Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires, by Robert Sheie
Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires.  Photo courtesy of Robert Sheie.

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

It took me considerable time and effort to come up with that clever calculation. And it makes sense for me.  Is it right to prescribe rules for others in terms of how they should organize their workplace clothing?  Especially when the math is clever?

In an April 2018 article at Quartz at Work, Leah Fessler describes the new dress code at General Motors.  It was cut down from 10 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.”  Mary Barra, the CEO at GM, had to work directly against GM’s bureaucratic corporate culture – including her own human resources department – to bring this simplified code into place.  One senior leader emailed her to object to the new rule.  That manager received a phone call from the CEO, after which they worked things out. (The rule remains in place) Barra found that first-level managers needed to learn how to develop their own in-house opinions of what constituted “appropriate,” and they each asserted some localized interpretations.  She thinks this practice helps develop first-level managers.

When I apply my own judgment as a human resources analyst, I sometimes think I have the capacity to create comprehensive rules-based systems that are best for everyone.  My first concern is, how many dress shirts should I own?  Based on the best advice, I have chosen to hang my shirts one inch apart, so they don’t wrinkle in the crush.  I have space in my closet for 24 shirts.  I can go four weeks before I have to do laundry, giving me lots of flexibility.

I replace shirts when they are three years old.  Over three years there are almost 160 weeks.  If I wear each shirt once every four weeks, I will wear each shirt 40 times.  At this pace my shirts wear-out at the same pace that they go out of style.  There are subtle shifts in patterns, colour, and cut, such that after three years a garment looks dated.  Those 40 wears cause them to get threadbare at the cuffs and shiny at the collar.

If I’m granted the authority to assert rules about clothing, I have a high likelihood of advancing my own strengths in clever mathematical calculations.  For example, if you replace shirts once every three years, and there are 24 shirts, this means that you are replacing eight shirts per year, or two shirts per season.  I make a ritual out of it, noticing the passing of the seasons and the fact that it’s okay to buy two shirts when I pass through a favorite store or find a deal.  It’s a ward against impulse buying because I know if I’m allowed to buy shirts right now.  And at any point in time, one-third of my shirts have been purchased in the past year.

It’s a great calculation and I recommend it to everyone.  If I’m ever given the authority to do so, I might just impose this calculation on others.  After all, I have put a lot more thought into this than others, and the math makes a lot of sense.  Do you work at an organization where one person did a bunch of calculations and obliged everyone else to follow rules that comply with the formula?  It’s pretty common, when you think about it.

In an April 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor compares the outcomes of businesses that have rules-based systems against those that are largely discretionary.  On United Flight 3411, when a doctor of Asian ethnicity was bloodied by security to clear space for an overbooking, the viral video and its after-effects erased $1.4 billion from the company’s stock value.  Taylor cites an in-depth analysis (which is behind a paywall) that found that “The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a ‘rules-based culture’ in which 85,000 people are ‘reluctant to make choices’…”

By contrast, I am not reluctant to make choices.  I have been granted significant freedom to advance workforce analytics in the manner I think is best.  And if you gave me a shot at it, I could save employees an awful lot of money.

If I spend $80 per shirt, with 40 wears this adds up to $2.00 per wear in purchase cost.  Ironing it yourself can save money, but I spend about $2.50 to have it ironed for me.  The combined purchase and ironing cost adds up to $4.50 per wear.  My wardrobe is carefully designed such that my cost-per-wear for office attire is $10 per day.  If you haven’t done cost-per-wear calculations, you may want to give it a try.  You may be surprised.  A $400 leather jacket might be worn 400 times, which is $1.00 per wear.  That’s a bargain.  Good leather-soled shoes have a similar calculation.  By contrast I only wear suits twice per year, and men shouldn’t keep a suit beyond ten years.  In one decade I’ll never get more than 20 wears out of all suits combined.  It costs me well over $25 to walk out the door wearing a suit, which is an unjustifiable luxury for me.  Hence I am not tempted to buy suits.  By contrast, if I wear a sports coat every day I get a large number of wears, bringing down that garment’s cost.  And I can wear each dress shirt twice, halving the cost-per-wear of my dress shirts.  Walking out the door in a nice crisp shirt is an obsession for me, so getting this right every morning really sets me up with a good start.

I particularly like the shirts that I bought at the department store Nordstrom.  Nordstrom has a single rule for customer service, which states “Use best judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.”  Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot in the retail industry.  In Bill Taylor’s article he cites research by business theorist Mark White who finds that organizations that grant employees more discretion, out-perform rules-based organizations in “service, empathy, and capacity to do the right things in difficult situations.”

It may be that judgment is a skill that is best learned with practice, and rules inhibit the ability to practice this skill.

We must choose between culture and efficiency, but strangely, pushing the power to the local level is a boon for both the bottom line as well as culture and workplace wellbeing.

You have two options if you want to be just like me.  You can make your own calculations and your own decisions about what works best for your own wardrobe.  Or you can feel the addictive influences of power and slowly impose your personal judgment calls upon others.  The irony is that the boundary between these two ways of living is not clearly marked.  You will only discover it by experience, through mistakes, and some kind of internal personal discovery.

Can you recognize that moment when you figured out what’s best, and then made a separate judgment call on whether to impose your views?  Can you remember a time when you did not make the distinction?  What did you learn about yourself?  Because that’s what employers are really struggling with these days.

Your Thoughts and Feelings Should Be Best Friends

girl-2047482_1280 cc pixabay

Do you think of yourself as a logic person or an emotion person?  Well, it’s far more comfortable being both.  A series of collective mistakes have encouraged people to think of themselves as being good at thinking and bad at emotion, or vice versa.  But polarized thinking is aimlessly judgmental, causing us to often miss the mark.  And one of the biggest drivers of this false dichotomy is the world-famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

How Robust is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?

Dr. Adam Grant is the author of Give and Take and also the host of the exceptional podcast WorkLife with Adam Grant.  In a Psychology Today article from 2013 Grant describes two contradictory MBTI scores that he got within a short time frame.  His first test said that he was a master-scientist type, the second said he was the care-free life of the party.  Luckily for us, he’s an industrial psychologist and he has words to say about this.

Grant asserts that in social science, a test must be “reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive.”  And Myers-Briggs does poorly on all fronts.  The test is unreliable, with three-quarters of people getting a different score when tested at different times.  The validity is poor, providing very little indicator of future behaviour.  The test is not comprehensive, glossing-over major predictors of behaviour such as our ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

The criticism that most resonated with me was that Myers Briggs is not independent.  The test should assess different traits separately from one another.  My personal journey right now is that I have often thought I had a high-functioning logical brain, but that my grasp of emotion and social interactions could use a bit of work.  I test as a “T” or thinker, which implies that I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum of those who test as an “F” or feeler.

Grant asserts that “…research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.”  I can think of one example.

When to Take Women’s Opinions Seriously

When I was staff at a labour union, one time I was in a hotel room with a dozen colleagues drinking late into the night.  That part was normal, almost mandatory.  I was thirty, and I was talking to a serious woman who was older than me.  She made a bold statement, and I started joking about whether she was serious.  The joke was that of course she’s serious so me asking if she was serious was the ridiculous comment.

The woman interpreted that I was making fun of her credibility, and her voice became stern. She cautioned that she had a lot of seniority, and that I was only temporary staff, and that if I crossed her she would break me in two.  It seemed like bullying, and after she went on like this for several minutes I committed not to trifle with her.

The next morning, we were all sober and showered, and I met her at the coffee station.  She was sheepish and asked if she owed me an apology.  I said it depends.  I asked her if twenty years ago, did men using humor to keep women down?  Yes, she said, that used to be very common and it still happens to this day.  Then I asked, did she think that’s what I was doing?  Yes, she said, that was her concern.  I commented that she was a good-looking blonde woman in her forties, emphasizing that I wasn’t coming on to her.  So, she would have been a very good looking blonde woman in her twenties, trying to be taken seriously, in the 1980s when all of the harassment rules were still being sorted out.  Was that tough for her?  Yes, she said, it was, and she was one of the ones sorting out the rules.

I clarified that I was not trying to make her less important than me and I understood why she reacted the way she did.  I asserted that she had given me helpful feedback, and an apology wasn’t warranted.  As for the harsh tone, we would chalk it up to the drinking.  From then onward I was respectful and formal with her, and she was a little more relaxed when we talked. A few years later she was in charge of the entire office.

Logic and Emotion Are a False Dichotomy

It may seem like I was being socially-aware.  However, I had read hundreds of pages of case law in graduate school about harassment in the workplace, mostly describing mishaps from prior decades.  And I know from observing social criticism that jokes are troublesome between people who are sorting out who is in charge, with joking put-downs being particularly painful.  In order to get along we need to perceive power imbalance, develop a sense of fair-play between unequals, and be sincere in our efforts.  My mental processing was logical.  Or rather, I think I was logical.

If we apply judgmental filters to everything we see, we will usually see a lot more of that one thing we’re looking for.  When you’re in a crowd looking for a family member who is “wearing yellow” you see yellow garments everywhere.  The same also goes for judging social interactions on a logical filter or an emotional filter.  It’s not always true that we make things more human by putting more emotion into them.  Our circumstances, our personal history, and our amount of spare time can have an outsized impact on how we react and interact.  Filters limit our perceptions and reduce our flexibility to decide what to change.

In your adventures as a people leader, a non-judgmental mindset can open you to analytics that offer a steady stream of logical insights.  But I assure you, the logic only gets you so far until you stumble onto the stories, the feelings, and the many universes of unique individuals.  To get the most out of people and make them feel right about it, let them tell you their facts and feelings.  But remember, you don’t need to categorize their hopes and dreams.  You need to cherish the whole person who delivers their best, while they’re just being themselves.

It feels better that way.  That’s what the research would say… I think.

Workplace Wisdom Needed in This Day and Age

Landscape. byi Rosmarie Voegtli
Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rosmarie Voegtli.

What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed.  When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point.  As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older.  Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point.  If only things were more transparent.

What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?

Developing Positive Attitudes About Older Workers

Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers.  Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.

Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School.  The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers.  Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information.  One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.

The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning.  This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly.  But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place.  Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.

Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones.  For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop.  He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago.  His advice kept me out of trouble.

Older-Worker Programs Require Good Practices Generally

The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace.  High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added.  Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:

“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)

As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements.  These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”

Knowledge Management Harnesses Older Workers’ Knowledge

Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…”  They have no age limit for their apprentice program.

“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”

I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best.  You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it.  Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.

Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers.  But both types are beneficial:

“Both types have been shown to improve job performanceincrease promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)

Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security.  As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management.  They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.”  This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.

Flexible Work Arrangements Have Diverse Benefits

Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements.  Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.

When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.”  This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.

“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities.  …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)

As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement.  But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective.  (See how that works?)

Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking.  Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40.  If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48.  I’m going to rock forever!

Your Ideal Self Will Assign You Meaningful Work

girl-1186895_1280 cc Pixabay

I have a confession to make.  I love mundane errands.  Do you ever wonder what it takes to blaze through tedious tasks with enthusiasm?  Or how you could get others to have this enthusiasm?

In my life, this involves getting the laundry done, packing lunches in the freezer, and keeping my car washed and gassed.  My purpose in life, my why statement as it were, is to step out the door on Monday morning living a motto that I’m here for the adventure.  To achieve this, I must toil away on the weekend making sure everything is “just so”.  It turns out I’ve been doing it right.

Tucked away in the research I summarized on crafting your own job, I saw a reference to a paper on making mundane tasks meaningful.  The paper is “Self-Regulation and Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals”, by Oettingen, Pak, and Schnetter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 80, No. 5, p 736-753.

Overcome a Deficient Reality in the Pursuit of an Ideal State

The authors describe that the ideal state (i.e. the “fantasy”) must be achievable and envisioned first.  Then people need to look at their current state (i.e. the “reality”) and perceive flaws in their reality that are obstacles to achieving the fantasy.  When done in this sequence, people set tactical goals that allow them to overcome the deficient current state, and they perform those boring tactical goals extremely well.  By contrast, the results are inferior when the thought process is reversed (i.e. reality then fantasy), or the fantasy is not achievable, or if people dwell exclusively on the present or future.

The authors, writing in 2001, prided themselves on breaking new ground in assessing how goals are created.  Prior research was mostly about how goals are achieved.  It’s funny when you think about it, that researchers and business leaders had previously thought that goals are equal in viability, desirability, and meaning.  But not all goals are equal.  For me, that seven-second first-impression moment when I meet a new colleague is the opening of infinite possibilities.  Therefore, it is meaningful for me to shine my shoes on the weekend to prepare for this unknown co-adventurer.

Pointless Work is Destroying Wellbeing and Workplace Engagement

Not everyone thinks this way about mundane work.  David Grauber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics gave us a sneak preview of the content of his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.  In a Globe and Mail article he tells us there is an epidemic of meaningless work in the modern workforce.  He found that 37% of surveyed employees in the UK think that their jobs are meaningless and make no contribution to the world.

If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change.

I’m not entirely convinced that people are accurate in the assessment that their jobs are meaningless.  Business leaders spend significant time making work more efficient. They also ensure alignment with strategic goals. The issues that speak to this malaise of meaninglessness is that the work is entirely for the benefit of someone at the top, that those leaders think they are fabulous, they do not care about the thoughts of their juniors and can’t fathom why they should explain how the work relates to a higher purpose.

People are frustrated with elites because the elites don’t care if the people are frustrated.  This apathy and frustration kills employee engagement.

Grauber found that work environments that are meaningless have a higher incidence of stress and bullying.  Other people reported ailments such as anxiety and depression “…that vanished as soon as they found themselves doing meaningful work.”  He suggests that people actually want to perform meaningful work but our workplaces are depriving us of this nourishment.  Grauber notes that in prisons the vast majority of convicts will take advantage of opportunities for employment, even when there is no compulsion to do so.  It is workplaces that impose meaninglessness upon us, and that puts people into a funk.

Pursuit of the Ideal is More Meaningful than Doing What We Ought

Sure, we ought to be hard workers.  But the phrase “ought to” is what is causing people to feel stuck.  Christian Jarrett, in an article in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, talks to Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai about their new research on people’s life regrets.  The research makes a distinction between two types of self.  The ideal self is your own hopes and dreams, that self you identify with deeply, your self-concept.  The ought self is what your client wants done yesterday, what your boss is demanding of you, and the things your family expects of you but you never have a voice in.

Peoples’ life regrets are biggest for lost opportunities attached to an unrealized ideal self.  Similar to “fantasy realization” in the research by Oettingen et al, the most compelling motivators are our personal hopes and dreams, things that come from inside us.  By contrast, goals that are volun-told to us or forced upon us aren’t things that bother us all that much.  People are still pretty good at taking care of tasks associated with the ought self.  But they don’t really care if they fail to deliver.  That sounds like meaningless work to me.  That sounds like disengagement.

What does this mean for our day jobs?  It means that we must ask leaders to put thought into their organization’s higher purpose.  Leaders need to believe this higher purpose, it must be laudable, and it must inspire.  Then those at the ground level must be coached to see the connection between their daily work and that higher purpose.  Employees must be led to imagine a higher state, make it part of an ideal they embody, and that they see themselves overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of that goal.  Their daily work must bring them towards a purpose they are attached to.

I’m pretty sure I can’t get you to shine my shoes.  But what if I convinced you that next Friday afternoon you get to meet your future self?  A future self that figured out their hopes and dreams, then accomplished them.  I’ll bet personal grooming never sounded so good.

Interracial Couples are Eroding Racism

hands-2604868_1280, CC by pixabay

Do you ever get pressure to choose between two ways of thinking?  Yeah, I don’t like it either.  Personally, I have always been intrigued by the lives of those who straddle categories.  Unless it’s on a chessboard, there’s nothing pleasant about dividing things into black versus white. The state of our discourse has been reduced to binary arguments that strip away our ability to have nuanced conversation. That is not who I am and not what society is meant to be.

Research shows that opportunities and opinions go in circles within cliques, and that people within those cliques are usually very similar.  If you were organizing a workplace or a community towards mutual understanding and opportunity for all, you would want to open up those cliques.  And if you personally wanted to break free you would need to make inroads into new crowds.

So how do you break down cliques? Nobody does it better than people with a foot in two worlds.  I personally find this interesting because I have a background in the labour movement, but I have since moved into human resources.  I have had some wild conversations about what people think the union ought to do, and what I assert the union is certain to do based on their history and their purpose.  But that’s lightweight compared to what some people have experienced.  Some people straddle worlds by changing nationality, by seeking education beyond what their parents had achieved, or by switching religious or political affiliation.  Others are born into two categories, including those who are biracial.

The Loving Generation and Emerging Career Equality

Anna Holmes wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times in February 2018.  Holmes is a member of the “Loving Generation,” children born to mixed-race couples shortly after the Loving vs. Virginia supreme court ruling.  The 1967 case struck down laws prohibiting black and white couples from marrying.  More mixed-race kids were born soon afterward, heralding the arrival of a new and more prominent hybrid identity.

When Holmes was in her early thirties she began to compile a list of people who, like herself, were part of this cohort.  The list included public figures in sports, entertainment, and politics such as Derek Jeter, Halle Berry, and even Barack Obama.  When she looked to leaders, she found black communities where the leadership was disproportionately mixed-race.

Holmes perceives that mixed-race people can call upon their whiteness to open doors.  Members of the Loving Generation have a comfort with white people because of their upbringing, and often presume that they can do just as well as the white side of their family.

Holmes spoke with Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 novel Loving Day.  Johnson notes,

“If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”

If you have an advantage, you can still take care of yourself.  But you still have a responsibility to others who do not have that advantage.  It’s a good leadership principle for people of all backgrounds.

But wait, what about white people who have an abundance of privilege?  Do they perceive that they should help others?

Anxiety About White Decline is Sensitive to Data Definitions

Over at the Washington Post, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy cite some interesting research about anxiety amongst American whites over the multi-decade decline of the white majority.  While some people want to hold onto the advantages of their “category,” the definition of this category is not so robust.

What they uncovered is that there are six different forecasts for the prevalence of whiteness in America based on different definitions.  In all data analysis your data definitions have an outsized impact on what raw data comes out, how it is analyzed, and how it will be interpreted – even by an unbiased researcher.  The forecast showing a white majority disappearing in America by 2042 relies on people identifying as white and no other ethnicity.  It’s equivalent to the one-drop rule from the 19th and 20th centuries in the US.  Under the one-drop rule both parents must be white for someone to be categorized as white, with that rule carrying back into all prior generations.  It’s an archaic definition that lends itself to conservative assumptions.  But there are other ways of looking at things.

Myers and Levy draw attention to their own research on this topic.  They ran a controlled experiment sharing two simulated news stories using similar race projection data based on different definitions of whiteness.

The first mimicked the conventional [one-drop rule] narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second …mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau’s alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century.  …Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading [the first story] about the impending white-minority status.  But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario. [Emphasis added, paragraph breaks removed]

In brief, one quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans who would normally be anxious about the decline of the white majority have more positive feelings about the emerging population of hip mixed-race semi-white people, whom they readily regard as kin.

Change Our Definitions, Change Racism

These findings imply that when we measure ethno-cultural background for Employment Equity purposes, we need to allow people to choose multiple ethnicities.  Also – and this may be controversial – we need to start reporting on the representation of the white population in a manner that empowers the new hybrid definition.  Sympathetic white people are a target audience for equity reporting.

I have a self-image that I’m one of those non-racist people who is unbothered by white decline.  But if I happened to be one of those coastal urbanites who was deluded about their own implicit racism (you know, hypothetically) then this new mindset would affect me.  I look to mixed-race couples and biracial kids and think, yeah, they could totally grow up in my neighbourhood, work with me, and become family, no problem.  It’s a gateway into general tolerance.

By blowing-out binary categories we can think expansively about being human and embrace complexity in an era of rapid change.  We cannot let demagogues simplify us; we need to become contradictory and cosmopolitan people in order to be true to ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin.  Only then can we freely consider all of our options and seek every opportunity that we choose.

[Hat-tip to Guy Kawasaki for sharing the Washington Post article on LinkedIn]

The Perils of Unchecked Power

Peacock Crop. By Steve Wilde =
Peacock Crop. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilde.

Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail.  If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.

It comes by many names and appears in many fields.  For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia.  It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods.  Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures.  It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.

So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.

In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage.  The correct answer is, no it does not.  But it gets close.

Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.”  Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball.  Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball.  Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.

I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that.  The findings are mixed and contradictory.

In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.”  That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?  A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.”  By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson.  Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.

Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome.  However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders.  The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs).  Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.

In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;

…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.

And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.

Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power.  “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.”  The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement.  Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.”  The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?”  The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?”  It’s always a thought worth considering.

Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies.  They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.

The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others.  It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance.  It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.

But it only works if they care.  So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.

And if you don’t have power, make them care.