“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.

“… too much democracy.”

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Not quite ready for independence. (Annie Tao Photography)

The title quote is one of the several explanations for why a bossless office may fail to live up to expectations. It comes from a recent article, Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers, on the travails associated with self-management. (I plan to use it as a class reading.)
Treehouse Island, an online coding school of 100 staff, did away with bosses. But, “That experiment broke,” according to CEO Ryan Carson and the article goes into some of the causes of that failure.
The article is insightful because it not only offers examples of what went wrong, but indirectly suggests that eliminating managers is not that simple – there’s more to it than flattening the organization chart. After all, effective managers actually do real work: Do you remember Luther Gulick’s PODSCORB, his executive functions from 1937 (Planning, Organizing, Directing, Staffing, Co-ordinating, Reporting and, Budgeting)?
At the least, when you take away the bunkum - like formal performance appraisal - managers, coordinate and organize, very important aspects of group work.
I would add, that really good managers lead in the sense of leading from the middle. If you fail to address and re-distribute these roles you’re in trouble. It is not intuitive for workers to take on management jobs; those responsibilities have to be recognized, learned and applied within the organization. When I ask my classes which organizational model they prefer – the democratic vs. the autocratic, the majority selects the former. But, as I learn from group projects, many students do not fully appreciate what it means to work in a democratic organization.
The article confirms that when you remove the direction-givers the remaining people may become directionless. You quickly discover that while there may be a few action-taking and independent-thinking people, for the most part many people have become inured to direction taking and having someone else do their thinking, at least on the job.
Instead of thriving when bossless, they flounder looking for someone to point the way.
Now, I have been known to make self managment sound a bit more simple than it really is. For example, this quote from my blog:
“It probably needs repeating. Organizations that de-emphasize the strong boss or the role of management, are not without leadership or management. Leading and following are distributed across the organization instead of boxed up in the org chart. For example, consider what Chris Rufer, the CEO of the no-managers, flat organization, Morning Star means when he says: “Everyone’s a manager here, …. “We are manager rich.”
But, tell that to the folks on the front line, the people Rufer would expect to “step up”, as sports people like to say when the star player is taken out of the game. If you don’t have the skill or experience, how can you possible “step up” and behave like the corporate equivalent of an All American athlete.
In my own experiment in self-management for an organization of 200 I saw a gamut of responses to our flipping what were departments into self-organizing teams. A very few caught on and landed on their feet; they got the idea and were able to work with it; they naturally assumed the action taking and independent thinking roles. Under their leadership, their teams thrived and exceeded expectations. They behaved just like I had hoped they would! However, more than a few clung to the old ways, like in the picture, and persisted in the old top-down thinking. They’d nod and say they were a team, but the behavior was departmental.
What would I do differently? I would add coaching and training – vigorous and specific – for every team. And, I would use trainers who understand what it means to be self managing and how that concept plays out in the workplace. I would leave far less to chance than I did.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a splendid example of a self-organizing, a self-managing group. Each player understands that if she wants to be an Orphean, she will have to think like a conductor. You have to pay attention to more than just your sound, you have to be able to offer up and defend ideas during rehearsal, and you have to think and articulate what you want the sound to be, what the product is to be.
In other orchestras, these responsibilities belong almost exclusively to the conductor, the boss. Orpheus has spent decades perfecting how to be bossless. Of course, some would say, rightly so, that they are not conductorless; instead, they have 35 conductors!
Still it’s a struggle. Even Orpheans, when coaching student symphonies to rehearse and perform without a conductor, too often revert to the directive, telling, boss model, directing rather than letting the students fail and learn.
Another reason I like this article as potential class reading is because it does present examples of what the bossless found difficult. For example, a management professor claims that, “Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction, it’s human nature.” Do they?
I would counter with that it is more intuitive for humans to spurn authority and to yearn for democracy, but it is far less intuitive to know what that means in day-to-day life, including work. When given a choice workers often choose democratic ideals over the autocratic or the laissez faire. But, as Kurt Lewin famously said, “Democracy he has to learn.” Autocracy is easy; someone tells you what to do. Democracy takes work on everyone in the democracy.
So, why do it? Because the pay off in democracy is significantly greater productivity and creativity and a far more fulfilled workforce.
To borrow from a country music song title, there's no such thing as too much democracy, just like there's no such thing as too much fun;
"It's like too much money, there"s no such thing
It's like a girl too pretty, with too much class
Being too lucky, a car too fast
...."


© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE MAN AND THE SATYR”*

Posted by jlubans on August 28, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

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Caption: Illustration by ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912.

“A Man and a Satyr became friends, and determined to live together. All went well for a while, until one day in winter-time the Satyr saw the Man blowing on his hands. ‘Why do you do that?’ he asked. ‘To warm my hands,’ said the Man. That same day, when they sat down to supper together, they each had a steaming hot bowl of porridge, and the Man raised his bowl to his mouth and blew on it. ‘Why do you do that?’ asked the Satyr. ‘To cool my porridge,’ said the Man. The Satyr got up from the table. ‘Good-bye,’ said he, ‘I'm going: I can't be friends with a man who blows hot and cold with the same breath.’”

Isn’t this just how some friendships come to an end, over some inane misunderstanding? The man “blows hot and cold”, so the satyr abandons the friendship. Why does he not accept that the same action might be the result of two different causes?
A long time friend of mine ceased being a friend. Why, I have no reason. Was it me or was it a series of things that resulted in his turning away?
Maybe the man in the fable should have said to the satyr something like, “Are you serious? You want to quit being friends because I blow on my hands and on my soup, an easily explainable behavior?”
May not make any difference, but worth a try.

*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.


© John Lubans 2015

Mirthless Moguls

Posted by jlubans on August 24, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Henry, the Mogul, Ford’s Assembly Line. Interchangeable Parts.

The online retailer, Amazon, has come to starkly epitomize the “all work and no play” ethos said to be widely prevalent in the pumped-up Silicone Valley. Ninety-hour workweeks do not make for a Happy Valley. In other words, high tech companies, for all their good pay and perks like free gourmet lunches, personal baristas, free commuter busses, free laundry service – interestingly, none of these, apart from the good pay, are to be found at Amazon - are little more than 21st century “sweatshops”. At least that is what many come away with when reading the NY Times report of numerous interviews with former and current Amazonians. While some readers called it the worst kind of work environment (“I’ll never shop at Amazon”) more than a few saw the Amazon way as the best kind of leadership. “We need more of it.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder – likely embarrassed by these harsh conclusions – issued an e-memo to all 180,000 employees, rejecting the Times depiction of Amazon “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay,” …. “I know I would leave such a company. But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described.” Bezos’ e-mailing rather than having face-to-face closed-door meetings with staff suggests a big piece of what’s wrong at Amazon. Obviously, Mr. Bezos sees it differently.
I have long admired Mr. Bezos; I still do. He did on-line for the antiquated and arthritic book industry, in the late 90s, what no one had been able to do before. He solved the distribution bottleneck. With Amazon, books finally became easy to find and to get. If the library did not have it, you no longer had to write to the publisher or trudge to the bookstore – with its very limited stock – to order the book and then wait two weeks or longer to get it. By investing an estimated 100 million dollars in the front-end software, Bezos made finding and buying books as easy as pushing a button. And, he gave you a discount besides.
But like most moguls, Bezos does appear to lack a sense of humor. If you look at his refreshing and challenging “Our Leadership Principles” – written by Mr. Bezos and delivered unto the work force – the words enjoyment, fun, pleasure, satisfaction, and joy are absent. Not much to smile about.
What does appear is the allusion, nay assertion, that hard work and ever striving to be the best at any cost is the end all. Under the heading, “Insist on the Highest Standards” he declares, “Leaders (presumably all Amazon staff are leaders) have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams ….”
If one is looking for an excuse to be a whip-cracking, ass-kicking boss, that “driving their teams” pretty much opens the door. It’s likely not what Bezos meant – he certainly denies it - but that’s how it plays out according to scores of current and former Amazonians.
Now, when I interviewed CEO Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, and SWAs President Colleen Barrett for my book “Leading from the Middle”, I glimpsed a culture very opposite to Amazon. Yet, there’s no fear of hard work at SWA. Rather, they practice the “work hard and play hard” ethos. No, I am not talking about the risible “party hearty” and do only enough to stay enrolled as practiced on many, even elite, college campuses. At SWA you have permission, you are expected to enjoy what you do, that you should derive satisfaction from it, and that you should celebrate good work.
But, all the while doing so you are to “Maintain perspective (balance).” There is more to life than working at SWA.
Herb told me that the daughter of one of his senior staff got a job at SWA. It did not go well. “She got the ‘play hard’ part, but skipped over the ‘work hard’ piece.” She no longer works at SWA.
Maybe Mr. Bezos should take a look at the SWA Core Values
statement with its categories of Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude.
There’s a balance to working at SWA that appears absent from working at Amazon. The hard work is tempered with encouragement and events to have fun, to enjoy your work, to celebrate success, and to treat others with respect. And, you cannot miss the meaning of this core value: “Don't take yourself too seriously.” Herb lives it: “I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself seriously”. Now, that might be a hard one for Mr. Bezos to emulate, but it might make all the difference in the Amazonian world.
As an aside, I cannot imagine either Herb or Colleen sending an e-mail to SWA staff after being royally ripped by the NYT. Of course, as one would expect, SWA already has in place the structures and systems for senior staff, including Herb and Colleen pre-retirement, to meet openly with staff more than once a year all over the country. Yes, SWA staff were free to fly from all over to take part in these meetings.
Since everyone is offering Mr. Bezos advice - from imposing mandatory break times, instituting paternity leave, to turning off e-mail after 5PM, to emulating Europe’s laid back work culture - I too have an idea. Like Jupiter, Mr. Bezos should disguise himself and work side by side with some of the “pickers” laboring in the warehouses. Listen. What do staff think of you and of their immediate supervisor? Great guys or despots? Then do something to change the corporate culture or settle for what you have. But, if the latter – however unintentional - we know how far fear can take an organization; not very far.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “JUPITER AND THE MONKEY”*

Posted by jlubans on August 21, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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“Jupiter issued a proclamation to all the beasts, and offered a prize to the one who, in his judgment, produced the most beautiful offspring. Among the rest came the Monkey, carrying a baby monkey in her arms, a hairless, flat-nosed little fright. When they saw it, the gods all burst into peal on peal of laughter; but the Monkey hugged her little one to her, and said, ‘Jupiter may give the prize to whomsoever he likes: but I shall always think my baby the most beautiful of them all.’”

Your toxic boss has a mother. The biggest jerk at the office has a mother. Even Vladimir Putin, it is rumored, has one.
Aesop’s story suggests to us the vast breadth and depth of a mother’s love. So, then how and why do some people turn into miscreants? Is it “nature or nurture?”
I lean toward the former, the genetic. Most of us have an adequate supply of the cooperation gene. It’s why we are where we are, having survived thousands of years. It’s why we help each other. It’s why we share our toys and tools.
Yet, there are always a few at the end of the figurative line when the cooperation serum runs out. They’re the ones who cannot leave it on the playing field or on the board game table. For the true Darwinian survivalist, everything is a zero sum game; “I win, you lose” is the only way. If most of us were not so tolerant and cooperative they’d be run out of town or drowned early on.
We put up with them, sometimes at huge social costs. Like a loving mother, we’re ever hopeful the nasty, brutal little kid will turn into a kindly, contributing adult.

*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.

© John Lubans 2015

“Your call is very important to us, really”: Leadership and failed customer service.

Posted by jlubans on August 18, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Sign on office door in 1927 Soviet era Moscow as cited in “The twelve chairs” by Ilʹf, I., Petrov, E., & Richardson, J. H. C. (translator), 1997.

An unpleasant experience in the “friendly skies” of the “Star Alliance” airline cabal has left me with a nervous tic in my left eye. However, looking on the bright side, this “user experience” – what a phrase! - has sensitized me more than a little to concerns about customer service.
A report caught my eye – in between twitches. It, the report, surveyed consumers and experts on how happy – well, more about how unhappy - they were with the response they get from businesses when things go awry. And, this report lists out the causes for why so many people hold such dismal views about customer service. That matters to me since these causes, when recognized, are neither irreparable nor unavoidable. They are fixable. Leaders and managers, with input from customer service staff, can bring about highly positive improvements.
Now, before we get too far along, let’s keep in mind that poor service is not exclusive to the “greedy and grubby” for-profit sector! Poor service roams just as freely in the hallways and lobbies of charities, social service agencies, federal and local government offices and other not-for-profits as it does in business.
The survey found there were 17 major irritants experienced by customers. The five most hated and most likely to trigger client rage were:

1. Robots.
2. Rude service.
3. Being disconnected.
4. Being disconnected and unable to reach the person who was “helping” you.
5. A worker who can’t help or is wrong.


Please note that each of these “irritants” is the result of deliberate design or decision – it is not a random occurrence or unfortunate happenstance. Leaders and managers have made decisions about staffing, equipment, training, and levels of staff authority (i. e. just how far can staff go to remedy dissatisfaction).
And, those decisions are influenced by the organizational culture, something that emanates from the highest levels of the organization. Is profit at any price the tacit rule? Does staff convenience take priority over that of the client?
Does the organization lean toward the customer or away? There are clear signals from leaders as to the directions customer service is to take: obfuscation and avoidance of responsibility or helpful clarity and resolution.
How do we improve the Kafkaesque state of customer service? By flipping the negatives that mark poor customer service I’ve come up with a list of what you can do to provide the best.

- Trust and enable staff to do what is right. (As an example, the pre-flip version was “Mistrust the staff and tie their hands to inhibit problem-solving.”

- Staff the “front desk” with both experienced and entry level staff so that junior staff can see how more experienced staff behave. Not incidentally, these veteran staff can demonstrate knowledgeable and courteous responses to clients thereby educating junior staff.

- Make it understood organization wide that time taken to resolve client questions is an investment in the organization’s future.

- Provide training and supervision that helps staff resolve complex questions either on their own or by referral to someone more experienced.

- Be transparent in how customers can interact with the organization.

- Practice the golden rule; make clear there is zero tolerance for rude, condescending, or disrespectful behavior toward clients or toward other staff.

- Reward the behavior of leaning toward the customer; discipline the behavior of leaning away.

- For a walk in service center, including libraries, design it for ease of access and of understanding who does what.

- Involve top leadership in considering service design, service provision and its costs.

- Be forthright to clients and staff about your service limitations and what options are available.

- Internalize & practice, but never say, “Your call is important to us.”


© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable: Abstemius’ (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A Wolf and a Fox”*

Posted by jlubans on August 14, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration from Francis Barlow’s Aesop's Fables,1687.

“A Wolf that had a mind to take his ease, stor’d himself privately with Provisions, and so kept close a-while.
Why, how now Friend, says a Fox to him, we han’t seen you abroad at the Chase this many a Day!
Why truly, says the Wolf, I have gotten an Indisposition that keeps me much at home, and I hope I shall have your Prayers for my Recovery.
The Fox had a fetch in’t, (have a go at praying) and when he saw it would not fadge (result in bread); away goes he presently to a Shepherd, and tells him where he might surprize a Wolf, if he had a mind to’t.
The Shepherd follow’d his Directions, and destroy’d him.
The Fox immediately, as his next Heir, repairs to his Cell, and takes Possession of his Stores; but he had little Joy of the Purchase, for in a very short time, the same Shepherd did as much for the Fox, as he had done before for the Wolf.”

“THE MORAL. ‘Tis with Sharpers as ‘tis with Pikes, they prey upon their own kind; and ‘tis a pleasant Scene enough, when Thieves fall out among themselves, to see the cutting of one Diamond with another.”

And, so it can be at work, there is no honor among “Sharpers” Dodgers, Finaglers, Scammers, Tricksters and other office denizens. So, if you’ve been bullied by the boss, take some solace in that those with the slippery upper hand don’t have much to hold dear on a dark winter’s eve. The unimaginative, the hidebound change little; keeping to form, the small-minded remain small-minded and the pettish is ever looking over a shoulder lest he be found out. They get to live with themselves, hardly the best company.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© John Lubans 2015

Money as a “Kick In The A--”

Posted by jlubans on August 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Vaguely reminiscent of a Russian folk fable, a rich business owner promised to pay every worker at least $70,000 per year, a “basic, comfortable wage”.
When announced, joyful shouts erupted inside and outside the company - especially from those plugging away at an entry-level wage, somewhere under $30,000. Income redistribution at last!
But, and this is a big but, the celebration has become muted and may even be in the hardcore hangover phase. The rich man may not really have enough money, some clients are going elsewhere in anticipation of higher costs, and most jarringly, some of the best people are leaving the firm.
Money as a demotivator? How can this be? Is this not the best form of corporate justice? Or is it something to do with equity theory? Or are these whining ingrates slipping out the door just not worthy?
One staffer who abandoned ship explained what he least liked about the equal pay program: “It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”
Another dismayed veteran explained her decision to bail out: “He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump.”
This stirs up memories of Christmases past in which my brothers and I each got a sweater, new underwear, a pair of socks and a coloring book. A mother’s fairness and maternal awareness of how funny things can get if one sib gets more than another!
And there was a colleague’s dismay after an event heralded to honor her writing for a professional journal. She’d been producing for a decade a very well received column. Readers, in editorial surveys, repeatedly picked her column as the journal’s best feature, far above the several other columns.
So, one day the editor told my friend her writing was to be recognized at the next annual society meeting. At the awards ceremony, her name was called, along with ALL the other columnists! And each was handed an identical recognition plaque. Someone, maybe Seneca, said, “honor the undeserving, dishonor the deserving.”
It might benefit us – when looking at what workers want - to revisit Frederick Herzberg’s perfectly sound research - however disagreeable to some - on what workers want in order to do more than just barely enough.
For Herzberg, pay is organizational hygiene (in other words, not a source of motivation). Of course, pay should be appropriate and reasonable. It must be competitive with salary levels in the same industry. (See how setting your own pay scale works in the real world of self managing teams in my essay, ”Freedom at Work: Set Your Own Salary.”)
Besides cash, there are other widely prevalent external motivation techniques worshipped by HR types and some bosses. First and foremost for the hard-nosed boss, there’s nothing quite as effective as a Kick in the Ass! (KITA). In short, the application of a cattle prod, a fear induced by a threat to strip away the worker’s basic sense of safety.
Less violent, but just as pernicious, are the three ring binders of official Company policies promulgated by HR departments and staff committees, all presumably to make staff feel valued and motivated, including the annual pestilence of performance appraisal. Thoroughly unproven, only the most checked out HR chief can kid herself into believing PA is an effective motivator.
Herzberg quite convincingly demonstrated that these organizational efforts are largely non-motivators. Absent, they can be de-motivators. Present, they remove dissatisfaction but do not improve satisfaction, they do not motivate. For example, a job without medical insurance may result in dissatisfaction. Add medical benefits and what do you get? No dissatisfaction. The employee gets what she believed she was entitled to in the first place. If there is any motivation to do more, to be nicer to clients, it soon fades into the background.
Herzberg’s motivators (satisfiers) - when used honestly - do yield positive satisfaction. These motivators emanate from the internal psychological benefits inherent in work done when the boss gets out of the way. It’s work that one, and others, can be proud of.
The number #1 motivator for effective and productive staff is recognition from boss, peers, and clients. Good staff rightly relishe being valued; they gain a sense of achievement, and want growth and promotional opportunities. They like their job. Finally, good staff want responsibility and are willing to work for it.
Now, this is still a difficult argument to make to many bosses – it takes effort and a willingness to share the glory. Of course, some bosses just know better. KITA works for them or so they claim. The attributable costs caused by an abusive boss are little known; I’d guess they are considerable and long lasting.
An entirely different dynamic occurs when you regularly recognize staff for a job well done, for their contribution to the work, for their contribution to the organization’s success. (N.b. I am not talking about the annual recognition banquet or the staff picnic – more hygiene!)
Oddly enough in the $70,000 salary case it appears that pay was a powerful measure of recognition. A valued and responsible person’s making more than a newbie gave the veteran producer some measure of personal satisfaction. (One does wonder about the boss/worker climate in this organization.) Remove the fair and appropriate pay differences based on skill, experience and ability, enter Banquo’s ghost to put a damper on the equal pay party.
Are you frowning? Am I being hard-hearted about giving the little guy a break?
A recent illuminating large-scale study about “The Effects of Employee Recognition and Appreciation” should make my view more clear.
The study largely confirms Herzberg’s conclusions about the importance of recognition in the motivation and retention of valued staff.
Victor Lipman, a management consultant, has this to say about what he learned about recognition from the numerous staff morale surveys he’s conducted: “Employees never got enough of it – invariably it was a pain point.”
So, will this Russian fable have a happy ending or will it be more like the grim endings of most Russian novels? My views are above. What do you think motivates staff?

© John Lubans 2015

From the trail. Blog on break.

Posted by jlubans on August 04, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Cairns on the Pigeon River.

Am away on a trail today in Shining Rock Wilderness, North Carolina.

Next essay, next week? One of these:

“Your call is really important to us, really”: Leadership and failed customer service.

Who’s a “transformational” leader or for that matter, an “adaptive” leader?: Fantasies of modern leadership theorizing.

Or,
One Salary for All jobs? A KITA for failed readers of Frederick Herzberg.

Happy Trails!

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Bee in Love.

Posted by jlubans on July 31, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Bee and the love of his life.

Long ago, when animals and plants could talk, a busy but weary bee landed on an especially bright yellow flower. The flower was ambrosial, enough for the bee to say to the flower; “Whoa, I want more of this!”
So, already drowsy from the day’s work, he took a rest on the yellow blossom. As he snoozed the flower whispered to him and said she hoped he would stay. The bee took a deep breath – inhaling the flower’s scent, wiggled his tail, and settled in where he was, his wings still, only his antenna moving now and then as he listened to the flower and they spoke of bee and flower things.
No shirker, the bee still did his daily share of work for the beehive working long hours collecting nectar. But, in the late afternoon – in a vertical free fall after a loop de loop - he’d return to his love, the yellow flower. Those first few summer’s days of bliss turned into many. But, soon the days shortened, the sun hid behind rain clouds. Then, the first signs of frost soon appeared, but still the flower and the bee visited each day. And then, with a wintry wind, it ended. Whenever you see a yellow flower with a black center, think of the bee’s and flower’s reciprocated love.

Sometimes following one’s heart is the only path.

And, so it can be at work. Instead of diligently and predictably going up the ladder, we might choose another path. Instead of pursuing proffered laurels, we stay in a job, doing what we love with little fame or fanfare but great satisfaction and personal achievement.

© John Lubans 2015

Weird at Work

Posted by jlubans on July 28, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Maestro of weird.

“Weird is good”, says Suzi McAlpine, a leadership coach, in a recent article. Her subtitle: “Why dissonance fosters innovation”.
She proposes that instead of rejecting that which strikes us as weird, we try to understand its meaning and why it effects us the way it does. That acceptance and reflection may result in indirect solutions to problems or inspire us to move in another direction, away from the same old, same old way of doing something.
She provides an example, “The Rite of Spring” ballet. When first performed, it was so upsetting, so weird, that half the Paris audience threw vegetables at the orchestra and shoved and punched those who disagreed with their opinion. Figuratively, I see something similar occurring whenever an organization of people confronts radical change. The Rite was different yes, and only a few – if any - knew they were part of a wrenching separation from the past to the modern. “(For) many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.” A hundred years later, at the anniversary performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées - the same theater in which it was first performed - one critic anticipated the audience will “convene to celebrate ‘one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art — completely assured, startlingly original, brutal, tender, and altogether wonderful.’"
Well, ever the contrarian, I have to ask what’s happened to make this audience more accepting of what was “weird” a century ago; how did this audience move from denial and refusal to being demure and appreciative? Or, is the audience – we - any better now in dealing with change? Or does change so different, so weird, require a century before it is seen as something other than "puerile barbarity"?
I doubt that Ms. McAlpine is suggesting that simply courting weirdness is an “open Sesame” to a new way of looking at things. Some weird is best ignored – the bare chested man in the city park with the snake coiled around his neck is just what he is – there’s little there to inspire creativity, more likely creepiness.
Now that’s not what I would say about the depicted Salvador Dali’s art. While Dali exploited shock and awe as effectively as any artist in his lifetime, his genuine art did change our perspective, and I would suggest in a largely positive way. McAlpine’s point I think is that we need to be sensitive as to why we are repelled by the weird and try to move past the initial response – like the knee jerk violence of those music fans at the first performance of The Rite – to a greater understanding and appreciation for what is happening and why. The challenge is knowing when to accept and reflect since some weird is just weird, just like some radical change ideas are delusional. A metric I use is whether the outcome from a revised perspective will result – in organizational speak – in better customer service and greater productivity. Doing something so that the staff feels better about their jobs – with no tangible improvement - is not worth doing.
Some readers might say I am no stranger to weird. Yes, I am happy to go with the eccentric any day vs. staying in the safety zone, in the comfort zone. Leaving the safety zone, accepting the unknown, has often resulted in highly positive results.
Most of my essays, training workshops, and teaching incorporate the “strange”. That can backfire, as one dis-satisfied participant in a Texas team-building workshop let me have it with both barrels. I had the group do something with balloons and several in the group were not following the rules, but no one, including me (deliberately), was calling the unethical behavior. The disgruntled participant upbraided me later and demanded why I did nothing about the cheating. She signed herself a “Tall Texan.” No doubt she saw me as little more than a “burbling pixie”* since I failed in her eyes to repair years of dysfunction in this organization in my 7 hour workshop. What she saw was weird to her. More weird to me was her not calling what she saw as chronic cheating, not only in the workshop, but, as she explained to me, throughout the organization. A little reflection on her part might have resulted (from this weird little game) in the organization’s first-time-ever honest discussion about its ethics.
I rely on experiential learning to explain and augment leadership, management, and teamwork concepts. I am among a very few teachers of management in library schools to use experiential activities. Certainly, many use team projects but I know of no one else who uses group activities, at least not to the extent I do.
I’ve culled and adapted my problem-solving adventure “initiatives” from the many “new games” created dating from the 60s: Egg Drop, Bibliofoon (now Book Chain), Mirage, Pyramid, and Frenzied Fun and Facts.
Each of these activities can be done and discussed inside 30 - 40 minutes. (A note of caution: these require space and movement. And these activities are often “strange”, even weird, in a university culture that is hard-wired for lectures and textbooks under a highly formal relationship between student and professor.)
The value is to be found in the “debrief” following each activity; that’s where we overcome the “weird”. Step by step we look at the activity and what happened; then we explore “What I learned about myself and the group during the activity”; and, finally I try to get answers to this question: “What will I use/apply personally from what I did and saw?” As these types of teaching/learning experiences are new and fun (and weird for a few like the Tall Texan), it is important to emphasize the learnings, to allow students time to think, reflect, and discuss what has been learned. That’s how the weird becomes less off-putting and more familiar so that personal lessons can be learned.

*A denigrating appellation assigned to P. G. Wodehouse, by an un-amused critic of “serious” literature. Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest humorist writer of the 20th Century, used the “burbling pixie” to good effect in contrasting the two genres and ridiculing the critic’s pettiness.

© John Lubans 2015