The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)

 

In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

Grief and Growth at Work

Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

Appalachian trail: photo by ian Matta

All change involves loss and some degree of grief, but we rarely help people – or ourselves -- process loss at work. Never mind learn ways to recover and become stronger. 

Losing a job. Losing work mates from downsizing. Losing the respect of executives because we challenged their beliefs -- beliefs that we know will soon cause problems. Losing the confidence in our employer because they sacrificed beloved organizational values to gain another two percent growth.

We deny our sadness and say things like, “It’s just a job, not brain cancer.”

We suffer. Beat ourselves up.  Become bitter. Curse our bosses and the rigid, hierarchical bureaucracies posing as progressive organizations. We get riled up and think, “Somebody should sue the bastards, for God’s sake.” 

Or we can choose to find meaning and learn from what happened, which not only eases suffering, but can potentially transform our careers.

Post traumatic growth

Admiral Jim Stockdale was repeatedly tortured for eight years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He didn't have much reason to believe he’d ever make it home. He said he survived by framing the experience as something that would define the rest of his life. 

Rather than denying reality or taking on a victim mindset, Admiral Stockdale lived each day in prison trying to help the morale of his fellow prisoners. The overly-optimistic POWs without this mindset, however, didn’t fare so well.

Stockdale came out of the war experiencing post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological change resulting from adversity. (As opposed to the more commonly known syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

People who experience post-traumatic growth find a new appreciation for life, new perspectives on work paths, and a renewed sense of meaning.

In fact, some psychological research shows that finding benefits from a trauma can lead to personal transformation, according to University of California/Riverside professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness.

“Focusing on the lessons you can learn from the ordeal will help soften its blow,” says Lyubomirsky. “The lessons those realities impart could be patience, perseverance, loyalty or courage. Or perhaps you’re learning open-mindedness, forgiveness, generosity or self-control. Research shows that with post-traumatic growth you not only can you survive and recover, you can flourish.”

Social support, meaning and self-compassion

Three proven practices to experience post traumatic growth are social support, finding meaning, and self-compassion.

Carmen and I have always said that having a trusted tribe of friends is essential for all who identify as Rebels at Work. While your Rebel Alliance can help make your ideas better and move them through the bureaucracy, these friends can also help you recover from setbacks.

“Social support is pretty incredible, a strategy of almost magical proportions,” says Dr. Lyubomirsky.  “Talking to others about a traumatic experience helps you cope and see the event with a new perspective.”

A second strategy for coping is to find meaning and new perspectives by writing about the experience. 

Expressive writing forces us to organize our jumble of thoughts and feelings and construct a new narrative.  Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, who has been studying the benefits of writing for 30 years, found that it is a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone had imagined.

Writing for just 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days can produce lasting results in health, happiness and outlook. His recommended approach and writing prompts can be found here.

The trick, he says, is to not keep writing about the negative incident in the same way.

“If you catch yourself telling the same story over and over to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way,” Dr. Pennebaker advises in The Secret Life of Pronouns.  “How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist? “

The third strategy is self-compassion, accepting that you’re human, acknowledging failures and frustrations and not dwelling on mistakes.

“Rather than relentlessly condemning ourselves when we fall, even if our fall is a spectacular one, we do have another option,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

 “We can recognize that everyone has times when they blow it, and treat ourselves kindly. Maybe we weren't able to put our best foot forward, but we tried, and falling flat on one’s face is an inevitable part of life. An honorable part, in fact.”

If we’re really pushing the envelope to do great work, we will fall.

Friends, self-compassion and finding meaning from what happened can help us rise up and push even further.

Even more faith

evenmorefaithby Jeanie Tomanek.jpg

Thanks to artist Jeanie Tomanek for letting us share her painting, "Even More Faith."  We think it captures the Winter Solstice and the soul of tenacious, optimistic Rebels at Work.

Carmen has often said that "Optimism is the greatest act of rebellion."

Optimism is a decision.

To look at setbacks as particular to a single problem, temporary circumstances or person.


To consider what needs to be learned or done differently to solve a problem or advance an idea.


To act versus sit on the wishful sidelines.


To keep going.


To support and help kindred spirits.


To remember when you have been successful to know that you will be successful again.

Pessimists blame, eschew responsibility, and give up. Research shows that they also do worse at their jobs and are eight times more likely to get depressed when things go wrong.

All emotions are contagious.

But positive emotions -- faith,  optimism, appreciation and joy -- attract support and inject a spirit of being able to achieve more and go farther than seems possible.

Here's to choosing more optimism and more faith in possibilities in 2018.

They are the emotions that carry new ideas forward.

On the Rebel Road

I've been on the road for the last few weeks. The second half of October saw me in Spain, my favorite destination in Europe because of the deep intermingling of several world cultures--ancient Rome, Catholicism, the Moors just to mention the top 3. My last stop was Barcelona where a real rebellions of sorts is underway as the Catalans seek independence from Madrid. I don't have an informed view on the issue of Catalonia's independence, although I'm never much impressed with the argument that stability is good for its own sake. In fact, arguments from complexity science tell us that the healthiest organisms live on the edge, in a state of almost constant adaptation. 

But it was interesting to observe how rebel behavior manifested in Barcelona, at least the three days I was there. The city seemed calm; people went about their business and/or pleasure as per normal.....except when they didn't. You would turn a street corner and run into an impromptu gathering. Catalans would rush by with their flags--which they seemed to have with them at all times just in case--to join the demonstration. And then they would disperse, probably to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of cava. 

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators  

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators

 

It appeared natural and spontaneous. There's a lesson in that for Rebels at Work: sometimes small moments of serendipity provide the best opportunities to mobilize your supporters. You don't need to wait for the big offsite next month to discuss your new idea; maybe your new method is so simple you can bring it up while you're standing next to a colleague in the lunch line. And unlike you--the rebel mastermind, your supporters don't have to live your rebel manifesto every waking moment. (Actually, we don't think that's such a good idea for the rebel leader either. Obsession is a pathology, not a strategy.) Everyone trying to make change happen at work needs to remember to breathe!

Speaking of the latest headlines, how about the shift change that's occurring in society around the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace? Actually shift change is an understatement: we're witnessing a volcanic eruption. In the future, historians will try to figure out what triggered the explosion. But for now, recent events lead me to reflect on two of my legacy Rebel truisms.

Everything stays the same until it changes.

and 

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

Indeed, everything stays the same until it changes. Rebels ALWAYS tend to underestimate how long a sclerotic Status Quo can linger, expecting change to happen much faster than it ever could. And Traditionalists always assume that when the rebellion doesn't materialize, that they've beaten back the pressures for change. Both parties are wrong at different times.

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come has a critical corollary. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time is NOW!

The Last Trabi: My Fearless Failure

Trabi Berlin.JPG

Oh, the shortsightedness of people who espouse fearlessness. Especially when you find yourself in a fearlessness team building exercise and you keep stalling out on a major Berlin street at rush hour because you can’t get the clutch of your 40-year-old, East German Trabi car into second gear. 

Horns blare, BMWs cut you off, bicyclists appear out of nowhere. Fraulein, what are you doing? Get off the road.

I freeze in fear. How was it that I was driving this crapbox of a car for the past 10 minutes and now I am paralyzed, unable to move from 1st to second to third to oops, stop for a red light, don’t hit the bicyclists, and back to first and oh shit we’re stalled again. And, oh the crappy brakes. Will someone plow into us? Mein Gott, I’ve got two people in the car who are parents of young children.

A half an hour earlier 100 people from the company offsite were in a parking lot, dividing up into small teams of three, with one of the three volunteering to drive an old Trabi. To where we did not know. Oh, the fun of team building excursions.

Fearlessly volunteering for a team building exercise

Remembering how much I loved driving my first car, a red Fiat 128 with an amazing sound system and quirky stick shift, I volunteered to be the driver. How hard could it be?

Angela, Todd and I get in the car, me in driver’s seat. The jovial Trabi tour guide shows me how to work the shift. “See, one, two, up and in for three, then like this for reverse.” Not on the floor like my beloved Fiat, but on a 3-on-the-tree column shift. He points to a faded, peeling diagram on the dashboard that supposedly shows how to shift the gears. It is useless.

But I am fearless. I know how to drive a manual transmission car. I know how to drive in a crazy city. I learned how to drive in Boston. i am a Rebel at Work.

So what if it is dusk. And rush hour in a big, foreign city. And that I need to drive in this rush hour and listen to navigational instructions on an ancient car radio full of static. And that we are the last car in a long line of Trabi cars and the exhaust from the cars is engulfing us in noxious fumes we EPA babies have never experienced.  Let the fearless adventure begin!

Off we go. I’ve got this.

And then I don’t.

Stopping for red lights, bikes passing in front of the car, being in the wrong lane. The voice on our radio commanding, “Take the next right. Stay in the middle lane.”  Every traffic light, shifting, braking, engaging back into first gear, then second, then stalling in traffic. One, twice, three times. Now panicking. Throughout it all my team mates are supportive, reassuring, masking their worry, offering to drive.

The white Trabi is lost

The man in the radio comes back on, “We have lost the white Trabi. Everyone, pull over at the next intersection and we will hope that the white Trabi will catch up.”

My prefrontal cortex has shut down in fear and I can’t even get the crapbox Communist car into first.  Someone else has to drive. I pull over and Angela jumps into the back seat. I climb into the passenger seat and Todd climbs over from the backseat to the driver’s seat. It would be hilarious to see this human jungle gym if we weren’t all so rattled.

The gears grind but Todd gets our white Trabi moving, catching up with our crapbox caravan.  We’re supposed to be seeing the beautiful historic sites of Berlin as we drive around.  But our team can only focus on the Trabi.

After missing a turn, we lose the caravan. Todd bravely makes a U-turn to try to find the other Trabis being driven by our teammates, those lucky ones who seem to be easily driving, following instructions and enjoying the tour.  How are they learning about fear? Our car’s gears groan and we stop on a side street. The Trabi tour leader finds us and pulls up in his electric car.

“Ach, zee two cylinder is only catching one cylinder,” he tells us. “Do you want to take my electric car and I drive the Trabi?”  Not wanting to fail the fearless exercise, we decline. The nice Trabi tour guide reaches into our car, yanks on the clutch, and then somehow the driving is a little easier.

The voice from the radio tells the others to pull over and wait. The last white Trabi is coming.

Fifteen minutes later, like an oasis in the desert, we see a beautifully lighted restaurant and a long line of Trabis in a parking lot. It’s over. As we climb out of the car waiters serve us very good rose champagne. I drink two glasses, probably too fast.

I want my fear

At the end of the evening I tell the executive what I think about his “Be Fearless” mantra for developing a more risk-taking organizational culture. To his credit, he listens intently and with an open mind.

Telling people to “be fearless” and “fail fast” is superficial and lacks empathy.

Fear is one of the basic human emotions.  We shouldn’t deny its existence or value -- in ourselves and in others. Fear provides important data. Our desire should not be about having less fear but understanding what we can learn from our fears. 

Sometimes fear signals what we desire, motivating us to figure out what we need to do to get there.  Fear has preceded every major accomplishment in my life – saying yes to stepping off a corporate career track, saying yes to starting companies, saying yes to marriage, saying yes to becoming a mother at 40, saying yes this past summer to doing an improvisational monologue in front of an audience. Fear propelled me forward. 

Other times fear is our personal sonar system alerting us to danger, indicating what we need to learn, warning us from toxic situations, or giving us the energy to say no to commitments that sap our energy. Or that ask us to be someone we are not.

Fear gives us courage. It helps us to be fully alive and awake to the world in a way that confidence and bravery do not.

So yes, I hated that team building exercise because it made me fear FULL.

And I loved the exercise because it reminded me to ask for help, let my vulnerabilities show, and know that team mates are there to help. They want to help. 

We’re all in this together, especially when we see a Berlin city bus barreling down the street at us when we’re stuck in a stalled Trabi.

 

Breaking the Soil

The book on my nightstand right now is Willa Cather's My Antonia. I've come to Willa Cather way too late in life. Cather writes compelling novels, mostly about pioneers, that brim with insights about people doing hard things. In My Antonia, she describes the tribulations of the settlers of the vast Midwest prairies, focusing on an immigrant family from Bohemia and their daughter, Antonia.

Sharecropper_plowing_loc.jpg

I had occasion to mention the book recently when I was chatting with someone who has so far been unable to change the conversation in his organization. He described a group of people so set in their ways that their skin had the bluish tint of rigor mortis. Agendas of meetings are so tightly controlled that it's impossible to introduce new ideas. What could he do?

"Break the soil" I said, channeling my inner Willa Cather. In My Antonia, Cather describes the difficult process by which the farmers prepared their soil after the frigid winter. Before any seeds could be planted, the settlers trudged behind their oxen or horses to break and turn the cold soil. Unless this work was done, sowing seeds was pointless. Seeds don't grow in ill-prepared soil.

And that's what needs to be done in frozen organizations where change seems impossible. Unless the Rebel at Work steps back to "break the soil", his seed ideas are unlikely to take root. So what does breaking the soil look like in organizations and businesses? We'd love to hear your ideas but here are some of ours.

  • Take advantage of any extracurricular activities, such as a "giving back to the community" days or the annual office picnic, to improve your relations with others, understand what makes them feel good, and perhaps gently encourage some reflection on how things are going.
  • Share articles, videos, etc. that promote interesting ideas. Don't pick negative articles; don't editorialize! Just share! And try to find ideas that the organization can claim it is already implementing--whether it's true or not! The group's perception of itself is key. If people start thinking of themselves as modernizers, they're more likely to consider other "new" ideas.
  • Engage in reciprocity. Do favors for others. Help someone advance an idea you're not that fond of in hopes they will do the same for you some day.
  • And one of our favorite evergreen ideas: have lunch with a bureaucratic black belt in your organization. Ask them about what's most important to the group and why. Have them talk about previous successful initiatives and what has worked in the past. When planting your new seeds, it's best to start with those that will thrive in the current soil.

 

On BIF2017 and giving a shit

There's enough to go around BIF2017.jpg

My big takeaway from the #bif2017 annual innovation conference is this:

Look at what you really give a shit about and then go do something about it.

This is the best way to feel fully alive and leave the world a better place.

Nothing changes when we sit on the sidelines. Or worse, it does change, but not how we want.

  • More people starve from poverty. (@eastvanbrand)
  • Crazy, narcissistic, self-serving billionaires get into office. (@alanwebber)
  • Teachers check out. (@100kin10)
  • People with cardiac issues don’t check back in with their doctors. (@MGHHeartHealth)
  • Systems of inequities and injustices oppress and kill people, bodily and/or in spirit. (@taliqtillman, @carrolldesign, @tenygross)

Complacency and apathy create danger. 

Accept the offer, know you are enough

Oh, but when we “accept the offer” of what life dishes out (@jazzcode),

recognize that we can’t go back to what was (@CajunAngela),

free the talented blue lobster people (@dscofield),

realize we are enough (@taliqtillman),

we can move mountains.

Especially when we get clear on what we fiercely care about.

The "give a shit" litmus test

When it comes to getting clear, the “give a shit” litmus test is a much better decision filter to me than the soft, passive words like purpose, passion, personal brand (gag). 

Language is powerful. It can oppress, judge, bore, shake us awake and kick our ass.

A Fortune 50 client today asked me to help her articulate a clearer purpose for her organization. Emboldened by BIF2017, I asked what she and her colleagues really “give a shit about” beyond the polished brand narrative. Now we were talking, for fu*k’s sake.

As an aside, if you’re someone who is offended by swearwords or think it’s lazy to use them, I urge you to read “Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing” by Melissa Mohr.

People swear about what they care about. As Carmen Medina (@milouness) said, some people deserve to be called assholes. And sometimes those assholes can open doors for you if you're looking forward.

Mohr tells us that “swearwords are the most powerful words we have with which to express extreme emotion, whether negative or positive…we need irreproachably formal and unassailably decent speech, but we also need the dirty, the vulgar, the wonderful obscenities and oaths that can do for us what no other words can.

I give a shit about helping people be heard.

Helping people to challenge the status quo and advocate for positive change in their organizations?  Well sure, that’s part of it, but that doesn’t mobilize anyone, including me.

In today’s world we have to stop the yak, yak, yakking and do something. No more waiting around for the proverbial “them” to save us.

Live your name as it's in the stars

In his story about courageous conversations Courtlandt Butts (@CC_AboutRace) talked about how he was ridiculed about his name in school. When he looked up the meaning of his name he learned that it is “messenger from the island.”

“You will live up to your name as it’s in the stars,” he said.

Today I looked up mine and found it means “Better Warrior.”  No wonder I so love the Rebels at Work tribe.

Following Angela Blanchard’s wise counsel I will continue to help people do the right thing, not the rule thing.

And I will honor grief and gratitude, forgiving the past so that we may all go dancing today.

Who knows, maybe Philip Sheppard (@PhilipSheppard) will be playing his cello.

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebels at Work at #BIF2017: Celine Schillinger, Dany DeGrave, Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina

Rebel at Work or Reactionist?

Last week was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago. The Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel remembered Diana in a long article for The Guardian in which we learned that Diana thought of herself as a rebel. Mantel writes that Diana described herself “as a ‘rebel,’ on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else.”

And then Mantel makes this key observation:

Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave…That is reaction, not rebellion.

Oh, I thought. Mantel has put her finger on a phenomenon Lois and I see all the time when we talk to groups about being more effective Rebels at Work. In the question and answer period, we always hear from several people who pose a question that goes something like this.

How do I get people to listen to me when I know they are wrong? When I speak up at a meeting I can see them all rolling their eyes.

Now, thanks to Mantel, I can explore whether their problem might be that they are just Reactionists and not really Rebels at Work. If you know your Russian history—and who among us doesn't—Reactionist sounds like one of those anti-Tsarist groups. Nihilists, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Reactionists. And like all of those groups, Reactionists can sometimes be just as destructive. They often disagree just for the sake of it; no matter what anyone says, they’ll take the opposite viewpoint.

It’s always easy to find fault with however your boss or your organization is running things. It’s much easier to mock a decision than to make one. But you know, that gets old quickly and your teammates will soon just start tuning you out. 

I know this from personal experience. During the 1990s at the CIA, I acquired a reputation for being cynical and negative. As one friend commented, “Carmen, I think the only thing that will shut you up is if we all acknowledge that you are right” I had to admit she had nailed it. I wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone acknowledged I knew more than they did.

Let me just say this is not a path to success.

eeyore.jpeg

So if some of this is ringing true to you, the reader, let me offer a regimen to contain your inner Reactionist. (And none of us is immune to the Reactionist tendency, by the way.)

  1. At your next team meeting don’t say anything until the last ten minutes. Just listen. If you’re a veteran Reactionist, your very silence will shock your colleagues and provide you an immediate tactical advantage—the element of surprise!
  2. Because you’ve been quiet for most of the meeting, no doubt you will have generated a long list of stupidities that you want to comment on. Reflect on that list. If it’s particularly long, you can be confident that you are either A) on the worst team of ALL TIME, or—and more likely— B) A World-Class Reactionist, sort of an Eeyore and Cassandra wrapped up in one package.
  3. Assess your list of stupidities and decide to bring up only one of them. Obviously it should be one you think is important but more crucially—if you want to repair your Reactionist image—it should be something on which you can offer a constructive suggestion. And something you can frame in a positive way. Perhaps you can say something like this:
    I think doing X will take us in the right direction, and we could build on that by insert your suggestion.
     
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary.

Smooth and Easy DOESN'T Cut It!

The LinkedIn Conversation on our post Stupid Things Bosses Say! led to a robust series of comments worth summarizing here. The bottom line is reflected in the title: the tendency of organizations to reward the "smooth leadership style" is detrimental to diversity of thought, discourages everyone from offering potentially helpful suggestions and/or dissents, and leads to lowest common denominator outcomes.

One reader asked whether there is a magic potion leaders can take to become more welcoming to different opinions. Our answer: there is no magic potion and the very idea that there could be a magic potion is part of the problem. But there is an insidious dynamic in most workplaces that--if removed--would make it easier for managers to welcome healthy debate on their teams.

Organizations need to stop grading leaders on how "smoothly" their operations run. You usually don't get diversity of opinions when teams run "smoothly". And yet most organizations I'm familiar with reward managers who run "tight ships." "You never hear about any problems from her team." goes the familiar refrain. "She must be a good manager!"

Maybe not. When decisions are made quickly, it may very well mean that dissent is not tolerated or even suppressed. Feisty teams aren't ever going to be quiet teams.

And that leads to another situation.. Once different opinions are allowed to surface, meetings become crunchier and, even when everyone has the best of intentions, some ruffling of feathers will occur. Most managers don't know how to deal with "diversity tension". And no one really bothers to teach them. In fact leadership and management training focuses instead on alpha capabilities such as vision and decision-making. Instead we need to learn how to empower employees who disagree with us and how to tell when you the manager is dead wrong. 

Sounds pretty radical, right?

But at Rebels at Work, we like radical. We like texture and crunchiness.

And we don't mind it when it's rough and hard!

 

 

 

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Alone and not alone

I just got back from a 5-day creative writing retreat with 10 brave, talented artists. It was an intense, exhausting and exhilarating experience where our extraordinary teacher Ann Randolph gently yet firmly pushed us way outside our comfort zones.

We wrote alone, sitting in the same room. And then we read our stories aloud to one another. 

It felt sacred, being alone and together. Having time to go deep into our own writing and reflection, and then being able to speak our truths among such a safe, caring group of people. 

What does this have to do with being a Rebel at WorK? I "re-entered" the work world wondering:

  • Why are so many work relationships and "team building" attempts so superficial? If there were more ways to share more of the real us, there could be so much more empathy, compassion and psychological safety at work.  And with that, more people might speak up and more might listen. And more of the right things might get done faster.
  • Why don't more people take time to journal about their work to more clearly understand what's happening and put it into perspective? Research shows that when we slow things down and reflect, we're able to be more creative about solving especially challenging problems. Check out this recent HBR post by former CEO Dan Ciampa, "The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal." (Then insert, "The More Rebellious You Are...")
  • Similarly, why don't more people take time to think? Especially with close friends. One of the articles I re-read every summer is "Of Solitude and Leadership" by former Yale professor William Dersiewicz, based on his speech to plebes at West Point. It's long, but his perspectives on bureaucracy, complacency and conformity speak to us Rebels. His view on how to "find the strength to challenge an unwise order or wrongheaded policy" is especially wise. And something we can all do.
  • Why don't more people do the right thing just because it's the right thing?  Some of my best writing will never be published. Some of our bravest rebel recommendations will never get us a promotion. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't persevere.  Let's stop aiming for the biggest platform to change the world or a bazillion Twitter followers and just do work that matters, however "small" it may seem.  Charles' Einstein's recent piece, "The Age of We Need Each Other" captures this thought brilliantly.

I hope you find some time this summer to reflect, have leisurely conversations with friends about ideas that matter, and keep on. You have more talents and innate wisdom than you probably realize.

Stupid Things Bosses Say!

Rebels at Work exist because organizations and leaders fail sometimes, or maybe more often than that. When we talk to managers and leaders, however, most of them say they sincerely want to encourage new ideas from their workforce. But what they don't comprehend are the unintended consequences of the words they use. Words that bosses think encourage new ideas from their workforce just don't...and sometimes they actually turn off the spigot.

Let's see how you do on the following True-False test. These phrase may or may not encourage team members to share their ideas for improvement.

Do you have any comments?    

FALSE.  Probably the most common phrase bosses use to end meetings. We've yet to talk to any employee, however, who thought the phrase actually was an invitation for anyone to speak. Usually said after a 50-minute monologue, this question seems more intended to indicate that the meeting has come to an end. Certainly what you get is...crickets.

I have an Open Door policy.

FALSE. A reliable chestnut for "good bosses" everywhere and yet remarkably ineffective. I'm sure some of you are wondering what could be wrong with having an Open Door policy. Think about where that phrase puts the onus for action--not on the boss, of course, but on the employees. Yes, you can share an idea with me but you have to come into the official Boss Space to share it. The best way for a boss to have an "open door" policy is not to ever mention it, not to make a big deal of it, but simply, through her actions, to demonstrate that she is always approachable. We're reminded of the apocryphal story concerning what St. Francis of Assisi said when asked about the best way to evangelize:

Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use Words!

I manage through consensus.

FALSE. Another popular management "best practice" that we take issue with. When you say you value consensus you are of course sending the clear message that you don't like disagreements. Your employees will wonder what standard their concerns or opinion must meet to warrant mentioning. This is not a productive dynamic. 

Don't bring me a problem unless you have a solution.

So of course by now the attentive reader knows we think this is FALSE. In fact, we would go so far to say that it is one of the stupidest notions in modern management. When an employee notices something is amiss, he should be encouraged to mention it as quickly as possible. Asking the observer to also provide the solution reinforces the unhealthy view that excellence in organizations is about individual performance. Excellence is more sustainable when it is team-based. An individual who notices a problem should be encouraged to engage his coworkers early on to identify a solution.

So what should bosses say to encourage Rebels at Work. It's actually pretty simple. 

What did I get wrong?

What are we missing?

What would you add?

How would you do it differently?

Why don't you take the lead?

 

Reconsidering Superheroes

This post is dedicated to health care rebels working on the front lines; it is an abbreviated version of Lois’ speech at the Home Care Alliance of Massachusetts’ 2017 Innovation and Star Awards ceremony.

I had dinner last week with a good friend who has worked as a hospital executive for 30 years. When I told her about today’s event, she started raving.

“These people working in home health care are amazing,” she said. “The stress, the uncertainty of one day to the next, the never knowing when budgets are going to be cut, the seriousness and complexity of patient issues. I’m telling you these health care professionals are some of the bravest people in the world. They are heroic, real life super heroes.”

I told her I disagreed.

In the face of fear or danger anyone can be brave.

Health care professionals are more than brave. You are courageous. And courage is one of the most important virtues in our world. Maybe more important now than ever before.

There are four traits that make up courage:

  1. Honesty: speaking the truth, acting in a genuine, sincere way, and taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions.
  2. Perseverance: sticking with what’s important and getting things done despite obstacles.
  3. Vitality: bringing enthusiasm and energy to how you live. Not doing things half-heartedly. Feeling alive and optimistic.
  4. Bravery: not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain. Speaking up for what is right and acting on your convictions even if they’re unpopular.

Courageous people do what is right. They willfully resist taking the easy way out. They rebel against complacency and mediocrity. They keep going when most people give up.

Courageous people inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.

And this room today is jam packed with courageous people.

Honesty, perseverance, bravery, vitality. These are the traits that make us courageous. We all have these innate traits, according to psychology research. And the more we use these traits, the greater our courage becomes.

Getting out of Crazytown

But let’s not pretend there aren’t those days when stress sucks the energy from us. People quit. Budgets cut get. A patient’s family gets emotional and confrontational. Administrative paperwork follows you home. Your car blows a tire and your child is sick and you can’t get to work. Your sister gets a bad diagnosis. The basement floods and there goes the vacation money. Your life feels like Crazytown.

Anybody here ever felt like they were in Crazytown?

No one feels particularly courageous on those days. Most of us feel downright pissy.

The big question is: How do some people quickly bounce back from stressful situations and stay positive and optimistic — while others become negative, complacent, or, even worse, think of themselves as martyrs? Why do some people thrive despite life’s inevitable obstacles?

They practice resiliency.

Resiliency is simply defined as the ability to cope with stress and rebound quickly. It’s not something most of us are born with. We have to consciously develop it.

Four favorite resiliency practices

While everyone in this room knows the value of eating well, sleeping soundly and exercising regularly, there are four other resiliency practices I’d like to share with you.

They’ve truly transformed my life, helping me quickly adapt and bounce back during those personal and professional Crazytown periods

Three good things/hunt the good. Every night write down the three things that did go well during the day. Doing this helps us see the good in life, even on the Crazytown days. As importantly, it helps us look for the good every day, developing a more optimistic, positive mindset. Which, by the way is contagious.

Self-compassion/being kind to yourself: No one is harder on ourselves than ourselves. We are our toughest critics. On those tough days, I’d suggest you think of the famous Otis Redding song, and try a little tenderness. For yourself.

When our good friends are stressed and feeling down, we’re there to offer them kindness and compassionate advice. “You’re too exhausted to think. Go home and sleep for 12 hours and things will look differently when you’re rested,” we might say to her. Why not give that advice to ourselves?

Appreciating your work mates: Appreciation is the single greatest motivator at work, according to Dr. Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania. Not “have a great day” balloons or rah-rah parties. (Though some days those can be so much fun.) I encourage you all to make time twice a year, or better yet once a month, to tell your team mates what they do that makes your work so much better. Giving and receiving appreciation lifts our spirits and fills our tanks with enormously positive energy.

Be in awe: No matter what’s going on in our lives, we can stop and marvel at some small wonder in the world. My husband has Parkinson’s Disease and today he was off. My worrying lizard brain was starting to act up. I went outside and looked up at the sky finally clearing after last night’s vicious thunderstorms. The clouds looked magical. For a couple of minutes I got lost in their beauty. And got myself out of worry and into a can-do mentality. Stop. Look up and look around. There is such beauty in unexpected places.

And for good measure, know that indigenous peoples found that story telling, dancing, singing and silence are universal salves for our souls. I especially recommend the dancing and silence, two things most of us never get enough of.

Believing in Wonder Woman’s belief

To wrap up and get to the awards, I want to confess that I not only told my healthcare friend that bravery was over-rated. I told her that we shouldn’t worship heroes. No one person saves the day. It’s about courage and diverse teams of people working together, not heroics.

But then I saw Wonder Woman this weekend and think there may be room for that kind of hero.

At the end of the movie Wonder Woman says to her nemesis:

It isn’t about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will save the world.

Here’s to courage and resiliency and a whole lot of love. And most of all, here’s to all of you here today. You are true wonder women and men.

Another crazy love song

Music keeps me sane, especially driving during rush hour and when I'm working on a particularly rebellious project. So when SiriusXM yanked my favorite station (The Loft) off the air for two weeks, I programmed Soul Town into my car radio and my psyche.

My first reaction to these 60’s and 70s soul classics was, “Oh, my God, how did we grow up on such a steady stream of lovelorn and often sexist music?”

Yearning, marveling, celebrating, mourning.  Talk about getting into our souls.

There was Barry White crooning, “You're my first, my last, my everything.” Aretha sitting in vain, wrapping on the door, tapping on the windowpane trying to get her guy back.  Bill Withers getting no sunshine because she went away. And The Supremes reminding us that though they set you free, they’d be therefor you no matter what, ‘cause ain't no mountain high enough to keep them from you.

For a few days I wondered whether this music was just a little too over-dramatic and dated to keep listening to.

Flip the perspective: This Song Is For You

One day as DJ Ken “Spiderman” Webb’s mellifluous voice mellowed my exasperated mood in bumper-to-by bumper traffic, I played a little head game.  What if I listened to these love songs as songs to myself instead of odes to current and lost loves?

Might flipping the perspective of these classic tunes be a way to reach out and show myself a little tenderness? Might they give me a little sunshine on a cloudy day?

And then my thoughts went to how good most of us Rebels at Work are at not being so good to ourselves. People tell me their bosses, their children, their mothers are tough on them.  But really, we’re toughest on ourselves.

There’ so much I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that we can’t help others, do our best work, or enjoy life if we don’t first reach out and comfort and care for ourselves.

Research by Dr. Kristin Neff, a University of Texas psychology professor and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself has found that people who are self-compassionate lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are self-critical. Self-compassion works better than self-esteem; it gives us a stable sense of security and self-worth and improves our motivation.

Neff recommends that we try to talk to ourselves like we would our best friends, offering advice and doling out kindness.

I’d add singing love songs to yourself.

The Loft is back but I’m not giving up Soul Town. Excuse me while I get back to Diana and Marvin:

Stop, look
Listen to your heart, hear what it's saying
Stop, look
Listen to your heart, hear what it's saying
Love, love, love

 

Your Strategy is Due for a Checkup!

A person responsible for training innovators asked me recently how he could encourage senior leaders in his government organization to think like Rebels at Work. And I said:

You probably can't!

I just don't know too many leaders in government who are are ready to embrace their inner heretic. And approaching them directly about the need to think rebelliously is likely to lead to defensiveness.

So I suggested a different tack. Ask them:

How do you know when your tactics and strategy need refreshing?

I've yet to meet anyone who has a ready answer to that question. Or this one...

What's your process for determining when your strategic plan needs to change?

When people think about it, sometimes they volunteer that their strategic plans are refreshed at the start of their fiscal years and/or when a new senior leadership team takes over. 

Now isn't that the darndest thing? Why should thinking about how things might need to be done differently be a function of the calendar? Conditions can change at a moment's notice and at any time of the year. The necessary adjustments your team needs to make might not wait twelve months...or perhaps not even thirty days. We all know that organizations that adjust more quickly to changing circumstances have a competitive advantage, and yet most don't have a method for doing so.

And that's where Rebels at Work step in. If employees on your team are encouraged to speak up when they see trouble looming or a new opportunity coming, your organization is likely to be more nimble and more successful. Along with that agility comes an added benefit: the annual strategic refresh need not be as discombobulating. Or perhaps need not occur at all. 

 

So let's add this to the list of good questions to ask in organizations.

How do we know when our strategy needs refreshing? 

Rebels at Work can help!