Pronouns and Other Workplace Fads and Filosofies

Posted by jlubans on September 05, 2022

Caption: The infamous pamper pole

I’ve always been for anything – fads included - to shake up the fuddy-duddy hierarchy with which we are inexorably stuck.
But, the promised outcome has to be a visible and quantifiable improvement.
Those last two qualifications always tempered my zest to try out new ideas. Any idea which ignored results and improvements, was not worth trying.
If a good idea failed to improve our work, it was time to abandon the effort.
Fads are not all the same. Some have substance (like TQM, MBO, Theories X & Y), others lack it and strut around with an enticing, if mystifying name, like “holocracy” or “mindfulness”.
So, one man’s fancy may be another man’s revulsion. If a staff is closed to an idea – regardless of merit – then the idea will falter and shrivel.
Most of the fads I list below I’ve been party to, as they say. If any, with hindsight, look patently foolish, well, count me among the fools.
I will try to highlight the good and the bad of each.
Changing names of departments. For example, HR to Happiness Engineering. There’s zero improvement and may add confusion both inside and outside the organization. More, there’s the time wasted in deciding on that new name.
Re-organizing. Much like strategic planning, re-organizing is a favorite administrative stratagem to camouflage not changing.
Unless the gain is quantifiable, there is usually zero improvement. Perhaps a particularly odious individual is laterally transferred. And, negatives may result from the large investment of time and energy for the re-org instead of dealing directly with the toxic individual.
Other costs include the staff’s cynical realization of administrative cowardice.
Teams. If there are capable team members and leaders, there’s a huge, quantifiable, improvement over top-down leadership, over the hierarchy.
There are other gains, such as the buy-in from participants realizing they are valued, that they indeed matter.
A downside, fake teams. There’s often someone who wants to be the captain (an autocrat) and seeks to dominate. Unless confronted and resolved, the team can quickly become ineffective.
Pronouns. Like the re-org, this is window dressing or as some call it, “virtue signaling”. What’s the virtue?
There’s no gain but for a few, I dare say, who get off on making others comply.
I’d not seen the pronoun fixation until I got an email from a young colleague. He listed, for my edification, all of his preferred pronouns.
His first name was Herman (not Lynn, Gale, Jordan, Taylor or Ashley) so I was never confused about his gender. What motivated the list?
Permissive management. The permissive manager claims he/she is a progressive manager, yet ninety percent of their actions are permissive and merely 10% may be regarded as progressive and focused on improving workplace productivity.
Here’s a recent quote from a permissive manager, now in denial:
“A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” said one executive director (of an NGO).
“Can you get your love and healing at home, please? But I can’t say that, they would crucify me.”
So mind your Ps and Qs, or else.
Suppressed speech leads to zero improvement and wastes time.
Incidentally, permissiveness suggests a marked lack of urgency.
Diversity. I support diversity of all kinds but I am most for intellectual and cultural diversity, anything to give us different viewpoints from our own.
As mentioned above, I lose interest in something that results in little, if any, gain for how the organization does its work.
One study about effective teams does provide significant insights into work team diversity.
“C”, as in Factor C, is a predictor of group failure or success and includes three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team.
Now that’s my kind of diversity, a diversity that gets results.
Inclusion. Like pronouns and other things labeled woke, we sometimes go to extremes to appear inclusive.
It takes me back to the 70s when I was at the University of Colorado in Boulder and someone’s asking the Executive group to rename the end of year Christmas gathering to Holiday party. Supposedly someone – unidentified – had (or potentially might) objected to the Christ designation.
None of my dozen direct reports, of various creeds, ever spoke to me about being offended and/or feeling excluded.
Regardless, the Executive group, anticipating that there might be someone - anyone - offended by the term, and we, then and there, deep-sixed the Christmas designation and vowed, forever more, to call it, Holiday Party.
Who benefited? Why did we waste our time?
Letting go. It’s the centuries old concept of subsidiarity. In my interpretation, subsidiarity is permitting decision making to occur among the people closest to or doing the actual work.
It is a part of being valued as a human being. It eschews central planning.
Never an actual fad and long resisted by many managers, I found my “letting go” among the most effective ways to get intelligent, thinking workers to improve how they did the organization’s work.
Why is this so difficult for many managers? For me it’s a natural.
As a child I had the reputation of resisting anyone’s help. I’d flip them off with, “I’ll do it myself”.
Once a presumed grown up, that sensibility may have carried over into an expectation that a competent staffer is able to figure things out for themselves. The last thing they need is direction from me.
Some of my successes have come on the heels of departing top-down managers who clung to their making all - and I mean all - decisions and refusing or otherwise suppressing staff inspired innovation.
For them, innovation and decision making was management’s exclusive purview.
When I was delegated to take on a major change initiative – in which many previously had failed - I soon realized I did not know much about the work.
I met with the so called “entrenched” staff and asked for help.
They gave me a long list of previously denied changes. I scanned it and said, “Do it!” We moved from last to first among our peers.
Obviously, I trusted the staff.
Of course, letting go is risky. If you do it often enough you are needed less and less (actually, more and more) by an organization, but a threatened boss will see your success as diminishing your value to the organization.
Experiential learning. “A Day in the Woods” was the phrase I used for taking teams out of the office for adventure-based learning. Making these events voluntary resulted in some valuable personal and professional growth.
Yes, there was time taken from the work place but that time was often an investment that paid off. Challenges (risks) confronted and overcome in the woods encouraged - indeed emboldened - participants to apply those learnings to the workplace.
While I value my personal growth from adventure-based learning, I realize that it is not for everyone.
Making an entire department take a leap off the depicted Pamper Pole (named after the diaper) may result in corporate PTSD.
Now, I may see the correlation between leaping into space to catch a trapeze as akin to a leap of faith in my own ability and capacity. But, it can be a traumatizing experience with zero improvement for some, all too similar to scorching one’s footsies doing a corporate Firewalk.

My book, Fables for Leaders is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle

© Copyright text by John Lubans 2022

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