Bad is the new good

Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. By Phil Roeder
Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

Several of the things that make work unpleasant are actually making you more effective.  And that bodes well for increasing your value, improving your job security, and advancing your career.

I have a confession to make.  I keep a list of things that I have failed at.  It’s on the back-page of my in-house accountability document, the “boast report” where I write down my team’s accomplishments for the year.  Only a few people have read it, contrary to the very spirit of boasting.

The document came in handy one time when my value was questioned.  My own boss simply forwarded the document to another senior leader, and that was the end of debate.  It was seven pages long… in bullet form.  I doubled-down after that and started to list efforts where I had attempted and failed.  It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Talking About Mistakes Improves Learning and Relationships

We have come a long way since feeling shame about our mistakes. And talking openly about our failures is considered a key to success.

We must now think of talking openly about mistakes as a key to success.  A New York Times article by Oset Babur from August 17, 2018 delves into the research on meaningful failures.

Babur talks with Allison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School, who encourages people to discuss their failures.  That is because “…discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace.  It also generally increased levels of so-called ‘benign envy,’ which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.”

It brings to mind the principle from Brené Brown’s famous TED talk that making yourself vulnerable is the key to meaningful relationships.

By contrast, boasting about your achievements creates malicious envy.  Attempts to convey an image of perfection are “…harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous..”  It’s an in-person version of the effects of Facebook, that if everyone is portraying their best moments, it makes us collectively miserable we’re not doing as well as everyone else.  To be precise, if we are engaging with others about what is truly happening in their lives, we become more connected and happier.  But if we’re passive observers of these boasts, we become increasingly unhappy.

Babur interviews Amy Edmonston from Harvard Business School who describes different types of failures.  One failure type is called intelligent failure, which occurs “when we’re working in areas in which we don’t have expertise or experience, or in areas that are unchartered in a broad, industry-wide sense.”  Intelligent failures are a result of exploration and they generate new information.  Refusing to talk about failure prevents learning, causing a recurrence of the same mistake.  You need a safe environment where you can trust that talking about failure will be valuable.

Constructive Friction – How Jerks Make You More Effective

But you don’t want to be too safe.  It’s also helpful talking to people you disagree with. To summarize, jerks make you more productive.  An August 2018 Linkedin article by Michael Arena reports on research from Stanford University’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao when describing feedback on ideas produced in-house:

…constructive friction is essential to scaling ideas because the resistance to the initial concept creates a pressure-testing effect that encourages iteration and co-creation. …when ideas and concepts are modified in response to friction from another team, their perspective is incorporated, therefore enhancing the likelihood of broader organizational endorsement. Internal friction, creates organizational lift—much the way headwinds assist with an aircraft’s takeoff.

Arena notes that there is a distinction between constructive friction and destructive friction.  Yes, there are jerks who are just dragging things down and poisoning the organizational culture.  The positive force is constructive colleagues on rival teams that provide brutal-yet-accurate feedback that your first and second drafts are not going to fly.  It’s as if we need a companion course for respectful workplace workshops, that if you truly love your colleagues you must give powerful feedback.

Is there anyone in your workplace who cares for you in this way?  I hope so.  Sometimes you need friends who always take your side.  But other friends keep you guessing.  And it’s the ones that keep you guessing that are helping you grow.

Instability and Uncertainty Cause Your Brain to Learn

In an Inc.com article from August 2018 Jessica Stillman shares research that you only learn when you are uncertain about the outcome.  The research comes from Yale’s Daeyeol Lee who did research on monkeys.

…scientists taught a group of monkeys to hit various targets for a reward of tasty juice. Sometimes the odds of a particular target producing a sweet treat were fixed … Sometimes the target was more unpredictable… If the monkeys could predict how often a target would pay off, brain regions associated with learning basically shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t guess what would happen, their learning centers lit up.

Once you have figured out the best way of doing something, such as your commute home, you stop thinking about it and don’t try to improve the outcome.  “For this reason, stability kills learning.”

Stillman recommends that in order to keep learning, you need to seek the unpredictable and bring “strategic instability” into your life.  She recommends travel, change of routine, new projects, and seeking unusual perspectives, including a list that she got from Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison.

The Best Workplace Culture is Not Too Cozy

You may have thought that if you achieved success, you might get to live a life that is easier.  You won’t have to deal with jerks, things will finally become settled and comfortable, and you will only have to talk about success.  But the opposite is true.  To be a winner you must expose yourself to constant disruption, seek out the jerks, and talk openly about your failures.  You can’t climb to the top and rest, because that pile of people below you is still moving.  You must always be in play, always strive to break even and get ahead.  Excellence is in the striving, not in being there.

Talking about failure without punishment depends on the trust level in the organization.  The high-productivity learning organization needs a workplace culture that nurtures, provides support, and fosters trust.  Only then can we get that savage feedback we desperately need.  Only then can we stay constantly on-edge with new changes that keep us learning every day.

You can slip into bed at night knowing that on average, the world is just.  These uncomfortable moments feel good when they end.  To sleep, perchance to fail.

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