“I’m busy” is the call of the meek (and they shall not inherit the earth)

It's All in the Eyes. By Chris Gilmore
It’s All in the Eyes. Photo courtesy of Chris Gilmore.

Have you ever been stressed and overwhelmed by your workload, but then got the satisfaction of getting a grip of your to-do list?  I manage this several times a month, and I find it empowering and calming.

My favorite part is when I write a fresh list without dragging over the crossed-out items from the prior list. Then I write next to each task the priority number in which I would like to approach them.  After that, I write an new fresh list, prioritized in the order I had chosen.

It turns out I was onto something.  Having a clear sense of purpose and direction is the thing that makes us productive.  And that’s totally different from being busy.

Instead of resorting to the “I’m busy,” proclamation, simply organize your obligations and commitments.  You’ll realize it’s a good thing.

But once things are under control, you lose your bragging rights about being busy.  That’s a bad thing.

“I’m Busy” is a Humblebrag

In an article by Jessica Stillman in Inc.com from 2016, she shares research showing that people who say they are busy are perceived to be more important.  People know the “I’m busy” humblebrag is compelling and they use it liberally.  I think people only say “I’m busy” because others are saying it too.  Kind of like straight people drawing attention to the fact they’re straight, or women’s right activists saying they don’t call themselves feminists.  If there weren’t these crowd-sourced self-impositions to look busy and conform to norms, would we still be grabbing for labels that allow us to fit in and be validated?  Surely it would be easier to bring our best to the workplace and be our usual, weird selves.

As people increasingly say they are busy, the evidence suggests otherwise.  In another article by Stillman she reports data from the U.S. that people are sleeping more and finding more time to watch television compared to a decade ago.  This article was from two years ago when people were still watching televisions instead of being addicted to their phones. On average, people are not more busy.  “It’s not entirely surprising that we fit in all [that]… leisure — the average full-time workweek is a moderate 42 hours.”

Busy People Are Not Always Giving Their Best

In those cases where people are truly busy, it’s not a good thing.  Beyond a certain point people suffer cognitive overload.  In an article in Inc.com from June 2018, Wanda Thibodeaux interviews Fouad ElNaggar, the chief executive of an employee experience portal called Sapho.  ElNaggar cites oft-quoted research that people “…check email 47 times a day… And it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted.  They experience an endless tidal wave of beeps that require an acknowledgement or response and with mobility.”

ElNaggar references research that people compensate for the barrage of interruptions by working faster.  This leaves people stressed-out “…and subsequently, focus, concentration, and creativity – all tank.”  These are not the people who have got into the zone and got a lot of work done exceptionally well.  These are people who are controlled by clients, superiors, Facebook friends, and advertising algorithms coming out of the Silicon Valley.  These are people who have become unimportant.

He asserts responsibility for this problem sits with leadership, but notes individual employees need to share some blame.  He encourages individuals to take control of their calendar and decline meaningless meetings, assign narrow windows to handle email (i.e. not all day long), and keep the cell phone out of the bedroom.

However, this opens two controversial opinions.  One, he presumes we have enough control over our work-day to make these trade-offs.  Only leaders that give employees autonomy can expect employees to improve their work pace for the better. The second is that ElNaggar’s remedies imply you can become more effective by being less busy.

How Productive People Differ from Busy People

In an article from February of 2018, Larry Kim asserts productive people have a mission in their lives, have few priorities, and focus on clarity before action.  “Busy” people want to look like they have a mission, have many priorities, and focus on action regardless of clarity.

Productive people want others to be effective, and busy people want others to be busy.  The list of behaviours and attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but you get a sense of two different styles.

Described in this manner, people who say “I’m busy” are not actually drawing attention to their importance.  Rather, they are broadcasting that they lack focus, have no control, and are short on self-management.  “I’m busy” is a malfunctioning humblebrag, as it serves a backhanded compliment that insults the self.

But it might be early days for this realization.  You might have superiors and influential colleagues who have that busy buzz to them.  If this polarity between productivity and busyness comes into public view, it’s not going to look good for the busy-bees.

The biggest revelation from Kim’s article is that “Productive people make time for what is important.”  Productive people are all about mission, priorities, and focus, and they are allowed to target their time and effort.  If you have ten minutes to spare to get “important” work done, that important work is to consider your values and your mission, and create a fresh draft of your priorities that put everything into perspective.

People might not see you breaking a sweat, but with time you will deliver better results.  But remember, it looks way better when there’s no boasting.  And that will go a lot further after we’ve outed the “I’m busy” call of the meek.

Pay Equity need not be a beast of burden

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I sometimes get self-conscious about being more supportive of feminism than some of my women colleagues.  Sure, I have lots of tools at my disposal to help make a difference.  And yes, it is part of my job in Human Resources to make things fair and reasonable.  But is this really my fight?  Should I really be getting excited about it?  I’ll give an example.

In April 2018, Tracey Smith from Numerical Insights blogged that the Gender Pay Gap is NOT the Same as Pay Equity.  It’s an interesting read because there is some truth to it, but the devil is in the details.  I have worked on a several efforts to equalize pay between men and women, and I can confirm the pay equity exercise is narrow in scope and changes salaries far less than some would hope.

The problem is branding.  It’s too popular.  It has become the yoke that carries all the hopes and dreams of the broader equality conversation. We need to expect less of this one solution, and allow for some levity. We need to give pay equity permission to wear sweatpants to the convenience store and grab a slushie, without paparazzi snapping photos for Stars Without Makeup.

Some Problems Are Not Solved by Pay Equity Alone

Smith references the predominance of males in some professions:

Certain STEM-based professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are naturally male-dominated because the graduating classes are male-dominated. That’s the hiring pool, so through no fault of any company, these STEM companies will be “more male” in the specialized jobs.

She also notes it is common for fewer women to apply for management jobs, implying women are self-selecting away from these roles in child-bearing years.  As a result of men self-selecting into higher-paid professions and higher-ranking roles, this creates average salaries for men that are higher.  Smith asserts that this is not a measure of pay equity, and that’s true.  The smaller number of women in these roles might be paid equal to their male counterparts, so pay equity might have been achieved already.

But let’s step back, consider the larger picture, and match problems with reasonable solutions.  If there’s a shortage of women graduates from STEM disciplines, we should consider reserving an equitable number of college and university spaces for women in these fields.  If women are less likely to put themselves forward for management openings, workplaces can cultivate leadership styles that are less critical, are more encouraging, and are time-structured to get people home at a reasonable hour.  If the problem is career growth during childbearing years, a suitable remedy is maternity leave provisions and government-funded child care.

Which tools should we consider if we want to achieve broader equality between the sexes?  My favourite tool is, “all of them, now.”  Does that sound better?  It makes far more sense that ridiculing pay equity for its shortcomings.

Battles Over Pay Equity Legislation Are More Than Meets the Eye

Smith also noted that the United States recently cancelled legislation to require the reporting of average salaries by sex.  The government expressed concerns that the reporting obligation would “lack practical utility, …[be] unnecessarily burdensome, and …not adequately address privacy and confidentiality issues.”  There was something fishy about this quote, so I cut-and-pasted it into a Google search and got something totally different.

In a Washington Post article, reporter Danielle Paquette described this cancelling-of-legislation as the Trump administration reversing an Obama-era rule to shrink the gender wage gap.  That article notes Ivanka Trump originally supported the Obama-era measure, but after she consulted experts, “worried that it wouldn’t work as intended.”  We have since learned that the only expert consulted at the White House is the President himself.  The Obama-era official who brought in the rule and leaders of women’s equality organizations panned the decision.

The Post article quoted Nancy Hammer, who spoke on behalf of the Society for Human Resource Management:

She recommends that employees go to their human resources department if they’re concerned about their paycheck, giving their employer a chance to explain or fix the issue.  Otherwise, Hammer said, “to really do it, you’d need to practically report on every single employee.  That’s not a practical way at looking at this issue nationwide.”

It’s ironic that she thinks it’s impractical to report on every single employee. Moreover, she asserts that for women, as individuals, to approach their human resources department to fix unequal pay without government or union backup, is totally practical. I would note that Nancy Hammer is a lawyer speaking on behalf of HR generalists.  The correct professionals to consult about this work in Compensation, and in North America their profession is represented by WorldatWork.  Also, employees are legally allowed to talk to each other about their pay, despite of the fact that HR often discourages such talk.

Pay Equity Analysis is Not Onerous

Under conventional pay equity plans, employers do in fact report on every single employee, bundled by job classification.  This data-bundling includes average pay and headcount indicators of whether a classification is predominantly made up of men or women.  This data, combined with other sources, allow employers to do a simple statistical analysis to measure pay inequality and take appropriate action.

The analysis is done either by consultants or in-house by HR departments.  The analysis is made available to regulators, union representatives, and litigants alike, under appropriate confidentiality protections.  The process involves slightly more work than creating a new pay structure in the first place.  It’s not practical to do it this way nationwide, because it is done at the organizational level as is normal for pay structure design.  The cancelled legislation obliged employers to report simplified data that was consistent with this approach.

Activist Campaigns Even the Score with the Trump Family

Let’s go back to Ivanka Trump speaking against this legislation.  In July of 2018, Ivanka Trump closed shop on her fashion brand.  Sales were flagging.  In particular, sales were way down at Nordstrom and Hudson’s Bay Company, two of the companies targeted by #grabyourwallet.  For those unfamiliar, #grabyourwallet is a consumer activist campaign that calls on people to refuse to give money to the Trump family.  The campaign was a response to the Access Hollywood tape revealing that Donald Trump thought he could accost women sexually, in public, without recourse, because he was rich and famous.  Some women felt otherwise, hence the campaign.

Let’s return to how women advance their own careers.  If women are reluctant to advance themselves into situations that make them vulnerable because the environment makes them unsafe, maybe the best remedy is to foster and support an activist base that keeps men on their toes about abuses of power.

And if a company is openly unsupportive of women’s equality, one possible remedy is for an activist base to reduce it to rubble.

But don’t try to do this alone.  Team up with others to bring more than one solution.  Pull your car into the convenience store and pick up your old friend in the sweatpants.  As she hands you your own slushie she smiles and says “I found your wallet.”  And drive onward to the next adventure.

The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.

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

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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.

What If You Can Do It All?

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Costumes. Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer.

Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand.  And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits.  There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best.  That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability.  Maybe you can join me?

The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.”  Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing.  Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart.  But that style doesn’t work for everyone.

For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning.  Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:

  1. Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
  2. Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
  3. Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.

Idea Synthesis

I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017.  Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work.  Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour.  Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.

At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines.  In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon.  I find that common language is particularly interesting.  I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue.  I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.

Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.”  She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.

Adaptability and the Growth Mindset

Adaptability is becoming an critical skill.  Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.”  Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.

Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company.  By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth.  People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow.  In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”

Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.

How Fast Can You Learn?

Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.  I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on.  If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic.  Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking.  Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill?  Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours.  But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.

  1. Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct.  In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
  4. Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours.  Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going.  In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.

Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time.  He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good.  Well done!

For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films.  I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings.  The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation.  They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.

Then they’re done.  And onward to the next adventure.  Onward to the next obsession.