Stop Trusting People Who Agree With You

Réception, dîner et dansede la présidente commandités par Fisher Scientific Education Dining Services [Musée de la civilisation]
Photo courtesy of CAUBO 2016.
Do you really need to network to get ahead?  You might wish you didn’t have to.  Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty.  But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner?  Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.

An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look.  Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.

Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network.  He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent.  Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed.  The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.

Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more than ways than one is important.  However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.

Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking.  They are just debating what-causes-what.  I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything.  For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking.  That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.

In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity.  As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people.  All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.

In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts.  He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston.  She struck up a conversation with and older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting.  She noticed his great voice and asked about it.  It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter.  Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start.  Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story.  Nice connection!

That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions.  When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out.  She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence.  That was my impulse.  But her comment grew on me.

A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown.  She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected.  I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom.  We had two variants of a similar opinion.  I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.

Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way.  In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort.  And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong.  This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility.  If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better.  Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective.  It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.

Sincere networking isn’t one thing.  It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives.  If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night.  And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.

Information is the New Sugar

pie. by chad glenn. (=)
pie. Photo courtesy of chad glenn.

On Pi Day, are you able to resist temptation?

The bright colours?

The sweet flavours?

Maybe once a year it’s good for you.  But what if you were force-fed sweets every day?  That’s what’s happening today with information.

In an article in Wired, author Zynep Tufekci makes a comparison to food when describing the addictive power of information.

“…within the next few years, the number of children struggling with obesity will surpass the number struggling with hunger. Why? When the human condition was marked by hunger and famine, it made perfect sense to crave condensed calories and salt. Now we live in a food glut environment, and we have few genetic, cultural, or psychological defenses against this novel threat to our health.”

The author compares our food behaviours to our current addictions to highly processed data:

“Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.”

There was a time when humans desperately needed food and new information.  Once these needs are satisfied the ability of industry to exploit our lingering sense of need and push unhealthy variants and volumes became the next big threat.

With food, it is helpful to seek out existing traditions in which things have been figure out already.  Healthy people eat in a manner that resembles the cuisine of their grandparents, rejecting processed foods and fad diets alike.  To quote Michael Pollan, the food writer, “eat food, not to much, mostly plants.”  So, if we were to seek healthy and viable traditions in the free flow of information, where would we turn?

Pi Day is a great place to start.  In the late nineties, I stayed at the home of a family friend named Larry Shaw, a science educator at the San Francisco Exploratorium.  During this trip Larry handed me a slice of pie on March 14.  I didn’t figure out until years later that he was the creator of Pi Day.  Larry looked like a hippie, and he had a great sense of fun.  But he was closer-at-heart to a serious movement to empower people to disagree with those with power, and express disagreements through free speech.

We watched a brief documentary about the Freedom of Speech Movement.  In 1964 a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing political materials on the Berkeley campus.  Students encircled the police car Weinberg was in.  There was a 32-hour stand-off during which activist Mario Savio gave a compelling speech, saying:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. …you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

In the era of social media and big data we are experiencing this same problem, but in reverse.  In decades past, government and industry asserted legal power and made threats against the publication of some news.  Coercion-narrowed perspectives whipped the public mood into compliance.  When protests break out today, we know about it through social media in minutes, without the support of broadcast media.  This should be the golden era of free speech.  But it’s not.

Nowadays when you see news it is unclear if you are receiving something accurate.  And if you are the one posting the video Tufecki asks “…is anyone even watching it?  Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content producers?”  It’s not the case that accurate news is reaching the broadest audience, and it’s not the case that you as a citizen can make your voice heard.

Social media offers a community experience that is equivalent to shopping for groceries at a convenience store.

Tufekci notes that the world’s attention is overwhelmingly funnelled through Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter.  These entities

“…stand in for the public sphere itself. But at their core, their business is mundane: They’re ad brokers. …they sell the capacity to precisely target our eyeballs. They use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to…”

The author makes the case that freedom of speech is not an end in its own right.  Rather, it is a vehicle through which we achieve other social goals, such as public education, respectful debate, holding institutions accountable, and building healthy communities.  Consider Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech and you know he wasn’t in this so you could look at food porn or cat videos.

We shall seek the best possible recipe for our knowledge.  We need to read books, watch well-produced documentaries, and talk to trustworthy friends who are knowledgeable on the right topic.  We must be skeptical of those in power but even more skeptical about friends who coddle us with complacent views.  Seek information that is healthy and fulfilling, and guard it like a borrowed recipe from your grandmother’s box of index cards.

And yet, enjoy small amounts of rumor and gossip, like the indulgence in a favorite slice of pie.  You still get to have fun, once in a while.  You’re still human.

Side Hustles – The Great Employment Equalizers

Taylor Reynolds, courtesy of John Sturgis 3
Taylor Reynolds.  Photo courtesy of John Sturgis.

There is a great new buzzword making the rounds, and it deserves some profile.  The concept is the “side hustle,” outside-of-work activity that keeps people interested while making a bit of extra money.  People who have a good side-hustle have great things to say about it.

Side hustles are jobs that pay you to learn, so consider them “real-world” MBAs as Sam McRoberts refers to them as in this article in Entrepreneur.com. You are likely to learn sales, negotiation, and website design.  Several authors note that you are obliged to learn a lot of time management skills.  There’s nothing quite like being overly-busy with something you love to motivate you to organize your day properly.

Amongst the benefits of side hustles, one of the biggest is figuring out what you want to do with your life.  We have all had day-jobs that weren’t thrilling.  The idea is, name your biggest passion, get out and do it, and explore if that kind of work is really for you.  It’s important for those in early-career who are still trying to find their calling.  One millennial, Samantha Matt, wrote a 2015 blog post in the Huffington Post in which she cuts to the heart.

“Even if you’re not 100 percent happy at your day job, if you’ve got something in the works on the side that you absolutely love, that will ultimately lead to happiness…”

She talks about a number of functional career outcomes but you can tell from her tone that she’s just wildly ambitious and wants a career that is engaging and taking her places.

 “…when I first started out, writing a book was not something that was in the cards. With a side hustle, you learn to always stay hungry and that will get you climbing the career ladder to success faster than you ever imagined.”

Mike Templeman in an article from Forbes describes increased opportunities to network, as the side-hustle opens you up to new a whole community.  There’s nothing like sincere conversations about a labour-of-love to open up connections with a community of peers.  Samantha Matt is doing what she loves, and she doesn’t mind doing the kind of thing that people normally think of as soul-sucking.  She now enjoys chasing the dollar, she is motivated to work extra hours, and she is building her resume as a thrill.  She can network for fun.

Don’t you wish you could have this life?  At work, don’t we all wish that our peers or our employees could also have this kind of motivation?

Templeman describes how the extra energy from his side-hustle gave him more energy in his day job.  His regular workplace “…was a place for me to socialize and push my limits… I started getting promoted because I was putting in extra effort all over the place and my ideas were getting recognized.”  He describes an increased willingness to be creative in the workplace, because he had energy and mojo.

For the uninitiated, intrinsic motivation is that sense of acting on drives that come from inside you… to follow your heart, as it were.  By contrast, society is often prescribing what you ought to do, and those prescriptions can make joy disappear.  The big secret about side hustles is that by disregarding society’s prescriptions you can become more successful.  And that is because you are listening to yourself, driving yourself, and putting in a stronger effort.

It’s a much-needed improvement on the idea that you should “follow your dreams.”  You might have met people who caused themselves great harm by abandoning something secure in favour of a semi-delusional dream.  What is different about the side-hustle, is that you have the option of holding onto the security while making safe experiments with your dream career.  The side hustle gives you permission to fail.

As I described in my review of the McKinsey research on the Gig Economy, the key to gigs is that they are fulfilling if they are voluntary.  Voluntary-ness is more important than the amount of money earned in terms of job satisfaction.  But the money can arise from the higher productivity associated with motivation and courage.

Where does this courage come from?  Some of it comes from developing your own bargaining power.  McRoberts asserts that having a single point of failure is brutal to your career mobility.

“So why is it that most individuals have just one income? A single income means you’re trapped. You have fewer options, you’re in a weaker position to negotiate, and you’re in bad shape if that main-stream income happens to goes [sic] away. Granted, employers typically want it that way, because it puts them in a position of power.”

People are deciding that the expectation of devout loyalty to one employer is a con job.  How can any employee in this crazy world express faith that their current employer will take care of them for years to come?  As employees we need to develop our BATNA, short for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.  In bargaining theory, a strong BATNA gives you something in your back-pocket that protects you from exploitation and allows you to be calmly brave when you ask for more.  Your bargaining alternative is critical to the game of life in which everything is negotiable.

One last important point comes from Templeman when he notes you still need to check that you’re not breaking any rules with your employer.  So yes, you need to be calculating, and cautious, and shrewd.  Only then can you get on with it and follow your dreams.

Dig Deeper and Discover Employees Are Human

010-hard-work, by jdxyw [edits]
010-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
In an earlier post I summarized Josh Bersin’s 2018 forecast of disruptive technologies in HR, which I followed-up with an overview of the leadership styles implied by the technology.  My experience with the technology and analytics is that many of the logical elements of human resources can now be figured out with increased ease.  Or rather, it’s easy if you figured them out last year.  But once we have figured out the numbers, it is the social and qualitative factors that become important.

When describing the analytics Bersin names four different types of data:

  • HRMS data
  • Relationship data
  • Wellbeing data
  • Sentiment data

The relationship data described above is a reference to Organizational Network Analytics (ONA), which uses social network theory to look at the way people interact.  ONA collects data from email traffic, meeting attendance, phone calls, and geographic proximity.  It takes a lot of work to get the data to sing, but we already know some of the implications from pre-existing research on social networks.

Information and opportunities flow through the social networks with partial disregard for rank, department, or a person’s commitment to the institution itself.  Sometimes powerful and important people have good connections… but sometimes they do not, and sometimes there are lesser-known influencers who are the key.

Your new status in a network will be influenced by your ability to consider contradictory opinions, your curiosity about new perspectives, and your connections to people in diverse cliques.  Keeping the channels open will be key to your success.  But the best opportunities are to coordinate the entire network for organizational gain, rather than to rig it to favour one individual (be it yourself or someone else).  Think of this as being like pay equity on steroids; once you measure and publicize how things have been organized, there will be an immediate impetus to re-orient everything towards fairness and performance.

Beyond social networks, sentiment data opens a major opportunity.  Your opportunities for analysis jump dramatically once you ask people their story, their context, their emotions, and how this experience relates to their home life and how they describe themselves as people.  Qualitative data has turned out to the missing puzzle piece that everyone was looking for.  It’s difficult to get to because analysts need the humility to talk to people who aren’t always great at math.  Some of the best insights about the subjective experience comes from journalists, novelists, philosophers, and people in the arts.  You really need to show up at those kinds of dinner parties because when it’s time to design your model or your AI to mimic human behaviour, you need to know what it means to be human in the first place.

Increasingly, people analytics is a velvet-roped line up to board a greyhound bus that takes you to destinations unknown.  When you get off that bus, you will find you are not being led to a four-star hotel or the hip new club.  Rather, you are unloaded at a diner where a long-lost cousin shares old photos, your best friend calls you on your bull, and you re-discover that one small thing that’s truly important to you.  The truth doesn’t feel good because it’s cool, the truth makes you feel right because it helps you become authentic.

The deeper you go into the data, the more you realize that people are vulnerable, complex, and hiding great potential.  They want to talk, and it’s your job to listen.

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.