Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox

I lift weights because I was quite small as a kid. In grade two, a tall athletic kid named Micah spoke down to me. When I talked-back he threatened: “Watch yourself or there’s going to be trouble.” Things escalated and word got around. We ended up in on the gravel soccer field surrounded by older kids who stood shoulder-to-shoulder so the noon-hour supervisors couldn’t see. One kid showed me how to hold my fist, moving my thumb to the outside, then told me to aim for the nose. In the next two minutes, my opponent hurled verbal threats at me while I got him onto his back and bloodied his nose. The older kids pulled us apart, and said “great fight.”

There used to be a great divide between jocks and nerds. But it’s now obvious there is no meaningful line between a strong brain and a healthy body. You have to have your wholeact together in order to walk into meetings with calm and confidence.

The Effects of Fitness on Workplace Productivity

There is ample evidence that the benefits of physical health translate into intellectual and emotional health. For employers, that means improved bottom lines, as outlined in a 2003 Journal of Exercise Physiology article entitled, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels and Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism”. The authors are Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris.

The study looked at three indicators of workplace effectiveness and four indicators of physical wellbeing. Notably, not all fitness measures were associated with all workplace effectiveness indicators.

  • Muscular strength influenced productivity
  • Cardiovascular endurance influenced job satisfaction
  • Flexibility influenced absenteeism

Amongst those who had increased their activity levels, there was more than an 80% favourable response to questions about exercise affecting their quality of performance, ability to relax, think clearly, and concentrate. Experiencing less fatigue was a big deal because:

“Employees who have more muscular strength would not be as physically taxed as employees with lower strength levels. This may make the employees physical work feel less demanding and may have contributed to their feelings of increased productivity.”

In their literature review, the study cited one paper that found that “the average reported impact of fitness programs on absenteeism is between 0.5 and 2.0 days improvement in attendance/year and it is estimated that the improvement would translate to a dollar savings of 0.35 to 1.4% of payroll costs.”

It’s another case where doing the right thing and making more moneylead to similar conclusions.

Cardiovascular endurance, by contrast, creates a sense that everything is chill. Those with better cardio have less anxiety, more self-esteem, concentrate better, and are more satisfied. Interpretations beyond the evidence were that fitness increased work capacity, reduced minor illness, and provided “…relief from boredom, anxiety or pent-up aggression”.

I wonder if we could reduce aggression in the workplace – and in schools for that matter – if we just got more cardio into people’s lives. A lot of workplace issues relate to struggles between those with different levels of power. Yes, we can cultivate more meaningful conversations between those in the midst of a power imbalance. But people need to be physically calm in the first place.

Related to power imbalance is that results vary between men and women. Fitness improved sick-day absences for women by 32% whereas for men there was no change. This makes sense because fitness improvement is often about bringing women up to a level that already exists for men.

This Girl Can

The “This Girl Can” campaign out of the UK is a best-case scenario for inspiring people to get active. Sports England, a government agency, was concerned about the under-representation of women in sporting activities. In addition to an inspiring video-driven campaign homepage I also found an article in Campaign magazine which provides great drill-down.

The campaign started with a research base that identified that “by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly… despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active.” Digging deeper, they found:

  • Women’s fear of judgment by others is the primary barrier to exercise. In particular, women fear being judged about their ability.
  • 44% of mothers feel guilty if they spend time on themselves instead of their family, in contrast to the fact that men having “hobbies” is encouraged.
  • 48% of women say that getting sweaty is not feminine so being seen sweating causes concerns about their appearance.

If you watch This Girl Can videos and read the write-ups you hear from women who are recovering from a major surgery, getting going after a breakup, or becoming active after having kids. These women had been put in certain place by their circumstances and the way they were born, and have decided to change their lives physically. The campaign created a manifesto:

“Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

Since the campaign, the number of women playing sport is up by 245,200 people over a 12-month period to the end of September 2015.

About the Self-Image of Muslim Women Kickboxers

Regarding all shapes and sizes, Asian Muslim women in Britain have a lot of extra work in overcoming the judgment of others. There’s a great article in Vice about a woman organizing a kickboxing studio geared entirely towards Muslim women. Khadijah Safari is a 5’4” Muay Thai boxing instructor who teaches classes in Milton Keynes, outside of London. In the past 10 years her community experienced a doubling in the size of the visible minority population, up to 26%, of whom 4.8% were Muslim.

The rising ethnic diversity and the occasional act of Islamist terrorism is now wrapped up in a toxic blowback about “British values” at the heart of the Brexit fiasco and open racism in the streets. Women wearing religious headdress feel particularly threatened, telling stories of being spat on and name-called. Instead of “going home” this vulnerable population can instead attend self-defence classes. In these women-only classes, the women remove their hijabs and cover the windows, while they build their muscles, skills, and emotional resilience.

One participant is a 33-year old woman named Afshah who has been in the UK for eight years:

“…I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself,” she says. “…before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout ‘Muslim!’ at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn’t want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence.”

These women have a great icon to look up to. Ruqsana Begum – known as the Warrior Princess – was the British female boxing champion in 2016 and at the time the only Muslim woman at the top of her sport in the UK. She’s petite, has used her sport to overcome depression, and has gone on to build a business designing and selling sports hijabs. She has a great interview in highsnobiety.com where she sums it up: “I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.”

Swearing makes people stronger

Hear no evil, speak no ev... Well you know the rest. By Barbara Burton
Hear no evil, speak no ev… Well you know the rest.  Photo courtesy of Barbara Burton.

Do you swear in the workplace?  I bet you try not to, at least not too often.  But sometimes it slips out, and sometimes it just feels right.  What do we know about the effect profanity has on our candor and our emotional closeness to others?

Years ago, I was driving my two-and-a-half year old daughter to childcare.  It was cold out, and she was safely bucked into the car seat in the back.  We lived on a major street, and I drove Westbound a half-mile to the nearest red light.  There was a car in front of us with the right turn signal on, but they weren’t turning.  My daughter said “Get out of the fawa way.”  My head tilted, and I ran the phrase through my head.  “Sweetie,” I asked, “what did you just say?”

“Get out of the fucking way,” she announced.  I contained my laughter.  This was her first F-bomb, and I had just enough self-control to realize I couldn’t teach her this was funny.  I had to keep this social.

“Darling,” I asked, “where did you learn to talk like that?”

“Mummy talks that way every time she drives.”  I gripped the wheel and tensed my facial muscles, using all of my life force to resist laughing.  The light changed, and we continued driving.  I turned into the ever-familiar cul-de-sac, and we stepped into the childcare to take off her shoes and jacket.  I asked our childcare provider, Liliana, if I could borrow her phone.  I said there was something I needed my wife to hear.  Liliana said she knew what this was about.  She was experienced.

I phoned my wife who was at home on maternity leave bonding with our second child.  “Hello?” she answered.  “Hi, your daughter just said something and I want you to hear it” I said.  “Oh, this can’t be good” she cringed.  I handed my daughter the phone and prompted her to “Say to mummy what you hear her say every time she drives.”  She was wearing a cute little dress with pink flowers.  She held the phone to her ear and yelled: “Fuckin’ mooove!”

What the Science Says About Profanity

What does swearing accomplish, really?  Citing excerpts from Emma Byrne’s Swearing is Good For You a Wired article from January 2018 described several behavioral experiments involving swearing.  In one, test subjects were asked to submerge their hands in ice water until they could not tolerate it any more.  Some were asked to state neutral terms describing furniture, and others were asked to say a profanity.

“…when they were swearing, the intrepid volunteers could keep their hands in the water nearly 50 percent longer as when they used their non-cursing, table-based adjectives. Not only that, while they were swearing the volunteers’ heart rates went up and their perception of pain went down. In other words, the volunteers experienced less pain while swearing.”

Enduring physical pain was also associated with aggressive game-playing, and a willingness to harm others in a simulation in which they could choose to shock others.  There’s a cross-over between insensitivity, enduring discomfort, mean-ness, and profanity.  Hence our vocabulary is so much richer when driving.

Swearing also makes people physically stronger.  Athletes can attest to this.  In one study cited by the Guardian people swearing while operating an exercise bike saw their peak power increase by 28 watts.  In another test, profanity increased grip strength by 2.1kg.

We can envision a profanity-rich working environment where people exert physical effort and occasionally get hurt.  I imagine construction sites, the armed forces, and resource sectors as places where swearing might just be a normal coping mechanism for the physical environment.  But what about an office environment?

Directly quoting Byrne’s book once again, an article from the Cut noted

“From the factory floor to the operating theatre, scientists have shown that teams who share a vulgar lexicon tend to work more effectively together, feel closer, and be more productive than those who don’t,” she writes. …A study published earlier this year backs up this and other research, suggesting swearing with colleagues can help create “a sense of belonging, mutual trust, group affiliation … and cohesion.”

Referencing other research, the article noted that profanity “…does still carry some social risk — it’s still a little bit taboo — so it imparts a feeling of trust in whomever you’re swearing with.”

Profanity Must Be Distributed Fairly

It’s interesting that we would trust people who swear more.  On one hand, people are going against the current to express a more candid emotional state.  On the other hand, people who break all the rules tend to swear more… and those people aren’t more trustworthy.  There’s a good review of the literature by Scott McGreal in Psychology Today, in which he looks at three different studies about honesty and swearing.  McGreal concludes the findings are mixed and sometimes contradictory.

A frustrating feature of this trust and solidarity is the double-standard on the use of profanity.  In the article in the Cut, Byrne noted men and women used to both swear with abandon until the early 18th century. Then women were encouraged to adopt cleaner language.  Men, by contrast retained the right to swear, using their power to express a full range of emotion.  To this day, there is more judgement when women swear, compared to the men’s presumed freedom.

My question is, if there’s a workplace that has a mixture of men and women, how are people to experience equality and camaraderie without a level playing-field for profanity?  If it’s male-stereotyped work involving physical strength and the endurance of pain and discomfort, do we disadvantage women in those workplaces by discouraging them from swearing?  And what about female-dominated work in health care, child care, and food services that often require strength and the enduring of pain and discomfort?  Those are customer-facing work environments, so some decorum is in order.  Are we discouraging full workplace performance by requiring lady-like vocabularies?

Besides, who ever said that women should swear less in the first place?

One thing’s for certain, this opinion did not come from my wife.

Creepiness Defined

Dead-eyed girl portrait
Dead-eyed girl portrait. Photo courtesy of simpleinsomnia.

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.

Payroll systems are the Russian winter of corporate strategy

2016 USARAK Winter Games, by U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)
2016 USARAK Winter Games.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Alaska.

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.

Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

Exed Formation continue à l'Ecole polytechnique. By Ecole polytechnique
Exed Formation continue à l’Ecole polytechnique. Photo courtesy of Ecole polytechnique.

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.

Bad is the new good

Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. By Phil Roeder
Iowa Loses to Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.

Several of the things that make work unpleasant are actually making you more effective.  And that bodes well for increasing your value, improving your job security, and advancing your career.

I have a confession to make.  I keep a list of things that I have failed at.  It’s on the back-page of my in-house accountability document, the “boast report” where I write down my team’s accomplishments for the year.  Only a few people have read it, contrary to the very spirit of boasting.

The document came in handy one time when my value was questioned.  My own boss simply forwarded the document to another senior leader, and that was the end of debate.  It was seven pages long… in bullet form.  I doubled-down after that and started to list efforts where I had attempted and failed.  It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Talking About Mistakes Improves Learning and Relationships

We have come a long way since feeling shame about our mistakes. And talking openly about our failures is considered a key to success.

We must now think of talking openly about mistakes as a key to success.  A New York Times article by Oset Babur from August 17, 2018 delves into the research on meaningful failures.

Babur talks with Allison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School, who encourages people to discuss their failures.  That is because “…discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace.  It also generally increased levels of so-called ‘benign envy,’ which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.”

It brings to mind the principle from Brené Brown’s famous TED talk that making yourself vulnerable is the key to meaningful relationships.

By contrast, boasting about your achievements creates malicious envy.  Attempts to convey an image of perfection are “…harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous..”  It’s an in-person version of the effects of Facebook, that if everyone is portraying their best moments, it makes us collectively miserable we’re not doing as well as everyone else.  To be precise, if we are engaging with others about what is truly happening in their lives, we become more connected and happier.  But if we’re passive observers of these boasts, we become increasingly unhappy.

Babur interviews Amy Edmonston from Harvard Business School who describes different types of failures.  One failure type is called intelligent failure, which occurs “when we’re working in areas in which we don’t have expertise or experience, or in areas that are unchartered in a broad, industry-wide sense.”  Intelligent failures are a result of exploration and they generate new information.  Refusing to talk about failure prevents learning, causing a recurrence of the same mistake.  You need a safe environment where you can trust that talking about failure will be valuable.

Constructive Friction – How Jerks Make You More Effective

But you don’t want to be too safe.  It’s also helpful talking to people you disagree with. To summarize, jerks make you more productive.  An August 2018 Linkedin article by Michael Arena reports on research from Stanford University’s Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao when describing feedback on ideas produced in-house:

…constructive friction is essential to scaling ideas because the resistance to the initial concept creates a pressure-testing effect that encourages iteration and co-creation. …when ideas and concepts are modified in response to friction from another team, their perspective is incorporated, therefore enhancing the likelihood of broader organizational endorsement. Internal friction, creates organizational lift—much the way headwinds assist with an aircraft’s takeoff.

Arena notes that there is a distinction between constructive friction and destructive friction.  Yes, there are jerks who are just dragging things down and poisoning the organizational culture.  The positive force is constructive colleagues on rival teams that provide brutal-yet-accurate feedback that your first and second drafts are not going to fly.  It’s as if we need a companion course for respectful workplace workshops, that if you truly love your colleagues you must give powerful feedback.

Is there anyone in your workplace who cares for you in this way?  I hope so.  Sometimes you need friends who always take your side.  But other friends keep you guessing.  And it’s the ones that keep you guessing that are helping you grow.

Instability and Uncertainty Cause Your Brain to Learn

In an Inc.com article from August 2018 Jessica Stillman shares research that you only learn when you are uncertain about the outcome.  The research comes from Yale’s Daeyeol Lee who did research on monkeys.

…scientists taught a group of monkeys to hit various targets for a reward of tasty juice. Sometimes the odds of a particular target producing a sweet treat were fixed … Sometimes the target was more unpredictable… If the monkeys could predict how often a target would pay off, brain regions associated with learning basically shut down. When the monkeys couldn’t guess what would happen, their learning centers lit up.

Once you have figured out the best way of doing something, such as your commute home, you stop thinking about it and don’t try to improve the outcome.  “For this reason, stability kills learning.”

Stillman recommends that in order to keep learning, you need to seek the unpredictable and bring “strategic instability” into your life.  She recommends travel, change of routine, new projects, and seeking unusual perspectives, including a list that she got from Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison.

The Best Workplace Culture is Not Too Cozy

You may have thought that if you achieved success, you might get to live a life that is easier.  You won’t have to deal with jerks, things will finally become settled and comfortable, and you will only have to talk about success.  But the opposite is true.  To be a winner you must expose yourself to constant disruption, seek out the jerks, and talk openly about your failures.  You can’t climb to the top and rest, because that pile of people below you is still moving.  You must always be in play, always strive to break even and get ahead.  Excellence is in the striving, not in being there.

Talking about failure without punishment depends on the trust level in the organization.  The high-productivity learning organization needs a workplace culture that nurtures, provides support, and fosters trust.  Only then can we get that savage feedback we desperately need.  Only then can we stay constantly on-edge with new changes that keep us learning every day.

You can slip into bed at night knowing that on average, the world is just.  These uncomfortable moments feel good when they end.  To sleep, perchance to fail.