Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE JAR GOES TO COURT.”*

Posted by jlubans on August 31, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

There was a woman of Sybaris (a Greek city) who broke a jar. The jar then got someone to testify as a witness, but the woman of Sybaris said, 'I swear by the Maiden (Persephone), you would have been far wiser if you'd gone right away to get a bandage, instead of making a court-case out of it.'”

How often do we waste time in getting even, in pointing out other’s mistakes, when we should instead just pick up the pieces and start over? Instead of proclaiming you’ve been wronged, take action that moves you further along. If something is broken, forget fixing blame; rather fix what’s broken!
PS. Often what’s not broken needs to be broken, but that’s another fable.
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

The Un-democracy

Posted by jlubans on August 29, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)


Since I will be teaching teaching about the Democratic Workplace, I ought to have a definition for what that means. I live and vote in a democratic nation – there are some 120 democracies around the globe. As many, some vehemently, will tell you, democracy is imperfect. Of course, when the critics reveal, in moments of candor, what they have in mind for government, democracy is vastly preferable. It is the only model (apart from a Thoreauan anarchy) that promises all individuals freedom, choice and power.
So, democracy, in theory and in practice, appears to be a good model for nations. What about democracy for business?
Most bosses – for-profit and not-for-profit – make it well known to workers “We are not a democracy!” The boss may be of a participatory bent and good at listening and all that, but she is not about to surrender her legal authority and responsibility (and explicit expectation) to give a thumbs up or down on what happens in the business.
And, there’s many a boss – in both sectors – who believes that without his steady guiding hand, his unique vision, his je ne sais quoi as it were, the business would falter and fail. Perhaps.
If you’ve read this far, you may be itching to ask me, “What do you mean by the democratic workplace?” Fair enough.
Another question. “Is it even possible to have a democratic workplace?” We have democratic governments, but government offices (bureaucracies) are anything but democratic.
Maybe I should first list out some of the qualities that make for an un-democratic workplace. A negative approach is not my preferred way to consider a topic but when I (or you) “flip” the negatives, we’ll have a good start on what the democratic workplace looks like.
One dominant leader.
Centralized power.
Workers are “told”; little, if any, choice.
Closed “books” (finances and personnel).
Little worker participation, in any influential way, in planning.
Hierarchy rules, with layers of supervisors responsible for workers.
Communication follows the hierarchy.
Extensive “grape vine” communication among workers.
Many “pragmatist” – survivor – followers.
Managers supervise more than do “real work” .
Administrators make decisions.
A pronounced fastidiousness about policies and procedures.
Formal (and elaborate) performance appraisal.
Individual perks, from parking to pay, align with the hierarchy.
A reactive, not proactive, organization.

SOON: The “flip” side.
Note: Of course, Leading from the Middle offers up numerous concepts about democratic principles. The chapters on Southwest Airlines and the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are especially relevant. My personal experience with the democratic workplace appears in Chapter 4: “Letting Go: A Reflection on Teams That Were”.

Friday Fable: “THE DOG AND THE REEDS*”

Posted by jlubans on August 24, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Against evil associates and the like. 
There was a dog who wanted to do his business right on top of a clump of bulrushes but one of the reeds poked the dog's behind. The dog backed off and began to bark at the reeds. The reed said, 'I would rather have you bark at me from a distance than have you dirty me up close!'”

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Caption: A chihuaha’s yapping end is preferable to his other end.

What to do when someone dumps on you? When disparaged, does one exhibit umbrage (whatever that is) or sit in dignified silence. I suppose it depends; as the fable declares, even the reed has a limit.
There are some circumstances (like the reed’s) that justify jabbing back, getting some distance. The difficulty is in knowing how to respond, when to roar and when to purr. A respected friend advised me, early in my career, it was best not to respond to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. A true gentleman, he firmly believed and practiced that reacting to a slur or slander only would lend dignity to the pejorative comment. Ignore it and it will go away. For me, turning the other cheek worked most of the time but not always.
It’s probably best to respond to the perceived insult with something comical; humor is better than the risk of looking foolish through angry over-reaction or appearing a milquetoast. So, ramp up your repartee. However, “Yo Momma” does not qualify as a snappy comeback!

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Huddles Are Not Group Hugs

Posted by jlubans on August 22, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

(Nothing against group hugs, I’m happy to engage, but they are no match for the power of a team huddle when the game’s on the line.)
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Seeing a women’s basketball team’s huddle (above) – no coaches, only players – is what drew me into writing about that team. My year with the team turned into Chapter 8 of my book: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team”
As I watched the USA men’s Olympic basketball team’s huddle at the start of the fourth and final quarter against Spain – with a one point lead - it summoned up for me that women’s huddle: out on the court, circled up with arms around shoulders, heads up, eyes and words giving encouragement. The tight circle symbolized what’s best about teams – mutual support, physical and verbal, and each participant fully engaged in the real work of the team – no holding back – in pursuit of a clear and desirable goal.

Caption: “Members of the United States basketball team talk before the start of the fourth quarter, Aug. 12, 2012”. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The above picture is the only one I could find of what to me was the game's pivotal event. The photo comes close to capturing the intensity of that moment. The men’s huddle was a gathering of force, of energy in the gold medal game. It appeared to set things off towards winning. What went on in the huddle? It was LeBron James, I think, who called it. Here is what he said shortly after the game:
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We didn't want it easy,”.... “We're a competitive team, and we love when it gets tight. That's when our will and determination kind of shows."
I’d wager a few of those sentiments were part of the back and forth in that huddle.
Spectators tend to forget the fatigue that comes to a team when it goes full tilt. It is, of course, a factor kept in mind by coaches. While a few players stay in for the entire game, most rotate in and out, conserving energy for the final effort. The huddle is a physical way for players to connect and to draw energy from each other.

Caption: “Book Ends” by Béatrice Coron, 2002.
This melding among athletes, this sharing of strength, appears in an interpretative artwork done by Béatrice Coron shortly after my season with the women’s basketball team. I related to Béatrice my image of two injured players sitting out a practice. They were on a sideline table, mid court, leaning against each other, back to back, in support. Each had a bag of ice taped on an injured leg. Sidelined, they’d rather be playing. Hardly disengaged, they shouted encouragement to their teammates flying up and down the court.

Caption: A player tells the coach he wants to take the last shot.
Another huddle, in “the best sports movie ever made,” is noteworthy for how it sums up the growth of the team through a rocky season.
While fictionalized, the Hickory Huskers in “Hoosiers” are based on a real small town high school basketball team (Milan High School, 1954) in the middle of the USA. Over the season the players, coaches, and fans learn about themselves and help each other through adversity. An esprit de corps develops. The state championship game comes down to the last shot. The coach calls a time out and huddles with the team.
I teach about this moment through a film clip of the end of the game and I ask the students to tell me what they see happening. In this huddle, the coach’s strategy gets little support, but he has the courage and confidence to recognize a better idea, the one offered by a player! Of course, this film clip helps launch class discussion around what has to happen in any organization for staff to speak up.
I think work teams with high camaraderie probably would benefit from some version of a team huddle, just like the best sport teams do. At the least, stand up and talk to each other, eye to eye.
Huddle up!


Posted by jlubans on August 17, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Against people who do not keep their promises. 
There was once a mouse who had fallen into the foam of some fermenting wine or ale. A cat was passing by and heard the mouse squeaking because he couldn't get out. The cat said, 'Why are you making such a ruckus?' The mouse answered, 'Because I cannot get out of here.' The cat said, 'What will you give me if I get you out of there?' The mouse said, 'Whatever you want!' The cat said, 'If I set you free this time, will you come when I call you?' The mouse replied, 'You have my solemn promise.' The cat said, 'Swear an oath!' So the mouse swore an oath. The cat then rescued the mouse and let him go. Then one day the cat was hungry. He went to the mouse's hole and told him to come out. The mouse said, 'I refuse.' The cat said, 'Didn't you swear to me that you would come when I called you?' The mouse said, 'Brother, I was drunk when I swore that oath!'”

While the mouse had an excuse to break his promise, however risible, I am reminded of an administrative colleague who’d agree to staffing or procedural changes - ones meant to buck up the organization’s quality and production - but once the change was met with resistance this administrator would do a U-turn on the decision. This became a predictable behavior whenever the administrative group made an unpopular decision. I suspect it was a passive way of resisting something she tacitly did not buy into.
Maybe we should all have sworn a solemn oath - over a few cold ones - after each executive meeting. Then, like the mouse’s excuse, I could manage a wry smile about the broken promises.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

The “Vital Few” and the “Useful Many”.

Posted by jlubans on August 15, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Some recent research* has given me (and others) even more reason to deep-six performance evaluation. My disdain for this annual ritual appears in Leading from the Middle, especially Chapter 34: “I’ve Closed My Eyes to the Cold Hard Truth I’m Seeing: Making Performance Appraisal Work”.
The new research states that the bell curve concept of staff evaluation is dead wrong. How people perform on the job does not fit under a bell curve; they perform along the lines of a “power distribution”. According to researchers Herman Aguinis & Ernest O'Boyle, “the entrenched notion of normality -- notably in performance evaluations that force managers to assign only numeric or category ratings -- is detrimental to individuals, the group and the larger organization.”
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Caption: Some detrimental behaviors under "rank and yank" appraisal.
What is the power distribution law? Also called the 80/20 Pareto Principle, it never fits the bell curve. The power law is manifest in that 80% percent of wealth is held by 20% of the population. In libraries, 80% of use (of any kind) will come from 20% of its users. And for bloggers like me, alas, 80% of the hits will go to a mere 20% of the zillions of blogs out there. According to an authoritative interpretation of the power law, “The rest of the field” (that’s 80% of us!) “sits in a long, almost-irrelevant tail.” The 20% are the “vital few” and the rest of us are the “useful many.”

Corporate America was (and, some say, still is) ga-ga over “forced distribution” of performance evaluation. What’s coerced is the manager, who is given no choice but to rank people along a three or five point scale. For example at GE, under Jack Welch, managers annually had to stick people into one of three slots: 20% top, 70% middle, and, 10% need improvement. The bottom 10% was let go, hence the term, “rank and yank”.

In my administrative career in higher education, we used what might be called a forced distribution of another kind; we tended to rank too many people as “exceeding expectations” and too few “not meeting expectations”. We dished out mostly praise and skipped the constructive criticism, hence the bulge in the upper rankings. When I pointed this out to my peers, they saw nothing unusual because by virtue of recruitment to our organization all of our staff was above average! Perhaps, but when we chose to avoid confrontation and knowingly gave better than passing grades to underperforming staff we were doing a dis-service to the individual and the organization.

There is a negative aspect to the power rule: it applies not only to the super-good, but also to the super-bad who can break the organization through unethical behavior; a few rogue staff can bring an organization to its knees.
Applying the notion that a few can light up or take down an organization, Aguinas and O’Boyle say: "If, as our results suggest, a small, elite group is responsible for most of a company's output and success, then it's critical to identify its members early and manage, train and compensate them differently from colleagues.”
However, “changing theory and practice will be challenging, due partly to deeply entrenched notions of fairness and equality in society and business.”
My first gleeful inclination is to do away with the one-size-fits-all appraisal ritual for the useful many who do a good job regardless. (By the way, I yet have to discover any evidence that performance appraisal improves performance. Forced distribution advocates claim improvement but that is more likely from the short-term uptick one gets from inducing gut-wrenching fear into an organization.) Instead of the annual dreaded evaluation ritual, I think all staff should have regular conversations with their supervisors or team leaders about why they are in the organization and what they want and need to make themselves and the organization better. In one organization in which I supervised about a hundred staff, I was able to get rid of performance appraisals. The result over five years was increased conversation among staff and supervisors, increased productivity, and large amounts of time saved for real work.

What about the super stars? Should they be treated differently from other staff. I do not agree with the researchers in setting them up as an elite. In my experience, super stars are motivated more by internal factors than by any organizational motivators. Certainly we should remove any barriers to their development, and we should set them free, but I very much want them influencing other staff and working side by side with the "useful many" in taking on organizational challenges.

*Herman Aguinis & Ernest O'Boyle, "The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance," is published in the spring 2012 issue of Personnel Psychology


Posted by jlubans on August 10, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“For lyberte is better….”
“A comfortably plump dog happened to run into a wolf. The wolf asked the dog where he had been finding enough food to get so big and fat. 'It is a man,' said the dog, 'who gives me all this food to eat.' The wolf then asked him, 'And what about that bare spot there on your neck?' The dog replied, 'My skin has been rubbed bare by the iron collar which my master forged and placed upon my neck.' The wolf then jeered at the dog and said, 'Keep your luxury to yourself then! I don't want anything to do with it, if my neck will have to chafe against a chain of iron!'”

Caption: Wm. Caxton (1422 – 1492) England’s first printer
Our translator, Laura Gibbs, adds Caxton’s epimythium for this fable: “Therfore there is no rychesse gretter than lyberte / For lyberte is better than alle the gold of the world.”

Reminds me of when I stayed in a job that was no longer a match for my democratic style and skills. While I had had a very good first five years (in NASCAR terms, a “great ride”) in developing teams that did outstanding work, the next five were fairly dismal, each passing year like a tight collar around my neck, chafing. I should have been out the door during the 6th year, but figured, delusionally, it would all work out. It didn’t and became progressively worse as new administrators came on board. The newbies were top down traditionalistas; I began to feel like was I was "behind enemy lines". Why did I put up with a bad boss, unsupportive colleagues, and a now-boring job? All the obvious reasons mostly summed up in the word, security. The wolf would have none of it. Save the wolves!

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

"And let it be a dance"

Posted by jlubans on August 08, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Latvian Song & Dance Festival 2010

Ric Masten’s wedding poem, "Let it be a dance" gets me thinking about personal and professional relationships, about leading and following at work and in life.
Masten’s poem is about collaboration – in this case marriage. But, the poem, like much of good literature, is not limited to the life ceremony it celebrates; it gives us life- long insights. The poem suggests how we ought to work with each other, in groups, large and small. Most long-term relationships have heartbreaks and joys, (Without the dark there is no light.”) and ups and downs. (“Share the laughter, bare the pain”.
Masten’s dance metaphor appeals to me. In dance people lead and follow, and each takes responsibility, each supports the other. Like in a dance, there’s got to be give and take for a group to achieve its goals, “Let your body learn to bend,
and, like a willow with the wind.” In my Leading from the Middle workshops I quote Leah Long, my dance instructor: "On the dance floor, good leaders initiate the movement they want from their partner and then follow the movement they've created.”
And when groups encounter the inevitable adversity, when all is dark and the rain’s not about to let up, that’s when the sunshine and rhythms from the good times come in to help us get past the bad; “Let a dancing song be heard.”


Posted by jlubans on August 03, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

It is not enough that a man who is born under an unlucky star leads an unhappy life: the bitter affliction of his fate pursues him even after he is dead. 
The Galli, those priests of the goddess Cybebe, used a donkey to carry their luggage when they went around begging for alms. When their donkey finally died, overcome by work and the whip, they stripped his hide and made themselves some tambourines. When someone asked them what they had done with their darling donkey, the priests replied, 'He thought that once he died he would get some rest, but he keeps on getting beaten just the same!”

Sort of like an organization that, after being rescued from failure decides to rid itself, in a shabby way, of the person who saved the bacon through his or her hard work and leadership. After “skinning” the leader’s reputation, the organization then proceeds to demonstrate that whatever the leader did was no big deal. To add insult to injury, the organization hires outside “experts” to pronounce (beat on the tambourine) that the organization never needed to be rescued! Hee Haw!

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Democratic Budgets

Posted by jlubans on August 01, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

Something akin to what goes on in New England town meetings is brewing in different parts of the country. That something is participatory budgeting. NPR did a story ("Chicago Ward Gives Budgetary Power To The People") in late May 2012. I’ve since discovered there is a national organization
with active projects in Chicago, New York City and here in North Carolina in the city of Greensboro an hour away from where I live.
The National Public Radio story, by John Bliewen, talks about how one politician in Chicago decided to democratize the spending of the annual allocation of 1.3 million dollars for capital improvements in his ward. Instead of following the usual custom of the ward boss’ calling the shots, he called a group together and told them: "I am ceding my power to decide how this money is spent and giving it to you." (No, not the money, the power to decide!) People came up with proposals, lobbied for their ideas, and then the ward’s voters (1400 took part) decided which of the 21 projects would be funded. Sort of like a New England town meeting.
And, this week, the city of Vallejo, CA (pop 120,000) began the process to decide what projects will be funded from a budget of $3.4 million. However, unless I am misreading newspaper reports,
Vallejo is hedging its bets on democratization. The expenditure proposals getting the most popular votes will be submitted to the city council for approval! Unlike the New England town meetings, Vallejo’s citizen vote will not be a binding one. The Council will make the final decision, if any. This condition suggests some of the resistance to participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting reminds me of when I decentralized the budget of an organization in which I worked. It was a large non-profit and one of the things we always suffered from was antiquated equipment. We had never established an amortization fund nor for, that matter, did we have an annual separate fund for capital equipment. And, like most not for profits, a new budget was 99% committed on the first day of each fiscal year, leaving all too few discretionary dollars.
While we had some dedicated computer terminals, about 8, their use was rationed among two-dozen or more staff. Another 60 staff had minimal computer access. This was not efficient and we were increasing backlogs instead of eliminating them. We all knew that if we had modern equipment our productivity would go up, our turnaround times would improve and we would be serving our customers immeasurably better. But, unless somebody gave us the money we were out of luck. While the central administration supported us in many ways, it did not have the money needed to get computers for every person.
One of my monthly jobs, as an upper administrator, was to review the budget. One category caught my eye: salary savings. This line represented dollars “saved” whenever a position was left open for a few weeks during recruitment and hiring. In our case we got to keep and re-use these leftover dollars. It crossed my mind that if we kept some positions vacant for a few months, we could accumulate a lot of money, enough to pay for the desperately needed computers. I went, with my boss’ approval, to the department heads in my division and pitched this idea to them: If we hold vacancies open x amount of time – with your approval - the salary savings will be yours to use for equipment and other things essential to your work. They agreed. Each month every department head got the salary savings report and distributed it to the staff. Soon, we all could see the dollars accumulating. In a few months, we began purchasing computers. And, we built up an amortization fund for future use.
As I think about it, we decentralized AND democratized budgeting. Naturally this was looked at askance by some, just like those reluctant in Vallejo to share power. I found that if we gave department heads the freedom to decide how long to keep a position open, to balance the workloads, and to consider the sacrifice involved (vs. potential benefits), they would do so in responsible and careful ways. As the new equipment came on line our productivity soared. Savings continued to accrue as the computers helped us streamline. My boss made it clear to everyone that as we automated processes and freed up staff no one would lose their job. Redundant positions were transferred into vacancies or into new positions in other parts of the organization.
Giving taxpayers decision-making authority in spending tax dollars seems like a fine idea. I hope that the participatory budgeting efforts planned and underway will be a genuine test of the pros and cons.