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.

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.

Then The Introvert Spoke, And It Was Good

just a copy of... (cc) by Martin Fisch
“just a copy of…”  Photo courtesy of Martin Fisch.
When someone steps forward in a manner that sets themselves apart from the crowd, are they a natural leader?  Natural leader, maybe.  Good leader, perhaps not.

A gentleman named BG Allen has pulled together a compendium of resources on the topic of introverted leaders.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Susan Cain’s blockbuster TED Talk on the Power of Introverts, introverts are reluctantly being put into the spotlight as potentially great contributors to society.  Introverts are being overlooked and misunderstood because they are in the minority and their unique difference reduces the likelihood their views will be heard.

Allen has found multiple sources beyond Susan Cain, that get into the unique contribution of introverts as leaders.  I tried to find if Allen had written a book about this.  He hasn’t, but an Amazon search on “introverted leader” reveals a dozen books on the topic.  There are great articles in Allen’s compendium, from Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today.  The Psychology Today article even cites studies showing that introverted leaders that are not just adequate, they can also be superior leaders.

Although I am an extravert, I have personally benefitted from strong introverted leaders over the years.  You might have experienced the same thing.  I think that when we are at our very best, we come from a strong sense of internal strength, knowing our values and our thoughts with a clear sense of introspection.  I always look up to the strong introverts in my life who seem to be the masters of the internal journey.  I think it would be a good thing if we could cultivate this virtue in teams and in society by putting introverts in roles where they can lead by example and help others develop this strength.

My personal experience has been that as I aspire to be a better leader, I’m a little bit stronger when I hang back a little and let others talk.  I’m a little more clear-headed if I wonder why I think the things I think.  And I can cause others to be stronger by understanding what’s going on inside their own head and heart, independent of what sprang into my own mind seconds ago.

I think this emerging evidence of introverted leaders is best understood when you think of who are the very worst leaders.  The very worst leaders are those with poor emotional intelligence, bullies, narcissists, people who value their own excellence first and negate the contribution of juniors, and most importantly those who get ahead by smooth-talking their way into the next promotion.  These personality vices are often the mark of the extravert.  In order for an extravert to become increasingly excellent at leadership, they must avoid these pitfalls, seek solitude, and look inside themselves just a little more often than comes naturally to them.  Just pretend to be a little bit shy, and you might achieve greatness.  And if you’re already like that to begin with, be proud about it.  And tell somebody.

[Special notice: there is an event in Vancouver on the evening of Friday, November 17/2017 on the topic of “Introverts and Extroverts as Leaders” by Faris Khalifeh.  For more information look into tickets here.]

Cashiers Smile While Robots Take Stock

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What jobs do we actually want the robots to take off our hands?  Boring, tedious jobs, for sure.  Walmart is deploying shelf-scanning robots to 50 stores on a trial basis. The robots are expected to browse the aisles and take inventory of items on shelves, identifying depleted items, misplaced items, and overlooked price changes.

The technology is expected to complement shelf-stockers rather than replace them.  That is, the robot will collect better and more-prompt information about what is on the shelves, and then humans will come by the exact shelf location and re-stock the shelf with the correct amount.  Apparently taking inventory is thankless and tedious work that can be automated, while the actual use of hands and eyes to move physical packages onto shelves is an overwhelmingly human behaviour, at least for now.

The video produced by Walmart explains the technology itself, then wraps up with the following statement:

When we combine the passion of our people with the power of technology the possibilities are endless.

While it sounds like a corporate-speak motherhood statement, these words are truer than you can imagine.  The empathy of human sales staff has an outsized impact on customer engagement, and as such the jobs which are most immune to technological disruption are those that deliver the human element of the customer experience.

So if you’re feeling blue and bewildered about all of the rapid technological change in the world, put on your happy face, make eye contact with someone you can help, and offer a hand.  It might actually improve your job security, directly.  Knowing you’re more secure, your smile might turn real.

The Real Big Picture Is Your Own Personal Experience

dawn-flight-by-john-fowler.jpg
Dawn Flight.  Photo courtesy of John Fowler.

I think we’re entering an era where the real big picture is just a composite of individual subjective experiences.  I’m sure this concept has been done to death by a bunch of great philosophers, but I want to lay this out in simple terms.

As we look at workplace disruptions, it seems each disruption just blurs into the next in an overall environment of unwieldy surprises that we can’t get on top of.  Amazon has begun to displace bricks-and-mortar retail, trade and immigration have let to major political disruptions everywhere, Artificial Intelligence is expected to change jobs significantly, and the gig economy is disrupting work relationships in many ways.  In each case, it is a combination of technology and globalization driving big-picture disruption.

The Ground Level View of Big-Picture Change

Yet the real-life impact is personal.  I encourage you to step away from the objective birds-eye view and consider that you yourself are affected by these changes.  These changes affect the work you do, how you get goods and services, and probably your personal life as well.  You don’t have an opportunity to sit still even if the changes are favourable to you.  And if the changes are unfavourable, you are put-upon to mitigate, resist, or take better advantage next time around.  We’re anxious and we struggle with the acceptance of ambiguity.

Now, let’s switch back to the birds-eye view.  If you are in human resources or if you are a leader in some way, you must also consider the perspectives of many employees trying to make their way in a similar manner.  You’re probably expected to help guide them.  This means that you need to foster a general environment of empathetic relationships, trust, and an awareness of context.  While some of the impacts of change are measurable and technical, first you need to help others become comfortable in their own skin.

First Build Your Own Resilience to Change, Then Help Others

You can’t help others with this until you have gone through the process yourself, and figured out where you place yourself in this crazy world.  If you’re a fast learner, you can figure yourself out before you’re obliged to teach others to do the same.  It’s like the airplane safety demonstration; install your own emotional oxygen mask before helping others.

What is most significant about this business environment is that it heralds an era where people outrank the system.  You can talk all you want about how we should organize citizens and families and employees towards their best efforts.  But if you attempt to advance a birds-eye view of people at all times, it begs the question, are you just some bird in the sky?  When people are standing on the ground and a bird sails past, under what circumstances are they concerned about the bird?

You can attempt to prescribe a vision, foster collective purpose, and create policies and systems that are somewhat universal.  But then one person puts their hand up and says, “what about me?”  And you’re stuck.  You’re stuck because you want to say the same thing.  And if you take a moment to look at peoples’ eyes, you realize we’re all thinking the same thing.

Look at the desks, the walls of the buildings, and the mouse under your hand.  These physical things have no soul.  So what’s so special about your organization?  The secret ingredient is you.

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.