Don’t Hate Mayhem. Love Complexity Instead.

You Better Hold On. By Jane Rahman
You Better Hold On. Photo courtesy of Jane Rahman.

The strongest defense against a bewildering world is a love of complexity and ambiguity.

Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most popular female novelist, has provided a brilliant critique of our modern times.  In her TED Talk from September 2017, she expresses concerns about economic uncertainty, the impact this uncertainty has on our emotional bewilderment, and knock-on effect this has on the appeal of demagogues.

“Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment, and I think lots of fear.  But here’s the thing:  Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors.  …I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions.  Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure, and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models.”

Speaking as a workforce analyst, these are my sentiments exactly.  People like me often try to figure out what is happening inside the workplace while thinking of employees as livestock or machines.  But then the people talk, and their souls come through.  Their context and their lives prevail over objective definitions of effectiveness.  Workplace culture overpowers the declarations of those with authority.

Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification

Nowhere do I see this more than when I split a dataset into demographic categories.  The categories are usually either-or scenarios, such as age bracket, binary sex, or length of service.  And just as we find the definitive behaviors and opinions of a certain category of people, with a little more digging we find that there is a deeper human story that defies categories.  I see men taking parental leaves, older workers expressing career ambitions, and high-school dropouts with unmet educational needs.  Putting people into categories only helps find a demographic that best gives voice to the human story.  But that human story will usually speak for everyone.

Shafak, who understands human stories, notes that demagogues “…strongly, strongly dislike plurality.  They cannot deal with multiplicity.  Adorno used to say, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.’  …that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we are living in?  Because everywhere I look, I see nuances slipping withering away.  …So slowly and systematically we are being denied the right to be complex.”

To Shafak, it is the bewilderment imposed upon us by change that makes us susceptible to the simple ideas offered by demagogues.  “…In the face of high-speed change many people wish to slow down, and when there is too much unfamiliarity people long for the familiar, and when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.  This is a very dangerous crossroads, because it is exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture.”

Emotional Intelligence, Embracing Complexity, and Building Resilience to Organizational Change

Shafak suggests that “…we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide.”  Those who struggle with complexity and ambiguity need our help.  We’re not at liberty to define non-complex people as the “other,” as people whose opinions we can reject in yet another polarizing simplification.

I felt this concern when I followed the James Damore incident at Google.  A programmer on the autism spectrum was fired for writing an anti-diversity manifesto, and his memo showed that he struggled with sensitivity training in a culture of diversity.  He attempted to attribute the onus of emotional intelligence to a liberal bias and the imposition of allegedly feminine social concerns.  The true lesson was not so much that bigotry sucks; it is that simplified emotions make us prey to extreme opinions.  I think we need to devote more time and energy to empathizing with the perplexed.

Shafak is insistent that we must cherish complexity.  We must value ambiguity.  We must allow ourselves to carry multiple identities and become the cosmopolitan people who can adapt to the world.  For me, I felt reassured that a deep curiosity for new information and enthusiasm for diverse views is the ultimate resistance against bad ideas.

With complexity we can have a meaningful society, meaningful work, and a resilient sense of self that allows us to move forward.  Only then can we get back to work and do our jobs well.

Can We Teach Robots to be Egalitarian?

Abstract robot head from different angles on black background. Artificial intelligence. 3D render.

Can we teach robots to be less biased than us?  Probably yes.  But only if we do this right.  Bias is mostly the product of mental shortcuts we make in our reasoning, and machines can only think clearly if we teach them to not make the same mental shortcuts.

There is an interesting article about employers’ best attempts at reducing bias in hiring algorithms.  Paul Burley, the CEO at Predictive Hire, describes his company’s efforts to identify and eliminate bias in the recruitment and selection of the best job applicants.  This work goes beyond eliminating applicant names from a conventional recruitment processes; this effort gets into predictive analytics to identify the best candidate.

Burley is particularly keen on identifying interview questions that drive bias (either direct or adverse-effect discrimination), and then eliminating those questions entirely.  While they do not use demographic information inside their algorithms, they do use demographic information outside of the algorithm, to test if any of their questions are causing a bias after-the-fact.

Using Workforce Analytics to Identify Invisible Bias

It sounds to me like his company is going about it the right way.  With bias, we don’t disproportionately “choose” white males to be the boss.  Rather, we assess what traits would normally indicate strong leadership, accidentally carry-forward historic stereotypes about strong leaders, and then inadvertently choose white males.  Plenty of people, including some women and visible minorities, accidentally advance this momentum.  That is because it’s the underlying thought patterns driving things, rather than deliberate and malevolent racism and sexism.  You can make one step forward by not being a jerk, but take two steps backward on something called cognitive bias.  And everyone does cognitive bias, not just the man.

Over at Better Humans, they have created a Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet.  Personally, I have been trying to stay on top of cognitive bias since it was revealed to be a major driver of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage fiasco and the subsequent Great Recession.  Cognitive bias is overwhelming, and that’s illustrative of what the real problem is.  The world just gives us too much information to process, so we make shortcuts in our thinking to make sometimes-accurate judgments.  In the language of behavioral economics, prejudice is largely the advancing of skewed thinking based on cognitive bias shortcuts.

Information Overload – Are Machines Better Equipped Than Humans?

The big deal with big data is that machines are supposed to help us overcome the over-abundance of information.  Sure, we can find patterns and dig up nuggets that are buried in a mountain of data.  But if we are also making judgment calls using cognitive shortcuts because the human brain can’t handle the volume, there is the opportunity to use the machine to allow us to make judgments using all of the information.  We can create algorithms that are larger and more complex, bypassing the constraints of cognitive bias, and produce recommendations that are far less biased than those produced by humans.

We don’t entirely have the option of just turning the machine off.  Going off-grid just sends us back to biased decisions made by humans on gut instinct.  Think of who you know, and consider that not all luddites are champions of equality.  Right now, we are just getting past the first wave of machines imitating our own sexism and racism.  We now have the option of telling the machines to stop doing that, and then building new algorithms that meet our own purported standards of neutrality.

But this will happen if and only if we choose to name our biases, talk openly about them, measure them, make decisions to reverse them, and keep improving the algorithms such that everyone has a fair shot at the good jobs.  And even then, we still can’t trust robots to decide where to seat people on the bus.  We must forever be vigilant, and stay human.

Big World, Small Wages

the shrinking dollar, by frankieleon
The shrinking dollar.  Photo courtesy of frankieleon.

We are now in an era when unemployment is low, but wages are not increasing.  This is unusual.  Normally when unemployment is low, wages increase.  Even the meanest of bosses would look over their shoulder and increase wages to “stay competitive with market,” when they’re actually just worried about losing key people and unions making inroads.  But the rules of business have changed.

According to the New York Times article Plenty of Work; Not Enough Pay the reasons why wages are staying low are incredibly varied.  Long story short: It’s a dog-eat-dog world and we’re in a big, hot mess.

  • Unions have less power than in the past. Last year only 11% of the American workforce was unionized, down from 20% in 1983.  This decline coincides with American wages largely breaking-even since 1972 on an inflation-adjusted basis.
  • The article interviews Lawrence Mishel from the Economic Policy Institute, who notes that “people have very little leverage to get a good deal from their bosses…” and this reduces expectations to the point where “People who have a decent job are happy to just hold down what they have.”
  • It’s not just workers and unions, businesses are anxious, too. In Japan, companies “mostly sat on their increased profits rather than share with employees.”  Businesses are still spooked from the popping of the real estate bubble in the early 1990s, which was a prequel to the larger subprime mortgage fiasco in the USA around 2008.  In Norway, wages increased as a result of their oil riches in the run-up to 2008.  Their higher cost structure put them at a competitive disadvantage during that same recession and business in Norway don’t want to make the same mistake.
  • Employers who are experiencing good business results are trying to get more work done by hiring temporary employees. After all, if a business can get a large fraction of their work done by contractors, it’s easier to shed the contractors during a downturn.  While temporary work is a negative experience for those forced into it, it is also something business leaders need to do out of fear that they themselves could be in trouble at any time.
  • In Norway and Germany, unions have negotiated special deals to keep wages low, ensure businesses stay cost-competitive, and save local jobs. This arrangement puts pressure on lower-cost jurisdictions, such as Italy and Spain.
  • Globalization is connecting developing-world factories more closely to the individual consumer. After “eliminating the middle-man,” there are fewer bottlenecks in getting goods to market.  With fewer middle players, there is not the same opportunity for employment in these roles.  Factories have fewer hurdles to dropping goods right at your doorstep.  Online leaders, such as Amazon, continue to ravage physical retail.  Meanwhile, warehouse operations and trucking goods across continents are increasingly prone to automation by robots and artificial intelligence.
  • In addition to buyers purchasing goods from developing countries, immigrants are often brought in from those same countries, keeping wages down. It is virtuous to be sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, but there is also truth to the complaint that businesses are using immigrants as pawns. In Norway, the social democratic system that shares wealth with the unionized workforce is being undermined by start-up businesses employing immigrants from Eastern Europe at wages that are below the agreed standard.  The unions are struggling to ensure these immigrants get the same rights as others.  Labour’s biggest struggle is to break even.

The supply-and-demand mantra that the market will correct itself has simply become a falsehood.  This raises the possibility that for our gains, we can’t let the market take care of us.  The possible solutions are varied and the solutions you lean towards probably match the opinions of those around you.

Perhaps families and churches will help us, or maybe it will be unions and the government.  But the emerging consensus is that market forces are nobody’s friend.

Leadership is the Act of Learning

Portrait Of A Female Student

Are the best leaders currently excellent?  No, they are not.  The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.  Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.

This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:

  • “First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
  • “Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
  • “Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights form the results of their experimentation.”

The authors identify several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality that are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.”  Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders; how useful is this information if you can’t see an upward trend?  If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules?  Surely the best leaders are the one who can move upward and onward from any new starting point, regardless of how excellent their performance is currently.  You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders.

Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems.  Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators and anoint those at a high performance level as those worthy of recognition.  But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes.  Especially if they were learning and leading along the way.

Leadership Development, Workplace Engagement, and the Learning Organization

My personal interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is just the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace with a learning-organization mindset.  That is, if you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel.  And when they excel, the business will perform better.  So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.

Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace culture of high trust and two-way communication.  Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders.  Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.

It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence.  Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.

Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set.  But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.

Happy National Spreadsheet Day

Greetings everyone.  Happy national spreadsheet day!  If you want to know more about the invention of the electronic spreadsheet, peek at my earlier blog post on the topic.

Digging the Gig – Are Temporary Workers Really Happy?

Skydiving, by Joshua M
Skydiving.  Photo courtesy of Joshua M.  This activity is only fun when voluntary.

Why don’t we all just quit our jobs and go freelance?  Good question.  There’s not a really good reason why we should not.  Gig work improves job satisfaction, opens up work opportunities that might have normally been unavailable, and appears to have few negative impacts.

There is an interesting report on the gig economy available online, entitled “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy.”  It’s a big report, so I’ll summarize the key findings for you.

In this October 2016 report, McKinsey Global Institute finds that about 20 to 30% of the working-age population in Europe and the US engage in some form of independent work.  The report explores whether gig work is truly a voluntary arrangement, and whether the work is lucrative or satisfying.

What is the Gig Economy?

McKinsey defines independent workers as having a high degree of autonomy, payment by assignment (not hours), and a short-term relationship with their employer.  Independent work connects a large pool of workers with a large pool of customers, on a scale that can be global.   The workers and customers link up for efficient matches via the internet and cell phones.  Only 15% of independent workers are using online marketplaces, implying there is potential for significant growth.

In my opinion, if the arrangement is truly independent, gig workers are businesses and not employees. This is a complication because independent business operators tend to be dropped from formal labour market statistics.  This makes the gig economy bewildering to the human resources field.  Also, these businesses are often too small to be measured by those tracking major corporations, such as stock markets or auditing firms. That means that independent workers are also not fully understood by experts in finance and accounting.

All the cool stuff happens at the boundary between categories, and nowhere is this more true than in the gig economy.

Is Temporary Work Truly Voluntary?  Is it Satisfying Work?

In conversations about the gig economy, there is a recurring question: how is this work any different from the contingent workforce of under-paid service employees?  McKinsey overcomes this confusion by placing  independent workers into four segments:

  • Free Agents do independent work by choice and get most of their income from this work.
  • Casual Earners choose this life but their gigs are supplemental income.
  • Reluctants get their primary income from independent work but would prefer a permanent job.
  • The Financially Strapped get supplemental income from gigs and do so out of necessity.

The free agents in the top tier “report greater satisfaction with their work lives than those who do it out of necessity.”  The fact that they could choose independent work had a greater impact on job satisfaction than geography, age, income bracket, or education level.

The higher job satisfaction of free agents reflects several dimensions of their work lives including satisfaction with their choice of their type of work, creativity, opportunity, independence and empowerment, hours of work (amount and flexibility), and atmosphere.  Independent workers like their boss more, that is to say, yes they do like themselves.  Some satisfaction indicators are equal to regular employment, but there were no job dimensions where free agents were less satisfied.

Free agents perceive that they make about as much money as they would in a permanent job.

Amongst the Reluctants and Financially Strapped, temporary work does not drive low job satisfaction.  Those who do any work out of necessity report a similar level of job dissatisfaction, regardless of whether they are independent or have traditional jobs.  It’s an important distinction: people who are forced into temporary work are dissatisfied, but the main driver of dissatisfaction is the phrase “forced into,” not the word “temporary.”  It sounds about right to me, considering how strong the human spirit is in resisting coercion.  And some of the temporary-ness is circumstantial and not attributable to a specific negative entity.

While it is notable that some people are “stuck” in these precarious roles, I personally think it is open to debate whether workers would be better-off with the absence of such arrangements.  That is, the supplemental income might truly make a difference, with no adverse impact on job satisfaction.  And it is not entirely clear whether the gigs can be converted into permanent jobs.  There may be cases where the elimination of gigs would simply result in the elimination of an income stream.

Opportunities and Threats in the Gig Economy

Digital links between workers and customers can be global in reach, and since only 15% of gig workers are connected to a digital platform, things could open up and grow substantially.  For the economy on the whole McKinsey notes that a growing gig economy “…could have tangible economic benefits, such as raising labor-force participation, providing opportunities for the unemployed, or even boosting productivity.”  There is the additional advantage that some services could be provided in a more flexible manner, improving the buyer or consumer experience.

I think there is a trade-off for the common citizen, that sometimes a less secure employment situation can be mitigated by a more beneficial arrangement for that same person acting as a consumer.

McKinsey rightfully identifies that there are challenges posed by the gig economy, including needs for training, credentials, income security, and benefits.  That is, if we are shifting towards a touch-and-go economy it will be harder to ensure everyone can be a winner, or even be able to get by.  There’s an increased demand for social supports coming from all quarters, including consultants at McKinsey.