De-Tox Your Workplace

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


As readers know, I have been focusing of late on the so-called “jerk” employee and how he or she can undercut a team’s performance.
How is a “jerk” different from a “toxic employee”? She isn’t. Both share the same levels of rudeness, incivility and low empathy. One pronouncement on the topic uses the terms interchangeably.
Perhaps “toxic worker” is less harsh to the ear, more diagnostic than the implicit sneer, the shared belittlement in “jerk”. In any case, don’t miss some good ideas because of semantic quibbles.
There’s a long-standing problem in any traditional organization; you have to work with the people already in place, including the so-called jerks.
And, depending on the organizational culture – especially those of the “culture of complaint” variety – it’s very likely the Problem or Toxic Employees, including those with pronounced jerkitude, won’t have been confronted and disciplined or told to “shape up or ship out”.
In my business, I know of only one HR person who was able to take on historic “problem employees” and survive. She was highly effective but the main reason she survived was because the organization was desperate to do something.
If you can’t get rid of the jerks, the least you - as a boss in a traditional organization - can do is prevent more bad hires.
How do you do that?
An unusually pragmatic article from the Harvard Business Review, “How to Avoid Hiring a Toxic Employee”, spells out specific steps. Some are obvious and ones that many of us follow, others I wish I had used when I was hiring.
The author, Christine Porath, explains why a toxic employee can damage an organization. Anyone with high toxicity can ruin a team and can be a liability to an organization; one study concludes a bad hire can cost about $12,000 per year to the organization in lost productivity. And, rudeness and incivility can be catching. The sunny workplace one looks forward to each day can become a place to dread and avoid. A place of harmony and good work can become discordant and unappealing to staff and customers.
Toxic employees are saboteurs without a cause. They create ill will just because or what they think a permissive, cowed leadership permits.
A jerk’s scoring one against an unhappy customer has consequences. Following the Rule of 7 by which customers tell at least 7 people about a negative experience (hugely more so in these electronic days) the organization’s reputation is quickly at risk. My neighborhood has a list serve; imagine the negative effect on a business with a single negative review seen by home owners in need of services.
Porath has some very good ideas on how to avoid bad hires:
Interview for civility. She suggests these interview questions, among others:
“What would your former subordinates say about you — positive and negative?
What about yourself would you like to improve most? How about a second thing? A third?
When have you failed?
What kind of people do you find it most difficult to work with? Tell me about a time when you’ve found it difficult to work with someone. How did you handle it?”
After the interview, consider what you’ve found out about the candidate.
“Does the candidate speak negatively of former employers or others?
Does the candidate take responsibility for behaviors, results, and outcomes, or does he blame others?”
And, importantly, Porath recommends “Follow up with every employee who encounters the candidate…. How did he treat your parking lot attendant? Your receptionist? … Is the candidate kind, gracious, and respectful? Or rude and condescending?”
The answers may prompt you to keep the job open and to interview more people or you may discover a star in the making.
Talk to the candidate’s references about civility.
“Ask questions that get at the heart of civility: ‘What’s it like working with him?’ or ‘What could he improve on?’”
… “Did the candidate’s behavior ever reflect negatively on the organization?”
More specifically,
“How emotionally intelligent does she seem? Is she able to read people and adjust accordingly?”
The author goes on to suggest something that, depending on your organization, which may not be all that effective:
“Don’t just stick to the reference list — talk to your own network as well.” That’s OK, if you can trust your network.
If you are interviewing for someone to bring in a fresh perspective, to challenge the same old, same old ways of working, and, to bring about change, your network may be the last resource to go to.
I have found in traditional organizations, the genuine innovators, the questioners, the iconoclasts, the “rate-busters” are too often seen as problems, unappreciated by their peers including those at the executive level.
They represent a threat to the comfortable many.
Finally, “Check your own civility”. I recall while interviewing for a job at the University of Colorado in Boulder being driven through neighborhoods to look at housing options.
Someone went through a stop sign, cutting off my driver. He – the acting director – exploded into obscenities yelling after the driver, “You stupid son of a bitch? Etc., “ Well, that did give me pause.
As it turned out, the person I was to report to directly was one of the most gentlemanly of gentlemen - a paragon of civility - and would serve as a buffer between the “quick-to-anger” administrator and me.
I took the job and never had any regrets but for leaving it, but that’s another story.
In brief, don’t send mixed signals. If civility is a genuine corporate value, then live it.

© Copyright 2016 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Krylov’s “THE PEASANT AND THE LABOURER”*

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

“AN old Peasant and a Labourer were going home through
the forest to the village one evening, in the time of the hay-harvest, when they suddenly found themselves face to face with a bear. Scarcely had the Peasant time to utter a cry when the bear was upon him ; it threw him down, rolled him over, made his bones crack again, and began looking about for a soft spot at which to commence its meal. Death draws near to the old man.
‘Stefan, my kinsman, my dear friend, do not desert me!’ he cries, from under the bear, to the Labourer.
Then Stefan, putting forth all his strength like a new Hercules, splits the bear's head in two with his axe, and drives his pitchfork into its bowels. The bear howls, and falls dying. Our bear expires.
The danger having vanished, the Peasant gets up, and soundly scolds the Labourer. Our poor Stefan is astounded. ‘Pardon me, what have I done?’
‘What have you done, you blockhead ? I'd like to know
what you are so absurdly pleased about; why, you've gone and stuck the bear in such a manner that you've utterly ruined his fur!’"
More joke than fable, the story does help us understand that essential human element, humor. If incongruity is what makes us laugh, then this story is a perfect illustration. Instead of the Peasant falling on Stefan’s – the Bear Slayer - neck, kissing both cheeks and promising him a share of the harvest and his eldest daughter’s hand in marriage, he finds Fault with a capital F.
In the workplace, the Peasant is the never-satisfied Boss. For whatever reason, this Boss never gives you credit; indeed he is set against you and resents your bear-slaying successes. He’s made up his mind and if you have enough sense and opportunity you will spruce up the resume and start looking to escape to another organization. Don’t be like Stefan, a beleaguered serf, a slave, who cannot leave. You must flee – because you can - at the first opportunity.

*Source: Krilof and his fables, by Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, 1768-1844; Ralston, William Ralston Shedden, 1828-1889. Tr. London, 1869

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Bibliotherapy for (Recovering) Jerks

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

Caption. Illustration by Julia Mehoke, 2014

I’ve spent some time recently musing about jerks. (Use the search box to find the half dozen or so essays.)
One of my resolutions for a future blog was to tell you how I – when I was a manager – dealt or did not deal with jerks. Two or three personalities come to mind immediately – jerks do make an impression - but I will delay those stories for another time.
Instead, I want to mention Susan Pinker’s article in a recent Wall Street Journal, “Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”,
in which she argues that people who read highbrow fiction are better equipped to show empathy for others.
And, in support of her contention, she cites some important psychological research.
If you have read this blog you know that I am suspicious of this research because of recent incidents of outright fakery and fraud and the more troubling, a broad inability in the field to reproduce study results.
But, some of it surely must be OK, even if a bit biased, so it still may illuminate (however flickering the candle) important aspects of our lives.
If there’s one thing that sets jerks aside it is their inability “to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.” Perhaps there is an empathy/jerkitude ratio:
The less empathy, the more jerkitude. The more empathy, the less jerkiness.
Would it not be nice, if by working through a reading list, one could become more empathetic?
By the way, empathy has been identified as of signal importance for leaders, so my suggestion is not limited to my becoming a better person (a sweetheart) by improving my empathy level. Doing so, I can also be a better leader to the benefit of my organization.
Pinker found that: “fiction reading predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction.” Bookworms turn into butterflies.
The odd thing in this research is that the opposite was found for readers of non-fiction. Little empathy and more loneliness. That’s a puzzle to me, perhaps not to you.
Maybe it is gender driven? Women have their book clubs (what men do?) and women have, I believe, far greater networks of friends that men do.
I know a man who is an exception to this observation, but he reads non-fiction more than fiction. However, he does make use of his reading in conversations to live “large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere”.
To paraphrase Pinker, I think it is still unclear if reading fiction fosters empathy or empathy fosters interest in fiction. Yes, the research studies suggest heightened empathy from reading but perhaps the base empathy had to be there to begin with.
In any case, I do think if a person who wonders why he has few friends or envies those who can converse on the latest literary happenings, there is nothing to stop that person from becoming literarily conversant. Just follow the several bestseller lists. You may not end up “living large in the social sphere”, but at least you will have an idea of what people are talking about. And, if you are willing to lower your jerk quotient, fiction might help you improve your score.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Krylov’s “THE MAN AND HIS SHADOW”*

Posted by jlubans on November 18, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The elusive shadow.

“THERE was a certain (one-of-a-kind) who must needs desire to
catch his own Shadow. He makes a step or two to-
wards it, but it moves away before him. He quickens his
pace; it does the same. At last he takes to running; but
the quicker he goes, the quicker runs the Shadow also,
utterly refusing to give itself up, just as if it had been a
treasure. But see! our eccentric friend suddenly turns
round, and walks away from it. And presently he looks
behind him; the Shadow runs after him now.

Ladies fair, I have often observed what do you sup-
pose ? — no, no; I assure you I am not going to speak about
you that Fortune treats us in a similar Way. One man
tries with all his might to seize the goddess, and only loses
his time and his trouble. Another seems, to all appearance,
to be running out of her sight but, no, she herself takes a
pleasure in pursuing him.”

As some say, the pleasure is in the pursuit (as depicted), not in the catching. Perhaps the more you want something - a friend, a job, a favor – the better to keep a respectful distance; hence according to this fable, the better your chances of getting what you want. Is this then a form of dissembling, an “aw, shucks” me-ing?
No doubt a psychology study exists to prove (well sorta, if we don’t look too closely at the data!) that aloofness gains more concessions, than does a display of too much interest, regardless of merit.)
In job place interviews, I always made clear – nicely, of course - that I was interviewing the organization just as much as they were interviewing me. Would there be a good fit? - was as much my question as it was the employer’s.
If the employer behaved arrogantly – there are ways of being arrogant without being overtly rude; for example, assuming that since I’ve shown up for the interview I want the job. Au contraire, I am no more pursuing the shadow, than it is pursing me.

*Source: Krilof and his fables, by Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, 1768-1844; Ralston, William Ralston Shedden, 1828-1889. Tr. London, 1869

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Play at Work

Posted by jlubans on November 15, 2016  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: All smiles. The playful office. Photo by Jonathan Pow.

The title of a recent article, “Nerf guns, beds and beanbag areas: what makes a productive office?” begs a response.
Zombie-like, the notion that external motivators somehow are equal to internal motivators just won’t go away. Software firms in particular – perhaps because of the young workforce - appear particularly unable to separate the two.
BrightHR, the firm in this story, offers up not only nerf guns (don’t like your cubicle neighbor’s slurping his Ramden? Well, blast him!) but also, “space hoppers, scooters, games consoles and a ping pong table,” along with “football nets for impromptu penalty shoot outs and a 60-foot lawn in the middle of the oval shaped office with bean bags and tents for staff to crash in.”
I get the idea. You don’t want people freaking out from a boom or bust workload, so you divert them; more importantly, you give them places – while on the premises for those infamous 80-hour weeks – to go hide and sleep. There’s even a “double bed where exhausted team members can recharge with a power nap.” Maybe that’s what TVs jolly David Letterman had in mind with his dressing room boudoir for young female interns.
BrightHR is a British software firm that offers up HR tools to manage a workforce: “Lateness, sickness and long-term absence from work is challenging so our hr management system notifies managers instantly, enabling you to quickly organise relief staff and view absence patterns.”
So, they’ve designed tracking software, by which the over-extended middle manager can track her people, or as it is often termed, “human resources.” (Let's run this out a bit further. If the system can track the people in the organization, then why not install the data into robots who would counsel the "problem employee". So, here comes this hulking mass of silicone parts right out of R.U.R., wheels up to your cubicle and wants to talk. I imagine some workers might change their mis-behavin' ways. Far fetched? Maybe not. If the only thing left to middle managers is to manage the workforce - to impose discipline, to enforce it, to keep track of deviations - then a robot could do it and maybe even better at a much lower economic cost. That is, if it needs to be done at all. A good organization needs none of this oversight since there is abundant mutual respect and caring for individuals.)

Coding work is intense, no question, so recess into a playground environment may contribute to productivity.
Or, are the toys and tents merely masking a particularly grueling job?
From decades-ago-research we know what people want from work. Fred Emery found six motivators:
“Adequate elbow room for decision-making; Opportunity to learn at work; Variety in work; Mutual support and respect; Meaningfulness; and, A desirable future”
If the nerf guns help with any of these, I am all for them. Or, as one commenter put it: “If your job’s so massively shit you need a nerf gun and children's toys to make it tolerable you should be doing something else.”
The nerf article also looks at the open office space concept, aka, “cubicle land” or in some cases, “The Nowhere Office.
“A 2014 survey of 10,500 workers across 14 countries, … found that 69% of people were not satisfied with their working environment, in part due to a lack of privacy.”
I recall my colleague Don Riggs at Nova Southeastern University, insisting - over the architect’s objections – that all professional staff have private spaces with doors in a new building. He intuited, correctly, no one really wanted to be always on display (and never alone) when working.
Supposedly, the Open Office was to lead to better collaboration.
Stop and think. Was there a factual basis for this idea or was it something imagined by an architect based solely on his nostalgia for the sweet camaraderie he experienced with his project team on all-nighters in architecture school?
I’d guess, much like the evidence-less annual ritual of performance appraisal, it was someone’s persuasive but untested idea.
No, I am not indiscriminately finding fault; I’ve got more than a few personal examples of going off on unproductive tangents with zero evidence of an idea’s validity.
But, I did learn from those mistakes so am less likely to repeat them. So, question those latest, hottest ideas and ask to see the supportive data. Ask if productivity is being measured. Is there a before and after analysis? I am not talking about a happiness measure, I am referring instead to some measures, even anecdotal, that confirm better ideas are forthcoming from the playful office vs. the traditional office.
If not, maybe it is time to revisit and seek to implement Fred Emery’s findings on what workers really want.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “ZEUS AND THE DONKEYS”*

Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The hopeless and beleaguered donkey. Illustration by Bernard Salomon, 1547.

“The donkeys were tired of being burdened with burdens and labouring all the days of their lives, so they sent ambassadors to Zeus, asking him to release them from their toil. Zeus, wanting to show them that they had asked for something impossible, said that their suffering would come to an end on the day when they pissed a river. The donkeys took him seriously and to this day whenever donkeys see where another donkey has pissed, they come to a halt and piss in the same place.”

“The fable shows that a person cannot escape his allotted fate.”

Like the bare-arse’d Ape in this same collection of fables for children**, imagine the giggles emanating from the nurseries of the early 1900s as the little ones read of the pissing donkeys.
But, this fable claims man’s lot is forecast; there’s no questioning one’s place or destiny. To do so is the “uttermost degree of Madness and Folly, to Appeal from Providence and Nature” as Sir Roger L'Estrange put it in 1692. A century later came the American Revolution – it is appropriate that today is Veteran’s Day – which posited a different fate for humans: We are equal and we have "unalienable rights" to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". If a peasant wants to be a landowner, the opportunity is there. It is not given, but it can be earned. If the dealt hand is not what you want, well, shuffle the cards again. And, it is your business – government butt out - in how you keep or not your Faith.
Imperfect? Yes. A superior alternative? Show me.
Since Aesop’s telling of the fable of the Pissing Donkeys (a garage rock band?) he may have inspired a few more writers. There’s Wretched Willie Nelson’s, “Whiskey River” (don’t run dry), Patti Smith’s bizzaro “Pissing in the River” and not to be outdone, Julie London’s smoky “Cry Me a River”.

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

**Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

The Nail that Sticks Out

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

Caption: He who sticks out about to get hammered.

At the same time I was putting to bed the first three chapters of my soon to-be-published book, Fables for Leaders, I saw the obituary of Junko Tabei, the first female to climb Mt. Everest.
The obituary elaborates on how Ms. Tabei did not let her society’s views on a woman’s place interfere with what she wanted to do. She recalled that she and her all women’s climbing team were told, "…we should be raising children instead".
Even though she downplayed her accomplishment - "I was the 36th person to climb Everest" is how she modestly described her accomplishment - she was nevertheless criticized for standing out. Just like what happens to many people who do more, who achieve more, who accomplish more, who simply work harder. In Industry the “rank and file”, we are told, despises the “rate buster” because the rate buster moves the bar and makes others work harder. I blogged on this phenomenon “The Freedom to Excel”, Aleksei G. Stakhanov’s story and how his Herculean mining feats were politically corrupted.
A Japanese proverb gave Ms. Tabei insights into why some in her society felt they had the right to criticize her achievements: "The nail that sticks out will be hammered down." (There's someirony around that tall nail; Ms. Tabei stood, 4 ft 9 inches (145 centimeters).
And that’s where my “Fables for Leaders” comes in.
In my book, I have at least two fables (one by Abstemius and the other by me) that show the dilemma of being the first at anything or doing a job better than anyone else. Instead of a pat on the back or a sincere “Well done!” envy may lead to faultfinding.
My “Proud Blackberry” fable is about being first and I refer
to the Australian proverb of the tall poppy; “for all his eminence, he’s the first to be cut. Therefore, don’t be like the candle that brags on its flame only to see it put out.”
And, in Capons Fat and Lean I recycled the Australian proverb, “the tallest flower in the field is the first to be cut.”
(I’ll be amending that fable and replacing the Australian proverb with the Japanese version.)
So, is standing out only to get hammered something to avoid? Are we then to follow only the road well traveled and seek only the traditional way?
Ms. Tabei used the proverb to explain what she observed. It helped her understand the criticism, the envy. If anything it’s implicit unfairness motivated her to go full speed ahead. I would guess there was no stopping Ms. Tabei; her efforts could only improve Japanese society’s view of a woman’s role. Her success expanded the traditional role – however uncomfortably for her male counterparts – beyond tea making, caring for children, cooking and waiting for the breadwinner to make his way home from the office.
In that regard, and perhaps in a way Ms. Tabei would appreciate, that my blackberry fable has a contrarian moral; the blackberry turns the table on the fox that has gobbled up the proud blackberry.
In an I-told-you-so voice Reynard, the fox, tells the blackberry that’s what happens to those that stand out. “On hearing the fox , a voice gurgled deep inside: “Au contraire, mon ami, my destiny is to be eaten and I have the honor to be the first of my brethren. You, Monsieur Reynard, are a mere vehicle, a bus d'auto. Next, when you hear the call of nature, I will fall onto the earth and soon reappear as a new cane to snag your raggedy tail with my thorns.”
I expect Ms. Tabei’s accomplishments will be spoken of for many years and will inspire many women to seek their own way.
And, surely, her exceptionalism will continue to snag the tails of her critics.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius’ “The Fly and the Chariot.”*

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

Caption: How (some) managers see labor.

“There was a chariot racing around the stadium, and on that chariot sat a fly. As a great dust arose, both from the pounding of the horses' hooves, and also from the turning of the wheels, the fly exclaimed, "Oh what a mighty dust I have stirred up!"

This early fable is akin to L'Estrange) “A Fly upon a Wheel” and to "The Fox Gets Left Behind".
One mgt consultant advises: “Leaders need to distinguish if someone is an essential part of the system, or just along for the ride.” If the latter, time to get off the corporate trolley.
More aptly in my experience, this adage applies just as often to the leader, as it may to the slacker staff.
The "fly" kind of leader is more concerned about keeping his or her balance on the rickety chariot of the organization careening and curveting down the track than on taking the reins in hand and steering toward the goal.
All too often it is the “fly” leader who believes that she is responsible for an organization’s good results. If the results are bad, it is never the boss’s fault - it’s the dummies he has to work with.

Source: Abstemius.
Abstemius, ca.1440-1508, we are told would sometimes intermix “his fables with ludicrous stories, and satires on the clergy, which, … abound in indecent allusions to the Holy Scriptures."

© Copyright John Lubans 2016)

Mr. Bean’s Thumb

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

Caption: Mr. Bean’s Restoration.

In an event akin to Mr. Bean and Whistler’s mother (pictured) a “hapless” caterer – there for a private corporate party - knocked the thumb off of a Roman statue in one of the British Museum’s sculpture galleries.
The British Museum has offered no explanation, until now, for this “unfortunate incident” of a year ago. That delay suggests the organization’s reluctance to ‘fess up.
Like so many organization’s that claim to "embrace transparency", when something untoward occurs, the BM blocked and masked the occurrence, presumably to escape embarrassment. Indeed, there was a rumor circulating that the caterer attempted to re-attach the marble thumb with chewing gum; the BM denies this.
Now we learn that the caterer has been barred from working at the BM.
We do not know if Mr. Bean’s channeler has been fired. In any case, I have to ask, Where’s the corporate accountability?
Perhaps a review of what spaces can be used for private parties is in order. Surely there are Museum spaces less prone to accidents than, say, a statuary hall.
More importantly, there’s no mention of any corporate concern for the caterer’s head. The story says, “the caterer’s head hit the protruding marble thumb with such force it knocked it off.”
Ouch! I wonder if he even got a fresh pack of gum?
I’d say the BM missed a PR opportunity. Imagine the lurid news headline: “Accursed statue – the Townley Venus - comes to life, attacks caterer! You won’t believe what happened next.”

Breaking News:Rome in shock as Bernini elephant statue vandalized
Our Mr. Bean caterer strikes again! The tip of the left tusk was broken off. In any case, You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016