Today’s Awkward is Tomorrow’s Cool

Prom 1983. By Andrew Kitzmiller
Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

Basically, 2017 was the year in which all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away.  The moment of clarity from 2017 was that adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

And workforce analytics is right in there, disrupting the pecking order.

Analytics is a major threat to those who presume their authority and excellence should be based on wins from years gone by.  Therefore, all office politics are up for grabs.  Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even.  But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change?  Yes, but they have to work at it.  This is an interesting article about malleable personalities.  The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be.  This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age.  Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting.  I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity.  He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change.  Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline.  Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression.  The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and – lesser so – with anxiety over a nine-month period.  The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents.  The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change.  Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization.  Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing.  Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it.  Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people.  Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle.  Put down the smartphone and start reading.  Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest.  Because tomorrow is another person.

Handle Office Politics Like Fitted Sheets

Women honoured at Herat hospital
Women honored at Herat Hospital, Afghanistan, IWD 2011.  ResoluteSupport Media.

Office politics and fitted sheets are basically the same thing.

Before you truly understand fitted sheets, they entangle you, waste your time, and you can’t fold and put them away properly.  Sure, there are people who have a proper folding method, but who has the time to learn this kind of skill?  Yet if your fitted sheets are a bundled mass at the back of the closet, you’ll never feel like you’re great at everything.  But if you ask those who have mastered fitted sheets, you will notice that they have no stress about this topic.  It’s all very simple and easy, just something that needs extra attention.

Office politics is the same thing.  It entangles your day-job with something you think shouldn’t be such a big deal.  There are “proper” ways of dealing with office politics, but are there a gazillion methods and it’s bewildering.

Are office politics even a real skill?  Or is it just some nuisance that sits at the back of your career history, making your best efforts seem unfinished.  The funny thing about office politics is that it’s always messy when you don’t do anything about it.  But there are people who just apply the correct efforts using a couple of simple rules, and they seem strangely calm.  How do they do that?

Here are your instructions for handling fitted sheets.

You need two sets of bedding so don’t have to wait all day for everything to dry.  Wash all bedding in one load, but place the single fitted sheet in the drier on its own.  It will dry quickly.  The rest of the bedding goes into the drier as another load, and will dry faster unentangled.

When folding a fitted sheet, just fold it in half like a towel, bringing two fitted ends together.  Match the corner of elastic bands together, and the sticky-out parts are nested inside one another.  Do this with all four corners in pairs.  Then fold it in half so you have three corners and a semi-circle hanging on the bottom.  Fold it again until most of it looks like a proper rectangle and the semi-circle is not visible.  It will look pretty good but not perfect.  Store it with the rest of the folded bedding, and leave it there until you need it.

Then stop complaining about fitted sheets.

Here are your instructions for handling office politics.  Perceive more than one set of overlords; the one you report to currently, plus their boss, plus the person you’re probably going to work for in three years.  Do all of your normal work as one effort, applying intelligence and exertion plus your own special thing.

Like putting a fitted single sheet in the drier, treat each office-politics-item as a single-purpose puzzle, and apply your best judgment with partial disregard for other concerns.  Who is going to backfill the senior vacancy?  We’ll have to rely on the selection process.  Why do those two people dislike each other?  If one of them trusts you, ask politely about their history.  Was that story I heard personal, and should I not pass it on?  When in doubt say nothing.  These items are confusing when bundled together and entangled with your normal efforts.  So keep it simple.

Now, bring it all together into a clear understanding of what the general dynamic is.  Store all of the agendas together in one place in your mind, simple and organized.

Leave it there until you need it.

And don’t complain about office politics.

Failing to Fail is Our Greatest Risk

Anguish. By Porsche Brosseau
Anguish. Photo courtesy of Porsche Brosseau.

Failure is often imposed upon us, in settings where we didn’t get a fair chance to perform well.  It’s an incorrect word that we cling to when gripped by self-doubt.  Often this failure spurs an adaptability which sets us up for long-term success.  This means that failure is a word that we must take back and own, mid-process during growth.  There are not winners and losers any more, just those who adapt and those who do not.

Adaptability is the new smart.

Every now and then a good consulting firm offers some exceptional free material online.  Today’s find is Academic Impressions from Boulder, Colorado.  Academic Impressions prides themselves on providing “high quality learning opportunities for academic and administrative leaders in higher education.”

The article that caught my attention, Preparing Students to Lose Their Jobs, encourages postsecondary institutions to prepare students to get their next job, then lose that job, then move on to the next one.  The article calls on robust sources to interpret that “The future of work is adapting to change, failure as a norm, and …a longer career arc in which to experience many different and uniquely distinct careers.”  They also endorse the emerging opinion that technology and globalization will rationalize routine efforts, obliging all (employed) humans to focus on empathy.

Theirs is an opinion that adaptability to change will be the core attribute of successful and well-educated adults.  Therefore, learning to be adaptable must be a top priority.  Adaptability requires a variety of attributes that are agnostic to IQ and “the acquisition of predetermined skills”, the old hallmarks of a solid bricks-and-mortar education.

Adapting to Change Via Professional Development and Workforce Analytics

The new attributes required for workplace success are:

  • An agile mindset which relies on empathy, divergent thinking, and an entrepreneurial outlook.
  • Having the social and emotional intelligence “to adapt and thrive in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” Their critique mirrors Elif Shafak’s TED talk on embracing complexity which also became public in September 2017.
  • Improving the speed at which we try, fail, adapt, and grow upward into the next level of challenge. External factors that drive us to failure or obsolescence will become more common, so avoidance of this change will not help.  Rather, we must learn our way into the next opportunity.  New opportunities abound, so get to them promptly… by moving on.
  • Developing a personal history of having changed context and perspective, either from a change of country as an immigrant, a shift in personal identity, or having adapted to some kind of “failure.” These shifts do not have to be shameful.  They can an important part of a meaningful story that makes us whole.
  • Our negative internal voice – the one that tells us the failure we are experiencing is because we are lacking in some shameful way – needs to be regulated, mitigated and subdued by self-reflection, meditation, and connecting our opinions to concrete evidence.

That last item is music to my ears.  On one hand, we need a general positive attitude and healthy self-image.  On the other hand, a little bit of good data can nourish us and help us overcome ill-conceived notions about our worth.  Logic and emotion come together to make the ultimate hot-and-sour soup, like a comfort food in times of change.  You need to seek new information, let it soak in, and talk yourself through it.  Then product-test your new self image with your friends, to make sure it rings true.  And, no punchline, just go!

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

Hippos Need a Devil’s Advocate

Hippo II, by Andrew Moore
Hippo II.  Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore.
Hierarchy is the enemy of information-sharing.

In this Linkedin article by Benard Marr the author identifies that people are extremely reluctant to express views contrary to Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion, or HiPPO for short.  Marr cites the book Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, by Avinash Kaushik, in which that author describes the dynamic;

“HiPPOs usually have the most experience and power in the room.  Once their opinion is out, voices of dissent are usually shut out and in some cases, based on the culture, others fear speaking out against the HiPPO’s direction even if they disagree with it.”

Marr references the Milgram experiment in 1963 in which obedience to an authority figure overpowered peoples’ personal conscience.  There is an additional study that finds that projects led by senior leaders fail more often, because employees “…didn’t feel as able to give critical feedback to high-status leaders.”

What is the solution?  Marr asserts that relying on data is critical; we must line up the data to inform a decision prior to gut decisions being expressed by high-ranking people.  There is also an example of Alfred Sloan of General Motors who insisted that a decision should not be made until people have considered that the decision might not be the right one.  Sloan fosters the devil’s advocate in the process of decision-making.

I think this critique and the related research implies that modesty is mission-critical.  It’s an important contrary idea because it implies that confidence might not be a leading indicator of effectiveness.  We wish our leaders were strong and brave and looked the part, but it’s far better when our leaders are right… because they thought twice, and waited for new information, and new opinions, from people with less status.

I also think that a properly organized social network of knowledge is usually superior to the thoughts of any one individual.  With education and access to information, it should become evident that you barely know one percent of what could be known.  However, if you aspire to having a diverse network of people with different backgrounds, contexts, professions, and knowledge, you can bundle together better insights from those who each know a different one percent.

Finally, a pro-social spirit of dissent is key to getting the information moving.  When information goes up the hierarchy there are problems of posture, reprisals, hubris, and corrosive office politics.  If you love knowledge, you should develop a sense that all those things are silly little power games that have nothing to do with wisdom or effectiveness.  To be good at your job, is to regard your superiors as capable agents of decision-making who are morally your equal.  And it’s your job to make them stronger, whether they like it or not.

It’s a troublesome attitude, but that’s part-and-parcel of disrupting decision-making with new and relevant information.

Is This the Face of a CEO? It Should Be.

Toothless.  Photo courtesy of Chris Penny.

In order to become a CEO you need to “look like” a CEO.  And it’s not about wearing the right suit, climbing mountains, or having a cruel handshake.  No, the main indicator of whether you “seem like” the CEO type is that you have a complete absence of baby-face.

The research paper is entitled “A Corporate Beauty Contest” published in July 2016 in Management Science.  The research was entirely about men because status-quo data is already sexist to begin with.  The authors are John Graham, Campbell Harvey, and Manju Puri, all from Duke University.  There’s a good news article about it in the Wall Street Journal, but I’ll summarize it more briefly:

  • Survey participants can easily identify if two people with identical demographics are a CEO and a non-CEO.
  • People judge the CEOs of larger organizations as being “more CEO-ish” than the CEOs of smaller organizations based on the same facial features.
  • Those executive with more “mature” facial features were paid more than those with less-mature facial features. To clarify, even within the arbitrary demographic category of tall straight white able-bodied males with a bit of grey hair, there is an additional category of pay discrimination based on genetics: mature-face.
  • The authors found the findings surprising because it is assumed that CEOs are selected by corporate boards based on metrics and expertise.   The main driver of a successful executive search is metrics about the shape of the executive’s face.
  • Just in case you’re about to ask if super-effective people tend to develop a mature face over the years, hold your horses. “The look of competence isn’t correlated with superior [business] performance,” says co-author John Graham.  That is, discrimination based on looks can forgive corporate performance altogether.

We just throw certain types of people into high-level jobs regardless of how good they are at running our economy.

What to do?  First, thou shalt laugh.

Second, you should actively recruit people who don’t look the part but who have good formal indicators of competence.  In the book Moneyball, Billy Beane relied exclusively on metrics to decide which baseball players to recruit into the Oakland A’s.  He ended up with an team of weird-looking people.  One guy pitched under-hand, some people had a lot of moles and birthmarks, and there was a legend about that once you look at the numbers, overweight catchers tend to be selected because of their great batting performance.  We’re not selling blue-jeans.

If you could identify the most baby-faced darlings who had exceptional corporate performance, those might be your best candidates for CEO.  And their salaries would be a total bargain, too.