This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people. To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust. Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay. That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.
The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development. He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people. Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life. These can be good people to work with.
What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”? The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like momentsafter the diver has taken flight. But in the yearsprior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal? This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.
This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state. A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.
Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level. It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity. These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave. If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.
But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation. Perhaps the millennials were right? Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.
Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions. So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward. Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.
But it gets better.
Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well. Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand. Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors. You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.
Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously. This is one of the good ones.
I wish I was more insecure, so I could relate better to colleagues who struggle with their insecurity. I keep missing opportunities to share moments of vulnerability. I can’t tap into that common language where we all wish we were better. People watch me, waiting for me to trip-up, and then I succeed. Then they stop watching. This is not how you get likes.
Perhaps I can overcome this challenge by doing more research.
My greatest frustration is articles proclaiming that almost everyone is insecure. From a Huffington Post article by Susan Winter:
Every human being wonders if they’re “okay.” That’s the big secret no one shares and no one wants to share. …at the core of every human is the desire to be accepted and seen as valuable in the eyes of those around us. …There will be times you’ll feel on top of the world and times you’ll doubt your worth. This is normal. It’s a part of our forward movement as we take stock of who we are, in transit to who we’re becoming.
I feel like the captain of a Star Trek vessel observing “the planet of the insecure” hesitating about whether I should help. If I could cure this planet of its insecurities, would their social order fall apart? Would I take away that one thing that moves them forward every day?
What Teenagers Learn About Status and Insecurity
In this age of industrialized narcissism, the insecure are way better at delivering photos of their perfect life, drawing attention to their accomplishments, and working late to meet high expectations. In an Inc.com article Jessica Stillman cites Yale psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who bemoans that a growing number of platforms are making it easier for us to gain status. Prinstein differentiates between two types of popularity, status and likability. Those who pursue and achieve high status tend towards “aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”
It’s great television.
In another article Stillman argues you should be relieved if you were not a cool kid in high school. Cool kids get their reputation through behaviours that must become increasingly extreme in order to keep up with their subgroup. At some point these antics veer into criminal behaviour and drug use which peers realize isn’t cool at all: “by the age of 22, these ‘cool kids’ are rated as less socially competent than their peers.”
By contrast, those who focused on developing one really close friendship “reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.” Nerds and healthy people work on their likeability. Not facebook likes – that’s just a type of status. I’m talking about people liking you for who you really are. This is hard work. You need to make yourself vulnerable to close friends. Sincerely attempt to improve yourself. Be authentic in your words and deeds. Back to Susan Winter’s Huffington Post article…
A truly empowered person can look at their shortcomings and seek improvement. The arrogantly insecure must only see a mirror that reflects their perfection. …The nature of growth requires embracing the new and unexplored. Security is opposed to growth, as growth is chaotic and unsettling. Insecurity is the gift of wondering what comes next in our discovery process. [Emphasis added]
Insecurity is a good thing? I’m furious.
Defining Emotional Security and Its Evil Twin, Insecurity
When doing people analytics, the first pass at the numbers often hinges on a data definition that needs better clarity. Humanity is ambiguous and the closer we get to precisely measuring people, the more the human element claps-back at the empirical system, exposing that it’s the quantitative models themselves that are vulnerable.
Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”
Wikipedia has a great article on emotional security, which by default gets into insecurity. Wikipedia is the source of consensus amateur opinion, which is perfect for you and me. I mean you. No offense. Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”
Already we’re in a pickle given Brené Brown’s research that the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to make ourselves vulnerable to others on a topic of personal shame. To go deep in a relationship, we must choose to be insecure. Those high school kids with one close friend were onto something.
Is There Anything Tangible We Can Do About Insecurity?
Is there anything tangible about insecurity? Yes. Wikipedia says
The concept [of Emotional security] is related to that of psychological resilience in as far as both concern the effects which setbacks or difficult situations have on an individual. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience.
Some people have a status and/or demeanor with which they can weather setbacks better than others. Therefore the emotional state of insecurity relates to 1) things that do in fact happen to us, 2) our ability to adapt to those things that happen including our own actions, and 3) our perspective and emotional state that arises from our experiences and adaptations.
This trifecta reveals that there are multiple responses to these shocks to our lives. We can prevent bad things from happening through precautions and defenses. We can mitigate after things have happened through insurance claims, emotional debriefs with friends, or by pressing charges. We can improve our adaptations by upping our game (by trying harder or changing our methods as individuals), or fighting back against a collective injustice (e.g. go to a rally or make a targeted donation), or sometimes just letting others win (e.g. I hereby choose to load the dishwasher).
Or we can choose a different perspective and emotional state, such as accepting flaws in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large. There is comfort in humility. If you don’t like that, there’s always hope. Choose your emotional posture. Shape the clouds with your own bare hands.
What a Secure Workplace Looks Like
Now, let’s consider what this means in the workplace. If an employee knows what is expected of them every day, they can correctly self-assess if they are delivering on expectations and change course accordingly. If an employee has one good friend in the workplace, they can share vulnerable moments in which they are reassured and accepted as who they are. If an employee is mistreated or put at risk, they can only prevent and mitigate if they are free to complain, talk to the union, or refuse unsafe working conditions. If the employee faces unexpected dental expenses or fears poverty in retirement, they focus better when their employer provides pensions and benefits.
Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.
The employer is asking people to do work for them, and in return offers an environment that is economically, physically, and emotionally reassuring to their security. Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.
There we go, my work is done. It’s amazing what you can learn about a topic you know nothing about by putting a few hours into research and explaining things. It feels accomplished. It’s not that I was feeling insecure earlier. I wasn’t. I’m only doing this for you.
(Repost from October 19, 2017) Are the best leaders currently excellent? No, they are not. The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.[link] Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.
This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:
“First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
“Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
“Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation.”
Several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.” Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders on a snapshot basis. How useful is this information if you can’t identify an upward trend? If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules? Surely the best leaders are the ones who can move upward and onward from any new starting point. You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders. The world is experiencing more changes of the rules, so these types of people are well-suited for the current era.
Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems. Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators that anoint those at a high performance level as worthy of recognition. But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes. Especially if they are learning and leading along the way.
My interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is simply the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace. If you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel. And when they excel, the business will perform better. So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.
Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace of high trust and two-way communication. Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders. Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.
It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence. Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.
Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set. But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.
You can inadvertently become the creepy leader. To avoid doing so, you need to know more about what creepiness actually is. Here’s an example. If you are a parent, you may have noticed in your duties as tooth fairy that you need to safely hide the teeth. In our family it was my duty to make the money-for-tooth exchange silently in the dark. Also in the darkness – but not as stealthily – I would diligently place the tooth in the hiding space my wife had designated, in the middle drawer of her jewellery case. One time in the light of day my wife fully-opened the drawer, saw the collection of teeth in all its glory, and screamed. She was creeped out by herself. We joked about making a necklace, and we laughed and laughed. They’re gone now.
Creepiness was the subject of fresh research published two years ago in the paper On the Nature of Creepiness. It’s by Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke in New Ideas in Psychology as of March 30, 2016. It’s only six pages long, it’s well-written, and you can download it here.
The Definition of Creepiness
They define creepiness as follows:
A mugger who points a gun in your face and demands money is certainly threatening and terrifying. Yet, most people would probably not use the word “creepy” to describe this situation. It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc) that might be present. Such uncertainty results in a paralysis as to how one should respond. In the mugging situation, there is no ambiguity about the presence or nature of threat. [Emphasis added]
The findings from the paper come from a survey of 1341 people who ranked items on a creepiness scale. They ranked careers, behaviours, hobbies, and features of physical appearance. With some consistency, the items at the top of the creepiness scale represent an ambiguity of whether there is something we should fear.
The creepiest occupations are clown, taxidermist, sex shop owner, and funeral director. Creepy behaviours are things like standing too close, making it impossible to leave, and odd clothing or laughter. The creepy features of appearance are greasy hair, bulging eyes, long fingers, and pale skin (i.e. features that make people look like a zombie or a skeleton). Creepy hobbies include things that involve a lot of watching (such as bird watching), or collecting dolls, insects, or body parts. I mean really, who collects body parts?
It’s fascinating that creepiness, although real, is three steps removed from a matter of substance. The substantial item is harm. You take it back one step and perceive a threat, which is the intention of harm or the likelihood one will experience harm. Then you perceive the ambiguity of that threat. The final step is that this ambiguity is subjectively-felt as anxiety. So, whereas there may be material evidence of harm after it has been experienced, creepiness anticipates harm, three steps removed, has less evidence, and is hard to prove. It’s no wonder why creeps lurk in this environment.
Eliminating Creepiness in the Workplace
It’s one thing to understand creepiness in public spaces. But what does this new understanding about creepiness say about how we should behave at work? We know that leadership and organizational culture shape our environment. As a manager or human resources professional you have significant influence over several perceived risks such as health & safety, workplace cleanliness, and sexual harassment. You can also influence things that could adversely affect the employee’s economic wellbeing such as layoffs, promotions, and performance conversations. It is critical to convey a sense that you mean the best and you’re not going to sacrifice the employee’s wellbeing for your own self-interest.
There are also risks associated with the questionable use of data. If you handle data about peoples’ address, benefits claims, and participation in wellbeing programs, you should feel a great sense of responsibility. Add to that the secrets given to you by other managers about secret agendas and the organization’s direction, and you soon discover that you are truly a guardian of privileged information that can be used for good or evil.
Handling information properly can impact your reputation and how people feel about your leadership and your judgment. You need to feel that healthy sense of fear that if you mishandled something, bad things could happen. When I snuck into my children’s bedrooms at night to swap money for teeth, I was quite worried that I would be exposed as the tooth fairy and scar their innocence. I felt the weight of generations past, that I must do this one thing well.
If confidential work is done poorly, you could harm a third party, the organization, or your own career. The harm could be a matter of substance. Or it could simply be a threat to those affected. If you cannot provide credible assurances that you mean the best, then you are creating ambiguity about a threat of harm.
You can inadvertently become the creepy leader.
To avoid being creepy you need to be truthful, consistent, and transparent. Or to be precise, you need to show a competent handling of truth and transparency, as if lying and secrecy were things you only do as a duty to society. After the truth is known, will people say you did the right thing?
More than anything, trust is about advancing a sense of integrity and authenticity, that things are as they seem. A trustworthy environment allows people to forget about bad things. Trust allows people to stop spending precious work hours protecting themselves and each other. If you want people to contribute their best work and share their best ideas, they need to feel safe.
So could you please keep your story straight about the tooth fairy? Other leaders are trying to keep it together, too. We need to tell the same story. And keep that tooth collection hidden.
Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed? It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely. Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests. How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?
In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco. Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals. Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background. The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made. All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades. What could possibly go wrong?
But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal. Have you ever talked to a payroll person? These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory. They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves. Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?
Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter
I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.
There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army. It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute. It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.
With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key. Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment. Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.” Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy. For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice. Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.
The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier. Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted. This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework. For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.
Also, defense has the advantage. Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire. Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust. Those who stay-put are more likely to win.
There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference. Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.
The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership
Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset. With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn. There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants. Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons. Particularly if they lost.
…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]
These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence. We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego. Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage. But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically. If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle. Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect. And that spells trouble.
Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff. The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked. Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.
A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape. You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.
Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside. Who wants to go outside and play? Not me. I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.
What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors? It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top. But it’s an important question to ask.
In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start. According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker. Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance. Let’s take a closer look.
The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre
The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in. But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization. The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell. Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.
Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity. A lot of staff were new. Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride. It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier. But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed. Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files. After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.
This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor. This gap played out on the grand scale.
…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress. …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]
Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder
If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre. Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build. As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.
But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems. The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground. It’s a “no complaining” mindset. And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.
Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important
The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes. The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance… that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.” There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives. Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives. So, watch what you say…
The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command. The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister. There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people. Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along. Or not.
The Fake Consultation Meeting
In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions. However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow. The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented. Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”. But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved. Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays. They were going ahead.
The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over. That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.
As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]
All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software. In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.
Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts
It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going. And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people. Why do leaders do this to themselves? I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy. And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work. But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.
It’s like reverse-provincialism. Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals. But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth? What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field? What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.
I know what we should do with these people. We should teach them.