Which company culture is best for productivity and getting the best out of your people – blind obedience, informed acquiescence or self-governance? Are those really the only choices? Sounds a bit loaded to me, like, “What do you want for Christmas – a piece of coal, a pair of socks or a pony?” Coal and socks might seem old-fashioned but they’re functional and damn handy in the right circumstances. A pony might seem like the obvious choice but ponies aren’t for everyone, they require ongoing investment and often they’ll give you another gift for which you’ll require a shovel.
A recent article in The Economist about corporate culture contrasted the view from the top versus the view from the bottom. Bosses disproportionately perceive their organisations to be self-governing, awash with inspiration and driven by values rather than profits. The study was commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of the book ‘How.’ The basic thrust of this book and surrounding consulting empire is that it’s not what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged. (I cannot prevent myself at this point stressing that the foreword to the book is by one President Bill Clinton which, albeit in an unintentionally ironic way, goes a long way to proving that it really isn’t what you do these days, it’s how you do it on which you’ll be judged.)
Seidman talks about the different categories of company culture – from the command-and-control military style of ‘Blind Obedience’ to the less-bad ‘Informed Acquiescence’ with its rules and carrots and sticks to the sleek and shiny ‘Values-Based Self Governance’ resplendent with missions and inspiration. I see his argument visually as that classic ‘Evolution Of Man’ poster with Neanderthals evolving to the modern whatever we are. (Hint: Command-and-control leaders are supposed to be the Neanderthals in this picture.)
Of those surveyed, 43% felt their company was in the ‘Blind Obedience’ category, 54% felt their company was in the ‘Informed Acquiescence’ category and a mere 3% had achieved the supposed ‘Self Governance’ nirvana. I did the maths. That adds up to 100% which means those surveyed were only given three mutually exclusive choices. Are they really mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t it be more useful and realistic if they could co-exist in a managed way?
I’m always a bit wary of surveys that end up in articles. Time Magazine reported one recently declaring that 78% of burglars regularly use social media to choose and / or plan their crimes. So when you ‘check-in’ via FaceBook to that out-of-town resort hotel, you’re declaring to the world that you’re not home and your high definition everythings are unattended. Who are these burglars that they’re surveying!? And even if it did satisfy all the criteria supposedly reputable survey companies say are necessary, maybe the burglars being surveyed have their own motives other than the noble truth? Maybe employees might too? (85% of my friends think I’m being cynical about surveys.)
Are these cultures really mutually exclusive and is one better than the others? The answers are, “No” and, “It depends.”
In his book ‘Drive’, Dan Pink writes about the uses and limitations of extrinsic motivations (carrots and sticks.) He says that they have their place and can be very effective in simple, mechanical, programmed or scripted task-oriented roles. Studies repeatedly show positive correlation in those type of activities between incentives and improved performance. You reinforce the behaviours that you think you want and you get more of them but that is not a universal truth. If a task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill”, larger rewards lead to poorer performance. Thinking tasks require thinking people and they are internally motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Carrots and sticks don’t work for those people in those roles.
We need to nurture a culture for these people that allows a range of self-direction, develops them beyond their immediate work itself and plays to people’s inherent need to feel like they’re part of something bigger. Chances are, you have people like this in your workplace as well as those with routine task-oriented roles. The same culture won’t work for both groups. So it seems company cultures are like pants – one size does not fit all and you really can’t operate professionally without them.
Different people in different situations requiring different results at different times need different approaches. Crazy stuff but doesn’t it match your experience of reality in managing people? Fitting the right aspects of culture to the right person at the right time is a major driver of employee engagement.
Engaged employees shine out like diamonds. Karen was one such diamond. I met Karen at the supermarket where she worked as a checkout operator. It wasn’t my usual store but I was running a workshop nearby and popped in afterwards to buy some ingredients for dinner. I plonked them on the conveyor as Karen cheerfully greeted me. She looked at me, looked at my choice of groceries and asked, “Chilli for dinner tonight is it sir?” Before I had time to feel judged that chilli was all she felt I was capable of making, she added, “I always add cloves to mine.” It wasn’t busy so I explained to Karen who I was, what I did and asked her about her choice of conversation topic. She wasn’t on commission from the multinational clove corporations. She didn’t have a command-and-control manager dictating that she must try and upsell cloves. (“Do you want cloves with that?”) In a role that has precious little opportunity for discretion, she exercised discretion and was encouraged to do so. For her, it made the day go faster and amped up ever-so-slightly her job satisfaction. That radiated through to my perception of improved customer service. And, in a little but repeated way, she improved the quality of my life. (Try cloves in your chilli. Seriously, try it.)
I was speaking at a conference of dairy farmers about motivation. (Motivating their people not their cows, although, in this country, if I can develop that methodology, I’ll make a fortune!) Afterwards, one farmer came up to me (let’s call him ‘Barry’) to talk about one particular employee of his. The employee wasn’t a non-performer as such but frustrated Barry due to not improving and not making any effort to move towards achieving the potential Barry felt he had. It may or may not be relevant but the employee’s nickname was ‘Sleepy.’ We discussed the various ideas Barry had tried to little or short-term effect. Barry did say that carrots had worked but the impact had worn off. ‘Self Governance’ wasn’t going to work with a ‘Sleepy’ either, at least not by itself. What then? Perhaps a combination.
The group with the best perspective when talking about views from the top and bottom are those in the middle. I’m currently running a year-long development programme for a group of supervisors who are straddling that middle ground. They occupy that dynamic ‘meat-in-the-sandwich’ zone. I asked this group on their views. They’re a diverse bunch culturally and demographically with a range of supervisory experience (including zero.) Their responses were almost entirely questions – requests for more information. Who is this person we’re talking about? What’s the situation? What are our objectives right now and in the future? Smart people ask good questions. If I had to sum up their responses, I’d say, “It depends.”
I recently MC’d a health and safety conference. One of the speakers was Dr Rod Gutierrez, Principal Psychologist at DuPont. He told me about some research that had been conducted on people entering elevators. (He didn’t tell me why they conducted the research. I regret not asking.) People were covertly filmed entering a standard elevator, not one of those double-doored hospital elevators. Like most people I imagine, when you enter an elevator, you turn, press the button for your floor then stay facing the door you entered through. This proved true of all people – if the elevator was empty. They tested two other scenarios – one with a single occupant already there facing the back of the elevator and one with two occupants already there facing the back of the elevator. With the single weirdo facing the wrong way, most people regarded them strangely and faced the usual way. BUT with two weirdos facing the wrong way, over 80% of elevator entrants joined them in facing the wrong way.
Humans are social norming creatures and it’s likely many of your employees are human. The way things are done around here are the way things are done around here. If you’re a leader in a company that sells goods and services, no doubt you’ve got a marketing person or department that knows all about the value of ‘social proof’ in convincing and influencing customers out there in the market. Social Proof is evidence that others like us (or those we would like to be like) have already taken the road or bought the steak knives we’re considering, including the increasingly pervasive online video testimonials and LinkedIn ‘recommendations.’ The same principles apply to convincing and influencing inside the organisation. My advice to my farmer friend is going to be to try some social proof – to find someone who has been in Sleepy’s slippers, gone on to success, and to buddy them up with Sleepy. Let’s see what happens in combination with some of those carrots that worked in the past. Just don’t pick anyone nicknamed Grumpy…
[First published in ‘Employment Today’ Nov 2011]
This article by Richard Chin at Smithsonian Magazine discusses how our relative ability to identify and interpret sarcasm reveals, to an extent, how our brains process communication. I wonder how this skill, or lack thereof, impacts the potential engagement and productivity of our employees? I wonder if its something we’re born and stuck with, or whether it can taught and learned? Not the sarcasm per se but how some people are better than others at comprehending multiple layers of communication in this increasingly saturated world of communication in which we’re trying to make a living. Often the message isn’t really the message. It’d save a lot of time, money and heartache if people could ‘get’ that quicker.
Apparently when used in conversation the phrase “Yeah, right” is done so sarcastically 23% of the time. Maybe it’s a cultural thing in my country but I find that figure staggeringly low! When would anyone ever use it genuinely? For those of you not from New Zealand reading this, there is a New Zealand beer brand whose primary advertising campaign has been built around this phrase for a decade. Billboards with their logo have a comment on the left side and on the right side is the simple phrase, “Yeah, right.” (I’m writing this from memory. I’m thinking they probably didn’t use the comma.) Often these are verbatim comments from politicians or celebrities or things that real people say, “Hey babe, I’m sure no one at the office knows about us…” – Yeah, right.
I know a lot of advertisers claim their campaigns have become iconic and entered the zeitgeist etc but in New Zealand, seriously, ask anyone, everyone gets this. New born infants first words are often, “Yeah, right.” (Usually after being told, “Welcome to the world.”)
The criticism of sarcasm itself by the readers of Chin’s article revolve mainly around the issue of hierarchy. Sarcasm between equals is funny. Sarcasm between people of unequal power is either mean or bolshy, depending on which end of the power you’re on. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. Ouch!
Rightly or wrongly, New Zealand presents itself as an egalitarian land so maybe that’s why we’re so enamoured with sarcasm? (Nice haircut by the way.)
I recently ran a sales training programme for a group of reasonably experienced salespeople who sold large, costly capital equipment that often needed to be on-sold-in to decision makers within the purchasing company. That is to say, a committee or board. Part of our programme included anticipating and dealing with objections. Often, there are delays and barriers and excuses throughout a negotiation process and I found some research that implied that 70% of the reasons given for such objections were not the actual reasons. So, it would seem that the ability to read between the lines and to interpret subtext are very valuable skills with tangible financial and measurable consequences. It struck me as I started reading Chin’s article about sarcasm that some people are naturally attuned to picking the non-obvious emotion in statements and some people aren’t. Having Leonard from TV’s ‘The Big Bang Theory’ hold up a sign that reads ‘sarcasm’ so the austistic Sheldon can understand Penny is funny but unfortunately impractical for us in our workplaces. Fortunately we can all learn how to do this better in a work context. It can be taught. It can be learned. My sales people trainees found that out.
We could get into a long argument about the smarts of recruiting employees who already have the skills we’re looking for and how many employers totally over rely on recruiting for specific technical skills rather than attributes that actually lead to longterm success such as ‘fit’ and ‘perseverance’ and so forth. Here’s another one. Although I advise against being sarcastic to applicants in job interviews. That’s definitely one of those inappropriate power-imbalance situations!
Anyone who ever said that two positives cannot make a negative has obviously never heard the phrase, “Yeah, right.”
This article with video from ‘Good To Great’ author Jim Collins identifies three primary employee demotivators. Actually, he doesn’t limit them to employees but rightly says they are inflicted on people in many forums. Parents especially are noted as perpetrators. Those three demotivators are:
- futurism and
- false democracy.
There may be others but these three are good ways to put out the fires that might be burning inside people you have who are already inherently motivated. Crazy. You’d think that employers would want to not do that, yet I see an awful lot of hype, futurism and false democracy in a lot of workplaces. All of it is well-intentioned.
In one of my previous management roles where I was a significant agent of change, I had a little personal catchphrase, “No fireworks, no bugles.” What I was trying to reinforce to myself and to others was my own anti-hype position. I really did not want to overpromise. I’d learned from being on the receiving end of too many projects or ideas that were going to magically transform everything into a wonderland of worker amenity and prosperity. Never quite panned out quite as wonderlandy as they painted it. Few things do. Honestly, I’m not anti-hype. It has its place. Used in short bursts at appropriate times, it can generate heat, energy, attention, focus and movement. My problem is that, often, the hype is all there is. In fact, isn’t that the meaning most of us apply when we see, hear or use the word? Too much hype. Nothing but hype. Over-hyped. Don’t believe the hype. What must follow hype to avoid demotivation is prompt and positive change of meaningful substance.
Workplace examples of death by overhyping I’ve seen have included introductions of performance management systems and departmental restructures. That said, I’ve also been involved in introductions of performance management systems and departmental restructures that were highly successful, well received and used hype, to some extent, very well. So, I’d disagree with Collins if he means that all hype is bad. I suspect he doesn’t mean that. I believe he means the hyperbole that isn’t followed up with action of substance. Far better to, as he says in the video, “…to confront the brutal facts.”
How is futurism bad? I thought we were all meant to be planning for the future, setting goals, anticipating and pre-solving problems etc? Once again, Collins isn’t slamming all futurism, merely those bosses who focus on nothing but the future with little or zero emphasis on the now or recent history. Those bosses can’t learn from mistakes, can’t celebrate successes and can’t leverage employees ‘in the zone’ or in ‘a state of flow.’ These high performers don’t ignore the future but when they’re at their most productive, they are very much solely in the now. Bosses who break that focus and drift off over the rainbow are counter-productive.
Collins says to show results as an indication of progress, to show that people are part of something that is actually working. He refers to this as ‘clicks on the flywheel.’ (I get what he’s saying but will admit to having to go look up what a flywheel is – a heavy disk or wheel rotating on a shaft so that its momentum gives almost uniform rotational speed to the shaft and to all connected machinery. I’m pedantic enough to argue that change never happens at a ‘uniform rotational speed’ and I don’t even like the metaphor’s ‘rotational’ representation of change. But I still get it and love the whole point of it which was the benefits of showing progress and being part of something that works!)
False democracy is a label for all the actions by those employers who have already made up their mind but would like to paint over their intentions with a thin veneer of dishonest inclusiveness by engaging in some token campaign of capturing ideas and inputs from the team. Not that anything ever amounts from these campaigns. This is worse than just being a blatant autocracy. At least that’s honest and transparent. Sometimes even well-meaning managers will engage in such a campaign even though the system of their workplace is so rigid and unresponsive that actual democracy is unlikely. That might be worse as it raises false hope?
Doctors have their oath and the first part is about at the very least not doing harm. Leaders, when it comes to motivating their people, could, at the very least, take that page out of the doctors’ book. (Don’t take a page out of their prescription pad though. You’ll never read their handwriting!)
OK, the 1 out of 5 statistic above is a joke. It might be true but that can said of 57% of all statistics. Tony Schwartz in his HBR blog writes that the difficulty in the dealing does indeed actually lie with YOU.
He makes some good points. It’s bad enough for you if you have to deal with someone you find difficult at work and you’re stuck with having to deal with them every working day. Schwartz stresses how much worse it is when that person is your boss. Firstly, it’s a natural stressor when you choose to believe you’ve lost control and / or are powerless. Both these situations will add to that. And, of course, when it’s your boss, you’ve got a dollop of fear thrown in for good (bad) measure. Baseline security fear, the powerful kind. (Thanks Maslow.)
Schwartz uses a very helpful ‘lens’ metaphor as a possible solution. There’s the lens of ‘realistic optimism’, the ‘reverse lens’ and the ‘long lens.’ The stress, the feelings of control and power and the fear are largely driven by how you choose to react to situations. So, choose to stop and look at it from some different perspectives. What are the facts and what am I telling myself about those facts? What is this other person feeling that is driving their behaviour? To what extent can I influence that? Ask some other questions about how this might play out and what can be learned and how important it is in the scheme of things.
So far, I’ve written from the angle of you having to deal directly with a difficult person of your own. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an experienced grown-up. You’re probably able to take care of yourself instinctively. But how can you help your people who perhaps aren’t as instinctively clued up?
I like Schwartz’s approach of using questions, only instead of asking yourself, you engage your team member in a private conversation. They may come to you with a problem in dealing with someone else in the workplace. You cannot realistically give them some miraculous piece of advice that will work every time. You do not want to create a relationship of dependence with you having to always step in and solve others’ interpersonal problems. But in engaging them with these questions, it’ll drive them to think, not just with this person they’re having difficulty dealing with today but in the future as well.
I read of a social experiment. Individuals were told they’d be working with a partner in a another room. Each would do one of two tasks, one of which was unpleasant. You got to choose who did what & your partner would never know. (Of course, there was no partner in the other room.) The researcher left for a few minutes while the subject decided. They had a coin in a sealed plastic bag in case they wanted to “decide fairly.” 90% of non-coin tossers gave the crappy job to their partner. Of those who tossed a coin, the crappy job was given to their partner…
The only variable that made the decider make fairer decisions = putting a mirror right in front of them.
Of all the questions I get asked after presentations or during workshops, probably the most frequent is, “How can I motivate this person (ie slacker) I have in my team?” Or variations of that same query born of frustration. It being the 21st century and all, and given the calibre (generally) of the clients with whom I choose to work, it’s not like these are impersonal, command-and-control drill-sergeant-types. Mostly, they’re reasonable people with a fairly good idea of how to work with most people. You know, like you.
One of the little rituals I get going during my sessions is that the answer to most questions a leader faces is, “It depends.” (Don’t knock it. You have to be there and it does make a good point at the time.) BUT this time with this question, my answer is, “You can’t.” Usually I’d say something provocative like that simply to be provocative and generate debate etc but increasingly I truly think that’s the answer and thinking the opposite can only lead to behaviours that ain’t going to work for anyone concerned.
Whatever motivates me (and I’ve yet to consistently work that out myself) may not only not motivate you, it can have a wide range of alternative effects, including the opposite.
I don’t want to get all Clinton on you and start defining what I mean by ‘motivation’ and ‘can’t’ (or in Clinton’s case – ‘shouldn’t’) but you might be getting upset as you think you’re a great motivator or you were once impacted by someone you felt was a great motivator or you heard that your favourite sports team brought in a former champion at halftime for a speech that motivated them to a win.
You might inspire people, as might that CD you heard or that halftime speech but that isn’t true behaviour-influencing, improvement-driving, long-term motivation. Motivation is a set of chemical and electrical actions in a certain part of the brain that I can’t spell that over time, through repetition and reinforcement, establishes an easily replicable pattern. Some people are highly motivated to eat fried foods, watch Battlestar Galactica or collect teaspoons. No one gave them a ‘motivational’ CD or a speech. It’s all about neurons, synapses and repetition. The bad news is that you’re not a brain. You cannot personally and directly motivate people. The good news is that you can influence. It’s a pedantic but important difference.
So, I’m being slightly disingenuous with my stark, “You can’t!” Leaders can certainly recruit people whose internal motivations suit the team’s. Leaders can ensure that recruits’ personal goals are already aligned with the team’s so YOU don’t need to DO ANYTHING TO THEM. It might take a bit longer to start with but its more effective and less work for you in the long run. Leaders can certainly recruit people who fit with the other team members and thus nurture a culture where motivation can occur amongst themselves. Leaders, to the extent that they can, should pay a salary and provide a physical environment that doesn’t demotivate.
Again, maybe I’m being a bit Clintony, but let’s reframe the question. Rather than ask what you can do to motivate someone else, observe and experiment how you might be able to connect with whatever internal motivations this person already has. (I’m assuming you’ve inherited this person. Ideally, you’d have put in the work up front and recruited people who are self-motivated for your team and fit. To not do that, just to fill a vacancy, will cause more problems long-term than it solves in the short-term.)
Maybe I’ve begun to convince you that motivation isn’t something you can DO to someone else? If nothing else today, I’ve invented an adjective, ‘Clintony.’ (Or, is it an adverb?)
Following my blog yesterday on motivating and retaining the best employees, this article fell into my RSS feed from Harvard Business Review bloggers Carolyn Dewar and Scott Keller. I was drawn to the provocative statement in their article, “So, ‘rational’ leaders don’t tap into the primary motivators of up to 80% of their workforce.” (Although I inserted the apostrophe & the inverted commas for more dramatic effect & a sarcastic tone I felt was inferred…)
Hey, it’s short, sweet, simple and makes a great point about people’s differences when it comes to motivation. And it takes their research and plugs it into some practical examples of what actual leaders actually did. Nice.
The idea that our education ended once we left school was an accurate and helpful one – for factory owners in the industrial revolution. Since then, not so much. Many people quote the saying from Mark Twain, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (I suspect that it’s more likely Twain said, “Schoolin’.”)
One of my kids heard a reference to an encyclopedia on a TV show the other day. She asked me, “What’s an encyclopedia?” Wow! My mum back in my childhood to any kind of “What’s a widget” kind of question would automatically respond, “Look it up.” Of course, today it’s inherently ironic that the looking up would almost certainly not occur using an encyclopedia. Things change, the rate of change is increasing and the ongoing need to learn will only increase. What we’re learning and how is going to change. We need for ourselves and our kids, and we need to cultivate in the people that we lead, the ability to learn faster, more effectively and more often.
Quite apart from the likely positive impact on the quantity and quality of our lives as reported in this Guardian article amongst many others, there is a positive correlation between ongoing development and increased success. The noted psychologist Carol Dweck wrote a fascinating book called ‘Mindset’ that’s also an entertaining read. Broadly, she proposes that there are two mindsets – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. I paraphrase crudely but the difference seems to be mainly that the fixed mindset folks see that we’re all dealt some cards and our life will turn out depending on the cards we’re dealt. We’re smart or we’re not and our results will reflect that. The growth mindset folks think they can get new cards or more cards or play some other game that doesn’t involve cards. These mindsets are a choice and the beliefs the mindsets represent focus and filter our behaviours which dramatically impact our results.
To those with fixed mindsets, working hard is unnecessary as the talent they have is the talent they have.
Jerry West, is the former NBA Manager who drafted Kobe Bryant into the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers who went on to lead L.A. to five championships. As a player himself, West won a championship. Have a look at the NBA’s logo which includes a player’s silhouette. That player was Jerry West. His business was selecting talent for a multi-billion dollar industry. What sort of player, what sort of person does he look for? He says, “I think you have to look beyond the resume sometimes. It’s easy to look at a kid in college who scores a lot of points and plays on a great team. But can he get better? Can he progress? Or is he not going to get any better?” Jerry West believes in the growth mindset.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the talent mindset in the corporate culture especially citing the Enron failure. Hire the best and brightest and get out of their way led to what happened there.
The number 1 skill I recruited for was the ability to learn, evidenced by ongoing personal development, not necessarily formal education. People toss around the old chestnut, “Hire for attitude, train for skill” for a reason. It makes sense. What are useful indicators of a desirable attitude including success-oriented traits such as perseverance and resilience? Ongoing personal development overcoming challenges along the way preferable in a team-based environment. If you don’t know what any of those words mean, look them up, in an encycl… on Wikipedia…
When you’re passing through a workplace and you’re not a fulltime member of that workplace yourself, you see what its like, perhaps better than those actually working there. Maybe you’re a consultant, a customer or even a leader from within the organisation but not directly from that particular workplace. You see what the team is like and how that manifests itself in the team’s results.
I heard about ‘Guerilla Gardening’ on the radio and checked out the concept online. In my version of history, it started in the U.S. with its many miles of barren interstate highways. In an ironically organic way, diverse individuals started a very informal and non-organised movement called ‘Guerilla Gardening.’ Dismayed at the barren landscape and with no formal bodies interested in beautifying their environment, people took it upon themselves to do so. Initially frustrated by red tape and bureaucratic resistance, various individuals took covert approaches and it caught on and took off. They created ‘Seed Bombs’ (also known as ‘Green Grenades.’) Clay shells were wrapped around a range of wildflower seeds amped up with slow-release fertilisers and so forth. Once hardened the clay shells were pretty solid. Drivers hurled them randomly out of car windows as they passed desolate stretches of road. Once the rain came, it broke down the clay and released the seeds and nature took its course. Out bloomed random, unplanned nature.
Now, ‘Guerilla Gardening’ is getting organised and the website looks quite scientific. But hey, I write about leadership, supervision, motivation, influence, communication and behaviour change – what does that have to do with seed bombs?
I wrote in my first paragraph about wandering through a workplace that wasn’t yours to lead. Maybe you notice that it’s ‘barren’? Maybe you try to work through formal means and there is resistance and red tape? If you tried developing motivational / leadership ‘seed bombs’ and throwing them into the workplace to hopefully take root and bloom, would you just be a mudslinging and interfering busybody or would you be an innovative, Johnny Appleseed kind of person. It depends, I suppose, on how you do it and what grows as a result.
Weeds maybe… And mud sticks.
When you read studies done after-the-fact about some of history’s biggest mistakes, such as the Bay of Pigs and Enron, you’ll often see the phrase, “the smartest guys in the room.” What the study-ers are trying to get across is that somehow a group of highly qualified and perhaps overly influential advisers managed to convince those who actually made decisions to take actions that ended up in destructive disaster. Each of us in our smaller and admittedly less-global-catastrophe-potential worlds probably encounter demonstrations of ‘smartest guy in the room’ behaviour’ too, possible even being demonstrated by ourselves!
You’re at a meeting. Someone is talking. You don’t get what they’re saying or they use some terms you’re not familiar with. BUT you don’t ask for explanation. Maybe you hope it’ll become clearer in time or with more context. Maybe you ask a weak question like, “Excuse me Bob, but for the benefit of the people in the room who aren’t experts on xyz, can you please explain…?” Driving some of that behaviour is fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re supposed to. It probably goes back to primary school or earlier. Might be some mommy issues in there too. Hey, I’m not judging you man.
These days I train, present to or even entertain groups of people from an incredibly varied range of careers, industries and associations. These people, in their own arenas, are experts, geniuses in the sense that Malcolm Gladwell or Jay Niblick write about. Maybe they’re not rocket scientists but in their field of bovine stomach enzymes, they are the smartest guys in the room, if not the world. Or geniuses about concrete or lab testing or motorsports or whatever it is my client de jour specialises in. Almost always, around these people at these events, I am the dumbest guy in the room. I get to ask innocently ignorant questions and not only do I not get mocked for my lack of understanding about bovine stomach enzymes, I get a handheld tour of all things cow-stomachy. And I learn. I’m a little sad that it’s only recently that I apply this approach to all my dealings.
This Wired article by Jonah Lehrer applauds the potential for mistakes as learning development tools.You can picture the scenes. Volunteers are plugged into EEGs. Brain activity is measured. Subjects experience mistakes. What happens inside their heads at the point they realise they’ve made the mistake and in the time afterwards? And how did things turn out for people with different readings? Go read Jonah’s story but long-story-short: when the mistake occurs there is a ‘ERN’ signal which is short, followed by a longer ‘P-e’ signal. In my terms, the former is the brain saying, “@#$%!.” The second is a period of heightened awareness and attention. This makes sense. I almost fell off a chair so I snap to attention and engage in non-chair falling activity a lot more consciously. The associated research shows that more successful people tend to have not so much longer but more pronounced ERNs and longer P-e’s.
There you go. Apply that in your life and get better results. Um, how? Doesn’t this brain stuff just happen to us like our height? Nope, it happens to us like muscle development. We go to gyms and run up hills to build up our strength. To work on our ERNs and our P-e’s, we need to exercise them. How? By proactively making more mistakes… (Let’s not do that whilst driving. Let’s agree to go do something that’s safe but challenging. Me, I’m teaching myself guitar. Once again, I’m the dumbest guy in the room.)
So, to paraphrase New Zealand’s anti-drinking campaign, it’s not THAT we’re making mistakes, it’s HOW we’re making mistakes.
Fail better; Feel better.
Last week I presented to a group of dairy farmers. And by ‘dairy farmers’, I mean a group of business leaders whose businesses just happened to be dairy farms. I rarely meet people who are so professional AND passionate AND successful. The presentation went well. Laughs occurred where they were supposed to and some where they weren’t, yet it turned out for the best. Questions and comments afterwards indicated that they got a lot of value out of it and it would make a difference to them. One guy asked me a curly question though.
It wasn’t a negative question and he precursored it with all the things you’d expect an experienced and positive manager of people to say. He clearly had bought into employee engagement’s value to his business, along with goal setting and performance management (done the right way!) and feedback and so forth. He knew what a KPI was and he wasn’t afraid to use it. His question was, “What can I do about Sleepy?”
To be honest, it is a question I hear a lot in various forms. Almost all supervisors and managers I meet (and potential supervisors and managers) aren’t too worried about most people. They worry about negative or angry people. They worry about conflict. I’m sure I did too back in the day. Funny thing though, is that they’re relatively easy to deal with. Negative non-performers are obvious and a problem that you’re motivated to deal with. If it is 3-strikes-and-you’re-out level of serious then there’s a fairly prescribed path to follow in law and HR policy. I think the tough ones are like ‘Sleepy.’ Often not obvious, not a squeaky wheel demanding immediate attention yet potentially quite a drain on productivity down the line. There are clues like absenteeism, reduced participation and so forth but a pretty obvious clue is that they have a nickname like ‘Sleepy.’
Sleepy wasn’t avoiding work or doing it below expected standards. The farmer saw him as lacking drive, initiative, repeating mistakes, being ‘blinkered’ and generally operating to the letter of the law.
Sleepy had an actual name but his nickname was Sleepy. I wondered if it might be that quirky nicknaming thing where you do the opposite like calling a redhead ‘Bluey.’ Nope.
I asked my usual range of triage questions of my farmer. What have you done so far? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Tell me about ‘Sleepy.’ Have there been times you have seen him motivated? What caused that state?
My farmer didn’t tag Sleepy as a problem child. Quite the reverse, he was an above-average performer but my farmer was frustrated because he knew Sleepy was capable of so much more and the farmer wanted to move him towards that ‘so much more’, partly to improve results at his own farm but also for the sake of Sleepy himself.
I’ll ask you all the same question. What can we do about the Sleepys (Sleepies?) of this world? I’m giving it some thought and my next few blog entries will tackle aspects of my answer. I’ll probably start by thinking back to when I was that guy.