“Leading from the Middle", by John Lubans*, is about freedom and democracy at work, teamwork, and leadership. Philosophy: the best work places empower staff to achieve their full potential; the less command and control, the better the product and service.

Overdue Book Notice

Posted by jlubans on January 17, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: East Lake County Library, Florida: Crime Scene

Like something out of Carl Hiaasen’s Everglades comes a tale of librarians gone rogue.
No, nothing to do with Medicare, the story tells of three staffers who invented a phony patron with a library card (Chuck Finley*, by name) and used the bogus card to check out thousands of books. Why?
To save, they claim, unused books from the trash bin. Supposedly, little used books - "How to Make Your Doll's House Special," "The Duct Tape Book", "Pugs for Dummies" and, Steinbeck’s classic, Cannery Row - were targeted by an automated weeding process – with little or no human interaction – and trashed, indiscriminately.
The perps say they intervened to “save the books” and, resourcefully, to save the library money from having to re-purchase the books fingered by this robotic inventory app.
A man bites dog story, it’s been re-cast and written about dozens of times. Most suggest the library staff are more to be sympathized with than to be condemned.
Some even see this as a Luddite reaction to dataism: “Is datification ruining the American library?” Hyperventilating, an article suggests, “it’s the blind adherence to data over human judgment, the use of data as a shackle rather than a tool.”
I’ve rarely heard such a positive assessment of human judgment. I thought, according to the latest elite thinking, we were mostly irrational creatures and would benefit greatly from robotic nudges now and then.
Back to East Lake. With little evidence, we are asked to believe there is rampant, unchecked decision-making by machines, decisions best left to humans.
Others see the shenanigans as the little guy (Ned Ludd type) getting one back against the brutal anonymity of the bureaucracy.
I’ve seen similar monkey business – much more duplicitous than pumping up borrowing statistics - when Google began to siphon off thousands of questions from libraries, their bread and butter, so to speak.
As I explain in “Google, the World’s Information Desk”,
only a few libraries, at the beginning of the decline, confronted and capitalized on the amplified need – due to un-vetted sources on the Internet (fake news is hardly new) - for robust information seeking and finding skills.
Mysteriously, after a marked drop off, the tallies of questions continued to rise.
Looking back, libraries lost about 40% of market share to Google.
The lost opportunity cost had to be staggering, but this is nothing new. Too many of us resist change until we are exposed, laughed at, and finally asked to justify what we are doing.
Ethically, the skullduggery in the East Lake Library is seen as good guys trying to beat the bad, King Data. What’s the harm, these forgiving types ask, the pettifoggers were not in it for personal gain?
Well, how different is this, apart from scale, from the flimflam of Wells Fargo workers opening up unwanted banking accounts for customers? No harm done.
How different is this monkey business from automaker VW surreptitiously installed software to defeat emission checks? No harm done?
Or, is it all A-OK as long as others are doing it? The lead perp at East Lake claims that many libraries use dummy cards. That is probably true but those cards are not used to falsify library statistics but for work arounds to expedite service.
At least I hope so.
From a leadership aspect, I have to ask, “Why, if it mattered so much, did the culprits not talk with the head of the system and demonstrate that indeed little used valuable books were being sent to Siberia only to soon be back in demand?”
What was in the way of that open discussion?
A bad boss? Bad followers? Hard to say. Like the Hiaasen character trying to stuff a live roach into a partially opened Pepsi in vain hopes of a big legal payday, what a waste of human effort, of human ingenuity, of human communication.

*A baseball player (pitcher) of some renown, but more likely an appropriation (what else?) of a character’s alias in Miami’s "Burn Notice" TV spy show.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE THIEVES AND THE COCK”*

Posted by jlubans on January 13, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption. Sauntering thieves; 17th century woodcut.

“Some Thieves broke into a house, and found nothing worth taking except a Cock, which they seized and carried off with them.
When they were preparing their supper, one of them caught up the Cock, and was about to wring his neck, when he cried out for mercy and said, "Pray do not kill me: you will find me a most useful bird, for I rouse honest men to their work in the morning by my crowing.
‘But the Thief replied with some heat, "Yes, I know you do, making it still harder for us to get a livelihood. Into the pot you go!’"
_________________________
One moralist has it: “The safeguards of virtue are hateful to those with evil intentions.”
If you’ve been woken at dawn, after a late night carouse, by a neighbor’s rooster cock-a-doodling, that might be reason enough to throw a shoe in its general direction. But, that’s unlikely if you live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. If you live in Sheridan, Oregon, on Gopher Valley Road, that’s pretty much the daily drill.
For the workplace, this fable illustrates how declaring against the boss’ agenda, albeit for good reasons – often results in reproach, not praise. Kelley’s study on leadership (and my personal experience) finds that the odds are even that a star follower will be punished for speaking the truth. Half the time it will be a KITA (kick in the ass) or a POTB (pat on the back.)
Like the thief, the bad boss (insecure, petty, jealous, etc - take your pick) will find a reason to punish you for questioning her actions and intentions.
With those 50-50 odds, it’s understandable why workplace “survivors” never speak up. Good leaders seek the painful truth and deal with it; bad leaders do not.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.


© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Leadership vs. Gizmos, Gimmicks & Gadgets

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

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A recent story, “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives”elaborates on apps and ideas to help workers be more efficient. It surveys what’s been done before, including Taylor’s classic time and motion studies.
The author, Oliver Burkeman, explains that Taylor was the first scientific manager to devise ways to improve individual production and to get more effort and product - for the same cost - out of a “goldbricking” workforce.
While that is the usual academic, unbalanced view of Taylor, I get the author’s point.
Since Taylorism’s heyday, computers have only furthered the notion of somehow getting more out of an over-worked and over-stressed work force – or in some eyes, applying a well-placed kick to the smug posterior of an unmotivated workforce.
Some believe that improving work “tools”, can improve how we work and how we feel about our work.
Taylor streamlined many tools and processes to help workers be more productive and to be paid more money for their work. Unfortunately, in Taylor’s world the worker was seen as less a thinking, contributing being, but more of a machine to be tinkered with.
Similarly, if one is inundated by e-mail, then there’s an app to manage the avalanche. Too many meetings, ditto. Too much paperwork, ditto. .
Some suggest these apps have helped. Others say nothing has changed or things have gotten worse. Harkening back to Stakhanovism, the more productive you are, the more is expected. If you have a good idea and double your work output through working “smarter”, then, says the Taylor-channeling manager, “let’s double it again”. And so it goes.
This is the difference between using an app to manage your work and working in an organization that, through its leadership, recognizes individual workloads and helps individuals and teams come to terms with getting the job done.
The end is not every individual working to capacity, but for the overall organization to be productive and to have a free flow of ideas to help the organization improve daily.
Burkeman, to his credit, includes the conclusions of a management consultant: “The best companies I visited, all through the years, were never very hurried, … Because you don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think…. good ideas do not emerge more rapidly when people feel under the gun – if anything, the good ideas dry up.”
So, slackerism has some virtue after all!
Good leaders know that workers need more than an app to improve their work. They know workers need time away from routine and a work environment in which to consider how they work; they need time to think about the Why of their work and how it can be improved for the organization.
Dale Carnegie Training just released the results of its Global Leadership Study. (Yes, this is the organization that furthers the work of the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” man). The study polled 3,100 workers at all levels in 13 countries.
U.S. employees identified the top five motivating and inspiring attributes of supervisors:
“Encouraging improvement (79 percent)
Giving praise and appreciation (74 percent)
Recognizing performance improvement (72 percent)
Admitting (supervisor) shortfalls before criticizing (68 percent)
… These leadership qualities also have a positive effect on employee retention and satisfaction.”
The report suggests the leaders need to close the perceived gap between what the worker wants from the boss and what he sees the boss doing. For example, workers value “Truly listening to Employees” at 88%, but the behavior, as practiced by bosses is observed at 60%, leaving a gap of 28%.
Valuing an employee's contribution” comes in at 86% importance for the worker, but it is observed 60% of the time among supervisors.
Sincere appreciation” is valued at 87%, but displayed among supervisors 61%.
“In the most striking example, 84 percent of U.S. employees said it is important for supervisors to admit mistakes, but according to these same employees only 51 percent of supervisors exhibit this behavior often – a gap of 33 percent.”
The Wall Street Journal’s conclusive look at this study: “Attention, supervisors: You may be the reason your staffers want to leave.”
So, I would argue that effective leadership and followership have more to do with job satisfaction and performance than any performance-improving gizmo or gadget. While an app may boost individual performance, real job satisfaction and real lasting improvement come from a work environment that promotes the best leadership and followership.

UPDATE: An item from NPR with a stopwatch illustration, no less, discusses personal productivity. A cerebral take on the matter. Different from mine. Predates my essay by about three or four hours. Great minds, you know.

© Copyright 2017 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE BEAVER AND HIS TESTICLES”*

Posted by jlubans on January 06, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: No way, José!

“There is an animal whose name in English is 'beaver' (although those garrulous Greeks -- so proud of their endless supply of words! -- call him castor, which is also the name of a god). It is said that when the beaver is being chased by dogs and realizes that he cannot outrun them, he bites off his testicles, since he knows that this is what he is hunted for. I suppose there is some kind of superhuman understanding that prompts the beaver to act this way, for as soon as the hunter lays his hands on that magical medicine, he abandons the chase and calls off his dogs.”

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free from danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for someone already stripped to the skin.”

______________________

Ouch! Does one abandon the “family jewels” – the future – for self-preservation or does one figure out another way? Among the neutered followers in the workplace, this is the Sheep and the Yes-Man (and Woman). Accommodating, rather than rocking the boat. Agreeing with the boss’ folly even as the organization fails.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
N.B. Laura Gibbs - the eminent classicist, has most generously provided a dozen new translations of fables for my forthcoming (early 2017) book: Fables for Leaders.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Red, Yellow or Green? Making the Most of the Plus/Delta

Posted by jlubans on January 03, 2017  •  Leave comment (1)

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Caption: Patagonia Crucible Team.

I’ve found the plus/delta – the quick debrief of a group’s work - to be quite helpful in my teaching. I’ve blogged on it several times, most recently here.
Were I in charge of work teams again, I would do some things differently. One of those would be to do a plus/delta after every meeting to help get at things unsaid needing to be said. I’d want to find ways to assess the health of the team. Are we on target? Are we together?
Red, Yellow or Green? Stop, Idle, or Go?
And, I would try to find out team member commitment to the group’s goal and what we are doing to achieve it. Now, in group development theory, all this “buy-in” is to happen in the “Storming “ phase. Yes, in theory; in practice, hardly ever, at least in the workplace where we select teams based on expertise or turf or agenda; genuine Storming is dodged.
My son-in-law, Clay, recently of the US Army’s Special Forces, is active in veteran activities. Some of those are about helping vets adjust to civilian life. An event of a different kind, in which he was a participant, was a mix of military and business leaders, the “Patagonia Crucible”, a several day trek across a glacier in Patagonia.
The expedition had several objectives, including providing raw insights into teamwork, leading and following.
Whenever I used adventure learning - “days in the woods” - to build teams and self-reliance among team members, I would get considerable static. It rarely came from the volunteer participants, but almost always from those who chose not to participate.
Imagine the yowl if I announced to a department: “Listen up, everyone. We’re going to Patagonia. Bring crampons. We’ll have a great time on the glacier!”
Well, moving beyond that fantasy, you can see Clay and his team in a 25-minute documentary. Beautifully filmed, I can recommend it to you for far more than its production values.
No, they were not met at day’s end with martinis and steak dinners. Every item: clothing, food, bedding, was carried by the team, each member with an equal load. (Remember one of the principles of highly effective teams: Every one does an equal amount of real work? Here it’s for all to see.)
The Patagonia group took daily turns at leading. The leader for the day was in charge of the daily debrief – the group assessment of how the day went, what issues there might be, what was needed. Akin to the plus/delta, this process is termed the AAR, “After Action Review”.
I am thinking of using a modified version of this for the individual project teams in my Democratic Workplace class; the AAR offers more guidance to the debrief than does the plus/delta and it may be better at guiding novice teams to more openness and honesty.
The Patagonia team made use of another quick go-around to assess everyone’s commitment level: Red, Yellow or Green? The day this was asked was probably the hardest one of the trek on the glacier’s ice, a day of being tethered together at 15-foot intervals, on crampons, in windy and cold conditions.
While everyone was fatigued, some nursing injuries, all in need of Aleve - each responded, one by one, “Green”. The explicit individual commitment made by being there was maintained.
Clay told me, had a “Red” come up, there’d be an immediate exploration as to the obstacle and then a determination, by the team, of what needed doing.
Redistribute the load among the team? Maybe. Or, maybe just recognition of someone’s distress. That alone – admitting “weakness” – would be a major concession and expansion of boundaries for some leaders.
As for the all green response, unlike the workplace, everyone knew what he had signed on for. The Patagonia team was screened (no toxic trekkers) and selected for wanting success (positivity not negativity) with the understanding that there would be real hardship.
That’s the plus of adventure learning – even if your team does not develop, you as an individual certainly can. It became for me the real reason to offer those Days in the Woods, to help individuals challenge his or her limits. The metaphor of hardships met and overcome outdoors was not lost on participants on their return to the workplace.
One of the major obstacles in effective group work occurs when the group goes silent; when individuals begin to look inward, and despair seeps in. Challenges loom, false ridges multiply. That applies to the workplace just as much as it may on an icy, sleepless, windy trek.
The learning is in what team members do to help each other. Being self-reliant is not just looking out for number 1. Being self-reliant includes looking out for team members. You keep your head up so you can see how others are doing. It is what good leaders and followers do. It is not what bad leaders and followers do.
In one instance in Patagonia, the day’s leader was faltering; it was probably the hardest day of the expedition and this leader was the least physically fit. Clay told me, “his head was down, his steps were slowing – he was withdrawing into himself.” At a break, one of the team stood by him and recited the Ranger Creed, rallying the leader
back to his individual commitment to the quest. After hearing a few phrases, his head came up. He later said: “That poured so much energy into (me) — just what (I) needed to hear at that exact moment.”
What’s your Ranger Creed? For me it’s often been the 23rd Psalm. Does your organization/profession have core values that inspire you to keep on undaunted? Can you recite them?

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Friday Fable. Aesop’s The Widow and Her Little Maidens*

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption. Illustration by Walter Crane, in his “Baby’s Own Aesop”. 1887, page 16.

“A WIDOW who was fond of cleaning had two little maidens to wait on her. She was in the habit of waking them early in the morning, at cockcrow. The maidens, aggravated by such excessive labor, resolved to kill the cock who roused their mistress so early. When they had done this, they found that they had only prepared for themselves greater troubles, for their mistress, no longer hearing the hour from the cock, woke them up to their work in the middle of the night.”
____________________________
What’s the Moral? Just in time for the making of New Year's resolutions, Crane's is “Laziness is its own punishment.”
Sometimes when we exchange the predictable for the uncertain we can complicate our otherwise simple lives.
At work, we may stop doing some procedure –which is inconvenient and boring - but once absent we see our mistake. Without that procedure, we accomplish less and satisfy fewer customers.
So, maybe the lazy maids should have thought through what could happen once the source of their misery was gone; had they, they might have spared the rooster.
That said; do not hesitate to eliminate redundant checking of other people’s work (in some ways what the mistress does to the maids). Nothing is gained by it – no real work gets done, time is lost and workers are infantilized.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886. Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Book Update.

Posted by jlubans on December 23, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Illustration by Béatrice Coron for the forthcoming book, early 2017. One of several original images.

This illustration is for a new fable, “The Fox Gets Left Behind”.
It was co-authored by Evita Stankeviča; Lana Augule; Inga Vovčenko; Tamāra Černišova; Ilona Vēliņa-Švilpe; Ieva Krūmiņa; Viktorija Moskina at the "Wisdom in the Thimble: Managers and Fables" discussion I led at the National Library of Latvia in Riga, February 24, 2016.
The book will be both print on demand (6x9 softcover) and in electronic format. A team effort, it is being edited by Sheryl Anspaugh and designed by Alise Šnēbaha. Drawn from the over 200 Friday Fables in this blog, the book will have about half.
From the book’s introduction:
“Consider this collection of fables and commentary an anti-textbook. Fables for Leaders has no acronyms to memorize, no lists of habits to acquire and certainly - for a management book - no quadrants and axes to retain.
Instead, these stories come from Aesop, 550 BC; Odo of Cheriton, 1200’s; Laurentius Abstemius, early 1500s; LaFontaine, 1670’s; and Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1690’s; more recently, the Russian fabulist, Krylov, ca. 1810. I have written my own fables since 2011 and several are in this collection.
Fables for Leaders includes 100+ short stories of talking animals and trees…. and my ruminations on each. I emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories – from across the centuries - to my own on-the-job experiences, - successes and failures - and relate them to our contemporary behavior and decision-making.
We relate to stories, we remember stories, and these fable stories may help in thinking through and solving in untraditional ways, problems on the job.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Compassion Vs. Empathy

Posted by jlubans on December 20, 2016  •  Leave comment (1)

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Stop the e-presses!
Well, maybe not that big a deal, but our seeking leaders/followers with beaucoup empathy (as I wrote recently in “Bibliotherapy for (Recovering) Jerks”) may not be precisely what we want!
How can that be?
Maybe a quibble, but the word empathy is understood by some as “the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.”
According to an essay in the WSJ, “The Perils of Empathy,”
“In politics and policy, trying to feel the pain of others is a bad idea. Empathy distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal and often cruel”
In clinical trials, as they say, it was found that
“Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out.
This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal.”
Interesting or a bizarre semantic quibble?*
Do we not use the terms interchangeably? Surely when we feel empathy for someone in the workplace we want to say we’ve walked in their shoes and understand where they are coming from and what they are going through. And, implicitly, we want to do more than simply listen to the complaint; we will do something about it.
The author, a psychology professor, recommends we reduce empathy and increase compassion. Compassion is better because it “does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
Among lexicographers, “Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.”
I suppose more than a few sermons have been preached about the difference between these two words. So, I will leave the theological and ethical aspects to others.
What I like about compassion is the word’s implicit desire to alleviate someone’s suffering. In other words, it promotes doing something about it, not sitting there prattling self-serving phrases like “I feel your pain.” Imagine how much that is about the speaker rather than the afflicted.
Compassion may be the better term in the workplace because it means that you understand (not, like empathy vicariously experience someone’s frustration, pain, anger, hatred, illness, etc.).
You understand what is happening, and the difference maker for me, is that compassionate people have an instinctive desire to take action to help. Empathy – as used in the clinical sense – carries no intended action with it. “I can feel your pain”, someone said. And, I can well understand why the phrase is now ridiculed.
Feeling someone’s pain is not the same as doing something about it.
Sometimes getting stuck in empathy is circumstantial. I am reminded of a department with a difficult-to-fix customer service problem. While I could empathize with clients, my hands were tied, sort of. A toxic employee, a weak department leader, and an organization reluctant to take down jerktiude made change difficult; a confounding situation with me stuck in the middle.

*The semantics remind me of a puzzling event from my career.
Not long after starting my first professional job I was buttonholed by a young instructor – probably a PhD candidate.
I think the conversation was pretty mundane about some library procedure. But, when I used the phrase, “of course” – my interlocutor saw red. Registering annoyance, he admonished me never to use that phrase.
Looking back, I suspect he’d just been put through the wringer by his dissertation committee and told to remove all the “of courses” in his first two chapters.
His vehemence puzzled me, but we continued the conversation. Unintentionally I let an “of course” slip out. The instructor’s bugged eyes and perspiration on his mottled forehead suggested violence was next.
So, I hastily invented a reason to depart and did so with alacrity.
I never did figure out his outrage, but like empathy/compassion we can go overboard parsing meanings.
Use either term; just don’t say you feel someone’s pain but take no action.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Lubans’ “Izzy: An Incomplete Life”*

Posted by jlubans on December 16, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Izzy, a Classmate of mine at Braintree High School, dropped out after the 11th grade, went to Work, bought a Car, Dated high school Girls. He was one Popular guy – just not with any of the College Bound.
He took up barbering as a full time job.
His brother, Ike, went to college on a football scholarship. Got his MBA. Went to work in a Boston corporation. Ascended.
Izzy kept on barbering and enjoying his time off. No one walked by the barbershop on Main Street that he did not wave to. When Barbering went down hill in the Hairy Hippy era; the owner sold his business to Izzy. Izzy kept it Going with steady Return Customers and Low Prices and friendly chatter.
Izzy covered the walls with pictures of family and friends. He took time to read newspapers, sports, and history books; he liked to talk sports and politics with customers amidst clipping hair.
Izzy married one of the Driesdale sisters (three beauties from my H.S.) and they had a couple kids.
Ike was promoted to the Corner Office, maximizing profits for shareholders (and himself). Ike hardly Ever talked to Izzy or his parents. But, Ike did serve on the Museum of Art’s board of directors and such. Lived in a Penthouse in Boston overlooking the Harbour.
Both Izzy and Ike – like many of their era - divorced.
Ike re-married. An Eyeful, his 29-year-old Secretary.
Izzy dated Some but spent more time with his two kids and with his aging Parents.
He re-married a Comfortable Someone he’d dated way back when. They took road trips to far away places like Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
Ike traveled to Europe in business class and stayed in five star hotels while Izzy stayed at state parks in a comfy little Pick-up Truck camper, the kind with the sticker on the door, “If we’re rockin, don’t come knockin.”
Izzy had season tickets to the New England Patriots football team. He and his new wife were regulars in the end zone seats, rain or shine. Once, when Coach Bill Belichick was in town he got a haircut at Izzy’s. Izzy framed the photo for all to see, the only celebrity on the wall.
When Ike’s company was taken over, he leveraged a Golden Parachute and retired to Florida where the Daily routine was play Golf and have late afternoon Cocktails at one or more of the gated community’s parties.
Izzy, still trimming hair, brought in a young partner and then, once he knew it was a good match; transferred the business to the partner. Izzy went part time and barbered only when he felt like it.
Izzy’s idea of a vacation was to take the kids to Disneyworld and drive all the way down the Interstate to Orlando.
Ike climbed Mt. Everest out of boredom (and $45,000).
Izzy was a Salvation Army Santa every Christmas.
Ike was out of town when their father died. He was not able to make it back in time for the funeral.
Ike’s college named a Dormitory after him in Recognition of his Athletic Career and his Generous Support for the College, declaring him a Complete Success in Sports, Business and Life! The $5 million he Gave was not specifically Mentioned

Moral: Success Ain’t Always Complete.

*In the style of George Ade.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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De-toxing the Workplace

Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Good question.
When I last wrote about the toxic workplace, I suggested I’d be back with some more ideas on how to deal with a poisoned work atmosphere.
In the last week, the BBC posted a review article,
How should firms deal with a 'toxic employee'?”
and defined toxicity as “everything from selfishness, bullying, rudeness, being overly-domineering, or even just being constantly too loud and opinionated...”
The article includes ideas for how a leader should cope with this prevalent problem. It also includes the obvious free advice, “Don’t hire them.” OK, we won’t.
Many of us who work in traditional organizations – the kind with HR departments and its rules and regs, org charts, personnel files, labor lawyers, middle managers, unions, etc – often find ourselves inheriting problem employees, the organization’s tar babies.
Everyone knows who the toxic people are but no one has been able to do anything with them. But there are reasons for that, not just dereliction of duty by a supervisor.
For the youngsters out there, one of the first tests you will have as a new manager will be the toxic employee. How will you deal with the negative comment, the negative posture, and the nay saying, often in public? Will you postpone to another day or will you enjoin and stop it? Will you pass or fail?
I’ve reflected on my own career and the toxic people I had to deal with – believe me it’s a long list. (I should mention that the list includes some people I did not “like” but that does not qualify them as toxic. If someone questions a program I am promoting, that does not make that person toxic.)
It’s not been a happy reflection. More of “Why did I not do what I should have done?” than nostalgic war stories of how I single handedly de-toxed an organization. “Why did I not do what I should have done?” applies as well to the competent, non-toxic colleagues with whom I had differences.
No one could surpass my discovering, promoting and working with star employees. I was the best boss ever. But, I have to admit; I was less than the best when it came to stemming jerkitude.
Why was this and what would I do differently?
It comes down to conflict resolution. Do we constructively confront conflict or do we avoid, accommodate, or compromise? Or, worse, do we, ourselves, respond in toxic ways and counter gossip and rumor with gossip and rumor and build cliques to off set the enemy cliques? Do we stop talking to a toxic person, giving her the cold shoulder in hopes she will take the hint and leave?
One of the BBC article’s key points is that the supervisor has to give feedback to the toxic person. She has to have a sit down, face-to-face talk about the behaviors to "make the behaviour explicit, and break it down, monitor and measure it, and offer course-corrected feedback".
I have seen this work. No, it was not a miraculous turn around from problem staffer to star staffer. Nothing like that. What mattered was that the staff in that department saw that the behavior was no longer tolerated, that the worker was being held accountable and that there were consequences for bad behavior. The supervisor’s taking disciplinary (and fair) action raised the department’s morale and minimized the influence of the problem staffer. Staff were no longer interrupted and made to listen to monologues on how awful and unfair the workplace was, etc. The department’s productivity improved.
That new supervisor modeled a method to de-tox a long-term negative situation. It took courage and confidence and it took support from higher ups. It took understanding the problem employee’s job and making clear what was expected and attainable. And, it took time, a lot of it, to monitor progress. This sort of work is among the most difficult and most important we do as managers.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016