?

I suspect that much of today’s infantilism stems from a trend towards a consumer-based economy. Marketers and sales people don’t want customers to wait and think about their purchases. They don’t want them to set aside money in savings, when they could be spending it—right now—on buying products. From time to time, governments and financial gurus shake their heads over the problems caused by easy credit, but it’s really all their own doing. In the urge to sell more and more consumer products, credit is essential—and the easier the better. People quickly exhaust their current income (some still has to be spent on food and other necessities). Then they must either wait to save enough to make the next “big box” purchase, or borrow money to do so. Borrowing money not only makes the sale right away; it’s also a further opportunity to profit through the interest charged on the loan.

Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.

Yet capitalism itself is all about putting off gratification for the sake of greater long-term profit through investment. Instead of taking all their cash and having a truly memorable blow-out in some exotic location, entrepreneurs and capitalists are expected to invest their money and wait for bigger rewards some time in the future. Instant gratification is also the antithesis of America’s favorite attitude to life: the Puritan Work Ethic. If you truly accepted having it all and having it now as your goal, you would never go to work. Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of a consumer society, it was, of course, inevitable that the attitudes produced should spill over into the rest of life.

Management practices are not immune from this process. Training and developing staff can be a long-term business—far too long-term for your average Hamburger Manager, who demands that everyone should “hit the ground running” or suffer the consequences. Developing sensible organizational strategies takes much more time than putting up a Powerpoint presentation of slogans and platitudes—or, better still, copying what some other, supposedly successful, organization is doing. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker than crafting ideas that exactly fit the needs of your own organization. Raising short-term profits by cutting costs provides almost instant returns, even if the longer-term impact may be dire. Raising them by improving products, service, or competitiveness takes a whole lot more time and effort—never mind that it’s the only way to create a sustainable future.

Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future.

Maybe what we are seeing is Darwinian evolution at work. The mass of short-term, grab-and-go organizations and managers won’t have the staying power to survive. Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future. For the rest, extinction will come far sooner than they expect—and much, much sooner that they would wish.

Short-termism is an infectious disease that has been slowly choking the life and creativity out of our organizations. There's only one cure: to slow down, take a careful look at risks and rewards, and stop the slavish addiction to managing by numbers alone. Growing a business is like growing anything else. It takes time, and rushing it is more likely to produce a disaster than something that will go on growing. The attitudes of Hamburger Management have more in common with the methods of gangsters than entrepreneurs: get in quick, grab as much as you can, and get as far away as possible before trouble arrives. Is that what we want to see in boardrooms and executive suites?



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Monday, April 02, 2020

Unscientific management


Decision making by data collection isn’t management. It isn’t even sensible.

The current-day obsession with data and measurement is part of a supposedly “scientific” approach to management and decision making. Yet our equal obsession with speed and cutting corners ensures that choices are often made without taking enough time to weigh all the evidence, test it for validity, or even consider its true meaning. To parody Sir Winston Churchill: “Never in the history of human leadership has so much been measured by so many for so little resulting clarity.”
We live in an age that prizes data and measurement to an almost obsessive degree. Computers have increased our ability to collect and process information by many orders of magnitude. Almost every special interest group, from political parties to social action groups and trade associations, trot out yet another slew of survey results whenever they wish to make a point or attract the attention of the media. No one seems to stop to ask what use we are making of all this data. Do we even know if it’s correct? Or what it means?

The media report all the often conflicting survey results with gleeful interest. Survey stories fill air-time and column inches. You can nearly always find some nugget in them to create a jaw-dropping headline. Never mind that today’s survey contradicts yesterday’s. The public attention span is assumed to be too short to care—or maybe even to notice.

Surveys and statistical studies have long been the stock-in-trade of academics. You publish your results, others test and criticize them, and—slowly—knowledge inches forward. If what you report fails to stand up to analysis and replication by your peers, it is rejected. You are an expert writing for experts. They demand solid evidence and unshakeable methodology. This process is the foundation of the scientific method.

Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.

In organizations, much of the data is collected and analyzed by amateurs. The methods used are often poorly understood. Once available, results are use more politically than scientifically: to justify individual points of view, support pet projects, or wave in the face of opponents. What supports a case is seized up. Often there is no one to question it, since any “inconvenient” findings are quietly hidden away. Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.

It is the aura of scientific respectability that makes the day-to-day use of numerical data and survey results so attractive—and so dangerous. The results printed in the media, or reported in tens of thousands of Powerpoint presentations in corporations every day, are not delivered to be checked, questioned, or challenged. They are to be believed. All the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) trappings are used to foster an unquestioning acceptance of the supposed findings. The hearer or reader is subtly reminded that they are ill-informed amateurs being addressed by experts possessing all the data. This isn’t science. It’s marketing and PR “spin” wrapped in scientific garb. It’s a very aggressive wolf trying to pretend it’s a harmless, scientific sheep.

In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five . . .

In the workplace, more and more data is demanded, processed, and used to justify various points of view. Do those making decisions based on presentations of this data understand it? Do they have the knowledge, or the time, to question its validity—or even reflect on what else it might be pointing to, in place of whatever they have been told to believe? Is there any opportunity given for fact-checking or attempts to replicate the findings?

The answer to all these questions is usually “no”. Haste is endemic. Executives are expected to make virtually instant decisions. Most of them are too overwhelmed with data, let alone all the other demands that they face, to do more than accept what their “experts” tell them. In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five; or that they have virtually no grasp of statistics and can be bamboozled by almost any set of plausible-seeming figures.

Worse, yet, many of the “experts” producing and presenting this data are consultants, and expensive ones at that. When you pay millions to get a report from a consulting firm, you aren’t usually disposed to question or reject the results. And the more that you’ve paid for the consultants’ findings, the less willing that you are even to consider that your money might have been wasted.

What does it take to make sure of a sensible level of fact-checking, critical analysis, and consideration of all this data, let alone the conclusions that you are told that it supports?

In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual.

It takes time and the willingness to regard all proposals, however enthusiastically presented and wrapped in “scientific” analysis of data, with initial skepticism. In our judicial systems, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty (though try getting the media to respect that). In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual; and all proposals supported by data, however superficially convincing, should be the subject of deep suspicion until proper independent evidence is produced.

Time and skepticism: the very heart of Slow Leadership. Without them, managers and executives are almost helpless against manipulation by special interests and confusion by data overload. A glut of macho Hamburger Managers, all primed with endless ambition and eager to appear decisive, coupled with silly workloads and a corporate obsession with instant gratification, is a terrifying prospect. It’s like putting a group of manic two-year olds in charge of your trust fund.

Hardly a recipe for sound, truly scientific decision-making, is it?



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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 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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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, March 02, 2020

The Perversions of Workplace Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Thursday, February 22, 2020

Russell Ackoff: a wise and subversive thinker

How flawed, out-of-date, and misplaced teachings are crippling management

Professor Russell Ackoff has recently published a new book about the f-Laws, uncomfortable truths about the (mistaken) way most organizations are run, and how this approach is embedded in decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching. If you don't already know about Professor Ackoff, this article will introduce you to a grand old man of management non-conformity.

Here's a fascinating short piece from the BBC in London about Russell Ackoff and his f-Laws: the view that business is riddled with “flaws . . . from decades of repeated management mistakes and conventional business teaching.”

According to Professor Ackoff:
f-Laws are truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore—simple and more reliable guides to managers’ everyday behavior than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers.
Here are a few examples:
  • The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.

  • Executives make mountains out of molehills; subordinates make molehills out of mountains.

  • The relationship between executives and subordinates is complementary: neither knows why the other does what they do, nor cares about it. This leaves a large black hole between them into which most important issues and communications fall, lost and, like Clementine, gone forever.
This one I really love, because it seems to me to speak exactly to the current idiocy about measuring activities: “Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.” As Ackoff says:
In the workplace it’s also true that managers will measure anything that can be quantified in order to be able to set targets.
Then there is this piece of wisdom from Sally Bibb, Professor Ackoff’s collaborator, that speaks directly to Slow Leadership and the current craze for over-ambition and Hamburger Management:
Managers don’t know what they want because they never think about it. One executive told his psychotherapist he was depressed because he felt he wasn’t successful. To the therapist he looked successful: good job, great salary, lovely family and beautiful home. She asked how he would know when he was successful. He couldn’t answer. He just kept on striving without knowing what he was striving for.
Ackoff's books on the f-Laws are published in Great Britain, and you can get a free “taster” from the publishers. His latest book is Management f-Laws: How organizations really work and it’s definitely worth reading, The publishers are offering readers of this post a 10% discount on the book. Order from them here and type “triarchy-ten” into the Promotional Code box (which you’ll find when you get to the checkout).

I’ve said in many posts that I believe traditional organizational ideas are out-of-date and badly flawed. We still owe far too much to methods dreamed up in the days of Henry Ford and the Model-T. Despite great books like Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, business schools seem happy to go on trotting out half-truths and out-of-date nonsense and calling it management theory. I’m looking forward to the next piece by Peter Day of the BBC, in which Professor Ackoff promises to tell the truth about business schools!



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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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