Participation in Class and On-the-Job

Posted by jlubans on June 22, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

Dr. Jana Varlejs, my esteemed colleague at Rutgers, gave me some feedback about the Democratic Workplace syllabus. “My only ‘quibble’ is with so much of the grade (45%) going to participation, which is a squishy thing to measure - needs some criteria, or less weight. You probably have criteria in your head, but the students will want to know.”
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Caption 1: The Mohawk Walk, taking all of your team across the cable requires intense participation.
Dr. Varlejs makes a good point, one I had not thought a lot about. Is participation not obvious? Certainly not as evident as in the above picture of outdoor team building! Well, what does participation look like? What student behaviors demonstrate class participation?
A few minutes freethinking produced these criteria:
- Doing assigned work ahead of class.
- Preparing for discussion of readings and topic discussion.
- Encouraging others through word and gesture.
- Being there!
- Asking questions and making observations based on course content, personal experience, group activities.
- Being an effective follower, independent in thought and action-oriented.
- Listening to what others say.
- Volunteering to do more than your share.

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Caption 2: Up-close participation.
As I made the list, I had second thoughts about using it as a hand out. Would it not be regarded as yet another prescription from Herr Professor?
Instead, I am going to ask the students to define participation through small groups, of 4 or 5 students. Their charge will be to tell me five key participant behaviors (in English). Once I know what the students think, I’ll merge with my perspective. If we are miles apart, then we’ll discuss and resolve.
Since this class is about working, any definition of what it means to participate in class could be relevant to the workplace.
Here’s the adjusted list:
- Doing assigned work ahead of decision-making meetings.
- Preparing for discussion of agenda topics.
- Encouraging others through word and gesture.
- Being there!
- Asking questions and making observations based on expertise, personal experience, and on what needs doing.
- Being an effective follower, independent in thought and action-oriented.
- Listening to what others say.
- Volunteering to do more than your share.
I know workers, regardless of title, who participate fully. For some reason, they are less about themselves than they are one-for-all in support of their colleagues. They think about their work and tinker with ideas to make the work more efficient. If they have ideas to share they do not hold back. (Chapter 13, Leading from the Middle, “The Spark Plug: A Leader’s Catalyst for Change" discusses my experiences with these exceptional people.)
What role does a leader have in encouraging and protecting this kind of staff member? What actions can organizations take to make participation the expected and enforced norm?
I also know workers who are stingy in their participation. Now, I know that organizations and their cultures have a lot to do with shutting down participation. An organization’s culture or a controlling boss probably has more to do with non-participation than any individual worker’s unique intransigence or taciturnity.
What does non-participation look like? Flip each of the statements to the negative, presto!
- Don’t prepare.
- Don’t ask questions.
- Don’t listen.
- Don’t support others.
- Do not volunteer.
If you as a leader want more staff participation, you might ask your staff - just like I will query my students. Have a conversation. Mention what you observe and what you would like to see changed and why. Ask for their help in identifying what you and the organization can do differently. I will guarantee (money back!) three things about this conversation:
1. The staff will know you much better.
2. You will know the staff better.
3. You will “liberate” at least one staff member to think and make suggestions, independently.


Birdlime as Metaphor

Posted by jlubans on June 18, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

Speaking of Aesop, several of his fables involve bird catchers and birdlime.
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Caption: The owl's good advice being ignored.
Of course, Papageno, Mozart’s bird catcher in The Magic Flute, is the most famous. His song “I Am a Happy Bird Catcher” tells us about traps, nets and bird sounds (and about Papageno’s desire for another kind of “bird”) but nothing about birdlime.
What is birdlime?
The opening lines of Aesop’s The Owl and the Other Birds gives us some clues: “Since the owl was a wise bird, she advised the other birds when the first oak tree sprouted that they should not allow it to grow. If they didn't uproot the tree at all costs, it would produce an inescapable substance, birdlime, that would bring about their death and destruction….”
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Caption: Too late already! As the owl prophesizes, the bird catcher gathers twigs for birdlime.

It turns out, according to one dictionary definition, birdlime is a “sticky substance, prepared from holly, mistletoe, or other plants, that is smeared on branches or twigs to capture small birds.”
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Caption: A modern, snazzy retelling*.
Aesop uses the story of The Owl and the Other Birds to illustrate how ignoring wise advice often results in sad consequences. The owl foresees not only birdlime but also traps and nets made from flax to capture and kill birds. But, the birds ignore the owl to their everlasting regret. The owl in most editions of this fable now shakes his head in dismay and grumbles about the abundance of stupidity among her peers. She no longer offers advice, she only complains.
So, when was the last bit of good counsel that you failed to pick up on? I have ignored many words of wisdom and have had some of mine cold-shouldered. But, unlike Aesop’s owl, I prefer to continue offering advice – when asked – rather than complaining. And, I am less likely – usually - to ignore the wisdom of others.
*NOTE: Owl (Eule) and Birds II (Vögel II) (headpiece and in-text plate, page 14) from Tierfabeln des Aesop (Aesop's Fables) by Gerhard Marcks (German, 1889–1981) (print executed 1949-50).

Aesop & Management of Self

Posted by jlubans on June 05, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

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Caption: Aesop. Born around 620 BC, died ca. 560 BC.
I have several goals for the Democratic Workplace class I will teach this winter in Latvia: “to explore and engage the democratic work place, teams and teamwork concepts, group dynamics, self-management, leadership and effective followership.
“Self-management” deals with becoming an effective follower, someone who stands out because she is pro-active and thinks critically for herself; she is more leader-like than waiting-to-be-led. An effective follower has a good idea of who he is and is not afraid to speak the truth. He has a strong professional purpose and values to match. Andrew Rowan is but one example touched upon in this blog.
Barbara Kellerman’s book on Bad Leadership offers advice on what followers can do when working with a bad leader. That same advice helps define self-management:
Empower yourself.
Be loyal to the whole, not to any one individual.
Be skeptical.
Take a stand.
Pay attention.
These concepts may be difficult to instill - if you are not already inclined that way from experience or gene pool - but I still think a person can evolve and gain more knowledge about who he is.
Experience helps us acquire lessons, to find courage for the “next time”. If we regret our performance in one situation, how will we do better the next time? If we backed down from an abusive boss or if we were abusive to someone, what will we change about the next time?
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Caption: New cover, same excellent book.
I have been reading an engaging new translation of Aesop’s some 600 fables.
It is by Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Here are two of her translations I’ve selected for their relevancy to how we manage ourselves.
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Caption: Bust of Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom.
Fable 480
The Shipwrecked Man and Athena
A wealthy Athenian was making a sea voyage with some companions. A terrible storm blew up and the ship capsized. All the other passengers started to swim, but the Athenian kept praying to Athena, making all kinds of promises if only she would save him. Then one of other shipwrecked passengers swam past him and said, “While you pray to Athena, start moving your arms!”
(I can apply the lesson to myself; but economically hapless Greece leaps foremost to mind.)

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Fable 285
The Kite and the Partridges
One day the kite happened to consider his wings and feet and talons. ‘Indeed,’ he exclaimed, ‘am I not just as well armed as the hawk and the falcon? Look at what wings and what feet and what talons I have! Why shouldn’t I go and catch some partridges?’ The kite knew a place where he could find many partridges so he went there and launched his attack: he seized one partridge with his beak, another with his wings and one more in each foot. But the kite couldn’t keep hold of that many partridges, so in the end he had none. Hence the saying: Seize all, lose all.
From then on, the kite never tried to hunt wild birds again.
Note: compare the Roman proverb, ‘the man who chases two hares does not catch either one’.
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Caption: The Hare about to get worked over by the tortoise.
(Multi-tasking might sound like something the "cool" among us are doing, but it is best avoided. Common sense and research show that an absence of focus leads to superficial results and errors. So, quit chasing two hares!)