Friday Fable. Abstemius' (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “An Eele and a Snake”*

Posted by jlubans on January 29, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Jellied eels, a favorite London Cockney snack.

“You and I are so alike, says the Eele to the Snake, that methinks we should be somewhat a-kin; and yet they that persecute me, are afraid of you. What should be the reason of this? Oh (says the Snake) because no body does me an Injury but I make him smart for't.”
“In all Controversies they come off best that keep their Adversaries in fear of a Revenge.”

So, bite your tongue or bite the attackers head off? Abstemius (15th century) suggests that the fear – not necessarily action - of “a Revenge” is what keeps the adversary at bay. Snarling like a junkyard dog will get you labeled as uptight, thin-skinned, paranoid, and, horrors, un-cool!
In the workplace we're told to turn away, that karma will come around and bite the maligner. Eventually.
Instead, cultivate humor as your vehicle of revenge, the snake’s stinging bite; petty people abhor ridicule.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Juicy Gossip.

Posted by jlubans on January 25, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Stern Soviet message: "Don't chatter! Gossiping borders on treason" (1941).

Frank T. McAndrew states in a recent edition of The Conversation, “Gossip is a social skill – not a character flaw”.
I always thought gossip was something to avoid; a meddlesome, backstabbing kind of thing. So, when I saw that headline, I took notice.
Reading his essay, I noted that some other researchers also think that gossip does more good than bad and that it is something we are seemingly hard wired to do. It’s in our DNA and helps us survive, in our personal and corporate lives.
In my experience, there appear to be three types of gossip: idle, malicious and useful. For the latter, I recall the “Pincher” from the earliest days of my career. He was a middle-aged manager with a penchant for pinching women in elevators; in those days he did so with impunity. It was through gossip that women learned never to get on an elevator with the Pincher.
Also in the utilitarian line, I recall a leader in my professional association who seemed to know everyone. Whenever I had lunch with her at a conference, she’d “dish” and I would come away with career planning information about job openings, who was leaving, when they were leaving and why. She did not lie nor seem to get any visible jollies from sharing the information. Obviously, she had an extensive network and was willing to pass on information to people she liked and wanted to see advance. She appeared to practice McAndrew’s conclusion about gossip: “Successful gossiping entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.”
A quick search brought up a couple other articles that claim gossip might be more good than bad. For a gossipy, “juicy” read, see “Psst, have you heard that gossip is good for us?” by Lucy Kellaway.
Of interest for team builders, McAndrew cites an essay
about the effect of gossip in a rowing team and how word of mouth was used effectively to get rid of a “social loafer whose relatively inferior commitment to the squad impeded the rest of the group’s success.” The researchers considered this an example of how gossip identifies a group’s takers vs. the givers and how a group responds to the egregious “taker”. Surprisingly (for a men’s sports team), no one confronted the loafer’s behavior and candidly told the person to get with it or get out; it was all done subversively, a classic example of conflict avoidance. That suggests a weak team since it appears afraid to get anywhere near the “storming” dynamic, that crucial phase of group development when doubts, anxieties, and fears are candidly and openly discussed. Absent this honest discussion, the group will not do as well as it could.
As a more effective model of constructive conflict resolution, the researchers cite the role of gossip among cattle ranchers. Gossip precipitates face-to-face discussion when one herd persistently stray’s onto another rancher’s property. The gossip triggers the discussion and settlement of differences face to face, never in a court of law.
While I have spent little time on the idle and malicious varieties of gossip, it probably goes without saying, that that kind of gossip should be avoided; it does more harm than good for all involved.
So, if much of your day at work is spent in idle gossip, guess what? You've plateaued and it is time to move on. And, if you find yourself becoming a backstabber and admiring Lady Macbeth, what should you do? Depends on who you want to be.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Frightened Lion”*

Posted by jlubans on January 22, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


In another telling of this fable, the facetious frog does not guffaw with impunity:
“The Lion hearing an odd kind of a hollow voice, and seeing nobody, started up. He listened again; the voice continued, and he shook with fear. At last seeing a Frog crawl out of the lake, and finding that the noise proceeded from that little creature, he spurned it to pieces with his feet.”
So, mind your unexamined words, lest they get you “spurned to pieces”.

*Source: Walter Crane, Artist, “Baby’s Own Aesop”. 1887.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016


Posted by jlubans on January 19, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Not your usual display of expert juggling

One of my former students told me about the Gandini juggling troupe. She saw their one-hour show, “Smashed!”, in Riga’s Vermanes Garden and wondered – in spite of a stage full of shattered crockery, upended chairs and dozens of squashed red apples -if what they did was not about teamwork, an upside down version, of followership gone monumentally awry?
The show offers up ubiquitous symbols of the “office”, the workplace – the suits, casual Friday sweaters and dresses; the precisely aligned nine armless chairs, along with the geometric precision of the apples distributed over the floor, and the ritual of an afternoon workplace tea break.
In class, I’ve will use two segments (tableaux vivants) from an hour long video to demonstrate and to discuss aspects of un-teamwork, of failed teamwork. (Here is a 4.5-minute condensation for a quick glimpse of the Gandini jugglers.)

Caption: In pursuit of failure.
One of the segments I’ll be using is of a disruptive worker who, with a paper baton, does all he can to disrupt the eight apple jugglers, literally getting in their faces and slapping them with the baton. A persistent pest – an alienated follower or incompetent jerk or even an envious boss - his one ambition is to make everyone fail, to screw up the organization. He succeeds, but there is some payback. At the end, the group spurns him and won’t give him a seat back in the “office” area of nine chairs.

Caption: Entropy happens.
Another segment, near the finale, is called “Drop It!” The most destructive, it flips the envious individual vs. the group to a group hell-bent in opposition to individual success, willing and wanting to destroy the organization lest anyone succeed. Each juggler in turn is derisively shouted down or otherwise discombobulated so their juggle fails, apples crashing all over. At the “Drop It” conclusion, the group’s entropy - it’s falling apart - is manifest in dozens of apples littering the floor amidst smashed teacups, saucers, and teapots.
The finale restores some order as the troupe gingerly steps through the debris, demonstrating it’s earlier insouciance, expertly juggling apples to the sound of the bistro-ish, “I always wanted to waltz in Berlin….”
I plan on having my students in the upcoming fifth (!) iteration of The Democratic Workplace at the University of Latvia do some juggling either before or after the Gandini discussion. The “Balloon Juggle”, it will challenge the group to juggle an increasing number of balloons (a growing workload introduced by an unsympathetic boss) to keep afloat as many balloons as they, the team, decide they can, to sort them by color, etc. They’ll get to define what their success will look like. We’ll see if they improve on the Gandinins.
Caption: Back in synch.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. LaFontaine’s version of Aesop’s “THE JAY IN THE FEATHERS OF THE PEACOCK.”*

Posted by jlubans on January 15, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by André Hellé, 'Le Geai Pare des Plumes du Paon,' 1922.

“A peacock moulted: soon a jay was seen
Bedeck'd with Argus tail of gold and green,
High strutting, with elated crest,
As much a peacock as the rest.
His trick was recognized and bruited,
His person jeer'd at, hiss'd, and hooted.
The peacock gentry flock'd together,
And pluck'd the fool of every feather.
Nay more, when back he sneak'd to join his race,
They shut their portals in his face.”
“There is another sort of jay,
The number of its legs the same,
Which makes of borrow'd plumes display,
And plagiary is its name.
But hush! the tribe I'll not offend;
'Tis not my work their ways to mend.”

Notably, at fable’s end, LaFontaine targets plagiarists. To which “tribe” is he is referring? Academics? Or is he targeting the Parisian equivalent of London’s Fleet Street? Or, is his complaint in general of anyone, like Aesop's jay, who feathers his cap with feathers (achievements) lifted from others?
For scholars, the most blatant “plagiary” is straightforward copying without attribution. In the workplace, this is akin to taking full personal credit for someone else’s good ideas or work. And, then there’s the sly supervisor who attributes the good work to her department but omits naming the individual(s) most responsible.
Equally petty and unsavory is when someone imitates another’s ideas, recasts them somewhat, but gives no tip of the hat to the originator. Interestingly, a professed oblivion is often the case with hard-core plagiarists, people who’ve ripped off pages of someone else’s work almost word for word. When confronted, they deny, shift blame, obfuscate, and often threaten to sue. Since many academic plagiarists won’t apologize for stealing - nor will their peers “out” them - I understand why LaFontaine ends his commentary with “'Tis not my work their ways to mend.”

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016


Posted by jlubans on January 12, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Indicative of a wide prevalence, a Dummies guide to OP.

A friend who’d recently retired from the behemoth IBM told me that on-the-job office politics (OP) took up 50% of her day. Imagine that, half of your workday invested in surviving to yet another day. Is OP a productive or unproductive activity? Some might claim OP is the social lubricant, when applied sparingly, which makes the office machine work.
I am not sure. OP carries a largely negative connotation and can manifest itself as secretive, selfish, hypocritical, hierarchical, and incompetent behavior. Yet, I have seen colleagues who adroitly practiced OP and were decent folks and successful at "playing the game". And, I have experienced, personally, where ignoring OP led to an innovative and productive worker’s blackballing.
Indeed, OP can shut down candid communication, the freedom to offer up ideas without retribution and can leave an organization in desperate need of change, unchanged.
Is candid communication not quintessential to a democratic workplace? If you fear speaking up because you’ll be punished, is that not how totalitarianism works? Open communication is essential to anything approaching the democratic.
IBMs founder, Tom Watson, is on record about organizations needing more mistake-making, not less. Mr. Watson believed that a willingness to upset the apple cart would lead to innovation and discovery. Well, how does that compute for my retired friend who spent half of every day keeping up a fake veneer of politeness to cultivate, Darwinistically, a network for survival?
I agree with Mr. Watson that freedom to make mistakes is a good thing. Yet, cultivating such a culture can be difficult if OP dominates our every gesture and word.
So, how does an organization cultivate open and free communication? How do you eliminate fear of reprisal? Or, do you shake your head figuratively and believe that OP is a given, an imperfect yet prevalent part of human communication?
Recently, some options have been offered to help us cut through the fakery and get to a candid, mutually beneficial, discussion about things that matter in the work place. Rachel Feintzeig surveys corporate efforts to get around OP – to replace it with something like “shameless honesty
- in her article, “’Nice’ Is a Four-Letter Word….
These magic bullets - “radical candor,” “mokita moments*” and “front-stabbing” – do not address the underlying causes of OP – instead they brawl with it, out in the open, mano-a-mano, and seemingly hope for the best. I tend to think this is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg, but at least it is something meant to alleviate and to improve. How will these efforts play out? Will they give us better workplaces or will these attempts at frankness only aggravate misery and spite? My difficulty with imposed solutions – which these are - is that unless you address what is causing the OP, you cannot hope to change it with scheduled confessionals.
Perhaps the most important take away from this article is illustrated by a low-key example of office candor: Feintzeig writes of a VPs taking aside a junior executive and advising her to stop using “uh, uh, uh”, in presentations; those “uh, uhs” make her look less intelligent than she might want. When done one on one, in private, caring and honest feedback is essential to someone’s developing into an effective leader. That’s vastly different from putting someone in the “hot seat” and giving a group free rein (front-stabbing?) to tell that person just how awful he is.
I recall, early in my career, a department head peer who was tingling to tell me just how ineffective I was; all that she needed was my permission. I much preferred the way of my then boss. He was someone to whom I’d go to grumble about work problems. One day he offered up some excellent criticism. “Talk to me about problems, for sure, but, you know what, give me ideas on how to fix the problem.”
Now that little bit of advice, caringly administered, from forty years ago affected me profoundly. I sought, from that point on, to understand problems and to offer solutions.

*Mokita is a New Guinea word for “the truth everyone knows but nobody says”. Some places claim to have mokita amnesty days. In other words, you can speak about the elephant in the room, name the un-nameable, express the unspoken without getting booted.
One consultant suggests going to a bar and getting the company to buy the mojito (a rum drink) to go with the mokita. I can imagine how that might turn out! Cuidado! Excessive mojitos may lead to speaking in Spanish.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Two Dogs”*

Posted by jlubans on January 08, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: January 5, Fat Cat Tuesday.

“A MAN had two dogs: a Hound, trained to assist him in his sports, and a Housedog, taught to watch the house. When he returned home after a good day's sport, he always gave the Housedog a large share of his spoil. The Hound, feeling much aggrieved at this, reproached his companion, saying, ‘It is very hard to have all this labor, while you, who do not assist in the chase, luxuriate on the fruits of my exertions.’ The Housedog replied, ‘Do not blame me, my friend, but find fault with the master, who has not taught me to labor, but to depend for subsistence on the labor of others.’"

“Children are not to be blamed for the faults of their parents.”

Does the pampered pup have a point? A BBC story has it that the “Fat Cat” boss “will have earned more money (in the first week of January) than the average worker will do in a year.”
Does the handsomely-rewarded-and-then-some CEO have the same excuse as the housedog? It’s not my fault.
Well, who’s your daddy?
Indeed, why do boards and shareholders pay some CEO’s so much? At least the fable makes no ludicrous claim that sans the housedog the house will fail and slide into bankruptcy.

*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.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

“The Bear in the Tree”*

Posted by jlubans on January 04, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Not too long ago, a mother bear taught her newborn cubs to respect Nature and to share with lesser creatures. She taught them well. One cub, Ozols, excelled in his kindness and love of Nature, out-Assisi-ing St. Francis of Assisi. But – there’s always a but - his peers' love of Ozols caused a great envy in a wicked wizard living in the forest.
One day, Ozols was gathering blackberries in the wizard’s meadows. The wizard, in spite, (remember he was wicked and a narcissist) turned Ozols into a tree.
Everyone wondered where Ozols was. Then one day, a tiny bird, a wren, landed on a tree in the forest and was surprised to see a familiar face.
“Is that you, Ozols?”
“Yes, it is me”, whispered the tree. The wren, happy, let loose a liquid, rolling whistle that resonated throughout the forest.
“The wizard did this. Can you help,” asked the trapped Ozols?
The little bird, remembering Ozols kindness, simply said, “Of course.”
Now, you might be wondering how could a tiny bird do anything? He knew to ask others for help. Soon, a mighty number of the wren family gathered to hear the news about Ozols. That night they flew to the wizard’s hunting lodge and, in concert, began to sing, jerking the Wizard out of his warm and cozy bed. Outraged, he tore open the front door but saw no one - shortsighted, he refused vainly to wear glasses and it was pitch-dark. He slammed the door and went back in, hiding his head under a pillow. The wrens started in again; the noise from a dozen different wren songs was a deafening cacophony and went on all night. The next night and the next the wrens came back. The wizard could not sleep – and with dark circles under his blood-shot eyes, finally gave in, pleading, “What do you want?”
“Free Ozols”, the little bird told him.
And so, Ozols was a bear again – free to live his life in the forest. The wizard? Well he’d learned if he was to get any sleep, he’d better quit being a jerk.

*A fable on Monday. My Friday Fable will return as usual on Friday. I came across the bear face tree in the photograph on an early New Year’s Day off-trail walk; it inspired this fable/fairy tale.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016, text and illustration.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Hare and the Hound”*

Posted by jlubans on January 01, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A New Year's interpretation of the classic KITA!

“A HOUND started a Hare from his lair, but after a long run, gave up the chase. A goat-herd seeing him stop, mocked him, saying ‘The little one is the best runner of the two.’ The Hound replied, ‘You do not see the difference between us: I was only running for a dinner, but he for his life.’”

So, which is the more effective motivator: Fear or Hunger? In the fable, fear sends the hare flying; the dog’s hunger will be placated at another time, probably at the backdoor of the cookhouse. Dinner can wait, one’s life cannot.
OK, in the workplace what's the best approach for getting results? Kick ‘em or trust ‘em?
The martinet (overt or covert) boss can and will hurt you unless you produce. If well planted, the kick’s an effective motivator – as the illustration implies - but what about the long term? Can the boss keep kicking? What happens when the mistrustful boss leaves early or calls in sick?
Kurt Lewin tested three ways of leading - authoritarian,
democratic and laissez-faire - and found that the democratic leader and his group fared best. Respect for and trust in a worker’s abilities achieve more than disdain and mistrust.
Which leader are you?

*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.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015