Monday, June 04, 2020
In the dark? Here’s how to get better information
The basic laws of office communication
What’s most often blamed for organizational problems? You guessed. It’s poor communication. And what probably claims most attention from consultants, writers, gurus and trainers? Same answer. Yet it never appears to improve significantly. Since modern organizations began to emerge, people have been complaining about communication problems. All the training and consulting should have solved the problem long ago, but they haven’t. Why should that be?
The answer lies in human nature: that endless source of difficulties for anyone wanting to make life tidy and predictable. Information in organizations flows upwards, downwards, and sideways according to four natural laws that are caused by some very human responses to the requirement to pass information along. Knowing these laws is essential if you want to save yourself endless trouble and frustration. Using them wisely will make you seem to be a born communicator. It’s the combination of the three laws that decides how much information each person will get and how heavily filtered it will be.
First Law: Upward flows will contain only good newsBad news doesn’t move upwards in organizations easily. Typically, it doesn’t flow upwards at all. People’s immediate response to bad news is to bury it and hope it’s never found. Bosses encourage this by their tendency to kill the messenger. Being the bearer of bad news to those above you in the hierarchy isn’t good for your career or your job security.
In contrast, good news not only moves upwards easily, it’s often enriched and added to along the way. If there isn’t enough, more can be invented. Telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is commonplace, as is exaggerating every small success and forgetting all failures.
Second Law: Downward flows will be limited unless they are negativeIn most organizations, information is only passed down the hierarchy on a “need to know” basis. Since bosses, especially those with large egos (that is most of them—and all Hamburger Managers) and a love of power (ditto), assume their subordinates need to know little, the downward flow of information is niggardly at best. Being “in the know” makes people feel important, so those who get information rarely feel much urge to pass it on.
“Need to know” may be important in communities of spies, but it’s hard to see why it applies so widely in other organizations, apart from the reasons given above. There are likely to be few topics where secrecy is genuinely needed, and a great many where it harms progress. But humans are human and most of them love a good secret.
The exception to the limit on information flowing downwards is blame. Blame flows downwards at great speed, since those above want to make sure none of it stays with them. Indeed, it keeps flowing downward until it reaches those who can’t manage to pass it on fast enough, or have no one to pass it to. There it sticks, even if they had nothing whatever to do with the original issue.
Third Law: Sideways flows will depend on trust and likingDo people share information with their peers? Only if they like them. That means those closest together, physically and emotionally, share information most readily, but those further away on either count are left out. Where information has to cross departmental boundaries, it rarely makes it. Other departments are demonized, so based on being disliked and distrusted, they get next to nothing. Indeed, there’s often a tacit agreement to block information to them, or even falsify it.
This law works in combination with the other two like this:
- Bosses who are well-liked get more and better information from their subordinates. It’s less heavily filtered and may even contain some of the bad news.
- Disliked bosses get only unalloyed good news, much of it fabricated. All negative data is suppressed.
- Trusted subordinates are told most of what they need to know, and are usually told rather more as well—including what the boss is still thinking about.
- Disliked and distrusted subordinates are told as little as possible, even if they really need to know. The only exception is anything negative about them, which is relayed promptly and in great detail.
Fourth Law: Bad news travels farther and faster than goodIt’s human nature to pass on bad news quickly. You only have to watch the professional news media to realize that. Good news has to be very good to make the headlines. Bad news only has to be intriguing, odd-ball, or sexy.
The effect of this is a continual skewing of data towards the negative, especially over the short term. If a new initiative is launched, the quickest feedback will be the most extreme, whether positive or (especially) negative. That sometimes leads to organizations and people making bad judgments. Ideas are dropped on the basis of quick feedback that suggests problems. The good news takes its time to filter through and by then it’s too late.
If you want to get good information, make yourself liked and trusted, whether you’re in a boss or a subordinate relationship with the person who has the data. That’s why organizations that foster distrust through macho, Hamburger Management, constant cost-cutting, and treating staff like expendable widgets quickly get what they deserve: a virtual information blackout.
If you want the complete and accurate picture, give it time. Don’t get too despondent if the first news looks bleak. Don’t get too excited if the next wave of reports filtering up the hierarchy sound extremely rosy. All news is filtered somehow. Sometimes the only way to get anything like the truth is to go and see for yourself.
Wednesday, May 30, 2020
21st century rules for career success
Penelope Trunk’s new book tells it how it is
When I was starting out on my career path (it seems a hundred years ago now), I was given the advice that we all received at that time:
- Get a job with a “good” company that offers a pension scheme.
- Hang onto it.
- Wait patiently to retire and collect your reward.
Enter Penelope Trunk with her new book: Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. Her writing is sassy, irreverent, often extreme, but it just about always goes right to the point. What she says is directly relevant to today’s world, where pensions and benefits are no longer things that you can rely on, jobs disappear at the stroke of some accountant’s pen, and the only person in the organization that you can trust to have your best interests at heart is you.
In those far-off days when I was starting out, we were encouraged to believe that the right way to get ahead was to hand over control and direction of your career to the organization, keep your nose clean, work hard, and take whatever was given to you. Is that the advice I gave to my daughters when they started out in the world of work more than 30 years later? You bet it wasn’t! I didn’t have the advantage of having Penelope Trunk’s book then, but what she says in it rings true to my own experience.
What’s new and different about this book is that it doesn’t stop with how to choose a job and get past the selection process. With headings like “How to get what you want from the people you work with” and “Get what you want from your boss,” it’s there to help you find ways to succeed even after you enter those hallowed corporate portals. And if the idea of having a cubicle in some vast office complex doesn’t inspire you, you can turn to “Checklist for starting your own business” instead. For women, there’s even a section called “Sex discrimination is everywhere, so don’t try to run.” (I could point out that, as a young man, I was sexually harassed by several women in various places of work . . . but that was long before we even knew what it was. I think in those days it was known as “making the new guy blush and look an idiot.”)
Slow Leadership aims to tell the truth about the world of work. It isn’t a place where working hard always brings you a just reward—or any reward at all, save exhaustion and burnout. The best and brightest don’t naturally rise to the top. Many bosses shouldn’t be in the jobs they hold. The organization neither knows what’s best for you (only you can know that), nor is it especially interested in you, save as a source of profit that it can’t (yet) get more easily by outsourcing your job to someone it can pay half as much. Sure, there are good bosses and ethical organizations out there. There are also open-minded, non-partisan politicians and rap artists who don’t do drugs. It’s just that they can be pretty damned hard to find.
The real advice young people should be given starts with “it’s your life, so make sure that you do only what you believe is right for you” and ends more or less in the same place. In the middle, I would put a few other points like “if it feels like hard work, you’re probably in the wrong job” and “copying the boss is likely to make you into a jerk as well.” Fortunately for the world, I don’t offer young people career advice for a living.
Penelope Trunk does, so if you’re in the early stages of a typical 21st-century career—feeling lost, staring at your resumé and trying to work out how to hide the blemishes, wondering whether you made the right choice, or trying to plan the best way to get that promotion—this is the book for you. Many of the older generation—my generation—are going to hate this book. Your parents may even be shocked by some of it. But if you want advice that is 100% up-to-date and real, go for it just the same.
Friday, March 16, 2020
The stories we tell ourselves
Stories about events are often more powerful than the reality they replace
Recently, I was in our local Barnes & Noble bookstore and idly picked up a book of Victorian photographs of Tombstone. In this part of Arizona, Tombstone’s the nearest thing we have to Disneyland. They reenact “The Gunfight at the OK Corral” every day, sometimes more than once. The book had contemporary photographs of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Both looked like local preachers or small-town bank managers. Neat suits, white shirts, carefully knotted ties. The Clanton gang they gunned down looked much the same. You could change the captions to read “Respectable Inhabitants of 1880s Tombstone.”
That’s why stories are often more powerful than the reality they’re based on (or replace); and why many of our firmest beliefs come from such stories. Reality is so darned dull.
Good stories—the right words put together in the right way—have the power to inspire us, terrify us, or shape our view of the world for years ahead. Do you enjoy a good story? Of course. Have you ever embellished the way you recounted events to make a better story? You’d be an unusual person if you said you had not.
I had a friend who worked in air accident investigation. He told me the only truly reliable witnesses to air accidents were small children. They told what they saw. Adults told stories based on what they thought they ought to see, then embellished them to make the stories more vivid and interesting.
Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.
People constantly tell one another stories, at a bar, in the office, at home around the dining table. Marketers tell stories about products. Newscasters add human interest stories to enhance dull, factual news. Hollywood and television entertainment are nothing but stories. Of course, we tell ourselves stories too—about what things mean, what other people must be thinking, about why we did, or said, things that worked out or failed us. Memory isn’t a filing cabinet of facts. It’s a library of stories we’ve told ourselves about the way life was and the part we played in it.
Our heads are full of creative fiction, loosely based on real events.
Most of these stories aren’t true. Some never were; some have embellished and changed real events out of all recognition. The human mind is excellent at creating its own version of how things must have been. That’s especially true when it comes to the parts that other people played in our lives. We assume that we understand their feelings, their motives, and their hidden agendas. In our stories, all their plots and secret endeavors are plain to see.
Much of the stress that we feel is caused by the power of our imaginations to turn dull events into powerful, stomach-churning tales of people’s ambition, jealousy, spite, and perfidy. Much of it—probably nearly all of it—is little more than fiction. But that doesn’t alter the effect it has on our own feelings. Imaginary hurts are just as cutting as real ones. An act of treachery by a friend, or a piece of gratuitous cruelty by a boss, that we have produced mostly in our own imagination is no less painful than the real thing. Do we know this is what happened? Almost certainly no. But we assume it is true, and feel and act accordingly. And that’s without the added pain caused by other people who tell us tales about people and events that they have embellished with their own fears, worries, and biases.
Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten.
Are others plotting to harm you? Possibly, but probably not with any real energy. Was this or that statement or event aimed at you? Maybe, but probably it was simply chance that you got in the way. The dull reality is that most of us are far too wrapped up in our own concerns, hopes, fears, and desires, to spend more than a tiny fraction of our attention on anyone else. We are opportunists, seizing any chance to advance our own agenda, and mostly ignoring the effect this has on anyone else. We aren’t even positively nasty. Most of our cruelties to others are done without thought and promptly forgotten. We did what we did because it suited us at the time, and had no more thought of anyone else than a cat has for the feelings of the mouse it happens upon and thinks would make a nice snack.
This is good and bad. Bad, of course, because we are typically so careless of the feelings and concerns of others. Good, because, once you recognize it as the truth, it frees you from the majority of worries about what other people are thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you at all. They’re engrossed in the marvelous story that’s running through their head; the one where they have the starring role, and everyone else is looking at them.
What about the stories you tell yourself? What are they like? Are they inspiring or depressing? Do they make you feel ready to create a better future, or ready to give up now?
Be careful of such stories, because you’ll believe them. Repeat them often enough and they’ll become reality. Maybe the phrase about the power of positive thinking ought to be rewritten as “the likely results of telling yourself more positive stories.”
But then,”the power of positive thinking” sounds like the start of a better story.
Wednesday, February 21, 2020
You Are Not John Wayne
He may have been a great action hero, but Hollywood is still not like the real world.
Today’s media-driven, action-obsessed organizations are losing sight of the reality that sheer effort often goes unrewarded, unless it’s directed by some careful, complex, and time-consuming thought. Busyness and thoughtfulness are poor companions. Until organizations stop assuming greater effort is the simple answer to every problem, people will continue to work harder and harder for the same meager results—or none at all.
We live in a culture where action is highly prized and thought is seen as either pointless or suspicious. I’m not sure why this should be so. Of course, powerful rulers have always been suspicious of those whose motives and actions they can neither quite understand nor easily control. The bluff man of action was relatively easy to deal with. The quiet schemer was always the greatest threat. That’s why it paid to keep the cleverest people where you could see them, and deny education, and the leisure to think, to as many people as possible.
Maybe we also have Hollywood and our media-based beliefs to blame. It’s easy to display action on screen. It’s exciting, full of grand visual effect and opportunities for loud music and terrific over-acting. Displaying thought is tricky. Nothing much appears to happen, and complex thoughts can be hard for an audience to follow. It’s not impossible—William Shakespeare did it pretty well—but few screenwriters manage to reach his standard. Besides, pitting the brave, honest action hero against the skulking, devious, too-clever-by-half villain is such an easy driver of plots that few can resist it.
Whatever the causes, we are left with a culture where action—preferably lots of it and the more assertive the better—is assumed to be the answer to every problem.Whenever people feel uncertain or doubtful, greater effort—more action—is called for at once. Do next quarter’s, or next year’s business prospects look shaky? Work harder, cut costs, increase everyone’s efforts. Is a project sliding off track? Stay at your desk until 10:00 p.m. every day, then take work home.
Never mind stopping to discover the real reason for the problem. These future sales projections may look bad because the product is falling out of fashion, or an unexpected competitor has brought out a superior alternative. The project that’s causing you to work 16-hour days may be doomed because it was badly conceived from the start. In neither case will extra effort alone make any difference to the outcome. It’s as if people feel that, in a just universe, all that determination and hard work deserves to be successful. The honest, perspiring hero, (or gallant, open-hearted heroine) should prevail, even if she or he hasn’t a clue about the problem or its causes.
That might be the case in a just universe. I wouldn’t know, because neither I nor anyone else has ever inhabited one. In the real world, effort very often goes unrewarded—especially if it, too, is misdirected, poorly conceived, or based on a total misunderstanding of the real nature of the problem.
No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it.No one ever produced a smart idea, an imaginative concept, a competitive edge, or a compelling vision without thought —typically a great deal of it. Hollywood may prefer simple plots that can be easily written and acted, but the universe rarely agrees with the neatness needed to make a one-hour TV show, with 20 minutes of commercial breaks. I recently heard on the radio that military personnel are copying what they see on TV as battle tactics. Rush in, shoot a few villains, and those who survive will immediately tell all they know. Works on TV. Sadly, in the real world, the survivors do inconvenient things such as lying, making up any old story to save their lives, or refusing to talk even under prolonged interrogation.
A corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.Constant busyness is practically guaranteed to drive any thoughts away, and leave no spaces where they might return. A determined focus on short-term actions destroys all chance of creating long-term advantage. And a corporate culture where thoughtfulness is seen as a waste of time, and intelligent reflection a probable basis for disloyalty and plotting, is going to discourage any spark of creativity or exploration that remains.
Relying on effort nearly always means doing what you are doing already—only harder. It’s very often taking a doomed idea and continuing to feed it with effort and resources, long after it should have been abandoned in favor of something better. It’s running about in a frenzy of action, when slowing down and giving yourself time to think up an alternative approach is the only likely path to success.
Stop shooting from the hip. John Wayne may have got the bad guy with every draw of his six-shooter, but he had considerable help from special effects, the director, and the script. In a 19th century gunfight in Phoenix, Arizona, two people stood on opposite sides of the street and blasted away at one another until both ran out of bullets. Neither suffered a scratch.
The only things that frantic busyness is guaranteed to produce are exhaustion, stress, and numbed resignation—exactly what many feel in today’s workplaces. Slow down and think instead. Then there’s at least a chance you’ll discover a way to succeed—and probably with about a quarter of the effort.
Friday, February 16, 2020
Do unto others, and they will make sure they do unto you
A thought floated across my mind recently, when I was reading something about the ideas of “karmic law.” I’m not an expert in Buddhist or Eastern thought, but what I understand of the idea of karma is that it’s a refined version of cause and effect: what you do affects what happens to you, or “what you give out is what you get back.”
It seems to me that you don’t need to have any kind of belief in either the supernatural or Eastern religion to see that “what you give out is what you get back” represents simple realism.
Suppose that you’re a typical “Hamburger Manager.” You’re tough, assertive, macho, obsessed with short-term results, and tireless in your pursuit of your own ambition. What you “put out” in terms of behaviors will likely include:
- Constantly talking tough—then complaining that no one likes you, though you’re really a nice person.
- Hounding subordinates to do more and more with less and less—until everyone is so tired that they produce less and less, however hard they work.
- Demanding longer and longer hours of unpaid overtime—and expecting bigger bonuses for yourself as a result.
- Claiming that money is the only incentive—while cutting back wherever you can on salary payments.
- Refusing to consider anything other than “meeting the numbers”—even if those numbers are based only on wishful thinking.
- Accepting bad behavior from anyone who “brings home the bacon”—and sneering at the “impractical idealism” of those who suggest that this is unacceptable.
- Thoughtlessly copying the cult of disdain for anything “soft,” “liberal,” or “impractical”—which is pretty much everything that doesn’t fit with the opinions of your bosses.
- Maintining rigidity of outlook—because true believers never even consider the tiniest doubt about orthodoxy.
- Tough talk and macho behavior provokes the same kind of response. Aggression breeds aggression in return, so life becomes a constant battle of wills. All the aggression that you encounter will then likely make you more aggressive, and so on, round and round, in a never-ending process of escalation.
- Hounding subordinates and forcing them into longer and longer working days will produce stress, tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Hourly productivity and creativity will fall—so the only way to catch up on targets will be still to demand still longer hours and exert yet more pressure. You’ll constantly have to do more and more hounding. It won’t end until there’s some kind of collapse.
- Whenever money is used as the sole incentive, people quickly discover that any amount that you give soon becomes accepted as the “going rate” and loses its incentive effect. If you raise pay to bring back an incentive, you need to make still more profit to cover the extra cost. It turns into a continual, fruitless game of “catch up.” If you hold out and refuse to drive up salary costs, you have no further incentive availave—and you incur higher costs elsewhere as you are forced to replace those who leave. This is (politely) known as a lose:lose strategy.
- Accepting any kind of behavior from jerks and bullies, so long as they meet the numbers and get results, creates an atmosphere so toxic that few people will stay in it for long—especially anyone with talent and intelligence. You’ll get the staff that you deserve—along with the high turnover, constant hassles, and looming law suits. Besides, anyone who tolerates jerks is, by definition, a jerk themselves. He or she who tolerates most jerks is the jerk-in-chief.
- A rigid, numbers-based, macho outlook is a great way to destroy any sparks of creativity in yourself and others. Your competitors will have the ideas, and you will be driven back to competing on low costs and desperately trying to mimic what others have produced before you.
The other reality of this faux-karmic law is that it multiplies. There’s one of you (one manager, one organization), but thousands upon thousands of other people to return what you send out. Act aggressively and thoughtlessly and all these thousands will return the same behavior, often with interest. So, if you act like a jerk, what you’ll get back is the same behavior, multiplied by the number of people who suffer from what you do.
There it is: behave like the stereotypical, bullying manager and that’s exactly what you’ll encounter in return. Do it consistently, and your return will be multiplied by several orders of magnitude. Give out honesty, trust, creativity, and sensitivity to others and that’s what the universe will most likely play back to you, also enhanced and extended.
It’s your choice. If your daily experience at work is that the world is full of people throwing sh*t around, the chances are extremely high that you are a major contributor to the process that put all that brown stuff there for them to throw back at you. Maybe, if you stop dishing it out, you’ll begin to find that less comes back. If everyone did that, very soon there would be none to throw around any more. Think about it.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.