Ants & Democracy

Posted by jlubans on December 19, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

I will be showing my Democratic Workplace class the NOVA DVD, “Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World.” The DVD features Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s research and was produced in the mid to late 90s. I’m using it to augment our class’ discussion of complex systems and how leaderless, self-organizing units work together to achieve group results.
Caption: Leaf-cutter ants laden with food for the nest*.
According to Dr. Wilson humans have an inherent weakness: we emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of society. The final scenes of the DVD show a despoiled earth, all human life extinct. But as the camera zooms in, we see ants zipping around and through the concrete debris and metallic detritus of what used to be civilization. The ants win, continuing their 100 million year run of biological success! Clearly Dr. Wilson (or NOVA) thinks that the ants’ cooperation and seemingly selfless way of life (or, as the script has it anthropomorphically: “selfless devotion”) is vastly superior to mankind’s tendency toward selfish behavior. If we extend to the workplace the viewpoint that individual needs trump those of the group, it suggests that man is largely incapable of cooperating or collaborating. I expect that devout fans of the hierarchy are nodding vigorously in agreement. “I told you so! If humans are to accomplish anything, they need direction, the firmer the better.” (These same advocates for limiting personal freedom, of course, always exempts themselves from the coercive and necessary guidance for the masses.)
Unlike ants, humans are imbued (divinely or over time through evoution) with freedom and the capacity to make choices (bad and good), to decide for themselves. Also, we have the unique attribute of language to argue for and explain our choices.
The critics hold that if we got rid of choice, we could have a cooperative society and be better off. Charles Handy, in writing about the concept of subsidiarity, says this re individual freedom: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege, although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”**
Actually, humans do cooperate, just not consistently. (Chapter 23, "Sacred Teams", in the book, is especially relevant to humans cooperating. It has my observations about the Semana Santa processions in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.)
Is this inconsistency in cooperating a fatal weakness for our kind? I’ll ask the class, “Do you agree that this is a weakness? In what ways? Does taking away a worker’s elbow-room for making decisions eliminate democracy in the workplace?

*While hiking in Costa Rica in early November, I observed, close-up, long lines of leaf-cutter ants, burdened with freshly cut leaf segments, hurrying across rocks, rutted earth, fallen tree limbs – nothing could stop their march back to the nest. The DVD confirms that the harvest does not kill the trees. New leaves will soon grow back for another bountiful harvest.

**Handy, Charles. “Subsidiarity Is the Word for It.” Across the Board (magazine); June, 1999, 36: 7-8.

“We’ll be fair.”

Posted by jlubans on August 24, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

That’s (“We’ll be fair”) what I heard when I asked a Developmental Disabilities staffer about Oregon’s financial policy on a certain kind of welfare for people with disabilities.
In North Carolina, 3000 miles east, the policy was just the opposite. When I asked legislators from both parties about removing the policy’s punitive aspects, the answer was “It can’t be done”.
How, then, did one state* practice a very fair policy (assuring that a person could retain some assets) while another state practiced fiscal confiscation that led to impoverishment and dependency.
Without going into details, my question is about how the political or other leadership establish the principle of fairness (a corporate value) while another leadership decides on punitive policies for clients.
Now, Oregon has long claimed there is an “Oregon Way” – a philosophy deriving from its earliest settlers, a philosophy of fairness and of helping others.
Another example is Oregon’s “People’s Coast”. Unlike many coastal states, Oregon decided long ago that the ravishingly beautiful coast could not be developed and restricted only for those with the big bucks or other influence.
As a result, Oregon has hundreds of miles of open access beaches and parks.
Is it politics? Some of my East Coast liberal friends assure me that Oregon is on the Left Coast and hence guided by leftist leaning policies.
It may be that way now, but at the time of the beaches and the health care policies, Oregon was conservative, not liberal.
In any case, Oregon’s policy makers were either more intelligent or had a value system that stressed fairness.
When I challenged the unfair policy in North Carolina, I met with legislators of both parties. Regardless of politics, every one of the pols was of the “I feel your pain” persuasion, and would do nothing to reverse the punitive practice.
I recall one bright-eyed legislative assistant explaining to me that any change was fiscally impossible. She was almost gleeful about having a budgetary justification to do nothing. According to her, it would cost millions which the state did not have (of course!).
Her reasoning was that any policy change had to encompass everyone not just the people with disabilities. In other words, the state was fiscally incapable of making one life better without a fiscal obligation to make all lives better.
The former is doable. The latter is impossible. So, “Sorry, but our hands are tied.”
Have you ever used that kind of lame excuse? I have.
Where does leadership enter? The leaders of these two states obviously influenced the legislation and how that legislation would be put into practice.
One state chose fairness, while the other chose unfairness.
What then is the leader’s role in changing bad practices in any organization? Even if the leader (say a state’s governor) would like to make changes, how do they persuade others. If your followers are unpersuaded, you will have an uphill battle.
My two-week lobbying effort with state legislators in person went nowhere. Most figuratively patted me on my head and sent me on my way.
One legislator, probably a Southern conservative, was angered by my pitch. He roared at me that I should be grateful for what the state was doing, and that was that. I remain mystified to this day about what set off the fireworks.
Was it something I said or was it something in this man’s background?
So, there is a culture one has to deal with.
I came to believe that while people with disabilities come in all colors and creeds, the North Carolina legislation may have been racially influenced because of the state’s Southern (slavery) history and significant black population. Yet, I am aware that many northern states (supposedly enlightened) with tiny black populations have policies that emulate the harsh one in North Carolina.
How would you, as a leader, change the unfair to fair? What would it take for your organization to say sincerely to clients, without hesitation, “We’ll be fair”?

*For my Latvian readers, America’s 50 states have much autonomy over how things are done. There’s state law and there’s federal law. For example, in Oregon you cannot pump your own gas. In 48 other states, you can pump it. Some states have sales taxes, a few states have none.
Just about on every issue, states vary and most like it that way.
Of course, those who know best and thrill at telling everyone what to do, prefer a centralized approach, like in Soviet times.
There are strong subsidiarity arguments to let American states have control. However there is constant tension between the states and the federal government, just like with member states of the European Union and the unelected officials in Brussels. Of course, subsidiarity applies to any organization and the decision-making freedom it permits (or not) for local units.

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© Copyright text by John Lubans 2021

“Stealing People’s Choices Is Wrong.”

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


I have a micromanaging friend; let’s call him Sam. He’s a boss and at the top of his field - well regarded by external peers - but I’d say Sam’s organization is working far below capacity. His inability to trust, his lack of confidence in subordinates is all-pervasive. One staffer likens Sam to Kim Jong-Un – the ultimate micromanager.
Over a period of years, many of this organization’s best people have gone elsewhere. Unfazed, Sam pats himself on the back; his people are in demand because of the high quality experience they have gained by working for him!
Perhaps worse, since everything has to go through Sam, a lot is left undone; new outreach programs, new uses of existing resources, remain in suspense.
I pick up on the notion that since he is not ever satisfied, that even competent staff do lackluster work; which of course fulfils Sam’s expectations. Why bother to do your best if whatever you do is always nitpicked to pieces?
I like Sam, he’s a good friend, but then I do not work for him. (By the way, most micromanagers are not likeable because their mistrust foozles relationships. And, some are mean and petty – they enjoy finding fault and taunting; Sam’s not one of those).
Were he to ask me for advice about improving his leadership I’d start the conversation with a valuable bit of democratic work place philosophy from Charles Handy: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege (our right), although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”
If Sam mulls that over and wants more, I’d recommend Rebecca Knight’s article from August, 2015, “How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team”.
Why is micromanaging harmful? Knight responds: It “displaces the real work of leaders, which is developing and articulating a compelling and strategically relevant vision for your team.”
In my experience, leaders who did this “real work” developed highly productive and successful organizations.
Ms. Knight prescribes several ways by which to bring about a change in how Sam looks at people and what he expects of them. She would ask: “What can you do to give your people the space they need to succeed and learn? How should you prioritize what matters? And how do you get comfortable stepping back?”
She recommends “undertaking a cross-evaluation assessment.” Gather confidential data from your people—or better yet, have a third party do It with a guarantee of anonymity. What Sam hears may be sobering – remember the Kim Jong-Un comment? - “but it’s critical to understanding the broader patterns and reactions and the impact [your micromanaging has] on your team.”
Looking back on my own career, that cross-evaluation assessment would have benefited me, an extreme macromanager, (sometimes, “hands off” is worse than “hands on”!)
And, I could have been a better boss for my direct reports had I asked each of them these questions:
“How can I help you best? Are there things I can do differently? Are our overall objectives clear to you and do you feel you have the support and resources to accomplish them?”
I always assumed that my highflying objectives were clear to others. Bad assumption.
So, there’s a balance to strive for. Obviously the newbie employee needs direction and supervision, the veteran less so. It comes down to knowing when to let go. I do not know if Sam ever will know? Do you?

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Avoiding Avoidance

Posted by jlubans on March 30, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)


In preparing for another column on “What I Would Do Differently”, I listed out a baker’s dozen of instances in my career where I could have done better. These were conflicts; those times when someone seeks to frustrate something you want to do.
Looking at that sorry list, it dawned on me that while each of those snafus was a personal failure, my saying so and explaining how I would follow up did not address a more important question.
Could any of the dozen been averted?
What in general could I have done differently before the situation became a problem?
All too often, my silence or failure to follow up, may have escalated a small problem into something larger.
Were there not ways to anticipate and nip an incipient problem in the bud?
Was there a lack of clarity in my message, then how could I have changed that?
Did I not listen to my colleagues? How could I change that?
Were my colleagues not interested in or swayed by my intentions?
Did they not understand my purpose in making a change?
When I stated my belief that simplicity was preferable to complexity, did anyone understand what I meant?
I rarely explained; rather I assumed. And, as we know, there’s an adage for that. (When you take away the U and the ME that leaves ASS and a silly one at that).
No, we cannot know all eventualities nor do we need to, but we do want the key points well understood.
You should not leave it up to the staff to figure it out for themselves.
Some were already on my wavelength so they were not confused. Others – too many - tried to understand but, without clarity from the leader, failed to do so.
This latter outcome undercut my belief in and practice of the concept of subsidiarity; that ideas and processes are always best developed and tried out at the local level, not from above.
For that philosophy to succeed the people doing the work had to understand what I was hoping for.
At the start of any new initiative I should have made questions de rigueur, expected and wanted. Not just the abrupt “Any questions?” at the end of a meeting when everyone’s heading out the door.
Since it was not self-evident for everyone, I should have done far more follow up explaining about meanings and what was to be done. .
The Red Team technique would have been one way for those involved to really get at the pros and cons of a new way of doing something.
And, even if you can’t use a Red Team for every idea, you can do something similar, like worst-case scenarios, a plus delta, or a list of plusses and minuses and the major reasons for and against.
Any of these would help avoid the seemingly inevitable misunderstandings; they’d deter that predictable cycle I observed in those dozen miserable instances referred to at the top.
Lest ye misunderstand, I am not talking about the classical business bugbear, Communication about a made decision.
Rather, I speak of my explaining more and better of what I was trying to do and seeking feedback and advice prior to the decision. I would want to engage those working with me, both direct reports and my fellow executive leaders.
Anger was a response I underused.
For example, when one of my staff displayed an uncooperative attitude, I should have been far more explicit in why her response was unacceptable.
Instead, my tacit acceptance – like the dog in the elevator - allowed her to get away with it only to worsen matters between us.
A touch of controlled anger (a remonstrative bark or growl) would have helped get her attention and then I could have explained calmly what it was I was trying to do and what I expected from her.
After all, I was the top dog, was I not?
In another instance, I should have been furious when one of my peers grabbed me by the head, admonishing me to think.
He was offended by something I had said, perhaps jocularly, but he stepped way out of bounds when he touched me.
I ignored it, naturally, but my anger was clearly called for. I should have demanded an apology at the least and then find out what prompted that behavior.
These last few decades have given us a contrast in how leaders respond to criticism and insults. The Presidents Bush and Mr. Trump represent extremes. Mr. Trump, like a pro-wrestler, when slapped, slapped back.
That made for news and probably impeded some policy objectives but his disruptive, abrasive behavior (kick ass) also probably made some good things happen (vaccine development, for example) that never would have happened with a gentle prodding of an elephantine bureaucracy.
The Bushes, father and son, never took umbrage in public at insults hurled - like shoes - their way.
I had a mentor like that. He never sank to a backstabbing level. Indeed, I favored the Bush approach – never acknowledge an insult – over Trump’s never turn the other cheek, but perhaps there is a midpoint between the two?
Anger has its place and it can add clarity. There’s no question in my mind that I could have used it more and to better effect than I did. But, it takes practice and if you never use it, when you finally lose your temper, it won’t play out well.
Seeking clarity around conflict can be more difficult in some environments than others. I found that in ecclesiastical or academic conflict I was dealing with shadows. Innuendo, the perfumed dagger variety of intrigue was the preferred course of action. Unless you were born Byzantine, many pitfalls awaited.
It’s taken many years, but I have come to realize that frankness, sincerity, candor, honesty, all have to be made manifest. These qualities cannot be left to a guessing game. Nor can any be realized in silence.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021