Book Review-Management and the Worker

It started two years before The Great Depression, and the impact on what we know about management can’t be understated. Management and the Worker seems to share the insights that were discovered at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works based in Chicago, and it’s strangely richer than most of us may have been led to believe.

A Different Time

For those reading the book today, they’ll be struck by many things that would not be politically acceptable today. The workers – operators – in the relay assembly test room are repeatedly called “girls,” not women, workers, or operators. Such was the expectation then. There were jobs that women did and different jobs that men did, and it was reasonable to refer to them by gender.

In was also a time when graduating high school wasn’t common. Many of the operators didn’t finish high school, much less attend college. There were several cases documented in the book where the operators would turn over their wages to the family to help support the family unit and more than a few cases where the operator left school to get a job to help support the family.

Even back then, there was the conversation about the increasing demand for higher education, both completing high school and going to college. The concern was raised that it would become a requirement for someone to complete college to get a job, and that would eliminate the ability of poor folks to get jobs.

More interesting was the concept that single women could have jobs but that married women were taking jobs from men who needed a job to support their family. While this was at times overt, there were many cases where a societal pressure to discriminate against working married women was apparent. There were even negative comments shaped around the need for married couples to eat at a restaurant because the woman was too tired to cook.

The standard work week back then was 48 hours. This included a half day on Saturday. There was no expectation of a 40-hour week and the transition to a 40-hour week – and the resulting reduction in wages – was an unfortunate result of the Depression and the reduction of demand.

I address these here, because I want to both draw attention to the discrepancies and to explicitly share that the challenges we face with motivation of employees and the broader context of the employment relationship isn’t a sign of today’s times. It’s always been with us – we’ve just not seen it.

The Observer Effect

This book is largely focused after the famous illumination experiments that drove Hawthorne Works to be largely synonymous with the observer effect. The observer effect says that people will behave differently when they know they’re being watched. This truism has been extended and adapted over time, including “You get what you measure,” variations of which have been assigned to both Edward Deming and Peter Drucker.

The famous experiments that made the Hawthorne Works famous were variations in lighting that were done to measure the impact of lighting on performance. When lighting was increased, productivity increased. When lighting was decreased, productivity was again increased. This caused the experimenters to realize that they were unintentionally introducing another variable to the experiment. Later, they’d change bulbs with new bulbs of the same wattage. Employees were expecting increases or decreases, so they commented on these expected increases or decreases rather than recognizing that the lighting level hadn’t changed at all.

The experiments were initiated because the company was interested in how to increase productivity, and the results only spurred further interest in the way that employees worked. If the observer effect was so powerful, what other powerful forces were being left undiscovered?

The Relay Assembly Test Room

One of the many functions performed by the Hawthorne Works was the assembly of relays. Relays are electromechanical devices that are used in switching – particularly the kind of switching that was needed to operate the telephone network. The assembly operations were typically done with many operators in a large, open area. A particular section of relay assembly operators might be 100 people. To test changes in working conditions and their relationship to productivity, the Hawthorne Works pulled five volunteer operators into a specially-designed room where the conditions of work could be changed without affecting the entire group.

Care was taken to minimize the differences between the main room and the new relay test room. The intent was to have a controlled experiment, where only the changes in the working environment that the experimenters were testing would influence the results. However, what they discovered was that they unintentionally introduced major changes by separating the operators.

Social Loafing

The Evolution of Cooperation and Collaboration both speak about social loafing – or the tendency for people to slack off in a group expecting others to carry their weight. However, the effect wasn’t well known at the time of the Hawthorne Works experiments. What wasn’t realized was the extent to which the compensation system allowed for social loafing to occur, nor were they aware of how to establish countervailing forces to keep social loafing in check.

The details of the payment system for workers is largely irrelevant, but what is important is that one component of their pay was based on the productivity of the group. That is, if everyone performed well, then there would be more money in everyone’s paycheck. The problem with this is that, when spread across 100 workers, no one felt as if their individual contribution was enough to make a difference. The result is that some of the workers would loaf, because they didn’t expect that they could make a difference in their pay.

When the operators were moved into the relay assembly test room, their pool went from a pool of 100 to a pool of 5. That meant that individual performance did matter; not only that, the group norm was also something that could be influenced.

Forming a Group

One of the other side effects of the changes was that the group naturally formed into a group operating unit. That is, they started to look out for and support one another. They intentionally tried to cover for each other’s poor days and genuinely cared for their fellow workers. This wasn’t an intentional byproduct of the change – nor was it replicable in further experiments – but the fact that the group became an operating unit had a profound effect on productivity. The relay assembly test room’s productivity kept climbing even as the experimental conditions continued to be changed in ways that should have had a negative effect on productivity.

Subsequent test rooms with similar conditions never formed a group and therefore didn’t see the continuous rise in productivity. This was likely influenced by the design of these other rooms, which specifically did not change the compensation in a way that made the room’s participants dependent upon each other and solely on each other. In other words, they sought to avoid solving the social loafing problems – and in doing so, they may have prevented the group from forming.

Group Formation

It’s time to side-step the material in the book for a moment and share the work of Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence. He was focused on how you brought people together and got them to function together as a team. He would have said that the test rooms created at Hawthorne Works would not have fallen into his criteria as a team, because they weren’t performing interrelated tasks. They formed a group identity, because, in the case of the relay room, they felt a responsibility to one another. They didn’t have the benefit of some of the way that Navy SEALs train together nor the life and death circumstances. (See Stealing Fire for more.)

The personalities and perspectives were such in the relay assembly test room that they spontaneously formed a group. Some of this may have been the wedding of one of the operators, forming a bond, or the personality of another operator to push everyone towards working together. There’s no one single cause; instead, the set of conditions were sufficient that it happened.

Allowances

Another unintended change in the test room was the change in supervision. While the operators were formally still supervised by the supervision structure of the main room, unofficially they were being managed by the experimental observer – and the relationship was very different. Instead of the kind of command and control experienced in the main room, the operators were treated with concern and compassion. One of the controls for the tests were the health of the employees, so their health was monitored.

Another was the ability to talk. While this at times exceeded the comfort level of both the observer and the individual operators, the ability to talk while they were working was greatly appreciated. While studies for fatigue were generally not successful in discovering fatigue, the ability to talk to one another was helpful in breaking up some of the monotony.

To frame this in the context of Reinventing Organizations, the test room was operating in Orange instead of Amber. The workers felt like there was a relationship to management instead of a competition with management in a struggle for power.

Power Struggle

Readily apparent and frequently repeated were the concerns that the test room was a front for management to squeeze more performance out of the workers – instead of the stated objective of providing optimum working conditions. The difference is subtle but important. If they’re just trying to improve performance, the organization can do so at the expense of the workers. If they’re trying to create optimal conditions, the workers must be inside the circle of considerations.

Concerns about whether the workers were being taken advantage of – or things were moving in that direction – was a persistent theme both in the relay assembly test room and in the subsequent tests that the organization embarked upon. The lack of trust of the worker with the organization was palpable.

While the test room continued to make progress in allaying those fears, it seems as if they were never really fully quenched. As a result, there would be, from time to time, situations where it became necessary to revisit the intent, purpose, and mission associated with the tests.

More for Less

One curious way where working less generated more productive output was the introduction of paid breaks to the schedule. Breaks were added, thus reducing the total time working, and the output still increased. The given explanation for this was that the operators were trying to compensate for the time they were being given.

However, there’s another more subtle factor here. Operators were allowed personal time for their biological needs, and though they weren’t asked to, they tended to use a portion of their break times for these purposes. In this way, it seems that when management – or in this case, the experimenters – gave something the workers gave back.

The introduction of breaks was very well received personally, thus it seems that the workers were willing to work harder during their normal work periods to continue to be allowed the privilege of the breaks. Being an experiment, they were removed for a time, and this predictably resulted in the workers looking forward to their return.

The Mica Splitting Test Room

Because the relay assembly test room was such a success, there were attempts to replicate the results without the complicating factor of changing compensation. The results were not as dramatic, but there were external factors, which likely impacted the situation.

By the time the mica splitting test room was created, the Depression was already in effect. It has created a reduction in demand for all things, including the kinds of parts that the Hawthorne works was creating. In part due to this reduction in demand, the mica splitting function was gradually being moved to another plant. This impacted the folks in the main room more rapidly than in the test room, but eventually there was no longer a way to shield the test room from the changes.

However, before the room was shut down, it was already apparent that the fear of losing their job was reducing worker productivity. As the concern for mica-splitting jobs increased, their performance decreased.

However, another key difference was evident in the mica splitting test room. The five operators never fully integrated as a group. While there are some personality reasons for this, there was also the fact that their compensation never got tied to the group in the test room. They were still compensated in part by what was happening in the main room.

Interviewing

Management and the Worker concludes with a review of the interviewing that was done in the plant and its impact. A significant effort was undertaken to listen to workers at every level and to ensure that their perspectives were captured appropriately. Despite the fact that there was never any real intent to act upon these interviews, the workers reported that conditions were improving.

This reaction reveals how just listening to employees discuss their concerns has a twofold effect on improving the situation. First, supervisors, knowing that the workers are being listened to, made changes to their behaviors – consciously or unconsciously. This resolved many of the concerns.

Secondly, and more importantly, there seemed to be a psychic discharge, where once the items were heard, they were of less concern in the mind of the worker. The net effect of which was that the workers felt better – whether the conditions changed or not.

It may be that there’s still a lot to learn from experiments that were performed 90 years ago. It may reveal more about the relationship between Management and the Worker.

Book Review-The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking

Conflict is a good thing. Conflict between our fingers and our thumb – our opposable thumb – created the ability to create tools and ascend to the most dominant lifeform on the planet. In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, we learn how it wasn’t just the mechanics of our members but the integrative nature of our intelligence that has really allowed us to remain king of the biological mountain on this planet.

Genius

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Genius is in creating situations where we’re able to leverage the power of “and”. It’s not the finger or the thumb in isolation that allows us to pick up things and to create tools – it’s the use of both.

It was 15th century Florence, Italy, when the Medici family assembled some of the greatest minds in one place to work on their own projects. In the process, they managed to create a kind of cross-pollination between experts and disciplines that kicked off the Renaissance period. They created a safe environment where different disciplines could sharpen one another.

Today, it’s easier to assemble great thinkers virtually for an hour or a few hours. It’s easier to hop on a plane and arrive in the same destination for a deep conversation about how my perspective and yours aren’t the same. It is, however, simultaneously harder to find the right people.

Non-Linear and Co-Causal

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The egg is the answer because of reptiles, but the real question is which one causes or creates the other. The challenge is to draw the causal arrow from one thing to another. However, integrative thinkers tend to think in terms of systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more about systems.) Instead of seeing a set of discrete, unconnected events, integrative thinkers see everything as connected and causing a network of reactions, some of which feed back and drive the very behavior that started things off while others inhibit the behavior. Instead of following the simple linear logic of A causes B, integrative thinkers think in terms of the influence that A has on B and the influence that B has on A and how they might reach a steady state – or might be completely unstable.

Some systems are dynamically stable. That is, the forces are designed in such a way that they dampen oscillations. Private aircraft are designed this way. It’s what makes it possible for a pilot to control them and for the changes to get smaller over time. Military aircraft are not dynamically stable, and micro-adjustments are made by the flight computer to compensate for the instability and execute the intent of the pilot rather than the commands of the pilot. The computer doesn’t wait for the pilot to respond to a slight pitch right or left if it wasn’t what the pilot was indicating on the controls; it quickly and automatically makes the control surface corrections to keep things in balance. The fact that the computer reacts faster than the instability operates allows it to keep things stable.

Dynamically unstable systems are more performant – thus why they’re used in military aircraft. However, the dynamic instability means that they are more susceptible to faults, failures, and “black swan” events. (See The Black Swan and Antifragile for more.) Integrative thinkers simulate what they see in their head. They automatically create models to look for how systems are going to react – rather than looking for the simple causal arrows. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)

Not Afraid of the Mess

Integrative thinkers aren’t afraid of the mess that the model causes. They’re not afraid to go in and tinker with things to see what the results are. Ultimately, integrative thinkers aren’t afraid of the mess that happens when you build models for everything and try to connect them, because they’re comfortable that, in the end, they’ll figure out how things fit together.

They accept that their initial models of the systems will be flawed. They accept that there will be forces they don’t see or understand. However, they’ll remain confident that, given enough time and experiments, they’ll be able to find their way to a model – and a map that works.

Map Is Not a Territory

One downfall of the integrative thinker is that they sometimes forget a map is not a territory – that is, their map and model, no matter how good they get, will always be fundamentally limited and remain imperfect. This can lead to poor decisions when you consider them against the actual system as compared to how their model was constructed.

One of the challenges with building a model is that it’s built on the back of our perceptions of reality, and those perceptions are themselves necessarily flawed. Our perceptions aren’t always what they appear to be. We believe we’re perceiving reality, but it’s closer to say that we’re making our reality up from our perceptions. (See Incognito for more.)

Integrative thinkers need to be on guard for where they may be ignoring conflicting signals that may indicate their model is imperfect.

Required: Deep Understanding and Empathy

To be an integrative thinker, it should be no surprise that there needs to be a deep understanding of the relationships between the various aspects of the system. Deep understanding is what the whole model-building process is about. However, there’s another aspect that transcends understanding and moves into the category of empathy.

Instead of just intellectually understanding what is happening, integrative thinkers develop an emotional connection to their models and the people who are stuck in the systems they’re modeling. They begin to be compassionate to those whom they see marching along in the system with no way out.

Refusing to Accept Tradeoffs

Integrative thinkers aren’t likely to accept tradeoffs. Instead of accepting the standard approach to balance A and B they look for ways to change things to get more of both A and B. Like the Nash Equilibrium they look for ways to create win-win situations where there is no obvious win-win. (See The Science of Trust for more on the Nash Equilibrium.) Their approach might be to reconfigure the pieces they have, remove pieces, or add in pieces that aren’t normally a part of the equation.

For instance, there’s always a tradeoff between the ease of storing information and the ease of retrieving information. However, creative thinkers look for ways to leverage technologies like full text search to make it easier to both store and retrieve information. Why make people enter an invoice number if it’s in the full text of the document and can be searched? Even more powerfully, why not use artificial intelligence to pick up the invoice number and place it into a metadata field for you? Thinking like this doesn’t seek to create balance in a zero-sum game, instead it looks to create a new, larger game.

Best Available, Right Now

Integrative thinkers have given up on the idea that they have the best answer. Instead, they just believe that they’ve got the best answer for right now. There is no delusion that they’ve got things figured out. Instead, they’re aware that the answers they have today are the best answers they have for now. Instead of maximizing and getting to the absolute best, they’ve settled – they’ve satisficed – for the solution that is good enough. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on maximizers and satisficers.)

In the end, the best answer you can get to right now about how to approach problems differently to find better solutions may be to read The Opposable Mind.

Book Review-On Becoming a Leader

Sometimes my reading list has me walking down a long hall with statues lining each side. The statues are the great men and women who moved forward our understanding of ourselves, the way that we work, and the way that we lead. On Becoming a Leader is Warren Bennis’ capstone. Though he had an autobiography written after this work, this was the last book focused on the process of becoming a leader.

Many people who were the foundation of leadership have passed. Edward Deming may be remembered more for management than leadership but he was a leader in his own right. Chris Argyris brought us the idea of the ladder of inference (see Choice Theory for more). James MacGregor Burns shared his perspectives on political leadership through his book, Leadership. Robert Greenleaf led us to his perspectives on Servant Leadership. Jeff Barnes reminded us of Walt Disney’s leadership in The Wisdom of Walt. There are, of course, many others whose contributions have helped leadership move forward but who didn’t always focus on leadership.

The Crucible

Leadership isn’t something that you’re born with. It’s not like eye color or height. It’s something that everyone must work on to develop and cultivate. The way that leadership is cultivated is through the crucible of hard times. There’s no path to leadership that doesn’t run through a path of sorrow. There are plenty of books that are published each year that promise you’ll become a leader if you only follow their five-step plan or if you only envision it first.

Bennis’ wisdom says this isn’t true: there are no shortcuts, and those who say otherwise are like the fad diets that promise great results with no work. Certainly, there are accelerators that allow for leaders to be developed faster; otherwise what would be the point of leadership development? However, there is no path that will not require some work on the part of the future leader.

Leadership Development

While most organizations extol their virtuous development of leaders, few do the work. Surveys indicate that, while most organizations say they do leadership development, only about 10% of organizations had any formal leadership development practices. The gap between those who know they need it and those who prioritize its execution is large. The development of leaders is lost in a world where we seem to change jobs more frequently and there’s a constant pressure for immediate, short-term results.

Leadership development is a long-term game. It requires extraordinary patience and diligence on the part of the organization to ensure that everyone is given the tools they need to maximize the value of all the difficult situations they must go through.

Adaptive Range

There’s been a shift happening in our society, which was captured in Range. The shift is from the deep-deep specialist to someone who can integrate across the boundaries of professions and who can adapt to the changes that our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world requires. Bennis knew this, and that is why he explained it’s a leader’s adaptive capacity that makes them the most valuable.

Always a Character

Many will share Bennis’ belief that leadership is about character. However, not everyone will draw the conclusion that the kind of character needed for leadership is the same kind of character necessary to become a fully integrated human being. Some, like Brené Brown when she talks about a wholehearted person (see Daring Greatly), share this belief.

Bennis makes the point that when you look at great leaders, you rarely find people who have had no struggles. Mostly when you find great leaders, you find that they had some sort of difficult phase or event in their life, and they found their way to the other side. What they developed during these struggles was the character that fuels their greatness. In Antifragile, Taleb explains how the right level of challenge or struggle at the right time can allow people to grow and become more, much like how you get stronger muscles by tearing them down just a bit through exercise.

Great leaders learn how to create this same kind of challenge for those they lead. They find ways to push them in ways that allows them to grow. The process is very long, but it pays great rewards.

In the Long Term

Short-term thinking is a “societal disease.” Those were the words that Bennis used to describe what has become the plague of our century. As a species, our ability to work together allowed us to conquer the planet. (See The Righteous Mind for more.) Our ability to support some people working on long-term endeavors has led us to the Moon – and to a gradual shift in the amount of effort required for our basic needs. Diffusion of Innovations recounts the improvement in farm productivity – and the drop in the number of farmers that were needed to support our food needs. We build roads and machines to make the work of people in the future easier. Well, at least we used to. It seems like today we’re more focused on the quarterly returns than the returns to humanity.

While there is a need for enough short-term focus to keep things going, too much focus on short-term needs leaves us with the same struggle year after year. When some effort can be invested in long-term needs, compounding kicks in, and we’re able to make our load lighter – and, ultimately, our overall lives easier.

If You Can Understand It, It’s Yours

“Nothing is truly yours until you understand it – not even yourself.” From the Socratic dialogues and the inscription of the oracle at Delphi, the instruction has been clear: know thyself. However, too many people aren’t in touch with who they are. We wander through life wondering what our purpose is. We aren’t sure what we believe in or what we stand for. We don’t understand why we get angry or sad. Instead, we bumble our way through the darkness of our thoughts and emotions hoping to find the door that leads to happiness. (See Stumbling on Happiness if you’re looking for more about how we look haphazardly for happiness.)

Perhaps one of the reasons why we don’t think in the long term is that life seems like a collection of random events over which we have no control or influence. In those situations, why would someone try to think of the long term? If we can’t learn enough about ourselves to predict our behaviors, then what good would it do?

Mistakes Aren’t Failures

Because leaders are so varied in their approaches and skills, it’s often hard to draw a dividing line between someone who is and someone who is not a leader. However, one key marker is the way they treat a mistake. Leaders accept – but don’t like – mistakes and work to prevent them or mitigate their impacts. Non-leaders see a mistake as a failure.

Some people have internalized the idea that you must be perfect. For some, that undoubtedly came from a performance-based love in their childhood. (See The Four Loves.) For others, the cause may not be so clear, but the results are the same. By expecting that everyone and everything must be perfect, the results must be disappointing. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.)

Chance Favors the Prepared

Louis Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared.” More commonly, we say that luck favors the prepared. The truth is that luck is random, and it comes to everyone. Those who are prepared are more able to take advantage of the lucky break when it comes. Leaders are constantly preparing for the lucky break – while not expecting it or expecting that everything will be perfect.

At some level, the preparation that must be done is the constant balance between preparing for the future – paying attention to the long term – and tending to the moment, the everyday, and the present. Because luck is, by its nature, random, you’ll never know which investments you should be making as a leader. You only thing you know for sure is that you want to continue to make long-term investments in ways that prepare you for what will be your eventual turn at luck.

On Becoming a Leader reverberates through other works and provides a simple and straightforward context that we can use to develop our own method for becoming a leader.

Book Review-Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change

Never has the relationship between leadership and change been so laid bare as in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change. It should not be surprising that leadership and change are so related. Leaders are the catalysts and instruments of change. They help organizations and individuals make different decisions and exercise different behaviors. They are, in some ways, the embodiment of the best parts of change.

Defining Leadership

Joseph Rost spent most of his book Leadership in the Twenty-First Century trying to come around to a conversation about what leadership is. In the end, I’m not entirely sure he nailed it – but neither has anyone else, so whatever you’ve got is, I suppose, good enough. Rost – like James MacGregor Burns – believes that we focus too much attention on the leader and not enough on the relationship between the leader and the team. (If you’d like more about Burns’ work, it was titled, simply, Leadership.)

It’s in the context of realizing that leadership is about how a person – the leader – manages their relationships with others and how that can generate amazing outcomes.

Long Term Leadership

There’s definitely an awareness that leadership is a long-term game of developing people and accepting the criticisms that come your way when you’re willing and able to make some hard choices. Of course, effort must be consumed to keep from becoming the issue instead of just being the messenger of the issue. That being said, the essence of leadership is taking the hard-to-swallow pills and waiting to see how things are going to come out better.

The key to effective leadership is a long-term focus, but if you’re going to be around for the long term, you’ll have to expose people to a rate of change that they can absorb. Too fast, and the wheels come off the cart. Too slow, and the competitors in the market eat you for lunch.

Rate of Change

Post-It notes are interesting things. If the adhesive is too weak, they fall of the page. If it’s too strong, they tear the page when removed. Post-It notes work because they’re in that narrow band that’s neither too weak nor too strong. That’s where you want your rate of change for the organization and for individuals. Not too fast and not too slow. This sounds relatively simple in theory; however, in practice, it’s very difficult to accomplish.

Every person and every part of the organization has their own measure of the ideal rate of change. Some people have a high degree of tolerance for change, so they can handle a higher rate of change. Others in the organization have a much lower tolerance and need a slower rate of change. This means trying to find a general pace that’s in the center between most individuals, finding ways to mitigate the degree of apparent change for the folks who have a low capacity for change while accelerating the degree of apparent change for those who have a much higher capacity.

Complicating this process is that different parts of the organization will experience different amounts of change at different times. The result is a constant struggle to stay on the ball to ensure a degree of change that’s working for most people in most departments.

Leadership on the Line calls this “controlling the heat.” It’s about pushing enough to keep people and parts of the organization from falling out of the change process and not pushing so hard that people exceed their capacity for change.

Apparent Change

While Leadership on the Line doesn’t directly address the gap between actual change and the perception of change, the managing the heat metaphor certainly reflects this constant management of perceptions so that people perceive the change inside of their band of tolerance. There are several ways to manipulate this.

One way is to spread out the required behavioral changes over time. In the context of a single department, this may lengthen the time for the change, but depending on how things are sequenced inside of the overall change process, it may not impact timeline at all. By starting with the groups that have the most change and allowing them to process that change over a longer period of time, it’s possible to “turn down the heat.”

Another approach is to deploy a temporary compensating measure. Consider the idea of a need to do double entry during a transition for a short period of time. It’s possible to ask those responsible for data entry to enter into both the old system and the new one, or it’s possible to hire assistance to do the old work. (I’d encourage this rather than the added requirement of doing the new work.) Similarly, it’s possible to add help to take care of mundane tasks to create time and availability to do the double entry.

Obviously, care must be taken that the compensating measure doesn’t become a permanent crutch, but as a part of ensuring that the rate of change remains acceptable, it’s an important option.

Quality Connections

Not to discount the importance of mass communication, stakeholder management, or any of the other things that one needs to understand in managing a successful change project, but above all, the connections that people make and maintain with one another are critical. Humans are wired for connection. In fact, in The Heart and Soul of Change, it’s asserted that the most powerful component of the therapy process is the alliance between the therapist and the patient – their connection.

We see this need for connection everywhere. Even baboons whose mother has a better social network have a higher survival rate. In the wild and in our domesticated societies, connections matter. (Even connections with dogs matter – see How Dogs Love Us.)

Accepting Anger

When someone – particularly when they’re in a close relationship with you – expresses their anger at you, it’s hard to stay detached and absorb it without becoming personally defensive. (See Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement for more on detachment and Dialogue for more on automatically being defensive.) However, as difficult as this may be, it’s a powerful way of building trust. By absorbing the attack without retaliating, you demonstrate that you’re safe both physically and psychologically. (See The Fearless Organization for more on psychological safety.) This isn’t the normal expectation for folks.

We expect that when we attack others, they’re likely to attack back. It’s human nature to defend yourself. However, when you find ways to not perceive anger as an attack, you show that it’s safe for others to share their feelings without retaliation.

Technical and Adaptive Change

Some of the changes that an organization undertakes are well known. Instead of doing X, you’ll do Y. These changes Heifetz and Linsky call “technical changes.” They’re straightforward, because the answers and outcomes are all known. The other kind of change – the kind of change that we face when dealing with complex organizations and individuals – are adaptive changes. These kinds of changes require adaptation and experimentation.

For adaptive changes, there’s no one known way to do it right or, in many cases, even a pattern for what “right” looks like. Instead, we must set out in a general direction and work our way through the challenges and opportunities to find an answer that works.

Adaptive changes are therefore more challenging and require more preparation and energy. They’re often worth the extra effort because of the transformational effects that can be realized when the changes are implemented.

Evolutionary not Revolutionary

Successful change is more evolutionary than revolutionary. In adaptive changes, we evolve to one change, then adapt and make another push forward. Often, there’s no one defining moment where we move from one space to another. Instead, there’s a gradual progression to more changed thinking and more of the newer, more desirable behaviors.

Leading in these environments, where change is continuous and evolutionary, requires a greater level of manager than was needed fifty years ago. It’s the state of constant change that puts Leadership on the Line.

Book Review-The Leadership Machine

There’s an old I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Edith are workers at a chocolate factory, and they can’t keep up, so they start eating the chocolates and stuffing them in their clothes. Laverne and Shirley are standing in front of an assembly line in the opening starting with a slow pace and ending with a rather overwhelming pace. The idea of an assembly line is neither foreign to me personally nor, I think, to most people. However, most people don’t think of talent development or leadership development as an assembly line. However, this is the perspective of The Leadership Machine.

It’s called a talent development pipeline, but that only thinly veils the perspective that you start young professionals in one end of the machine, and out the other end of the machine is supposed to pop out highly skilled and qualified leaders. There are so many problems and breakdowns in most organizations’ leadership machines. The Leadership Machine seeks to both address the common breakdowns and to lead you towards building your own leadership development pipeline.

One Size Fits All

If you’re a small or even medium-sized organization, you may think that you don’t have much of a machine for finding, developing, and retaining employees. You may believe that you have little capacity to build the kind of sustainable infrastructure that’s required to make the system work, and you may more importantly be concerned about how you manage the short-term demands on your business that may make an effort in such a long-term program pointless. Certainly, there’s truth to this when taken to the extreme. Smaller organizations cannot afford to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars training people hoping they stay with the company after the investment has been made and the employee can contribute.

However, there is a way to leverage the learning from a big system and integrate the best parts into smaller organizations. It’s possible to use the work that has been done to identify and categorize key skills to refine your thinking about positions and what they need to be good at – even in organizations that aren’t that large.

Talent Development

It gets a bad rap. In many organizations, talent development inside an organization is seen as boring, ineffective training that is required. Too many talent development organizations are stuck delivering mandatory OSHA and sexual harassment training – and not enough of the kind of leadership development training that makes a real difference. (Hopefully, they’re delivering on anti-sexual harassment training, but that’s another story.) Because of this, most managers and leaders don’t even think to approach their talent development team with the kinds of skills building necessary to build tomorrow’s leaders of the organization.

This gulf between the tactical execution of mandatory training and the kinds of leadership development training that’s possible is something worth crossing for both the business and the talent development professional.

Seeking Skills Models

If you want to develop anything, you need to know what you’re shooting for. You need to know what’s important to the organization and, by extension, what isn’t. There are so many skills that can be trained, how do you focus your limited time and resources on the skills that are going to matter? Of course, there are some variations to every organization, but in truth, leadership is the same across organizations. The skills that make a leader good in one organization are likely going to make them good in another organization. That’s why Lombardo and Eichinger don’t recommend that you reinvent the wheel. They recommend a model called Leadership Architect® developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. A summary of the model (pulled from the book) follows:

With a model for skills in place, it’s important to understand the number and types of skills needed both in general and specific to roles or levels in the organization.

Number of Skills

The answer, in terms of what skills should the ideal leader have, is always answered with “All of them;” however, as the outline implies, there are more skills than anyone can be reasonably expected to excel at – or even to be proficient at. Instead, the leader needs a basic toolkit, with deep skills in a few areas and no deficiencies in others that are barriers to their career advancement.

They break down skills into groupings:

  • Price-of-Admission – These skills are necessary for and expected of everyone, so they won’t help differentiate candidates in the talent pipeline.
  • Competitive Edge – These skills deliver differentiation between average performers and high performers.
  • Competitive Edge by Level – These skills differ by level in the organization, with some skills being needed by managers but not by executives and vice versa.
  • Competitive Edge for Superior Performance – These skills seem to only be found in superior performers at any level of the organization.

The answer to the number of competitive edge skills by level seems to be 5 skills for managers and 8 skills for executives, but the tricky part is that the skills aren’t all the same.

Better Hiring

One of the things you might expect from a book about how to develop a leadership machine (or a leadership pipeline); however, the view is more organic. The expectation is that there is so much competition for the best people that, if you want to develop a pipeline of leaders, you had better plan to do it yourself rather than hire it from the market.

Competitively, the best (read: most expensive) offers go to the candidates who show the highest GPAs – or at least meet some arbitrary GPA cutoff. There are not enough of these candidates to go around, and the demand has driven the cost up. A better investment, supported by research, is to build effective training programs that allow you to develop the leadership skills through your internal development process.

Effective training programs aren’t all in the classroom or online. Effective training programs are designed to nurture the candidates through challenging them appropriately. Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile explains how we need challenges and how the right challenges at the right intensity with the right recovery time make us stronger. The training programs we develop internally should progressively challenge candidates without overwhelming them or pushing them too hard – and that is very hard to do.

Returning to Defaults

Left to our own devices, we’ll fall back on a few of our core strengths – things that we learned during our journey into adulthood or soon after we entered the corporate world. These strengths are great until they’re misapplied or applied too much. When these core skills come out, it can be a sign that someone is under too much stress. The result of the application of these skills are problems rather than solutions, because even executing on skills that you’re good at when you’re supposed to be doing something else is a bad thing.

In our office, I have a real, full-sized stoplight. It’s just to the right of my desk and it’s a constant and visible reminder that just because I can do something (I have the skill or capability) doesn’t mean I should do it (it’s the right thing). “Can do” aren’t green lights, they’re yellow. If I’m exceptionally good at crafting introductory language and start to sink my teeth into it, it could mean that I’m addressing something that requires finesse for a high-profile client. Conversely, it might mean that I’m avoiding a difficult personnel discussion that I need to have – perhaps with the person who should be doing this work. When I’m doing something I can do – but shouldn’t – I’m depriving myself, my team, and my world of the more challenging or rare skills that I’m being asked to execute on.

The Secret of Success

It’s learning. It’s learning how to learn. It’s learning how to hunger for additional skills. When Stan Lee put the call out for people to become the next superhero in a comic and on the big screen, he got a lot of entries. People wanted to see their personal brand of superhero come to life. Most of the superhero ideas were duds, but one was just unique enough. The character Domino had the capability to influence luck. The degree to which this is played out in Deadpool 2 is ridiculous, even by superhero movie standards – but it represents an intriguing argument. What skill – like the ability to influence luck – would be more useful than anything else?

While none of us can influence luck, we can influence learning. The ability to learn and the world of information that we live in today means nothing is out of reach for someone ingrained with the metaskill of learning. It’s not quite as slick as downloading new skills into someone’s brain, like they did in The Matrix, but it is the ability to expand beyond the normal limits of humanity.

Learning is Risky Business

Everyone wants to know the secret of success, and here it is – be continuously learning. It’s simple. However, most people don’t do it. Why? Because learning is risky business. It means you must admit that you’re making mistakes and you’re vulnerable. It means you must admit that you don’t have all the answers, and in most business situations today, that’s risky.

Showing vulnerability is inherently risky, because the person you exposed the vulnerability to may choose to exploit it (or at least try). However, learning is risky for another, more profound reason. Learning allows you to change your world view, and in doing so may threaten everything that you believe. So, when it comes to the key to success, the answer is simple but not easy. It takes courage to stay focused on learning, even when it might hurt.

High Performer but not Highest

If you wanted to predict the best leaders in your organization ten years from now, who would you choose? Would you choose those with the absolute highest performance for the last quarter or the last year? Obviously, you want successful performers, but do you want the absolute top performers? Curiously, the answer is no. What you want are solid performers who are making long-term investments in their learning and development.

Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, explains how he measures the effectiveness of teams on multiple levels, and short-term performance is the simplest but poorest predictor of long-term performance. The highest level is learning and growth. The same is true for individuals. If they’re focused only on short-term results, they’ll be a brighter star than their peers at the expense of their long-term performance.

Ideally, if you’re looking to find your highest potential future leaders, you’ll look for someone who has learned to balance short-term results with long-term development. If they can do this in themselves, they’ll likely be able to deliver this balance as a leader.

Agility

There has a been a greater focus on the idea of agility as the world seems to be changing more rapidly than ever before. Entire industries are under siege from startups with a new way of doing things. The venerable Kodak lost its hold on the photography market during the digital disruption of digital cameras that ironically, they helped to create. Taxi companies are struggling against Lyft and Uber. The automobile and energy industries have been confronted with the fact that electric cars are becoming a reality and both industries are trying to determine how they’ll cope.

Sometimes agility is couched on the language of innovation. If we just learn how to innovate, we’ll leapfrog the competition. This neglects the reality of Kodak’s situation. They demonstrated innovation in the introduction of digital cameras but were ultimately overcome by the reality of an organization too married to chemical photographic processes to fully adapt to the new electronic world.

Learners are agile because of their capacity to connect diverse ideas and to pull from different places to create new combinations of solutions that can be applied to their company and their industry.

Career Freedom Option Accounts

On the one hand, you’ll hear that you should do something that you love, and you’ll never have a day’s work in your life. On the other hand, you hear that you’ll have to pay your dues. You’ll have to keep your nose to the grindstone and work for years before you start to enjoy the fruits of your labor. How can both be true?

The answer lies in flow. Flow is the high-performance psychological state that balances challenge and skill that is itself rewarding. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more about flow.) In flow, you’re working hard, and you’re not really seeing the rewards in the tangible sense, but the intrinsic rewards are enough to keep you going. (See Why We Do What We Do for more on intrinsic rewards.) Still, this doesn’t mean if you can’t find flow and find the intrinsic rewards that you should immediately quit your job; you should first check your career freedom options.

The choices we make in terms of learning, persistence, and savings can help us drive up the balance in our career freedom accounts. The more skills be have (learning), the more results we can demonstrate (persistence), and the more resources (savings) we have, the greater the opportunities for us to safely quit our current career and start another career that may be more appealing for its intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Someone who is an accomplished carpenter and an accomplished plumber clearly has more options than someone who has only one or the other of these skills. When they decide they want to do something new or work for someone new, they can make the leap quickly and easily. Someone who fails to finish high school and has no specific skills is stuck working entry level jobs in manufacturing or service. They can’t afford (figuratively) to make a change, even if they don’t like their current situation.

Someone who didn’t finish high school, college, a trade school, or anything that grants a certificate of completion (which is what a diploma is) isn’t in a position to provide any marker of their value to a new perspective company or client. Without these markers of persistence, many organizations won’t give you a chance.

You’ve probably heard about the people who retire in their 40s. They’ve saved enough money that they don’t have to work any longer. The interest on their savings are enough to cover their modest needs, and as a result they’re not going to work. They’re going to spend their time doing what they want. At some level, we’re all trying to do this. We’re looking to acquire enough assets that we can make the absolute decision to walk away from working. Whether we call that retirement or FU money, the goal is to be able to have ultimate freedom in our careers including what we do and don’t do.

The War for Talent

While the market changes due to COVID-19 may make the war for talent a thing of the past for a time, the fundamental issue remains unchanged. The war for talent is framed in the perspective of not enough people. However, that framing is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that we don’t have enough people to do the work. The reality is that we don’t have enough skilled and persistent people to do the work.

The challenge isn’t one of absolute numbers but rather ratios of the number of people who are occupying the planet and the percentage of those that possess the skills that we need for the positions that we have created. Certainly, we need to try to create positions in ways that minimize the depth and diversity of skills required to increase the chances that we can find people to fit the role, but we must simultaneously find ways to encourage the development of skills. This includes not just access to the tools necessary to develop the skills but also the tools of motivation to create a desire for people to learn those skills.

People Development

The sad fact is that only 7% of managers are held accountable for the development of their people, according to a McKinsey study. In a world of management by objectives, dashboards to hit, and a continuing increase in the general pressure, developing the people under your care gets lost in the shuffle. (See Servant Leadership for more on the idea of the people you lead being under your care.) Because it’s not measured, it’s not happening.

In my personal world, I can tell you that I left my corporate job and started Thor Projects because I felt like I wasn’t receiving career development. My journey since then has been eclectic, but it’s been good. I know that I didn’t know what I was doing for my career development – and still don’t. It would have been good to have someone who has been through the challenges that I was and am facing, who could guide me through developing the skills that I need to be successful, but sadly that almost never happens in an organization.

Whether your organization is good about your development or not, you can take your own steps to become a leader by reading The Leadership Machine.

Book Review-Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders

Have you ever had that bewildering moment when you’re in a conversation and you suddenly realize that you have no idea what the conversation is about? You’re going along, disagreeing but still conversing, until you reach the moment when you’re aware that you’re not talking about the same thing as the other person, and you wonder exactly how you got here. Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders is designed to help you better understand the dynamics that are in play in a room and be able to observe and react to them better.

I was first introduced to David Kantor’s work via Bill Issacs’ work, Dialogue. The revelation that was shared was that people speak from three different points of view: power, meaning, and feeling (affect). When people are in the same conversation but speaking from these radically different perspectives, it’s often as if the people in the conversation are talking past each other, unable to even hear, much less process, what the other person is saying. As I was preparing the Confident Change Management course, I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper into Kantor’s work. I’m glad I did.

Operating Systems

When a computer boots up, it starts the operating system, and thereafter it just becomes a part of the way the computer works. It’s largely unnoticed except when you go to launch a new program. Yet all the time, the operating system is coordinating and shaping your experience with the computer. The operating systems that we use in life are the same. They’re the default assumptions, way of working, and underground of our consciousness. Kantor explains that there are three operating system types:

  • Closed – We believe we have all the answers, and we must share them with the world so they can execute our great ideas.
  • Open – Collectively, we know more than anyone can know. We just need to bring everyone together in a conversation (or dialogue) to expose it.
  • Random – Insights come but only if we’re willing to ignore the structure and work through problems in the way that feels the most natural.

None of these are good or bad – just good or bad for the environment they’re used in.

Communications Domains

The power, meaning, and feeling (affect) I mentioned above make up the communication domain. Some people are concerned with the movement of power, some with the meaning of it all, and some with how it will make people feel. What is important here, as it was with operating systems, is that people don’t realize this is happening.

They have a style of communication that is their preferred style. It is the one they’ll fall back to most often, particularly when stressed. Communicating with people speaking in a different domain can be as foreign as speaking with someone in a foreign language. It takes great concentration and focus to understand what the other person is saying.

Action Modes

The third part of the model (or third layer, if you’d prefer) is the way that someone is responding in a conversation. Here, most of us have more flexibility, but still tend towards one of the following approaches:

  • Move – A drive towards action
  • Follow – Support of a previous mode
  • Oppose – To move against the proposed move either by stopping or moving in another direction.
  • Bystand – Watch what is happening and observe, but don’t outwardly act.

Kantor says that people can only take one of these four stances in a conversation. I disagree, because I think it underplays the need for curiosity, inquiry, and understanding. Whether you want to use Motivational Interviewing, The Ethnographic Interview, or some other guide to understanding the position of another person, I believe that it’s essential to communication. So, I support the attempt to identify archetypical moves, I’m not sure this is the comprehensive list.

Dialogue Mapping exposes the IBIS model of dialogue mapping that includes questions, ideas, pros, and cons. Fundamental to this approach is the question, which is both the central theme for discussion and a way that the problem can be clarified.

Seeing Ghosts

A key, and appropriate, observation of Kantor’s is that sometimes the conversations aren’t about the conversation happening in the room at that time but are instead ghosts left over from our childhood, the stories we told ourselves, and the patterns we were left with. We see reasons to trust where none should be given. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revised for more on trust.)

Sometimes the challenge with the conversation that’s going on has nothing to do with the here and now and instead is some remnant of some experience that was had a long time ago, and it’s left an indelible mark on our psyche, a permanent fixture that we’ll spend the rest of our lives covering up or addressing.

In the Shadows

Shadows are places where the ghosts live. They’re the places that people don’t want to go. They’re spooky, scary, and frightening. However, the greatest risk to our conversations isn’t in not learning a new skill. The greatest risk is in not being able to address those things that hold us back.

Whether these barriers to success surface as ghosts or as undesirable consequences of our default operating modes, learning to shine light in the shadows of our psyche – and then having the discipline to do it – makes us more complete as humans, coworkers, and leaders. Unlike many popular psychology books today, Kantor invites us into the space of our weaknesses, so that we can discover them more fully and learn to address the most grievous issues that are causing us harm.

Courteous Compliance

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott has a place called “ruinous empathy,” where there’s caring for the other person but no willingness or ability to challenge directly. Kantor calls this “courteous compliance,” when you disagree with the conversation but aren’t willing to speak up to have your voice heard. Kantor explains that we need to have the other voices to test and check our perspectives. It’s the silence of dissenting voices that can prove disastrous to the person and to the organization. (See The Difference for more on being inclusive of all voices.)

Control

Often in organizations, you see compensating systems. These are systems with the purpose of limiting the negative effects of other individuals. Instead of confronting the person directly about the problem, you’re faced with a system designed to limit the limitation of a leader or group. The system might take the form of an additional review meeting, an extra sign off, or additional activities, but ultimately the goal is to prevent the negative consequences from happening again.

The problem with these systems is that they are necessarily both wasteful and incomplete. They’re wasteful, because if you could only correct the root problem – or even create a higher awareness – the system wouldn’t need to exist. They’re incomplete in the fact that they’ll never cover every possible situation.

Chaos

Organizations exist through their ability to keep the chaos of the market and the world on the outside. They resist change, because it’s the status quo that keeps the organization together. People with random operating systems are a threat to the very nature of the organization. They’re called disruptors, and there’s a reason. They disrupt the carefully crafted control of the organization and replace it with just a little chaos.

Organizations resist the chaos that those with a random operating systems bring only to often find themselves unresponsive to the broader world until it’s too late.

Model Building

Kantor continues with a conversation of model building. That is, building a way that the organization will function – a leadership model. Though he uses different terms, it’s the same following, fluent, detaching approach that I’ve discussed before that is the heart of the apprentice, journeyman, master trades model. (See Presentation Zen, The Heretics Guide to Management, and Story Genius for other places where it’s occurred and Apprentice, Journeyman, Master for a core conversation about the progression.)

He uses the words imitation, constraint, and autonomy for the progression, but the concepts are nearly identical to the following, fluent, and detaching that are more commonly used.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been through the progression myself that I don’t get locked up with Kantor’s approach to everything. However, I feel as if I’ve gained some appreciation and skills for Reading the Room through reading the book.

Book Review-No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results

It started with the liars. They’d ask, “Do you have a minute?” They’d plop themselves down in the comfy guest chair and proceed to take about 45 minutes. That’s what kicked off Cy Wakeman’s quest and led to No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results. The frustration with the status quo and the conventional wisdom about how to deal with employees led Wakeman to a very contrary view about what can and should be done to create organizations that deliver results.

BMWs (Bitching, Moaning, and Whining)

They’d drive their BMWs right into offices, and no one would stop them. Employees who were low on the accountability and engagement scales would routinely do a drive-by and kidnap the time of another employee with their bitching, moaning, and whining (their “BMW”). The problem is that, in a world where we must listen to our employees and care about how others feel, what are you to do?

It turns out the answer is to convert the useless listening into something useful – problem solving. As the father of two daughters, I know firsthand that there are times that everyone just needs to be listened to. They don’t want a solution. They want to know that they’re understood. There’s nothing wrong with that. Despite Wakeman’s perspective that we should never listen to an employee bitch, moan, or whine, I’ll disagree.

As humans, we need to feel connected (see Loneliness, The Blank Slate, and Bowling Alone for more). We need to believe that we’re heard. There’s a very valid question as to whether our manager or HR department should be the person that hears us for every concern we have. In most cases, I’d say no. However, we’ve got to be careful turning this natural need for connection away, because we don’t stop it – we redirect it back to their peers and subordinates, and this has the potential for a creating a toxic effect on the culture.

I remember a long time ago, when I walked into a friend in HR’s office and told her that I had turned in my resignation to my manager. She was visibly stunned. I was confused by her reaction. I had been very transparent with her about my frustrations – which she could do little or nothing about. Her response still echoes in my head. “But lots of people come in and complain to me about things, but few actually do anything about it.” That was the fundamental difference. It’s OK to complain if you’re willing to do something about it in the end.

One of my daughters has a habit of plopping herself at the end of my bed at about 10:30 at night. My wife and I get up early, and 10:30 is when we want lights out. Our college-age daughter gets up a little later than us and seems ready to talk. I’ve learned that, most of the time, what she wants of us – or me, as my wife sometimes falls asleep during our long talks – is just that I’ll listen. She doesn’t want me to solve the problem, she wants me to understand. That’s OK, I can follow along. It’s part of being a dad.

Where she and I sometimes must renegotiate is when she continues to bring the same problems to our untimely conversations. She knows that she’ll get two or three swings at the bat before my natural instincts to help solve problems will kick in, and she’ll get a solution so I can get some sleep.

My response is to not reject the person but to redirect them into healthier long-term habits. With that in place employees can be redirected to talking to their peers because they’ll be moving forward rather than moving back.

Driving into Victimhood

BMWs are meant for driving. But the problem is they seem like they’ve got a runaway GPS and autopilot system that drive them only one place. They’re always headed for victimhood. It’s not that victimhood isn’t a place to visit. We’ve all driven by and perhaps pitched a tent for a while. The problem with victimhood is that it’s a lousy place to build a house.

I’m very careful to draw a distinction between being victimized and being a victim. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) Being victimized means that someone took advantage of you or your situation. Being a victim is a self-identification label that people apply to themselves as if it’s a permanent thing.

Being a victim should never be a label that one applies to themselves or others. It’s a negative, self-fulfilling sort of thing that keeps people trapped and prevents them from starting to move forward in life.

Start Helping

The way out of victimhood is often the helping bus. Sometimes it can be helping yourself out of your situation, but, strangely, it’s often about helping others. If you look across research and programs, one of the most powerful ways to lift your mood is to volunteer and to help someone else. The very act of doing something for others moves you away from the self-focused pity that lies at the heart of victimhood.

Managers and leaders have powerful questions that they can ask to transform someone who appears stuck in victimhood into action. Simply asking “How can you help?” is a powerful framing change, where the person is no longer the victim and is instead an active party in their situation and the situation of others.

Rely on Reality

Reality isn’t always pleasant. It’s not always fun, but it always beats the alternative. The problem when we get into our own heads and do the prediction our brains were designed to do is that we invariably get it wrong. We’re still marvels in that we can predict and anticipate, but what we believe may happen doesn’t mean it will happen. (See Mindreading for more about predicting.)

Many of the sources of stress in our modern lives aren’t real. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on stress.) We make up stories and see potential negative outcomes, and we forget that, in most cases, we’re really OK.

Suffering Because We Refuse to Adapt

Wakeman relates a story where her team was moved repeatedly during some construction, and they were getting frustrated. A mentor asked why she was frustrated, and she answered that it was because of the moving. When her mentor asked again, a light bulb went on. She wasn’t frustrated because of the moving. She was frustrated because the team failed to adapt to the moving. (Though she didn’t say it directly, she let go of her righteousness that she and her team shouldn’t be treated like this.)

The short version is that she and her team were failing to adapt to the moving. As a consultant for most of my professional career, I’ve learned to work anywhere. Starbucks, McDonalds, kitchen, cafeteria, it doesn’t matter. It’s a skill like any other. Becoming adaptable and flexible is something that her team needed to learn.

We get caught up in the ways we feel we should be treated and respond with righteous indignation when we feel as if people aren’t giving us the respect we deserve. But, in many cases, it doesn’t matter. Learning to accept and adapt is critical to our work lives as well as our lives as humans. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Right Turnover

But what about when it’s not right to adapt? Sometimes, there’s a bad fit that just won’t work. As much as you hammer the square peg, it’s simply not going through the round hole. That’s when it’s time for turnover. With the increasing difficulty in finding people to fill open slots, it’s hard to recognize when it’s time for someone to be successful somewhere else, but it must be done.

We’ve all seen the receptionist who has a permanent pickle face. (You know the kind of face you make when eating a pickle.) We’ve met the salespeople whose world view is to extract as much out of a customer as possible today and not worry about the long-term relationship despite the corporate culture being built on lasting relationships. Those are the people that need to turn over in the organization.

Sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. One of my clients had an average tenure of employees for over 30 years. In many ways, it was a testament to the leadership. In other ways, having such a low turnover rate meant that some people who needed to go… didn’t.

Accountability

In some organizations, people can continue to work there even when they’re not meeting their goals. Let me restate that – in almost every organization, people can continue to work there even when they’re not meeting goals. The reality is that we love the idea of other people being accountable but cringe when there’s the thought that we’d be made accountable. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more.)

Over the course of my career, I’ve had more than a few projects where the systems I was implementing would result in greater accountability. The systems would provide crystal clear reporting on who was and was not doing the behaviors the organization required of them. I’m not talking about the outcomes. I’m talking about the actual behaviors the organization wanted.

Consider, for instance, the CRM (customer relationship management) system designed to track when customers are followed up with and what the current status of a prospective deal is. Managers love it, and salespeople see it as busy work. Rarely has a high-performing but non-compliant salesperson been fired for not keeping their data up to date.

The problem with this is that a lack of accountability is a breeding ground for all sorts of bad behaviors the organization doesn’t want. It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to have to hold employees accountable, but it’s necessary. That being said, it’s even harder to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and inactions. We fall into the trap of fundamental attribution error (see Thinking, Fast and Slow), and we instead excuse away our actions and, in the process, create opportunities for problems.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

The internet is a great place where there are lots of small bridges to cross. For a while, I was managing some internet communities, and the single best piece of advice I ever got was “Don’t feed the trolls.” Trolls are the people who are just there to create a ruckus. They’re not really trying to add value to the conversation, they’re there to stir the pot.

Trolls grow in strength and power when they accomplish their goals and get responses. The less they’re able to draw people into the fight, the weaker they become. So, responding to the trolls was always done in private. For situations where it was appropriate, their posts were removed and occasionally the trolls were banished.

More routinely, we’d encourage our regular posters to restore balance by contributing in ways that acknowledged but neutralized the trolls. Instead of directly fighting them and escalating the tensions, they’d acknowledge them and then minimize their efforts to create problems. The strategy worked well and allowed us to keep a vibrant community that welcomed healthy disagreement without the kind of disruptive influence the trolls were trying to create. (See more about how trolls are disruptive by looking at Mastering Logical Fallacies.)

Don’t Encourage Lying

I’ll end with another place where Wakeman and I disagree. To be clear, there’s a lot of good in No Ego. There are only a few places where I think the advice works in the short term but is caustic in the long term. Confronting people about their support is one of them.

Wakeman encourages managers to confront employees and get them to commit to the plan – or find a place for themselves off the team or in a different organization. While noble in purpose, in my experience, this just shuts down transparency. The employee – who often needs THIS job – will say whatever is necessary and then not do it. (See The Fearless Organization about the need for their job and creating a culture of safety.)

In effect, Wakeman’s approach encourages employees to lie and ultimately subvert the goals and plans of the organization. That’s very difficult to root out. Rather than put it on the employee to commit, I’d transform the question to “What needs to be done to help you support this initiative?” In Wakeman’s world view, this is kowtowing to the employee; but in my view, it acknowledges them as a human being who has a concern. The end may be that there is no agreement to be had, but before that, I may learn something, and I’m also not forcing them to lie to me – I’ll count that as a win.

I remember reading Humilitas‘ introduction and the great humility displayed in sharing that the book wasn’t about the author but was needed. It’s hard to write a book about humility – or No Ego – without seeming arrogant or conceited. For me, there’s a humor in No Ego as a title, since Wakeman firmly believes in her perspective as an opinion – as we all do to some degree. At the same time, her writing suggests that she knows better than the employees. For me, No Ego would have been about how to gently redirect while learning. When you read No Ego, do you see ways to develop your own lack of ego?

Book Review-Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

I don’t know how to stay in my lane. That’s the way I often explain to clients how and why I reach into related areas of the organization to try to support them as well. We may be focused on one technology project, but that doesn’t stop me from supporting human resources, communications, marketing, and other departments by sharing whatever I know about what does – and doesn’t – work in their world. That’s why I was intrigued by Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I wanted to find out how others like me, who weren’t easily constrained, managed to continue to grow and increase their impact.

Deep and Wide

The more time someone spends in a discipline, the more they tend to view the world from the lens of that discipline. They don’t see options. They fall into the Einstellung effect. That is, they continue trying to solve new problems with the same old approaches, even if better approaches are available. The more we know, the less willing we are to look at things differently and find other, potentially, better approaches.

Often, this is often boiled down to the fox or the hedgehog problem. (See my detailed post Should You Be the Fox or the Hedgehog? for more.) The short version is a hedgehog knows one thing well and a fox knows many things less deeply. The fundamental premise of the book – and the general answer I came to in my post – is that the best answer is to be a “foxy hedgehog.” That is, have an area or areas where you’re very deep, but also have a general awareness of other areas, so you can bring solutions from other industries to bear on the problems your industry faces.

Medici

The Medici family brought together very strong artists and thinkers in several different genres in Florence. (See The Medici Effect for more.) They created a safe environment where the artists were allowed and even encouraged to learn about the kinds of art, science, and thinking that was related to – but outside of – their area of expertise. The resulting cross-pollination of experts kicked off the Renaissance period.

What the Medici family managed was to bring together different disciplines in different people and, ultimately, through conversation and dialogue, bring together different disciplines within individuals. (See Dialogue for more on the power of dialogue.) By creating a safe place for diversity of thought and background, they accelerated individuals internalizing several different disciplines. (See The Difference for more on diversity.)

By creating common space – in effect, porous boundaries – where experts can talk and help one another, the traditional silos that drive business today are knocked down. There is no wall to smack into when one artist wants to work with another to learn their craft.

Polymath

When you know one skill very well, you’re a hedgehog. The metaphor breaks down when you know more than one subject very well. When you are a true master in multiple domains, the metaphor can’t handle you any longer. One of the all-star polymaths was Michelangelo. He was also someone who tested and learned. Three-fifths of his sculptures were never finished. He simply became bored before he ever finished them. Despite the quote about David, that he just removed anything that didn’t seem to be David, he often seemed to change his mind repeatedly about what a sculpture should look like.

Sampler Platter

There are some people who make up their minds about what they want in life very early. They decide to be a doctor, a vet, a policeperson, a fireperson, or something else and they stick to it. You might call it the “tiger path” after Tiger Woods and his lifelong love affair with golf. In his case, all worked well, and he became quite good at golf. However, sometimes, things don’t work so well out of the gate.

Vincent van Gogh is hailed both as a successful painter whose genius wasn’t well-known in his time and as a sad, mentally-ill artist who took his own life out of despair. However, what is often overlooked is that van Gogh was several things – quite unsuccessfully – before becoming a painter. From art dealer to minister, Vincent tried his hand at many things. He would pour himself into each thing before discovering that no amount of his work or drive would bring him success. Somewhere, deep in the heart of the Protestant work ethic, is the idea that if you work hard, you’ll be successful. (For more on why this doesn’t work, see The Black Swan.) He happened into painting and found his calling, but not before he did a great deal of accidental sampling as he struggled to find his place, passion, and ability to sustain a life.

It turns out that this sampling period is important. Whether it’s trying to figure out what sport to play or what career to go into, the ability to determine what we want allows us more capacity to be successful in the long term.

Changes in Attitude

One of the problems of making choices about our future life too early is making the choice before the person we’ll become has even arrived. We tend to believe that we don’t change much over time, but our cars, haircuts, and way of life betray us. We continue to change throughout our lives, particularly before we’re in our mid-twenties.

When we go to college and select a major, we’re quite literally selecting it for someone who has not yet arrived. The person we’re going to become hasn’t come into existence yet. David Bohm would say that the person we’re going to become hasn’t emerged yet. While we’re the aperture that our future self will enter the world through, we are not that future self at the present. (See On Dialogue for more.)

Going Slow at First

One of the challenges with sampling and trying to find your way is that the appearance is – at least at first – that you’re going slower. After all, those who are blazing their trails are making more money and reaching a career position quicker. However, the challenge is that these early bloomers often find they want to change their careers later in life – which comes with a great cost.

In learning, there’s an idea of “desirable difficulty.” That is, we need a level of difficulty in learning or the learning won’t stick. (See How We Learn for more.) On the surface, training that’s easy looks better. There is a quicker time to completion and sometimes even better scores on assessment exams. However, without a level of difficulty, the information soon becomes inaccessible to our memories and the information is lost for good or must be relearned. So, learners that struggle a bit more may initially score lower, but, over time, their real results will be better.

Those who don’t settle into one career to start often learn more about a wide range of things and ultimately end up doing better because of their breadth of knowledge – and the reality that they don’t need to change careers late in life, because they picked appropriately after sampling many options.

Artificially Intelligent Savants

It’s fashionable today to speak about artificial intelligence and the wonderful things it can do. Artificial intelligence is another way of saying machine learning, which is another way of saying applied statistics. Artificial intelligence can solve some problems that are particularly vexing to our human way of thinking, however, much like savants they have a limited range of usefulness.

If you don’t provide a machine-learning algorithm the right input data or fail to train it at all, the results are not stellar. The reality is that the single-focused, task-specific knowledge is the kind of thing an artificial intelligence solution is very good at. However, artificial intelligence solutions don’t do well outside their range or with problems that aren’t well defined.

Fermi Estimates

I was first exposed to Fermi Estimates in How to Measure Anything. It’s interesting that being given a little bit of knowledge about a set of things can lead to insights that are roughly right. The classic example is finding the number of piano tuners in Chicago based on numbers like population of Chicago, the probability they have a piano, the number of pianos a tuner can do in a year, the frequency of tuning, etc. The answer was strikingly close to the real answer when Fermi asked his students to put together an estimate.

However, Fermi estimates are great for fact-checking, too. If you feed things you know into a rough structure, you can identify when someone is talking bullshit to you. It becomes obvious the numbers can’t be right, because they simply don’t add-up. The ability to make quick, order-of-magnitude-type guesses and know whether ideas are viable or not is a great way to verify your work. The folks who can do this tend to be those with the broadest experience. Being too close and knowing too much causes your estimates to be less right.

Knowing Too Much

For the most part, people believe you can never know too much. While that’s true at some level, the other truth is that the more you think you know, the less inclined you are to listen. The rules don’t apply to you, and that’s the point at which you begin to lose touch with the rest of the world.

When you lose touch with the broader world, your estimates become less accurate. The more you focus in on an area and become an expert, the less likely the prediction you make about the topic will be valid. The myopic vision about an industry, role, or process tends to separate you from considering multiple, alternate possibilities that makes estimates more accurate.

Jazzing it Up

Two jazz musicians are holding a conversation, when the first asks the second, “Can you read music?” Rather than an incredulous response, the second says slyly, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Jazz is best known for the ability to improvise. Ensembles play together and build off one another. They develop a feel for how to co-create something. Somehow, the knowledge of how music is supposed to be – with its rules and its structure – impairs this. It gets to the point where knowing too much about how music is supposed to be limits your ability to make music that’s memorable.

One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Django Reinhardt, couldn’t read at all – either words or music. His genius was in learning how to play music intuitively. In some ways he proved, indirectly, that you didn’t need to know how to read music to be good at it.

Solution Matching

A key problem-solving skill is matching the solution to the problem. Students of physics and chemistry are presented with dozens (or hundreds) of equations to solve specific problems. The application of the equation is easy, but figuring out which equation to use can be much more problematic. It turns out that one of the most powerful things about problem solving is the identification of the solution to apply to the problem – second only to being able to define the problem itself.

A key benefit of a broad range of experiences is that the library of known solutions can be quite large – particularly if one doesn’t care which discipline they’re pulling from. A challenge created by specialization is that our ability to select solutions relies upon us learning the various potential solutions in an interleaved form rather than a blocked form. The more we learn solutions sequentially and separately, the less likely we are going to be able to pick out the solution that best fits in our time of need.

Kepler Was Far Out

Long before we understood much about how the planets moved, many people accepted the Copernican heliocentric model, though not all. However, the Copernican model didn’t answer every question. Questions like why the planets further out moved slower than the planets closer to the Sun weren’t answered. Instead of invisible forces, Kepler pondered what might be moving the planets forward. In his wanderings, he tried out many ideas, including that the motion of the planets was powered by light.

One of the key things about Kepler was that he was willing to document his wanderings in his notes, and those notes were preserved. One could say that Kepler was one of the first leaders in John Stepper’s Working Out Loud movement. The fact that this documentation exists shows the kind of diversity of thought that Kepler was willing to entertain and harness to find solutions to understanding our universe.

Deep Structure

On the surface, nothing looks like anything else. A mirror reflects your image, and a piece of glass shows you what’s on the other side. However, looking deeper into the structure, you realize that both a mirror and glass are the same. The mirror has simply added a bit of reflective silver on the back side of the glass. At the level of functionality or aesthetics, there is little similarity (they’re both flat), but the more deeply you look, the more similarities there are to be found.

Though they’re constructed almost completely the same, their appearance is quite different. What’s powerful about folks with a wide range of experiences is their ability to identify the deep structure of the world and create solutions based on that deep structure. Successful problem solvers look beyond the shimmering appearance to locate what lies beneath.

In our moisture-indicating IV dressing, we realized the key problem was that nurses couldn’t easily see a dressing needed changed. The small barrier of moisture being difficult to assess meant that many patients weren’t getting dressings changed enough, and they were getting sick. (See Demand for more on small barriers.) Where other manufacturers were trying to find another antimicrobial that the microbes would eventually get around, we focused on changing the behavior to prevent the infections – something that the microbes are powerless to work around.

IQ Changes

For all the concern about where the world is headed, when it comes to the kinds of things measured by an intelligence test, we’re moving up. The Flynn effect refers to the progressive increase in our responses to intelligence tests. It seems like we’re getting smarter. Not across eons, in a single generation. Our children, or at the very least our grandchildren, are quite likely going to be more intelligent than us. However, the effect isn’t linearly distributed.

The more abstract the world a person lived in is, their higher their score. The closer they were to agrarian, less-industrialized societies, the lower the effect. We’re becoming better at working in the abstract and forgoing the need to have absolute concrete examples, and our thinking is getting better. While some of this can be attributed to our greater access to better instruction thanks to the work done to improve the efficacy of instruction, some of it is just our ability to think more abstractly. (See Efficiency in Learning for more on improving instruction.)

Fox Hunt

If you want to be successful, you’ve got to go on a fox hunt. Or rather, you must hunt like a fox. Foxes roam freely – there are no boundaries they adhere to. Foxes listen carefully to their environment and seek to understand the messages it sends. Foxes also consume omnivorously – they’ll consume anything that seems interesting to them. These sorts of characteristics in people make for some of the best problem solvers. They can see the world with a thousand different perspectives and find the best way to view the situation. Sometimes, this is expressed as foxes with dragonfly eyes.

I don’t know where you are on your journey. You may have dedicated your life to be a hedgehog and are finding that you need to be a bit more foxy. You may be a fox who’s looking for areas to become specialized in. Either way, I think you’ll find that you’ll get more out of life with a little Range.

Book Review-Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Sometimes the people I speak with look at me funny. They tilt their head just a bit and wonder how I’m looking at problems. I know that I see things differently, but it’s normal to me. Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life seeks to help everyone see things a bit differently. Instead of blaming people for the problems we encounter, the goal is to expose that many of the problems we see are natural outcomes of the systems we create.

Thinking in Systems

One of the reasons I see things differently than others is because I see things in systems. It’s stocks and flows. It’s things that happen as a natural result of other places in the system. It’s also seeing bottlenecks and areas where the system itself can’t adapt. It’s less about the answer today, and it’s more about the process that led to the answer, so I can see if the answer will be the same tomorrow.

When you learn to think in (or see) systems, you learn to wonder what’s next. You begin to look for the situations where the results you’re seeing no longer apply. While it’s doubtful you’ll ever be able to predict every outcome because the systems are too complex, you can often begin to see what might come next – and ways that you can break the chain and cause the system to stop behaving in a bad way. (See Thinking in Systems for much more about systems thinking.)

Good or Bad

We tend to think about both people and systems as being good or bad. However, it’s more about whether the system is a good fit for the need or not. A battleship is a great solution to a sea-to-sea conflict but poor at a sea-to-land attack. Battleships are big ships, and they can’t get close enough to the shore to attack targets that are inland. Aircraft carriers and the planes they support are good for sea-to-land attacks (through the intermediary step of air-to-land) but are vulnerable due to their size and inability to protect themselves from attack at sea. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s that one is more suited to the task than another.

We need to step away from the idea that something is good or bad and instead look for fit and interactions. Systems – including organizations – can be good for society, good for customers, and good for employees – or good at only some of these.

As a quick aside, Nassim Taleb argues in The Black Swan and Antifragile that we optimize redundancy out of systems so we can enhance our gains but leave ourselves susceptible to naturally occurring forces that can take the system out of balance. It’s important to realize that short-term productivity of a system isn’t the only measure we should be watching. Resilience and the ability to cope with stress is important too. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on different kinds of measures of productivity.)

The Blame Game

It’s natural. We have a natural bias – called the fundamental attribution error – to see negative outcomes as the result of people rather than as a natural result of the system they’re in. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) Kurt Lewin said that all behavior is a function of both person and environment. When we’re speaking of our own poor behaviors, we attribute them to the environment. When we’re speaking of others’, we tend to attribute them to their character. While this is natural, that doesn’t make it desirable.

When we’re trapped in corporate systems, we tend to blame others for our chronic frustrations. Instead of looking at the system and seeing the situation as a natural outcome, we perceive that someone must be doing something wrong. Consider walking into an emergency room and finding out that the wait to see a doctor is four hours. You might, quite naturally, be frustrated because of the wait – particularly when you’re feeling bad enough that you’ve decided to go to the emergency room. The problem is that this is – occasionally – the natural result of the system that seeks to optimize the utilization of resources, including doctors and nurses.

In an unconstrained system, there would be a doctor available immediately for every need. However, this is entirely impractical. In an ideal situation, there would be room for everyone to stay in a city for the big game. But to build such capacity would require that it’s unused most of the time, and that would not be financially viable. The point is that every system has a set of constraints that allow it to continue to operate – even if those constraints are occasionally personally painful.

We blame the power-hungry CEOs who don’t allow enough capacity while simultaneously investing in healthcare stocks and demanding an above average return. The truth is that the CEO may be power-hungry, but it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be a four-hour wait if they weren’t. We can, if we choose, attribute the negative circumstances in a system to a person, but often there’s no person who should receive the blame.

The Blind Reflex

Giving in to our natural biases and failing to recognize that the system we’re operating in leads us to bad results is our blind reflex. It’s the default settings for us as humans. When we’re faced with a situation that has us feeling misunderstood and with a lack of control, we’ll feel as if the management is out to get us. The view from the CEO’s desk is one of failures and non-compliance rather than an understanding of the complexity of the system and the inevitability of details and challenges.

To be able to change the system, to make the outcomes better, we need to be able to see the systems we’re operating in and how those systems don’t always work the way we want them to work. In short, we need to find a way to stand outside of the system long enough to see what’s happening inside the system.

Standing Outside the System

It sure would be easier to see the forest if there weren’t so many trees in the way. When you stand too close to a problem, you simply can’t become detached or take a step back far enough to see the bigger picture. That’s the fundamental problem with most organizations. We can’t get enough distance or safety to really evaluate it. (See The Fearless Organization for more about the role of safety in organizations.)

In the workshops that Barry Oshry and those certified through his company Power and Systems runs, this distance is explicitly created for everyone through “time out of time” portions of the program (called “toots”). This when everyone is encouraged to share their experience of the workshop, particularly their role in the fictious organization they’re a part of. This is purposeful reflection that is designed to give the members of the system the space they need to see what’s happening.

In fact, the workshop itself is designed to be a microcosm of what happens in a real organization, and therefore make the patterns more observable, just like we would run a small-scale experiment to confirm something we think we’re seeing in the world at large. When the workshops are run at full scale, there are ethnographers. They’re people whose role it is to document what happens and the background behind each decision. While ethnography is most commonly associated with anthropology and the understanding of different societies, it’s strangely appropriate to the micro-society that’s created in the small organization. (See The Ethnographic Interview for more about the ethnographic process.)

The ethnography serves to provide the context and history across the organization. Ethnographers are silent while the system is running but provide a method of storytelling during the after-action review that helps to understand why and how the system became so dysfunctional. (All systems become dysfunctional.)

Predictable Outcomes

It’s entirely predictable. The C-suite is going to feel burdened and overwhelmed. The middle managers (including VPs, directors, managers, and supervisors) are going to feel torn. They feel powerless to influence the C-suite or protect their workers. The workers are going to feel oppressed. Why? Because that’s the pressure the system puts on them.

The workers can not see the reason behind the rules. They don’t understand what value others are adding – particularly when they are doing all the work. (See The E Myth: Revisited if you’d like to see the natural outcome for bottom level workers who aren’t risk adverse.)

Managers feel like the C-suite doesn’t understand the work being done or the needs of the workers, nor do they feel the workers understand their plight. The C-suite wonders why people just can’t do what they ask. If everyone would just do what the C-suite says, then everything would be good. Instead, they feel like they’re spending all their time dealing with the problems when workers or managers aren’t doing their job.

The Amazing Unpredictable

Of course, the best possible answer is to move past these predictable responses to more enlightened responses, which accept individualization and integration (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about acceptance). Instead of seeing one extreme or the other as the only approach, the enlightened view is to see that it’s a continuum, and both extremes are needed at different times and in different amounts. It’s a perspective of wholeness that acknowledges all is needed – not just some.

Amazing things happen when people accept responsibility for their role in a system and either amplify or dampen the natural effects. The system reaches dynamic stability or harmony more easily when the culture encourages personal responsibility. It’s easier for humans to forgive when the other humans in the system apologize. When, instead, people dig into their position of righteousness, the system destabilizes and creates pain more quickly.

To get to the amazing, unpredictable result, we must be able to step beyond the invisible walls that confine us to our preconceived roles and behaviors. It’s hard to step out in courage into new spaces, to adapt the system to be a better fit to the conditions and reduce the suffering of everyone in the system, but it’s worth it.

If we get really good at Seeing Systems, we don’t need the workshops to find our path to the amazing, unpredictable future.

Book Review-HR On Purpose: Developing Deliberate People Passion

Why do professionals decide to go into human resources? For most, it isn’t a lifelong dream. I’ve met plenty of children who have said they wanted to be firemen or astronauts. I’ve never met someone who, at five, said they wanted to be a human resources manager. Somewhere along the line, people just ended up there – or they recognized their potential to help everyone become more effective. HR On Purpose is a book that can help you find your passion for people, whether HR was the destination or just where you ended up.

It’s All About the People

It’s easy to get confused. There are so many regulations and requirements. It’s easy to believe that the joy is about the implementation of policies and procedures. It’s easy to be deluded into thinking that it’s about the regulations and requirements. However, the job of human resources has always been – and always will be – about the people. Professionals can’t ignore the paperwork or the legal bodies; however, it’s not the point of the job. It’s like saying the freedom of driving a car is about the rules for getting the title.

If you can’t find a way to make the people the most important part, then you’re in the wrong spot. If people aren’t the most important thing, then you may need to look for other opportunities for yourself – inside or outside of the organization.

Dumping Grounds or Counselor

Counselors are paid to listen to other people’s problems. (There’s a myth that they’re paid to solve them as well – the reality is they’re paid to help people learn to solve them themselves.) It’s well known that bartenders and hairdressers often serve as informal counselors. Many churches have lay ministers that serve as counselors too. However, when they’re at work, employees are likely to come spill their problems at the door of the human resources professional.

Listening to other people’s problems all day is exhausting. That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists work so carefully to ensure that they’re doing the kind of self-care they need. That works well for them when their pay is higher and their only job is to listen. When the human resources professional is done listening to an employee vent, they’ve got to get back to that job requisition, health benefits plan, or one of the thousand other tasks that they have. The result is that, too often, human resources professionals don’t take the time to do the self-care they need to keep sane.

Sometimes, the result is, instead of feeling as if they can support the load of employee problems, they feel dumped on. It is possible to learn from counselors and their detachment from problems to ease the load. (See Creativity, Resilient, Burnout: The Cost of Caring, and The Happiness Hypothesis for conversations about detachment.) Whether or not we can find a way to detach from employees’ problems, we need to find ways to bear the load of them.

Confidentiality

If you’re alone in your position in HR – as most practitioners are – finding a way to seek input and maintain employee confidentiality is difficult. In addiction circles, they say, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Unfortunately, there are some jobs – HR being one of them – in which you must keep secrets. The good news is that they’re not secrets about you. Still, the need to maintain confidentiality can be a heavy load to bear. It’s coupled with the necessary uncertainty about whether you’re doing the right thing or giving the right advice.

Employees Are Not the Enemy

Sometimes corporate executives develop the perspective that employees are the problem. They’re defiant. If the employees would just do what they’re told, everything would be good. The plans that the corporation makes would work if only the employees would follow through. This perspective is not correct. While some organizations have some employees that are actively working against the organization, most employees want the organization to succeed and are doing their best to fulfil their roles.

How successful would it be to ask your five-year-old child to drive you to another state? Ignoring the legality of this question, there are numerous gaps that make such a request impossible. There’s the obvious fact that they can’t reach the pedals and the steering wheel and look over the dash at the same time. There’s the fact that they don’t know how to shift into gear. However, more than that, there’s the fact that they’ve never navigated before. They don’t understand maps. They can’t plan for gas. There are numerous reasons why such a plan might fail.

We sometimes do this to employees and then wonder why they fail. We ask them to drive and provide them with the blocks to be able to reach the pedals and the wheel but fail to realize all the other gaps in knowledge and capability that they have. In the end, rather than blaming ourselves for failing to support the employees properly, we blame the employees for failing to accomplish our request.

It’s natural. Calling it fundamental attribution error, as Kahneman does in Thinking, Fast and Slow, doesn’t change the fact that it happens, and it’s natural for executives and HR professionals. It’s our job, as HR professionals, to fight our natural urges and to continue to support management in understanding that a failure to follow doesn’t necessarily mean defiance. It can mean a lack of understanding or a lack of skill.

Communicating

Communication may be our greatest advance as a human society. It’s also one of our greatest challenges. Our ability to share our thinking allows us to work together in ways that even our closest primate cousins cannot. Despite this, we find ways to obscure our thinking and communicate in ways that make us feel superior, but we do so to the detriment of those that we are there to support.

We’re all familiar with legalese. We know it when we hear it – generally lower and faster at the end of the commercial. We see it in contracts. It’s a way that attorneys sometimes hide their true intention from one another in writing contracts. If you’ve ever had attorney friends, and you’ve asked them what something means, only to have them say, “I don’t know,” you’ve seen this in action.

When we communicate in corporate or HR speak, we’re intentionally making it more difficult for someone to understand us – and employees are necessarily suspicious. You are, too, when people adopt overly formal communication approaches with you. While the lexicon of a profession is important to use with other professionals, it’s not useful in communicating with non-professionals. (Lexicon is the specific vocabulary used by a profession to convey precise meaning.) When communicating, our goal should be to communicate, not demonstrate how smart we are.

Seat at the Table

In many organizations, HR isn’t strategic. There isn’t a seat at the executive table for the HR professional. Most HR professionals presume that this is because of their organization. Browne gently challenges the HR professional to start behaving in the right way and the seat will come. Rather than lamenting that you can’t be strategic or a part of the executive conversations, simply behave in a way that’s intentionally strategic and, eventually, the organization will notice.

In my experience, HR professionals are so caught up with the tactical execution that they fail to insist on the development and execution of a strategic plan. One of my technology clients in the long-term care industry has 120% turnover in their front-line workers every year. Admittedly, it’s a relatively thankless job, and the industry’s turnover rate is somewhere between 60-80% per year depending on which numbers you want to believe. Rather than working on the reasons why their turnover is so much higher than average, the professionals are focused on optimizing the onboarding process.

Optimizing the onboarding (and offboarding) process is important, but it’s not strategic. It’s operational excellence rather than strategic insight. Operational excellence doesn’t get you a seat at the executive table. Strategic insight to what must be done to stop the high turnover rate can.

The risk in sharing this is that someone will think strategically and perhaps even work on an execution plan for a few days or weeks and will wonder why the seat at the table isn’t coming. The problem is that the seat at the table isn’t a reward – it’s a natural outcome. When you’ve demonstrated strategic thinking for long enough, the executive team will want you at the table not to reward your efforts but because your perspective can help the team make better collective decisions.

Management by Wandering Around

Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence advocates management by wandering (or walking) around (MBWA). The idea is that, if you really want to know what is happening, you should go to the floor. If you really want to have a connection with people, you have to be willing to spend time to get to know them. Browne shares stories where his commitment to support the employees got him in trouble with the people in the office who felt his time was better spent doing other things.

At the heart of MBWA is a desire to “be with” people and to meet them where they are. That applies to the normal situations not just the crisis. It applies to how people want to be recognized for years of service. It applies to every aspect of working with people. Meeting them where they are at is an important aspect of demonstrating caring and one that few people overlook.

Self-Development

In my technology world, I heard a startling quote decades ago. Steve McConnell was speaking about the state of the industry and said that few developers had even a single book on their craft. I glanced over to my bookshelf and realized that I, thankfully, wasn’t in that category. While books may no longer be the only way to demonstrate that you’re staying up on your profession, they are still a way.

HR professionals rarely spend time investing in their personal development to get better at their craft. Too few professionals are certified. Those who are certified have continuing education requirements to help ensure that they continue to develop. Those who aren’t certified may – or, more often, may not – work towards ensuring that they’re developing as a professional.

The saying that sticks with me – perhaps because I travel too much – is “put your own mask on first before assisting others.” It’s a standard part of the safety briefing for a commercial airline flight. It’s an acknowledgement that, if you’re passed out due to the lack of oxygen, you can’t help others. If you’re always clear about ensuring that your needs are met, you’ll be able to give to others. If you don’t, you may find yourself burned out and unable to do anything to help the people you’re there to support. (See ExtinguishBurnout.com for more on how to protect yourself from burnout.)

Busy

We’re all busy. We’ve all filled our lives with stuff. It’s hard to find someone who couldn’t describe themselves as busy. Even retired friends report themselves as busy. In fact, many of them wonder how they had time to do a job given how busy they are in retirement. We must accept that we’re always going to be busy. The question isn’t busy or not busy. The question is whether our life is filled with the right or the wrong things.

If busy is getting in the way of your self-development, what can you do to remove things to give you space? There are some people for whom there is no margin left. They literally can’t take on one more thing. However, for most of us there are things that we do to waste time or enjoy ourselves that could be refocused on self-development or on more powerful opportunities to connect with our fellow human beings.

You may feel like you’re too busy to take something else on, but I’d encourage you to find space to do HR on Purpose.