Which is incompetent, the job or the boss?

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2011  •  Leave comment (2)

I've been re-reading an item "Why your boss is incompetent" published in the New Scientist a few years back. It's a re-telling of the 1969 Peter Principle, which holds that each of us will eventually rise to our unique level of incompetence. Many of us knows this is anecdotally true, certainly as it may apply to others! Mark Buchanan, the New Scientist writer, reviews some of the subsequent research and offers this:
“The longer a person stays at a particular level in an organisation, the more most measures of their performance fall - including subjective evaluations and the frequency and size of pay rises and bonuses. It is a finding entirely consistent with the idea that people eventually become bogged down by their own incompetence.”

I don’t agree totally with the notion that each of us will become feckless because of an innate failing. Perhaps we underestimate how the stultifying aspects of administrative work can enervate us, can make us appear incompetent. I’d like to suggest that the job itself might be what contributes to the boss’ seeming incompetence. In my own career as an upper administrator of medium sized organizations (usually with a dozen or more direct reports and other duties) I shuffled through and signed off on hundreds of time sheets, hundreds of multi-page performance appraisals, hundreds of budget requests and reimbursements and hundreds of hiring and promotion recommendations.
I (my position) was the required signature before the paperwork could go further. I had become part of the overhead, an extension of the rules and regs.
Much of the time I had little certainty if the documents demanding my signature were true or not. I would ask now and then, but for the most part I worked on trust.
One thing I noticed among some of my peers in other organizations was that they became masters of detail; it was as if signing off on the paperwork was indeed legitimate work – one could hold up paper work and take several days to explore and make sure. Delay seemed to make the information more credible. (I only wanted the stuff off my desk!)
This mastery of detail carried over into my peers planning and agenda setting for their “real work” responsibilities. They seemed to relish making the proverbial mountain out of an administrative molehill.

Besides the mundane duties, there are new relationships when you no longer work side by side with your team. In less complicated days you could lead by being part of the action, now, rather than doing, you find yourself encouraging and persuading sometimes reluctant staff to participate, share, create, and work together. If you are overseeing multiple and diverse units, these may include people who have little interest in helping each other. What really matters is maintaining the status quo and their turf. So, the effort of getting the uncooperative on board uses up energy and, lacking a détente, can result in all too little accomplished.

I also convened hundreds of individual and group meetings. Some of these were interesting and exhilarating – I was engaged and so were the people with whom I was working. Most meetings, especially after the first few years of good progress, were not as satisfying. We ground to a halt, meetings became pro forma. Where did the excitement go? Were we all now putting in our time, watching the clock? Were we meeting mainly for the coffee and donuts?
The smart staff members, with real work to do, endured – they sat silently during the required meetings thinking about their real work and the satisfaction and recognition it provided. That’s part of the incompetence puzzle. When we supervise, we tend to give up much of the work we enjoy doing, the work that has real purpose and value.
Well, how does one cope with this loss of real work? How do we create supervisory level jobs that have more meaning and less enforcement of the policy and procedures manual?
For me, my research and writing (and teaching) became increasingly important as I progressed from department head to assistant director to associate director. And, just as I gained job satisfaction and recognition from writing about my research, societal work also helped me maintain some balance. These external activities helped me be a better manager and leader in my eyes.
Here are some other ideas on how to get around the routine and how to make sure that bright performer, when promoted, continues to sparkle.
- Loosen up the administrative reins; let people have their turn at the paper work, at administrative tasks and at leading necessary meetings
- Give more authority to the person making the recommendation - trust them.
- Eliminate forms that require multiple signatures.
- Include real work in every person’s job description. Second-guessing, reviewing and double-checking are not real work.
- Of course, flatten the organization. The fewer layers, the fewer signatures, the less time, opportunity and inclination for reviewing others’ work,
- Eliminate all non-action agenda items in meetings.
- Managers and staff at all levels reflect regularly on the direction of the organization. Talk about where we are, where we have been and where we need to be. Discuss the future. What can we do better?

So, I think the job can make us look more incompetent than we really are. Not to get too carried away, I know that what I believe is incompetent behavior may be regarded as good stewardship of an organization’s resources, as an essential enforcing the rules and regs so that things do not get out of hand, so that the organization does not flounder.

Why teams? Part 2: Two monkeys carrying a log.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Not long ago, I came across some science that gave insight into the question of why humans experience a gravitational pull toward teamwork and, by extension, a yearning for an egalitarian workplace.
On July 4, the New York Times offered up a distillation of recent evolutionary research that extends and supports the hypothesis that humans teaming-up is a natural - even biological - way of being.
Natalie Angier, the author of this insightful piece, cites several anthropologists’ research that strongly suggests human values, like cooperation and collaboration, fair play and fairness in resource distribution, have evolved over time. Her article seeks to make a point about pay inequity (which in its most obscene sense, can be found in any herd of MBAs), but the article is far more successful in helping define the elusive aspects of why humans cooperate, why we prefer the egalitarian and participatory workplace to the hierarchy, why we do not mind generally helping each other instead of always maximizing our advantage at the expense of others. Of course, in that herd of MBAs and among even academics, there are vestigial attributes that push individuals (Type A personalities?) to survive; to hell with everyone else.
But, for the most part the Darwinists do see us as different from other primates.
20110715-chimp3.jpg”Two chimpanzees will never carry a log together”. Humans will. Why?
We work with team building rules learned on the veldt, according to Angier: "belief in fairness and reciprocity (the Golden Rule!), a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively."
It is why we will accept a mild sort of hierarchy but will resist mightily a rigid structure dictating our every action and thought.
Some research shows how that resistance toward something patently inequitable (e. g. "one for me and 8 for you") can be reduced with anti anxiety drugs. In real life, those that hold absolute power know just how tenuous their grasp is; it is probably why vodka in communist Russia was always available and cheap.
Teams are not about the survival of the fittest. We have weak members and we have strong members - the best teams know what a team is about and they make use of every member's skills, not just depend on the one or two "stars" to achieve goals. The researcher David Sloan Wilson says that ‘when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups ... it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group." While these “mechanisms” may control the bully or the person who must always be the team captain, team members may overcompensate for the weakest members, protecting the underperformer instead of confronting the problem. Perhaps this kind-hearted avoidance of conflict among team members is more biological than we realize. Of course, really good teams work out differences. Unlike many mediocre teams highly effective teams do not avoid the inevitable "storming" phase of team development; they know the differences have to be engaged and resolved if the team is to succeed.

Inspiration & Transformation

Posted by jlubans on July 02, 2011  •  Leave comment (2)

I completed the multi-question Fulbright report summing up my January - June experience in Riga. One of the questions asked me to reflect and consider “whether you feel it has played or will play a transformative role in your life, either professionally or personally?”

Here is my response:
The students’ interest in and inclination toward an empowered work place have inspired me. I planned this class for the students to try out self-managing concepts. My model was that of a student orchestra learning how to play without a conductor. I knew these students, to do well, would need to be introduced to teamwork concepts and project planning early on. That is why I moved the teamwork segments toward the front of the course and it was why I emphasized throughout the class discussion and readings about conflict resolution and other aspects of group development.
The students responded very well. Not only did they excel at three team projects (Books2Eat, leader interviews, and the major self managing team research topic) – the latter will be a future blog entry - they also made connections between theory and practice, linking lessons and concepts learned in-group activities to lectures and readings and to their own experience. These students did more of this high level connection making than any other class I have taught.
I believe several of these students have concluded on their own that a genuinely empowered staff can be more productive and creative than the staffing arrangements in traditional hierarchical models. The hierarchy prevails in Latvian culture, as it does in the USA. I expect these students when given leadership opportunities will modify work place cultures toward the more democratic and less bureaucratic.

On a more personal note, I have been able to meet with family members - Latvia is my native land - and to visit geographic areas relevant to my family. For example, my wife and I traveled to the city of Liepaja and saw the schools in which my uncle and father were students in the early 1900s. And, on that trip I helped my cousin weed and clean up the family graves in the family cemetery in the Kurzeme region. Also, I returned to the city of my birth, Cesis, to celebrate my birthday on June 15 by locating the hospital in which I was born and the house in which my parents lived in 1941, the year of my birth and, for Latvia, the year and month in which 14 thousand and more – men, women and children - were sent to Siberia by the communists. Many were summarily executed for their way of thinking, for their profession, for their wanting to be free; many others died of deprivation.
I have gained a deeper appreciation of my own parents (deceased) and for my Latvian family. These five months in Latvia have also given me a greater understanding of what the term “Soviet times” means in this part of the world. It is not a complimentary term, rather it sums up experiences ranging from the unpleasant to the horrific.
I admire the determination of the Latvian people to be free and independent regardless of the hardships they have endured.