Mini-Me Recruiting: Always Funny, Always Uncomfortable

Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer) by Bit Boy
Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer).  Photo courtesy of Bit Boy.

Who hasn’t wanted to clone themselves, especially when deep into a project that leaves a weekend in tatters. Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame hilariously and awkwardly created Mini-Me as this right-hand man. While Mini-Me failed to carry out Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination, he succeeded in illustrating a major problem in human resources that needs more scrutiny than ever.  The actor Verne Troyer – who played Mini-Me – immortalized an uncomfortable concept.

The hiring of mini-me in organizations is a problem-behaviour caused by two cognitive fallacies.  One is the affinity bias, the liking of people similar to ourselves. The other is the exposure effect, where we like things that we have been merely exposed to. In the readings of cognitive fallacies it becomes clear that the majority of such fallacies are a variant of the “availability heuristic,” when we over-value thoughts that come to mind easily.  If we choose what’s comfortable, we reproduce our own status quo.

However, it’s usually the case that an employer needs a diverse team.  Even the most excellent leaders need people who have different strengths.  In an article at entrepreneur.com, George Deeb asserts;

“Maybe you don’t need a ‘glass half full’ optimist like yourself… Maybe you need a ‘glass half empty’ realist, who will bring a sense of caution to your investment decisions. Or, you may need a similar ‘A-Type Personality’ to lead your sales team efforts… But, maybe a ‘B-Type Personality’ may be a better fit to manage your more introverted team of technology developers. …Maybe what you really need is the opposite of yourself. You need your Anti-Me to help keep yourself organized, on plan and in check. It really comes down to what you see as your personal strengths and weaknesses, and filling in any voids in your skill-sets.” (Emphasis added)

Equity and Inclusion in Hiring Decisions

The most visible consequence of unconscious bias is that organizations hire and promote people in the same demographic category as the hiring manager, increasing the momentum behind historic privilege.  In an article in the Guardian in 2016, Matthew Jenkin notes that the context of a selection interview will have an outsized impact on who is chosen.  If the context is white and middle-class, candidates who are white and middle class will be favoured.

Bias goes beyond blockbuster items like race and social class. Hobbies, personal experiences, and how we dress can be factors too. If the leadership of an organization is “all of one type” it is a reliable sign that the leadership has lost all curiosity, has no self-doubt, and does not take evidence seriously.  The leadership is not reading the news, and if they are, they are only reading it in print.

This is not the mindset of leaders who will make an organization successful in the near future.  Yes, we must achieve indicators of diversity, but we must also foster receptiveness to new information, a curiosity about diverse ideas, and ways in which an individual can be excellent in a manner that might be considered weird.

Why Structured Interviews Matter

The professional association in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), released a paper in 2015 entitled A Head for Hiring: The Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection. It looked at, amongst other things, the role of unstructured interviews.  The authors found a study that fed research participants a combination of good evidential information, plus random irrelevant information from an unstructured interview.  The research subjects upgraded the importance of the random irrelevant information and discounted the good information.  “This can be seen as evidence of sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.”

It’s not just the interviewers who are at risk of making bad judgment calls. The CIPD paper identified cognitive fallacies in the mind of the interviewee that caused them to self-select away from promising job matches.  And walking into an unfamiliar environment, where they feel like an outsider, can cause job candidates to underperform because of the additional stress.  When people are using their brains, they are vulnerable to issues of cognitive load in which a complex environment exhausts their brain prior to facing decisions.  Those coming from a different context face disadvantage in an environment that might seem “normal” to the host.

Solutions in Diversity Hiring

What is the remedy for these problems?  For one, structured interviews are key, as they narrow the range of evidence to information that is relevant.  Also, we must actively seek contrary evidence; not taking things at face-value, and seeking information that is outside of what is familiar and comfortable.  There is also diversity representation.  Charles Hipps, CEO of e-recruitment company WCN, was quoted in the Guardian article and  “…suggests having team members from the particular group you are trying to attract present during the recruitment process – whether that’s meeting and greeting candidates or on the interview panel.”  Structure a diverse context and it will set a balanced comfort-level with reduced cognitive load.

Employers are also starting to get hard-core, using new tools to improve the selection process.  The Guardian article spoke with one company, Elevate, that “uses algorithms to score every candidate’s CV, previous work experience, skills and education, and assesses their suitability for a role. It then ranks candidates much like Google’s search results…”   Another company, Joinkoru, conducts validated pre-hire assessments which provide candidate scores that are less sensitive to the candidate’s similarity to current employees.  It is also feasible to do blind selection in the process of creating a shortlist, in a manner that obscures the name and sex of the candidate.

Not all of these tools are perfect, and indeed there are emerging risks that algorithms can carry-forward the historic bias of past human behaviours.  The rise of the racist robots is a concern.  We might not be creating cloned versions of ourselves (yet), but we are at serious risk of creating artificial intelligence which has flaws identical to our broader society.

And the technology can be expensive.  Doctor Evil is the only one selling it, and he’s going to charge you (pinky to mouth) one million dollars.

Women’s Financial Security Depends on Their Own Courage

Too little to think twice about jumping. By Rob Briscoe
Too little to think twice about jumping. Photo courtesy of Rob Briscoe.

Does it seem unfair that men can carelessly do what they want with money when women can’t?  Well, it is unfair.  But women’s attitude about money has a huge impact on their financial security.  Fear itself might be causing women to be less financially secure, by weakening their moxie.

In an October 2017 report, Mercer published the report Inside Employees’ Minds – Women and WealthTM.  In brief, women are more worried about financial security than men, and the worry and fear de-motivates women from taking full advantage of programs intended to help them improve their finances.  The report is based on a survey of 3,000 U.S. employees in late 2016.

Financial Wellbeing is Part of Workplace Wellbeing

The report asserts that financial wellbeing is “a core pillar of total well-being.”  Wellbeing is not just about physical and mental health. Our ability to seek the comforts we desire, make meaningful connections with others, and achieve our financial goals are all amongst the things that make us well.  New wellbeing efforts foster self-awareness about our individual goals, and a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy over our lives.  These efforts imply a workplace culture of free-flowing information, respectful discourse, power sharing, and building intrinsic motivation.

In employee engagement surveys, wellbeing is often a hygiene topic.  Hygiene topics are important-when-bad; things such as physical safety or sexual harassment. Hygiene topics are important to identify because the policy imperative is to not to make the topic positive, but to make them “not negative.”  They need to be good enough that you can forget about them.

When employees feel that they lack control over their personal finances, they worry – at home and at work.  People need to learn how to improve their finances if only to stop being distracted by them.  Therefore it may be necessary for employers to express concern about the personal finances of their employees.  And women and men think about their finances differently.

Women’s Financial Courage Affects Their Financial Wellbeing

The analysis shows a major difference between men and women, with men once again coming out ahead.  “Whereas 62% of men scored in the medium-to-high or high range on Mercer’s Financial Wellness Index, only 41% of women scored in this range.”  Why is this so?  The report identified that financial courage is a major driver of financial wellbeing. Forty-nine percent of men exhibit high or medium levels of financial courage, compared to 30% of women.

Financial courage is made up of items such as attitude towards finances, time spent worrying, financial planning preferences, and a person’s self-assessment of their financial knowledge.  It turns out that courage is more important than underlying knowledge, consistent with the trend that personality can be more important than IQ.  Women holding modest-but-accurate self-opinions might be penalizing themselves, because confident men are taking initiative based on their bravado.

Those with low financial courage do things that cause their finances to be worse, such as avoid financial discussions to avoid embarrassment, decline investment opportunities for fear of losing money, and slip into a paralysis of inaction on their finances.  By contrast, people with high financial courage engage in the flip-side of these behaviours in an upward spiral.

Getting Women to Engage in Financial Wellbeing Resources

Imagine how those who lack courage will avoid thinking about it when there is an offer to attend a financial wellbeing class or advisory session.  That reduced awareness leads to reduced engagement in such programs.  Mercer suggests;

“Employers have the opportunity to help their female employees break the cycle of lower financial wellness by helping them build financial courage and become more confident in engaging in their finances. Simply offering women more in the way of financial education is unlikely to have the desired impact.” (Emphasis added)

Employers hoping to set up their employees to be well-and-productive need to prioritize financial courage with targeted programming for women.  So, who are the role models that women would look to while building this courage?

Women Are Building Wealth

Outside of the workplace, women are becoming more prominent investors.  An article in the Economist from March 2018 noted that global wealth held by women is trending from $24 to $72 trillion between 2010 and 2020, with their percentage of global wealth growing from 28% to 32%.  The growth is due to women participating more in the labour force, being better-paid, and benefitting more equally from inheritances.

Women behave differently when they invest.  The Economist cites a study that finds that

“…women outperformed men in the market by one percentage point a year.  The main reason, they argued, was that men were much more likely to be overconfident than women, and hence to carry out unprofitable trades.”

It’s not so much that women need to imitate men’s overconfidence, it’s that they need enough courage to take care of their wealth and then proceed with enough conscientiousness to make good decisions.  Courage and conscientiousness are not contradictory traits, and it’s possible to embody both.  Related to this phenomenon is that one of the first things women do when they get their hands on a bundle of money is to get rid of their money managers and start making investments by themselves.

And in the process they make different decisions about their own money.

Women Lead Socially Responsible Investing

Women are far more likely to be socially-responsible investors, with the Economist citing Morgan Stanley research noting that 84% of women (relative to 67% amongst men) are interested in social or environmental goals.  Funds specializing in responsible investing note that women tend to be the trailblazers.  And one of women’s criteria is to apply a gender lens.

Beyond the evidence that bias is bad for business, treating women fairly is increasingly seen as a sign that a company is diligent, responsible, and keeping apace of emerging trends.  A comparison to the environmental lens is helpful.  One investment fund

“…dropped Volkswagen because the carmaker scored poorly on corporate governance well before its value was hit by the revelation that it was cheating on emissions tests, [and] in future it hopes information about problems such as sexual harassment could help it spot firms with a ‘toxic’ management culture before a scandal hits the share price.”

Independent of whether “being good” is a core business goal, investors are watching for whether a company’s stock will tank because of regulatory failure, lawsuit, or customer disengagement following a public relations meltdown.  Investors, too, can be concerned about hygiene topics and women investors are ahead of the curve.

Yet we can still choose to be good, for the sake of being good.  Social change comes from all directions; from governments, social movements, and sometimes from investors.  But usually there’s that one person who has decided there’s something wrong in their life, and it’s time to take action.  That brave and conscientious person can be you.

Shift in Job Market Doesn’t Need to Be a Nightmare

Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162, by Fernando de Sousa
Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162.  Photo courtesy of Fernando de Sousa.

Are you a little scared of the future? I think we all are. And for good reason.

There’s so much to think about these days, especially with technology disrupting our jobs. But if you have watched a few horror films, you’ll notice things become far less scary when you understand what’s really going on.  For me, my shoulders relaxed a little and I reached for popcorn again after I read a report from the World Economic Forum about job transitions.

The report reveals next-job opportunities for employees displaced by economic and technological disruption.

The U.S. labour market will see a structural job loss of 1.4 million jobs over the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. However, the report also cites a structural growth of 12.4 million new jobs.  On average the job market will be better.

However, let’s set aside the average for a moment and focus on the 1.4 million individuals who will be put out of work.

The report analyzed at a thousand job descriptions representing the majority of the American workforce and looked for similarities in skills, abilities, qualifications, and the work itself.  The job-matching methodology was created by Burning Glass Technologies, a firm specializing in labour market analytics harnessing big data and artificial intelligence.

Using the 10-year labour market forecast, they identified the job families where the largest number of jobs would disappear, identified other job families forecast for growth, and mapped-out how people could transition from lost jobs into new jobs.

Production and Office & Administration jobs are projected to be the hardest hit. In every other area there are fewer job losses expected, and the new-but-different jobs created within a job family greatly exceeds jobs lost.

Jobs in Production (which includes the beleaguered manufacturing sector) have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Construction and Extraction; Installation, Maintenance and Repair; and Transportation.  Positions in Office & Administration have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Business and Financial Operations.  And a large number of handy and hard-working people can always find a job in custodial or food services.

But if you lost your job, would you want to be a barista?

The Desirability of Job Transitions

Thankfully, the report considers whether peoples’ next jobs are desirable.  A significant drop in pay won’t motivate employees to seek reskilling.  Stability is also a top concern.  The investment in re-skilling or moving costs can be expensive, so some transition opportunities might be rejected just because of the instability.

Desirability isn’t all in the mind of the employee. Governments want a successful transition to achieve a good return on their investment in training programs. They don’t want to undermine their tax base with a low-wage workforce. And some governments are also concerned about the experience of workers as voters.  Employers need successful transitions too, as they fear of a workforce of demoralized, dissatisfied, and under-productive employees.

The report factored-in all these concerns and categorized viable job transitions as those that have high similarity, stable long-term prospects, and wages that are equal or better than the previous job.

They found plenty of opportunities:

 “…our analysis is able to find ‘good-fit’ job transitions for the vast majority of workers currently holding jobs experiencing technological disruption — 96%, or nearly 1.4 million individuals…  Interestingly, the majority of ‘good-fit’ job transition options — 70% — will require the job mover to shift into …a new job family.”

Job Transition Pathways

One of the benefits of this sophisticated model was that the authors of the report were able to extend the career transitions from a one-time change into “a full chain of job transition pathways” covering three jobs.

For example, a secretary can downshift into becoming a concierge, then come out ahead as a recycling coordinator. Each new job has a solid 90% similarity score relative to the prior job, but the salary bounces from $36k to $31k to $50k.

There is a similar trade-off for the transition from cashier to barista to food service manager.  So yes, you might still want to become a barista.  Employees could come out further ahead if they could see these pathways and plan accordingly.

Job Transitions are Different for Women

There are mixed results based on the sex of the worker.  On the minus side for women, it is estimated that 57% of the disruption will affect women.  Women also have fewer job transitions options: “Without reskilling… professions that are predominantly female and at risk of disruption have only 12 job transition options while at-risk male-dominated professions have 22 options.”

But women also have a better chance at job transitions that result in increased wages.  Of those experiencing labour disruption 74% of women have a good match into higher-paying jobs while the equivalent number for men in 53%.

This difference may contribute to a “potential convergence in women and men’s wages,” but this impact would obviously need to be blended with those economic forces that don’t favour women.  By which I mean, most economic forces.

Men and women alike significantly benefit from reskilling efforts, resulting in a quadrupling of the new job options available.  With reskilling, opportunities for women jump from 12 job options to 49, and opportunities for men jump from 22 options to 80.

A Change in Societal Mindset is Required

The report recommends societal changes in order to make this all viable:

“…what will be required is nothing less than a societal mindset shift for people to become creative, curious, agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous change.” (Links added)

On the public policy side, there is an additional shift in mindset for corporations and government:  pick up the tab or everyone is toast.

The main item that would empower this change is a comprehensive re-skilling program funded at full scale.  Displaced workers need to take some responsibility and show some initiative. But nobody in their right mind is suggesting that the cost of all this should be borne by anyone other than business and government.

While the consequences of inaction are dire for individuals and society, the path forward is becoming better understood.  It’s that part in the scary movie where they can see the way out.  And for that reason, it’s not so scary any more, and might even be fun to watch.

Love Will Keep Us Together, Even at the Office

Hugging Zebras. By Nicole Doherty
Hugging Zebras. Photo courtesy of Nicole Doherty.

Sexual dynamics in the workplace can be troublesome even when they turn out well, and the worst-case scenarios can be a disaster.  Yet, if you think about your experience and look at the stories in the news about workplace sexual harassment, there is a recurring theme that harassment displays a lack of love.  We live in a pivotal era when harassment is rightly being called-out on a mass scale. At the same time, emerging research indicates that workplaces with love are higher functioning.  What shall we do?

This is a longer post than usual because the well of love is deep.

One of the main studies is aptly named “What’s Love Got To Do with It? The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting” by Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill, Administrative Science Quarterly, May 29, 2014.

Barsade & O’Neill conducted research on the work environment in long-term care facilities.  Their research is summarized in a Harvard Business Review article, concluding that:

“Employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork.  They showed up to work more often.  …this type of culture related directly to client outcomes, including improved patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER.”

For those skeptical that long-term care facilities are too focused on care to embody a larger workforce trend, these findings were repeated in a follow-up study of seven different industries.

Barsade & O’Neill make a distinction when describing companionate love, which is “…based on warmth, affection, and connection rather than passion…”

In analytics, data definitions are extremely important because people can apply a word to multiple meanings, causing errors before they run the numbers.

The School of Life has a four-minute YouTube video asserting that “love” is a troublesome word which creates confusion and unrealistic expectations.

The video notes that the ancient Greeks used three different words with better meaning: eros is passionate love, philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, and agape is a charitable love that we feel for those who have acted badly, are in pain, or whose faults and weaknesses are endearing.  I interpret that companionate love it is a blend of philia and agape.

In a Harvard Business Review article from 2016, Duncan Coombe discusses people’s tendency to use euphemisms to avoid saying the word love.  “You might prefer to use words like compassion, respect, or kindness.  That’s okay.  They all speak to the core idea, which is intentionally expressing concern and care for the well-being of another.” (emphasis added)

A lot of business leaders are nervous about love being connected to lust.  Barsade & O’Neill tell an interesting story:

“…we talked with employees at a large aerospace defense contractor who told us about a newly acquired division that had a strong culture of love.  Employees there routinely greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. Visiting executives from the parent company were alarmed to see this gesture, finding it not only inappropriate but possibly an invitation to sexual harassment lawsuits. Although they initially tried to prohibit such displays of affection, ultimately they decided to allow the culture to flourish within the division…”

Reflecting on the different types of love, it is important to consider that passion and concern for others are two very different things.  Sexual harassment largely consists of advances made with little concern for the well-being of others.  One of the central problems with our sexual culture is that women are often perceived as objects devoid of perspective, opinions, and feelings.  The opposite of this would be a world in which men are sincerely curious about, and interested in, the perspectives and opinions of women in the workplace. 

Men are reading the news, reflecting on their past, and getting nervous about whether they are going to be accused of harassment.  But this is healthy, since they can’t feel nervous without cultivating a concern for the feelings of others.  It is not so much that our culture needs to be de-sexualized, rather that we should all be aspiring to greater concern for one another’s perspectives, emotional state, and general wellbeing.  As such, organizational love — a combination of philia and agape — complements a harassment-free workplace.

Andrew Rosen at jobacle.com has a humorous blog post, asserting that the co-worker crush is good for the office.  In brief, people work harder, dress better, communicate more clearly, and have more spring in their step getting out the door on Monday morning.  Mind you, this is a description of outward behaviours.  Entry-level attempts to create a harassment-free environment include prescriptions about how we ought to behave.  Don’t stare at a colleague’s cleavage, say firefighter not fireman, don’t ask people where they are from.  But you have to go deeper.

I once spent several years reading manuals on good manners.  I was raised by hippies and I needed to up my game.  It turns out that etiquette is the display of behaviours that adhere to certain rules.  By contrast, manners are good behaviours arising from a concern for the other person, with the goal to not cause harm or discomfort.

Looking closely at each prescribed behaviour, you learn that each of the correct behaviours are intended to prevent the social pain of others.  When you “get” manners, you do not get a high score for memorizing rules.  Instead, you learn to feel the other person’s feelings and choose your behaviour accordingly.  Once again, it comes back to love.

For example, I hold the door open for people all the time.  There’s a secure door in my workplace, and I feel the other’s person’s frustration about having to fumble for their key-card.  I put a small effort into relieving them of this frustration, not because of rules, but because I sincerely want them to be free of discomfort.  I think they know I feel this way, and that may be why I have never been asked me to stop opening the door for strong women.

Once you know yourself a little better, and get to know others as well, you also have a shot at influencing the collective wellbeing.  One of the books that Coombe referenced is Love Works (by Joel Manby) which veers into religion-based love.  I was starting to think this was taking me off-topic.  But then Coombe noted:

“I have previously suggested that love is indeed the underlying impulse behind corporate citizenship and sustainability. We believe that love is a much-needed antidote to many of the challenges facing our communities and planet.”

That is, if we reach into our hearts to find motivation to make a better world, we can’t help ourselves to live our values and apply our best efforts.  Coombe noted:

“…founder-led businesses, family businesses, and the military are where we have seen the most frequent references to (and comfort with) love. Why is this? Our understanding is that love requires high levels of personalization — it is the opposite of the detached corporate automaton.”

If you did a double-take when you saw references to the military having a lot of love, remember our more nuanced Greek definitions.  Philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, which includes the collective sense of brotherhood.  As Shakespeare described it in a speech in Henry V, “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”  Let’s love each other as a group, march forward into our best efforts, and share our victory or defeat, together.  This loving sense of sisterhood is also noticeable in the #metoo movement.

It’s not all unicorns and cupcakes.  Some people have had a difficult history with love.  Bringing up love in the workplace can make some people uncomfortable, and preaching to such people about love doesn’t work, according to Coombe.  This makes sense because you would only connect with them if you were considerate about where they were coming from.

Love is something you can give; it is not something you can ask for. But, if you add a little nuance, watch your manners, and give freely of your understanding and compassion, maybe a little love can make your workplace better.

Sexism is a By-product of Incompetence

Trump Tower (Stuart)
Trump Tower.  Photo by author.
In the game of life, are you nice to those who out-perform you?  Maybe, if it’s not a big deal if you lose.  But if you lose games all the time, you might not be nice to those who are strong.

There was an interesting study from 2015 making the rounds anew in November 2017.  The study showed that low-performing males in the online game Halo 3 were hostile towards high-performing females.  The study found:

“…lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when [the male was] performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance…. Higher-skilled [male] players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate.”

The general idea is that in a contest of skills in a male-dominated environment, there is a hierarchy amongst the men in which junior men are politely submissive towards the men who are at the top of their game.  However, if a woman enters the arena, the lower-ranking men perceive that they can be pushed even lower in the hierarchy and respond with hostility towards the female entrants.

By contrast, higher-performing males aren’t as worried about hierarchical reorganization, so they act like gentlemen, scoring points (figuratively) for being both high-performing and well-mannered.

This is relevant to workforce analytics because the data was good.  There was a clear performance measurement, verbal communications were recorded (including hostility), and it was possible to split the data between males and females.  It’s hard to get this kind of data, and sometimes it’s best to look at games and sports, where data is abundant, to make meaningful interpretations.

In terms of what interpretations to make, it’s a reminder that women can’t simply be given permission to enter a male-dominated area of work.  Verbal discouragement and unfair treatment can damage performance, so creating an inclusive environment is key to allowing women to perform at their pre-existing level of competence.  But that only takes care of women coming up to par.  It is also implied that women need support to grow upwards and onwards.  That is, encouragement and targeted supports directed towards women might be part-and-parcel of enabling women to become equals and superiors.  And some of this support might come from high-functioning men.

The paper entitled Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour, by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, is from July 15, 2016.  In my own network I picked this up as a result of the paper being tweeted by Dr. Jennifer Berdahl from UBC.  Dr. Berdahl is well-known and her tweet drove more than 5,400 retweets and 214 comments.

The comments responding to Dr. Berdahl’s tweet were lively and provocative.  For example, the original paper proposes an evolutionary rationale for the male behaviour, and several people thought this was not meaningful (i.e. maybe this has nothing to do with cavemen).  Some people thought that the context of the research (online gaming) is not representative of society overall, because of the number of teenage boys involved.  It’s well known that those aged 15-25 exhibit behaviours that cannot be extrapolated into the general population.

The most prevalent comment was that the study rings true.  This pattern of behaviour resembles typical behaviour in society, and it mirrors peoples’ experiences in many realms.

Don’t Hate Mayhem. Love Complexity Instead.

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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