Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A Wolf and a Porcupine.”*

Posted by jlubans on April 30, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Engraving by Samuel Howitt (1756-1822)

“Your Porcupine and your Hedge-Hog, are somewhat alike, only the Former has longer and sharper Prickles than the Other; and these Prickles he can shoot and dart at an Enemy. There was a Wolf had a mind to be dealing with him, if he could but get him disarm'd first; and so he told the Porcupine in a friendly way, that it did not look well for People in a Time of Peace, to go Arm'd, as if they were in a State of War; and so advis'd him to lay his Bristles aside; for (says he) you may take them up at pleasure. Do you talk of a State of War? says the Porcupine, why, that's my present Case, and the very Reason of my standing to my Arms, so long as a Wolf is in Company.”

“No Man, or State can be safe in Peace, that is no always in readiness to encounter an Enemy in Case of War.”

And what of this fable is irrelevant today? Well, there’s the now disproved claim - made by Aristotle no less - that the porcupine can “shoot” his quills. Otherwise, all relevant. I could comment about the motives of a neighboring nation to where I am living in northern Europe, but I won’t (clever?).
What about the workplace? Well there were times when turf wars would erupt inside and outside the research library in which I worked. One notable example (replayed at many campuses) was the university’s IT (Information Technology) department’s wanting to enlarge its domain; the aggressive and self-aggrandizing IT director salivated over the library’s resources budget. So, while the IT folks might call us paranoid, (Was it Heller who said, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they’re not out to get you”?) the library’s leader was forewarned and forearmed and stymied the takeover; indeed, he turned the tables and co-opted IT! On some campuses, the library was annexed, unhappily, to IT; but, like our Porcupine, proved to have “prickles” longer and sharper than first anticipated, much to IT’s dismay and chagrin. Many of those shotgun weddings were short-lived because the two cultures were like night and day.

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

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: University of the Fraser Valley, UVF Library, Abbotsford BC., Canada
If your library lacks a copy, copies are available from ABC-Clio, the publisher.

Telling-off the Jerk Boss: Bad Idea?

Posted by jlubans on April 27, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Walking out.

There’s plenty of advice out there on what to do when working for a jerk. The conventional wisdom goes something like this:
Make sure you are not the jerk.
Cut the boss some slack – she’s only human.
Coach up.
Focus on the positive parts of the job
Wait him out.

But, nary a word about fighting back, except as something to avoid, a workplace taboo.
So, I took notice when a recent report suggested that yelling back might be a more effective strategy than previously thought. Researchers at Ohio State “… found a surprising result: although a person is more likely to feel like a victim when their boss is hostile toward them, they are much less likely to feel like a victim when they reciprocate their boss’s hostility.”
Imagine that, the worm turns and feels less of a worm, maybe even puts one over on the bad boss?
That took me back to a leadership study I did at a retail business. Family run, it’s been successful for many years. That success has come in spite of some capriciousness, including abusive behavior, on the part of the owner/boss.
One of the managers, Scott, told me that the boss – usually polite - could be more than a little prickly and unpredictable. But, when he did blow up, Scott would tell him to back off and let him do his job. If the boss persisted, Scott would walk out, saying over his shoulder, “I quit,” and the boss shouting, “You’re fired!” He told me he’d been fired more times than he could count. Invariably, within a day or two, the boss would call him, apologize, and ask him to come back.
So, is there something to be said for fighting fire with fire? The conventional wisdom is to avoid, accommodate and not respond; think happy thoughts as the boss rips you up and down. Protect your job, survive! Is that really best?
The Ohio State researchers are reluctant to deduce that yelling back is the best way. Instead they state the obvious: “… one of the best, most reliable consequences of downward hostility is upward hostility of various sorts, passive-aggressive kinds of responses and also active-aggressive kinds of responses, actually yelling back at the boss.”
In other words, if you are a jerk boss, you can expect blowback, both passive and overt. Your rudeness and yelling may result in employee anger and its outcomes will be low morale and passive-aggressive behavior, all at huge costs to the workplace.
In spite of the research findings, the researchers caution against channeling the vitriolic Jon Taffer instead of surviving as Caspar Milquetoast. And, obviously, it’s best not to have a jerk boss! Small consolation for the worker licking her wounds from the boss’ last spiteful eruption!
My impression is that the researchers are either not fully confident in their “roar back” finding or do not see the relationship between the jerk boss and bullying in general. Bullying (demeaning and name calling) needs to be confronted if it is to be stopped.
Once called - shamed, if you will - the bully backs off. Without a victim the bully loses his/her motivation; it’s no longer fun when victims turn the tables. Concurrently, the turmoil caused by these “roaring mice” may result in an organization’s soul-searching and understanding that there are substantial associated costs when abusive bosses are not checked. The research “found no upside whatsoever to a boss being hostile, even though there is a lay belief out there that if you kind of kick people a little bit, maybe you can get them motivated.”
In Scott’s case, the boss had the good sense to realize firing a valued employee was patently self-destructive. He was motivated to back off, at least until the next flare up.
What do I think? This research, as well as other studies, confirms that bad behavior is most manageable when the behavior is called. Do it as politely as you can even if you have to raise your voice a decibel or two. Be prepared to stand your ground. Will you lose your job? There’s risk, but this study suggests the consequences may not be as dire as conventional wisdom would have it. And you might gain some self-respect.

Caption: I'm not taking this anymore!

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Crow and the Pitcher”*

Posted by jlubans on April 23, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Mr. Corvix knows water displacement theory.

“A CROW perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.”

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

On the job, when we had a problem to solve and the only apparent option was to spend more to do the same thing, I would ask a few questions: What would happen if we stopped doing this? What could we do instead? How does this add value for our clients? And, finally, What do you (the people with the problem) recommend we do?
No, I was not being the bully-boss putting out inane questions. My questions were meant to trigger a creative response – to create urgency, a necessity, like Aesop’s crow encountered, to get us out of the rut of incremental thinking. The crow’s ingenuity, pushed by necessity, saves his life. It was my intent to prompt insightful thinking, to consider alternatives and options, like what can we substitute, combine, modify, or, yes, eliminate? I know some staff were figuratively shaking their heads and thinking: “There simply are no other ways to do this. If only you knew why we do what we do, then you would not ask these silly questions!” Unlike the crow, they’d willingly go thirsty.
Creative and resourceful staff, when given the opportunity to pause and reflect, often will find a way. And, overtime, the best staff won’t need any prompting; they’ll let you know what they’ve come up with and implemented! Yes, with freedom at work comes a mutual responsibility: for the boss to let go and for those doing the work to make decisions about how to do that work.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886. Available at the Gutenberg Project.

© John Lubans 2015

A “whopping effect”: How “Knowing” Improves Teamwork.

Posted by jlubans on April 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


The notion of “common knowledge” is featured in the March issue of the “Harvard Gazette”. The article confirms how levels of common knowledge can affect working relationships and productivity. I was drawn to this report because I teach about teamwork (cooperation among humans), conflict and collaboration.
The study (co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Prof. Steven Pinker) tests “four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together:
In the private knowledge condition, a participant (either a “butcher” or a “baker”) was told he or she could earn 10 cents more for working with the partner but was not given information about what the partner knew.” The second and third knowledge conditions improved on the participants’ shared knowledge. In the fourth level, the common knowledge condition, the improved payoff was presented as public information - indeed broadcast over loud speakers - readily comprehended by every participant.
“Each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit … or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.”
So what happened? “’What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,’ Thomas said. ‘With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect.’”
So, what does this study of would-be butchers and bakers have to do with the workplace? What’s the take away?
Well, some of the theory I stress in class involves best practices in setting up a team to work on a problem. Also, I talk about conflict resolution and how the several ways of managing conflict are bounded by knowledge conditions. For example, collaborating as a way to resolve conflict requires high assertiveness and cooperativeness, both sides sharing knowledge and understanding – nothing relevant is hidden. Conflict avoidance – a very popular strategy in cultures the world over - features low assertiveness and low cooperation. (And, little shared knowledge; after all, you are avoiding each other!)
Tuckman’s stages of group development (form, storm, norm, perform and adjourn) are bounded by high or low trust and knowledge, shared or not. The higher the trust and greater the shared knowledge (nothing held back) the greater - Tuckman would have it - the opportunity for a group to be highly effective at doing its job. Similarly, low trust and low knowledge will result in a pseudo-team, not an effective team.
Of course, unlike antiseptic laboratory conditions, the workplace may not be the safest place in which to reveal one’s motives, to bare one’s soul, so to speak. We are conditioned somewhat at work, home and in school to hold back, to repress, inhibit our natural inclination to work with and help each other. I may skirt someone sleeping in a doorway but I will help – without being asked - a young parent haul her child and stroller down a flight of subway stairs. I might ignore a panhandler openly soliciting for “beer money”, but I will give money to a stranger who tells me at a highway rest stop that he is on “empty”. In the workplace, I will compete with work colleagues, seeking a personal win in order to gain status and compensation. My preference may be for cooperation but the organization makes it near impossible, maybe even dangerous to “broadcast over loud speakers” one’s common knowledge. Instead, our best inclinations – indeed our natural human impulses - are blunted and uncooperative behavior is rewarded. If the organization really does not support openness and trust, then the “whopping effect” in the laboratory cannot survive in the scrum of the workplace. This research does confirm for me that an open and trusting workplace, free and democratic, is central to group achievement and productivity.
Alas, we seem inured to the way it is and continue the hierarchic traditions rather than try out other structures, even a compromise like a hybrid organization.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE LION, THE BEAR, AND THE FOX”*

Posted by jlubans on April 16, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A bear, mournful; a lion, regal; a fox, sly.

“Just as a great Bear rushed to seize a stray kid, a Lion leaped from another direction upon the same prey. The two fought furiously for the prize until they had received so many wounds that both sank down unable to continue the battle.
Just then a Fox dashed up, and seizing the kid, made off with it as fast as he could go, while the Lion and the Bear looked on in helpless rage.
"’How much better it would have been,’ they said, ‘to have shared in a friendly spirit.’"

“Those who have all the toil do not always get the profit.”

And so it can be at work. The research library where I worked was once in the running for a wealthy donor’s gift. We thought we had the inside track. The potential donor had related, nostalgically, more than once, how when he was a poor farm boy the library had waived the rules and loaned him books. The library director’s kindness started him on the road to success. He was now a millionaire many times over. The gift felt like a done deal; maybe enough money for a much needed new wing on the library?
Lo, who should pop up as the cunning fox? None other than the dean of the business school who somehow got special dispensation to pitch his idea to the donor. The dean got the gift while the library got nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. At the dedication of the business building named after him, the donor told the library story once again, about how wonderful the librarian had been and how he helped him on his way, a Horatio Alger story for these modern times!
Perhaps this is a more apt illustration for what can go on in the academic fund raising world:
Caption: Honoré Victorin Daumier’s (1808-1879) two thieves duking it out while a third runs off with the donkey!

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Victoria Libraries
Victoria BC, Canada

© John Lubans 2015

The Quiet People

Posted by jlubans on April 13, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Actor Dick York, the “Shy Guy”, overcoming shyness (1947).

A poignant piece on shyness in the Paris Review set me to thinking about the quiet people in any group, in any meeting, in any organization. Shyness can range from agonizing discomfort in a social setting to a passing reluctance to engage with a stranger at a dinner party. I do not dismiss it as simply something to get over; I can testify to it on a personal level.
But, I am especially interested in how to bring in those not speaking up at meetings.
Now, I understand that for some meetings are a waste of time. The process of sharing ideas and opinions is of little interest; their immediate desire is to get back to doing “real work”, not this sitting around and chitchatting.
It may make a little difference if there’s meat in the agenda, a real issue – not the sort of fyi pablum usually served up – but, even then “real work” beckons them back; it’s where they find satisfaction and provide value to the organization.
If someone wants to be doing instead of meeting AND actually does real work, (not “busy work”) then let him. Skip the meeting, elicit his ideas in one on one conversation.
Quiet people are another matter. A quiet person may be bursting with ideas but is reluctant, hesitant, indeed, shy to express ideas. Often, the quiet person is an independent thinker – and there’s safety in being quiet.
The challenge is for the group leader and active participants to engage the quiet person so that his or her unarticulated ideas can be heard and added to the mix. I am assuming the group does not have a dominant, self-centered boss, someone who resents any challenge from a lesser being. When that happens, that’s a profoundly serious organizational problem. Ignored, the effects will take years of recovery.
In more normal circumstances – where there’s some security for those who offer contrarian views - then hearing from everyone matters. I’ve written of collective intelligence – the so-called “C” factor which contributes to group success at problem solving – why else would a group meet if there were not a problem to solve? Probably a good question to ask at the top of any habitual gathering is: “Why are we meeting?” That question will probably result in silence and a bit of squirming, but might lead to fewer meetings and greater personal productivity.
But, to get back to C. One of its three components is the “number of engaged participants”; the fewer engaged, the less success in problem solving, the more engaged, the greater success, at least in laboratory studies. So there’s some evidence that it’s unwise to leave out the quiet people; far wiser to invite them in. There are all kinds of suggestions on the Internet about how to do this - how to pry open the reluctant participant – but first and foremost the organization has to recognize and value dissenting views. If a person is an organizational survivor – as many are – she may be that way because she has learned personally or by observation that independent thinkers are punished. To survive in the organization – to keep her job – she has learned to keep her mouth shut and head down. Sure, there’s the mask – the happy talk – but when the discussion is for real, the survivor stays quiet and peers around only to see which way the wind is blowing. Then he may go along with the prevailing view even if it is contrary to what he thinks. Survivors have learned that the price of speaking up is too high. So, even if you are the new open minded and emotionally insightful and secure boss, you will still have to convince survivors that you really mean it when you ask for diverse discussion. When the boss asks for “shameless honesty” during a hard conversation or meeting, will her staff know their jobs are not on the line?
One suggestion I make to my students when in groups is to include everyone in the discussion. But, I make clear it is not enough to just encourage that; the more active students have to solicit input from their quieter counterparts. To do so, means the engaged participant may have to step back and allow airtime and air space for the quiet person. This can be difficult if you are a “let’s get it done” type. Or, if you are not very good at reading group behaviors you may not see any problem. In any case, you (an engaged participant) may want to think about what you are doing to encourage group engagement. My previous blog on fear and loathing included the suggestion that the boss occasionally lets the executive team meet without her. The dynamics should change and may promote greater engagement. Of course, if the organization is closed to and does not value varied viewpoints the boss’ absence will only lead to participants’ guessing what the absent boss would do, not what they would really do.
Obviously, there is an implied social finesse that needs to be acquired or to be refined. Confronting a quiet person with “You’re awfully quiet! What do you have to say?” is not the same as reading that person’s expression that she is thinking deeply about the topic and may indeed have an interesting viewpoint. That’s applying the emotional intelligence part of “C” to help the individual and the group come up with good ideas.
Another strategy is to assess group progress with an anonymous vote. Even if discussion does not increase, you will have a reading of how far apart viewpoints may be. Depending on the gap, you may need to double your efforts in eliciting opposing views. The quiet people will note what you are doing, by the way, and that may bring along a few to speak up.
Finally, there’s the “check in” at the start of each meeting with a go around of what is of most consequence at the moment in a person’s life or job (e.g. “What is a high, and a low, from your week? Where do you need help?”) should reduce reluctance to speak up. The check in makes everyone a bit more human, raising the comfort level of all, the engaged, the shy and the quiet.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Clackamas Community College Library, Oregon City, Oregon, USA

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE EAGLE AND THE FOX”*

Posted by jlubans on April 09, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: “Don’t get mad, get even”. Woodcut by Heinrich Steinhöwel, active 1429-1480.

“An Eagle and a Fox became great friends and determined to live near one another: they thought that the more they saw of each other the better friends they would be. So the Eagle built a nest at the top of a high tree, while the Fox settled in a thicket at the foot of it and produced a litter of cubs. One day the Fox went out foraging for food, and the Eagle, who also wanted food for her young, flew down into the thicket, caught up the Fox's cubs, and carried them up into the tree for a meal for herself and her family. When the Fox came back, and found out what had happened, she was not so much sorry for the loss of her cubs as furious because she couldn't get at the Eagle and pay her out for her treachery. So she sat down not far off and cursed her. But it wasn't long before she had her revenge. Some villagers happened to be sacrificing a goat on a neighbouring altar, and the Eagle flew down and carried off a piece of burning flesh to her nest. There was a strong wind blowing, and the nest caught fire, with the result that her fledglings fell half-roasted to the ground. Then the Fox ran to the spot and devoured them in full sight of the Eagle.”

“False faith may escape human punishment, but cannot escape the divine.”

So, listen well gossipmongers, slanderers, calumners, tittle-tattlers, libelers, denigrators, defamers, schemers, trash-talkers and other evildoers. There comes a time for payment, the scales must balance out. Count not on getting off scot-free. It may take time, but a squaring of accounts will happen when you least expect it.
The fox, in the illustration, however is not one to wait for divine intervention - immediate retribution is more like it! Perhaps if perpetrators were punished right away, there might be more thought given to doing what’s right rather than wrong.

*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.

© 2015 John Lubans

Fear and Loathing in the Executive Suite

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: 2009 Cartoon by Rex May (Baloo), b. 1946.

Of late I’ve written about bias, group think, and why teams succeed – especially about factors that contribute to team success:
As you may recall, researchers have confirmed that something called “C” or “collective intelligence” can predict team success or failure in a laboratory setting. C has three measures: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, the number of women on the team.
Roger Jones writes of CEO fears. His study of 116 mostly European-based CEOs and other executives, found a hefty dose of fear in the C-suite*. At the top there’s the fear of being found out as incompetent, an “imposter.” This biggest fear has company: fear of underachieving, appearing too vulnerable, being attacked by colleagues, and appearing foolish. And, Jones claims that these fears result in: “poor decision-making, focusing on survival rather than growth, inducing bad behavior at the next level down, and failing to act unless there’s a crisis.”
From personal experience in several executive groups, I would have to agree with Jones’ findings. With a few notable exceptions, the administrative groups I was part of suffered from a lack of camaraderie and candor, engaged too often in turf battles, and overall, members, myself included, failed to trust each other. Like the man in the cartoon, I dreaded Mondays because that was the meeting day for the executive “team”.
While my group was aware of its issues, little was done. I recall one new leader suggesting that the group retreat and work on becoming more effective. Naturally, I endorsed the idea but it was never raised again.
So, would paying more attention to “C” work in the C-Suite? No question, but only if we get to reconstitute the membership! Most senior staff have been promoted into the executive group; it is hardly a random group.
Most of us are there, presumably because of meritorious achievement and success in the lower ranks. Our “C” score probably had very little to do with that promotion.
Still, Jones suggests several ways to reduce fear, a few akin to C. (No one, btw, suggests a bowl of M&Ms on the meeting table, the one most frequently alleged fear-inhibitor!)
- The boss should be aware of his or her own fears and those of the team.
- Value emotional intelligence among all members.
- Provide opportunities for members of the executive group to tell personal stories about key moments in their lives. (One consultant advocates a quick check-in at the top of each meeting about what’s “eating my lunch” by each member of the team.)
- Set and enforce norms for communication including acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
- The boss should actively encourage all team members to speak up without fear of consequences.
- Occasionally, allow the team to meet without the boss.
- Finally, use incentive systems to discourage self-interested behavior.

*The C-Suite is the domain inhabited by chief administrators, for example, CIO, CEO, COO, CFO, etc., including the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) in some organizations!
In less exalted settings - the kind I worked in - the “executive group” or “administrative group” (consisting of senior staff) is an equivalent term.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Prophet”*

Posted by jlubans on April 03, 2015  •  Leave comment (1)


“A WIZARD, sitting in the marketplace, was telling the fortunes of the passers-by when a person ran up in great haste, and announced to him that the doors of his house had been broken open and that all his goods were being stolen. He sighed heavily and hastened away as fast as he could run. A neighbor saw him running and said, ‘Oh! you fellow there! you say you can foretell the fortunes of others; how is it you did not foresee your own?’"

This fable is a distant cousin to “do as I say, not as I do”. I recall a consulting expert who could spout dozens of remedies to my workflow problems. It was on a reciprocal visit to his shop that I saw his workflow problems were even worse than mine. Apparently, while he had answers for me, he could not apply them in his own bailiwick. Now, I suspected that the problems were caused more by his untrusting attitude toward staff than with the mechanics of doing something. While he could talk about the mechanics with lighting speed, he never could relinquish control to the people doing the work. I had the good fortune to work with my staff, one on one, and the workflow improved, seemingly all on its own.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: The Roger John Voskuyl Library, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

N.B. Fifth year anniversary of publication of Leading from the Middle looms (June 2015). Get your copy before it goes out of print.

PS. I am currently at the University of Latvia as a Visiting Professor for my 8-week seminar on Freedom at Work: The Democratic Workplace.

© 2015 John Lubans